Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Scott’s Winter

Working for ConocoPhillips in Anchorage, Scott McKinley has sent his fourth Life-in-Alaska report. Read along with the proprietor of McKinley Friends & Family B&B. “Book now,” says he. “Summer ’06 lodging is 70% full.”

Locals say there are two seasons to Alaska: winter and tourist. Anchorage is experiencing the last moments of the transition period; a time we call the “Spring Breakup.”

Spring Breakup is when the weather finally starts hovering consistently above the freezing mark. The roads become wet with melting snow, ice chunks (the size of SUVs) along the coast begin to shrink, and five months of frozen dog poop begins to thaw. It is a time of distinctive visual and olfactory “enlivenment”. It’s also a signal that the tourists will soon be arriving.

While most tourists opt for the relative certainty of summertime weather conditions, these fair-weather travelers have missed out on some uniquely Alaskan wintertime events.

Iditarod: a sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, “a race over 1,150 miles of the most extreme and beautiful terrain known to man, across mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra and windswept coastline.” Imagine you, twelve of your favorite dogs, and a sled full of survival gear and dog food in the remote environs of Alaska for nine full days of mushing (the winning time) or even thirty-four days (the record for the slowest finish). Participation in the Iditarod may not be within the boundaries of most people’s imagination, but it was a joy to watch hundreds of dogs excitedly awaiting their sleds’ turn at the Iditarod starting line with guests from California, Texas and Colorado.

The modernized version of the Iditarod is a 2,000 mile snowmobile race. Called
Iron Dog, it is billed as the longest, toughest snowmobile race in the world. Imagine the same nasty temperatures as the Iditarod (as cold as -60°), then just add a wind-chill factor for speeds up to 100 miles per hour. Bryan Bonner was the brave Texan to come up and view the start of the Iron Dog from the middle of a frozen lake.

One thing we noticed: drivers of the snowmobiles were putting duct tape on their face. Evidently the helmets, balaclavas, and goggles weren’t effective at protecting the area around the eyes from the cold temperatures. Solution? Duct tape. Not recommended for everyday use, but riders report the tape also helps with unwanted facial hair.

Arctic Man is a downhill ski race and a snowmobile race, all in one. The skier begins at a summit elevation of 5,800 feet and drops 1,700 feet (in less than two miles) to the bottom of a narrow canyon where he meets up with his snowmobile partner. The skier grabs the (in-motion) snowmobile tow rope and gets pulled 2-1/4 miles uphill at speeds exceeding 90 mph. The skier and the snowmobiler separate as they top the second mountain, where the skier drops another 1,200 feet to the finish line. The winning time? 4 minutes, 4 seconds. Amazingly, no deaths have been reported.

To add to the uniqueness, a town actually “appears” in the middle of Alaska for this week-long event. Somebody snowplows a field and 12,000 people in RV’s show up for the fun. I missed this spectator sport this year…so if anybody wants to RV-camp next winter in the middle of nowhere, Alaska..?

Most tourists come during a three-month window to view the beauty of Alaska. The locals are glad to share the roads and trails, but we’re also glad to have the State mostly to ourselves for the other nine months. That’s when the true Alaskan spirit, the embracing of this Last Frontier, fully emerges.

Icebox that it is, Scott loves the place. Given that he also reports mountain winds blowing out a car window and falling through the ice, I know he will enjoy the arrival of summer – and that you’ll enjoy reading about his adventures.

No comments: