I feel like an alternate title to this post should be “2 Floridians walk into Alaska, catch the Iditarod and ski on a glacier…” because that’s pretty much how our first voyage to the frigid North went, and it was AMAZING! In my quest to visit all 50 states before 30, we knew we had to make the trip up to Alaska. The obvious choice would have been a cruise out of Seattle (we frequent there with family in the area) but no, being well…me, I had to go a little off-the-beaten-path, save some money and make my childhood dreams come true, I was going to go to the Iditarod!
Now, you may not know what the Iditarod is – so let me back up, because most 90s kids know Balto. Ya know – Balto! That movie that is NOT a Disney movie but is so amazing featuring a half dog/half wolf who has to save Rosy and her friends from Diptheria in their remote little town of Nome, Alaska – flanked by his best pal Boris, the snow goose? I may have seen it a few times.
Well – this story inspired “The Iditarod” which is considered “The Last Great Race” of the World where teams of mushers and sled dogs travel from Anchorage to Nome every March to commemorate this sled dog journey. But, as we learned on our trip, “Mushing” is not a sport for the faint of heart – not only do you need to condition your body to survive camping, riding on a sled behind a team of dogs in sub-zero temperatures for at minimum 8 days (the average to complete is 15) across 1,100 miles of Alaskan Tundra. But – you have to take care of those dogs, year-round! Not to mention the number of volunteers along the trail that go into making this happen, it is HUGE! We studied this in the 4th grade, where we all picked a musher and followed their journey as they hit various checkpoints – so naturally mixing that with my mild Balto obsession, it made the Bucket List for sure.
So – as we were planning our trip to Alaska, we made it a point to take part in this near-100 year tradition by becoming mushers for a day, attending the Iditarod banquet where you can meet the mushers as they draw their numbers for the big adventure, and catching the send-off in Anchorage. It was a long weekend for the books, for sure.
Now, Alaska is HUGE so saying that you are going to visit Alaska is like you are saying you are going to visit Europe. It’s best to plan to stay in one area unless you have a bit of time to explore. For this trip, we only had 4 days – so we opted to remain in Anchorage (not the capital! but one of the more populated areas). Plus, considering we were traveling in the “off-season” as we looked to explore other areas – we found that many of them were closed for the winter. Alaska is an “I’ll be back” place to see – for sure, so make the most of a few places.
To get the full experience of the Iditarod, you need to make sure to do 3 things:
- Visit a kennel and if you’re lucky, get some mushing lessons.
- Attend the Iditarod Banquet and Fur Rendevouz.
- Watch the ceremonial start in Downtown Anchorage (you can even bid for a chance to ride on a sled and be part of the action!)
Being the dog lovers that we are, we knew that it was a priority for us to be “Mushers for a Day” and visit a mushing school, so we began our adventures there. We checked into Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennel in Wasilla, just outside Anchorage. There we were given a tour where we got to meet some of his dogs, learn the selection process, and some tips and tricks for dog care in the elements – some of which we use today for our labrador back home (frozen salmon, for the win!).
Their experience was amazing – you are taught all about the Iditarod, commands for the dogs and if you time it right, you can even meet some of the mushers that work out of this kennel. You even get to wear your own musher’s suit, so if you don’t have snow gear, no worries. By then end of the day, we were mushing our own teams of dogs across the countryside.
Immediately following our mushing adventures, we grabbed some seafood and beer at The Last Frontier Brewing Company in Wasilla, and then made our way back to our hotel to get changed for the Iditarod Banquet – held the Thursday before Race Day. To attend this, you need to buy a ticket in advance, and can do so on the Iditarod Website. Seating is assigned, and we had the pleasure of dining with Aliy Zirkle, who had been the runner up of the Iditarod 3x before and is one of the top female mushers in the world. She was so kind and friendly – and so down to earth, and we continue to root for her every year! Attending this dinner, we financially (albeit affordably) supported this race – and really felt like we were in the middle of the action. This is where the mushers draw their numbers to know the order of racing, and where donors can bid for rides with the mushers during the ceremonial start.
After dining, you can walk on over to the Fur Rendevouz (or “Fur Rondy” as the locals called it) to enjoy outdoor carnival games and rides.
Saturday morning it was time to watch the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage. We got up early to try to get breakfast at a local diner, Snow City Cafe (hah, no luck but it sure smelled good!) so instead made our way down 4th avenue for a spot to watch the race. Each musher starts at two-minute intervals and makes the 11-mile trek through Anchorage to the Campbell Airstrip where they will then prepare to start the race the following day. What impressed me the most here was the energy of the crowd – everyone got so many cheers as they went by to begin this amazing feat of human endurance. It was like a big party!
Aside from our Iditarod adventures, we had two full days to explore Anchorage and everything it had to offer. As a city, it was one of those places that we had ample time to catch the main sights – but easily could have (and happily would have) spent more time there.
We spent a big chunk of our time at the Anchorage Museum, learning about Alaska as well as the indigenous Native Americans in the area and how the United States came to be. As someone from Oklahoma, this was incredibly interesting to me. As far as food and drink, there is plenty of that in Anchorage!
What we learned at the museum is a huge percentage of international shipping and trade comes through Anchorage for the rest of the United States and other countries, so there is a lot of selection – not to mention all the fresh fish and oysters that are local to the area. We loved going to The Bubbly Mermaid where we tried different kinds of champagne and oysters tapas-style. And – at the urging of literally all of my Facebook friends that had been to Alaska, we made a stop at the famous Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria, because when it’s cold – people drink beer. It was delicious!
The Friday before the race, we opted to get out of town and took a drive up to Alyeska – A glacial ski resort just outside of Anchorage and home of “The North Face” North America’s longest, continuous black diamond run – and the namesake for the popular winter brand. I skied a part of it in my Columbia jacket, such a rebel! 😛 For this trip, we had our own ski gear with us as we were headed immediately to ski Whistler Blackcomb following this trip – but you can easily ski or snowboard rent gear from the resort. The views here were BREATHTAKING and despite being at a low elevation, the runs were fantastic.
There are a few key things you should make sure to do if you plan on doing a trip like this on your own:
- Be sure to plan on renting a car, and be confident driving in the snow and ice. Luckily, Alaskans are very practiced at this – so it’s not too difficult, but getting to these sights it really is more cost-effective to have your own wheels. If you are nervous, just uber.
- Dress in waterproof layers – it’s cold! The last thing you want is to be caught damp.
- Keep it casual! As you plan your wardrobe and pack your suitcase, imagine you’re going on a ski trip. Jeans and a nice sweater is considered “nice” and you will blend in just fine. Even at the Iditarod Banquet, I was slightly overdressed by wearing fancy earrings.
- If you are chasing the Northern Lights – you’ll have better luck visiting somewhere besides Anchorage, it’s a little too far south to see the Aurora, though this is the time of year to do it. We were told by several locals to wait to book these kinds of excursions until you know the weather forecast, and then make it a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing.
It was so amazing being a part of something so few people get to see and experience in a lifetime. I highly recommend you add this bucket list adventure to your own, as my husband and I did – and catch some magic of the Winter Wonderland of “The Last Frontier.”