The best of the best -- and bushiest of the bushy -- have descended on Anchorage this week for a man-to-man competition that draws bristly competitors from around the world. Fuzz fans eagerly await tomorrows main event to see who comes out on top.
Elmar Weisser of Germany, two-time full beard freestyle world champion?
Up-and-comer Gunnar Rosenquist of Sweden, whose super-gnome whiskers have propelled him through the ranks in the full beard natural category?
Austria's Franz "Schani" Mitterhauser has won awards in the Beard Olympics, Superbeard, International German and European Championships?
Naw, says Phil Olsen, "founder and self-appointed captain" of Beard Team USA. This is America's year to stand out like Moses' chin hairs in the World Beard and Moustache Championships.
"The Germans have always dominated," he admitted. "They invented the game, made the rules, defined the categories and hosted most of the championships. They've brought the art up to a much higher level than we've been able to. But my mission, for the past 10 years, has been to make the U.S. competitive, a powerhouse."
And he's has some success. As recently as 2005, Germany took 14 of the 17 first place awards. In 2007 the United States won five.
"We've got 'em now on our home turf," Olsen said. "Beard Team USA is fired up. We're expecting to do really well."
And he's expecting to do it with help from the men of Alaska -- a place where facial hair presents no bar to political office, where full beards are obvious shelter from the arctic blast of long winters and where the handlebar moustache never quite went out style.
Anchorage beardsman David Traver, four time Fur Rondy "Mr. Fur Face" and former WBMC full beard natural world champion, is among the Alaskans preparing to face up to the competition. He said the camaraderie is a big reason why he likes the event. "Each time I go and see many of my fellow competitors, it's like you just saw them yesterday. Some of my most fierce competitors are my best friends; that's where the gamesmanship gets tricky."
Strategy and training are hard to nail down, Olsen said. "The great thing is that it's the ultimate couch potato sport."
Maybe that's why beard contests have grown from relative localized obscurity -- like Anchorage's Mr. Fur Face event -- to the status of emerging spectator sport. At this February's Third Annual Misprint Beard and Moustache Competition in Austin, Texas, not even a national contest, 87 beardsmen vied for honors before 900 screaming fans. The line to get in stretched around the block.
Olsen expects well over 100 competitors in Anchorage. It will be only the second time when the biennial event has been held in the United States. The venue at the Dena'ina Center should offer plenty of space for anyone who wants to take in the show.
And a fine show it is. Judges evaluate styles in 18 categories, everything from Kaiser Wilhelm moustaches to goatees, sideburns and gigantic full formations woven into fanciful shapes that bring to mind illustrations in old fairy tale books.
The public is invited to view the pageant and cheer for their favorites. The competitors tend to be "very outgoing, very gregarious, oddball characters who want to meet local people," said Olsen. "It'll be a really fun time for anyone who wants to get involved."
There's a serious side, he added. One reason why a normal working guy might take time off for this formal yet frolicsome promotion of facial hair is to combat beardism -- the prejudicial attitude that beardsmen say they encounter in public and in the workplace.
Besides all profits from the event will be donated to an Alaska charity.
Beyond good deeds, however, there are some selfish reasons to attend. "At every single one of these competitions I've ever been to," Olsen said, "there seems to be a strong correlation between growing a beard and drinking lots of beer."
The Americans have something to toast this year; late word is that Weisser will not be coming. That opens the field a little. May the best beard win.
• Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.
12:15-3 p.m.: World Beard and Moustache Association Meeting at the Dena'ina Center. First hour is closed to the public.
4 p.m.: Parade of Beards through downtown Anchorage and welcome rally in Town Square. Admission: free.
6:30 p.m.: Kick off party & AK Grizzly Beard Contest at the Dena'ina Center. Entertainment by the Australian Band "The Beards." (Think of this as sort of a rally.) Admission is $15 for Grizzly Beard contestants, $10 for non-contestants.
10 a.m.-noon. Final registration and pre-judging. All contestants must appear for verification that they are entered in the correct category. Late registrations will be accepted.
12:30 p.m. Appearance at the Saturday Market downtown Anchorage.
1:30 p.m. Doors open at the Dena'ina Center for the 9th World Beard and Moustache Championships. Admission for all day is $20, $40 for VIP seating (tables next to the stage and two-drink tickets), $45 for a four-person "family pass."
2 p.m. Moustache and Partial Beard judging begins.
5 p.m. Contest intermission, music and dancing.
7 p.m. Full Beard judging begins. (This is the climax, a bit more of a dress up affair featuring costumes to match the beards.)
Noon: Post event excursion via tour buses to the Portage Lake for a boat cruise, admission to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see Alaskan wildlife up close, and to Crow Creek Mine for a farewell picnic. The buses will leave Anchorage at noon and return to town at 8 p.m. This is mainly for the pleasure of out-of-town visitors, but the public is welcome to join. Cost, $60.
Tickets for all events are available at www.anchorage.net/worldbeard and at the Dena'ina Center.
Whiskers gone wild