Alaska Winter Vacation including Iditarod Race Festivities

One of my dream destinations was Alaska.  I wanted to experience the scenery, learn about the culture and meet the people.   As a U.S. destination, it was easy; no passport, language barrier or concerns for health care coverage.  From all that I’d heard from so many who had visited, I knew it would be a vacation to remember.

As a travel agent, I’ve sent many families to Alaska on cruise ships, several stayed for a land package too.  The cruisers who didn’t take the land package always seemed to regret coming home without really “seeing” Alaska or getting to know the people.

When I planned my own trip, I thought there was no better way to experience the scenery, learn about the culture and meet the people than to visit during the Iditarod Dog Sled Race.  After all, dog sled racing is the official state sport and the local people all celebrate the starts in full force.

The race begins on the first Saturday of March each year, a time when there are approximately 12 hours of daylight in Anchorage with another 10 minutes added to that  each day.  Unlike the summer months when you may find more tourists than local residents, the winter months are a time of celebration and excitement for Alaskans.

I was very fortunate to travel to Alaska’s Iditarod Race with Globus Vacations.  They took care of absolutely every detail.  My son, Jared, and I were able to visit during New Hampshire’s school vacation week, 2014.  We departed Boston with a stop enroute to Anchorage.  There are non-stop flights in the summer, but not in the winter time.  This fact alone proves that it’s still a best kept secret to visit in February.

The weather in Anchorage, like in most of the northern states, can be unpredictable and 2014 was no exception.  For us, most days were in the 30s during our stay.  This was a bit warmer than usual, with the norm for February being about 20 degrees.

When we arrived in Anchorage, our hotel was a short 10 minute ride from the airport.  We stayed right in the downtown area and were able to walk to a dozen restaurants, several stores and some museums too.  We found time to enjoy the Tony Knowles Walking Trail on foot; others were on winter bikes with studded tires, cross country skis and winter strollers.  The views of the MountMcKinley and Denali were amazing with the clear crisp air giving us unlimited sightings during our week vacation.  It’s not uncommon to see moose on this trail at all times of year.

Our Globus Tour set off on Tuesday morning for Seward via Turnagain Arm.  This scenic road in winter was magnificent, the views were just endless and the ability to pull over to take pictures and just gaze at the scenery made it all the more spectacular.

After visiting an animal conservation center and an aquarium, we headed to Alyeska Resort and Ski Area for two nights.  While all guests were given time on their own to partake in numerous activities, Jared and I opted for dog sledding one evening and then spent an entire day on the slopes skiing and in awe over the scenic views of the seven glaciers below.  We also came upon a team of rescue dogs and workers who were doing avalanche training on the side of the mountain and enjoyed watching them for a while.  The hotel and dining options in the hotel were great, as was the indoor pool, gym and spa services.

Musher Paige Drobney at Mushers Banquet 2014

Musher Paige Drobney at Mushers Banquet 2014

Back in Anchorage, we attended the Musher’s Banquet.  The banquet was another great opportunity for us to meet and mingle with the local people.  About seventy mushers and their supporters were at the dinner as well as hundreds of well wishers.  After a hearty dinner and lots of conversation while listening to some local entertainment, one by one each musher was introduced and called to the stage to draw a starting position from the boot.

Several mushers came to our table to say hello and answer our questions about the race and their dogs.  Lots of guests got autographs and had pictures taken.  This was a really fun event to participate in.  Not only were we able to learn about the intricacies of this exciting and traditional sport, but we began to understand the importance of dog sledding in everyday life for the villagers of the north.

On Friday, we visited the kennel of a musher; it wasn’t just any musher, it was Martin Buser, the four time champion who held the all time speed record for the race.  Martin has a true passion for his dogs and his sport and he seemed to enjoy having us there as much as we did.  With the race just a day away, he still had all the time in the world to show us his equipment and introduce us to his dogs and staff.  We were all surprised at how friendly all the dogs were, a true testament of the care and handling they were raised with at his kennels.

There was never a dull moment in Anchorage and we took every opportunity to be part of the non stop festivities.  The ice sculpture park was like no other, with twelve foot depictions of animals, characters and structures.  As part of the Rhondy Celebration, there was a carnival, shows and events all week. The people were friendly and welcoming here, proud to tell us about their lifestyles and those of their neighbors who live in the villages to the north.  We found this excitement and enjoyment in meeting people every single day while in Alaska.  And of, there’s Denali and McKinley again along with yet another amazing sunset!

Saturday was an exciting day in Anchorage.  The ceremonial start of the Iditarod Race takes place right on 4th Avenue, the main street of downtown.  While snow is plowed and taken away all year, in preparation for the race start, several tons are brought in and groom on the eve of the race to allow every musher and team the send off by thousands of local fans and tourists.  The streets were lined for several blocks; people crowded at windows above and parking garages were packed for a look at the teams as they left town on an eleven mile start to the Last Great Race.

On Saturday afternoon, over two thousand people, including Jared, participated in the Running of the Reindeer Event.  A minute or two after each running team started out, reindeer were released to race to the finish line before the runners.  This is a social event for Alaskans more than anything, and most were wearing some kind of costume; a few were wearing bathing suits and all were just there to have a good time.

On Sunday, in Willow, about an hour north of Anchorage, the true race would begin.  In two minute increments, lined up in the order established by the boot drawing at the musher’s banquet, each musher, sled and team of sixteen dogs departed the lake through the chute lined on both sides as far as the eye could see with fans.  Some had campfires and tailgate parties going on and others were on their snow machines or the backs of their trucks.

As part of the Globus Family, our viewing point was ready for us when we arrived.  We had a great location for seeing the starting line and hearing the announcers and timers as each team started off on the thousand mile journey to Nome Alaska.   Our hosts set up long tables with snacks and hot chocolate for us.  Although the temperatures on this clear and sunny day were in the twenties, we were still standing on a frozen lake so the hot chocolate was a welcome surprise.

Jared and I took time to visit with some of the mushing teams at the staging area.  With two minute increments in the start time, it was somehow just as intriguing to see the dogs who were waiting as it was to those who were off and running.  It became quite obvious that the dogs were excited to get out and have fun.  There were sometimes a dozen people needed to hold the dogs back until it was their turn to cross the starting line.

This visit to Alaska will always be remembered with excitement.  With each new day, we thought it couldn’t get better, but it did.  Each night when the sun set, I thought it couldn’t be more beautiful seeing the mountains and scenery but then it happened again and again.

For the people of Alaska, I say thank you for sharing your beautiful state with us.  To the mushers and dogs: a safe and happy journey.  To Globus: thank you for introducing me to this best kept secret.

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