Arctic Winter Games bring hundreds of athletes, fans and families to Mat-Su

The Games, which were established in 1970, will bring hundreds of athletes, coaches and supporters to Alaska and should be a boost to the local economy at a time when visitor rates are typically low.

PALMER — For more than 50 years, hundreds of athletes, coaches and supporters from the circumpolar north have gathered biennially to engage, compete and celebrate the culture of the Arctic.

This year, the Arctic Winter Games will be held in Alaska for the first time in a decade, as the Matanuska Valley welcomes athletes from across the state, along with Canada, Greenland and northern Europe.

The Games kick off Sunday with an opening ceremony and run through closing ceremonies on Saturday, March 16.

The Arctic Winter Games were launched in 1970 by a group that included former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel. The athletes range in age from 11 to 18 years old.

The Games feature 20 sports regularly played within the represented regions. Those include a heavy dose of outdoor disciplines like Alpine skiing, ski and snowshoe biathlon, cross-country skiing and snowboarding.

It also includes sports such as basketball, gymnastics, volleyball and wrestling. There are also plenty of traditional Indigenous competitions like Dene games, including the finger pull, and Arctic sports like the high kick.

Ben Vanderweele, who has lived and farmed in Palmer for more than 50 years and attended or coached his now-grown children at multiple previous Arctic Winter Games, watched the curling sheet installation Thursday during his daily walk on the center’s indoor track. He said he plans to attend some of the sporting events next week, but his favorite part of the Games is the cultural exchange between participating countries.

“At the Games, you eat at tables with people from different countries with different languages. It is really very educational,” he said. “My kids still talk about it.”


Sporting events will be hosted within Mat-Su, with a few exceptions caused by a lack of regulation courses or facilities with the borough. Biathlon will take place at Anchorage’s Kincaid Park, while speedskating and figure skating will happen at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center in Eagle River.

Keeping the majority of the events within Mat-Su meant implementing a series of updates and expansions to local venues. For example, to support the Alpine skiing and snowboarding events, officials at Skeetawk in Hatcher Pass constructed a series of new, snowcat-accessible runs extending above the current lift.

And at Government Peak Recreation Area, the borough constructed a new parking lot that will serve both Arctic Winter Games crowds and the other state and regional cross-country ski races held there throughout the season.

Previously, the Games have been held in Anchorage (1974), Fairbanks (1982, 1988, 2014), Chugiak-Eagle River (1996) and on the Kenai Peninsula (2006). The last edition in 2022 was hosted by Wood Buffalo in Alberta.

In addition to the about 1,500 visiting athletes plus their coaches and supporters, the events are expected to draw thousands of spectators to the region, pumping millions of tourism dollars into the local economy at a time of year when visitor rates are typically low, tourism officials said.

As Mat-Su hotel rooms are in short supply, organizers are instead converting seven Mat-Su schools into athlete and volunteering lodging, with twin-sized beds staged barracks style in classrooms. That means an extra two days of spring break for area students so Games officials have time to clear out and then reassemble the classrooms. Participants will be shuttled from schools to sport venues on a network of chartered buses.

But just what the impact will be on local businesses is hard to anticipate, said Melissa Mitchell, who helps run Silvertip, a shop in downtown Palmer that stocks Alaska-made gifts. She said the store is prepping for a parade of shoppers looking for mementos marking their visit.

“They’re coming from all over the world, so they’re gonna want to have Alaska swag with Alaska-made stuff,” she said.

Athletics aren’t the only activity on the menu during the Games. A winter carnival will operate March 15 and 16 at the Alaska State Fairgrounds in Palmer, with rides, a caribou petting zoo and a craft fair. Two fireworks shows will also be staged from the fairgrounds at 8:45 p.m. March 14 and 15.

An Indigenous fashion show and concert by the Alaska Inuit soul band Pamyua will be held March 14 at the Glenn Massay Theater on the Mat-Su College campus in Palmer. And on March 15, the Glenn Massay will host a cultural gala showcasing performances from across the regions represented in the Games.

While most events are free to attend, tickets are required for some of the sports’ medal rounds as well as the cultural events, including the concert and gala. Ticket prices range from $15 to $40, depending on the event.

A full schedule of events is available on the Arctic Winter Games website,


Staging the Games requires an army of volunteers, with 2,000 registered to pull multi-hour shifts during the week tackling jobs that range from serving food to athletes, to medical support, organizers said.

[Previously: Mat-Su readies for Arctic Winter Games with volunteers in short supply]

Initially, there was concern that necessary numbers of volunteers wouldn’t be met, but a late push over the last six weeks helped the borough reach full levels as preparation has ramped up.

That push for volunteers has brought together groups that don’t usually work together and created an excitement for the week of events that’s hard to ignore, said Casey Ressler, a Games spokesman.

“It’s so cool to see that many people excited — it’s a great vibe,” he said. “Just looking at some of the volunteer training, I was like, ‘You two groups probably would not be in the same room sometimes, and here you are for the same project.’ ”

Those volunteers fanned out across Mat-Su on Thursday, clearing classrooms, putting beds in schools and setting up venues for upcoming sporting events. At the MTA Events Center in Palmer, about a dozen volunteers shuttled on and off the ice, spraying lines and installing blue and red circles, known as buttons, at the ends of four curling sheets.


Due to the upcoming Arctic Winter Games and their use of the ski trails, the Mat-Su Borough is closing the Government Peak Recreation Area trail system to regular public use from March 10-15. Skeetawk, which is hosting some events, will be open for users.

Arctic Winter Games: By the numbers

• Chartered planes bringing athletes/supporters to Anchorage: 17

• Total number of athletes: 1,850

• Total number athletes on team Alaska/from Alaska: 355

• Total number of volunteers fully registered/assigned shifts: 2,000

• Wait list of volunteers: 600


• Schools converted to athlete and volunteer housing: 8

• Competition and event venues: 22

• Sports: 20

• Total Games budget: $7 million

• Year of the first Arctic Winter Games: 1970

• Number of times the Games have been held in Alaska: 7

• Number of followers on AWG 2024 TikTok: 233

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Amy Bushatz

Amy Bushatz is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su covering Valley news for the ADN.

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.