Step through the gates of the Alaska Zoo on a snowy day and you might be surprised at the level of activity among the residents. Ember, a red fox, likes to jump in snow piled up by accommodating keepers. The otter clan slips and slides around on the slippery, icy pathways they've created in their enclosure. The wolf pack trots around with eyes on bundled-up visitors who can often cajole a howl or two that cuts across the sharp winter air.
Every animal at the Alaska Zoo is nature-made for cold. Their bodies are designed to not just survive but thrive in temperatures that drive some humans back to our woodstoves and down blankets. It's also a reason to go when visitor numbers are much lower.
Jeannette Mechinsky, development director for the Alaska Zoo told me about 130,000 people pass through the Alaska Zoo's main gate between April and September.
"Between October and March, though, we record around 45,000," she said, adding that the zoo is on a mission to entice visitors, particularly families, to Alaska's only zoo.
The winter experience
The zoo on Anchorage's Hillside is home for about 100 animals, and it's a delightfully wooded 25 acres of winding trails that allow for meandering between enclosures. For me, part of the zoo's attractiveness is the staff's attention to the property, especially noticeable after a snowfall. When my son was small, one of our favorite activities involved a sled and a Thermos of hot chocolate. Bundled to his eyebrows, my then-toddler rode and walked along the trails, stopping to say hello to the polar bears, moose, or musk oxen. Snow creaked and crunched under the sled, our breath made puffy clouds that sometimes froze on our scarves and eyelashes, and the sun made quick work of rising or setting, but we didn't care. The animals were awake and curious about this pint-sized creature who pointed and laughed or tried his best to elicit a response howl from the wolves.
Zoo staffers love a snowy winter too, according to education director Stephanie Hartman, especially early in the morning before the facility opens at 10 a.m. (an hour earlier come May).
"It's my ultimate favorite time to be in the zoo," Hartman said while sharing intimate moments of falling snow without another human footprint in sight.
She also shared lighthearted moments of foxes leaping onto snowmen built by keepers, or musk oxen running headlong into piles of it, and snow leopards frolicking in snow caves carefully constructed by their human caretakers.
"They love it. This is their environment, and animals play just like we do," Hartman said.
When to go
These days, we visit the Alaska Zoo with a tween who looks forward to events with a purpose — rather than aimless wandering, as he calls my sentimental strolls around the facility. Jeannette Mechinsky understands. Along with Hartman's education department, she works to create activities, events, and classes that appeal to a wide age range.
"The zoo in winter is such a special place," she said. "We're lining up a whole new plan for seasonal specials, especially during the colder months."
This means field trips that focus on Alaska animals in the winter. From investigating wolverine hunting habits to learning the cultural importance of a musk ox's qiviut, the zoo can create specific activities centered around just about any classroom curriculum, Mechinsky said. And with a long holiday break around the corner, the zoo's Winter Adventure Camps are a full day of indoor and outdoor immersion into themes like "Ravishing Reindeer" or "Cool and Crafty." Available on any Anchorage School District school in-service or school holiday, the camps are available for kids age 6-12 and include snacks, lunch, and plenty of outdoor time with counselors for $85 per day, $70 if your family has a zoo pass.
My favorite winter occasion at the zoo is happening right now. Zoo Lights is a nightly infusion of multicolored light and sound to the normally tranquil evenings at the zoo, and each year it seems to grow larger and last longer into the dark winter months.
This year, Zoo Lights will operate seven days a week for three weeks over the holidays, beginning Friday, Dec. 16 and lasting until Jan. 8 (closed Christmas Day however). The nightly light show begins at 5 p.m. and remains open until 8 p.m. and is an additional $6 for pass holders or $8 for non-pass holders. Kids under 2 get in free. Zoo Lights continues on a Thursday-Sunday schedule through March 5, so if you don't make it over the holidays, you'll still have time to visit. Tickets are available online or at the zoo's admission gate.
For older kids, the free lecture series Wildlife Wednesdays is 7 p.m. in the Gateway Lecture Hall the second Wednesday of month. This week, Grant Hilderbrand and Dan Monson of the Alaska Science Center will discuss "When Scientists Get Surprised: Brown Bear and Sea Otter Research at Katmai National Park."
Whatever event you choose, or if you simply do as I do and find a quiet moment during the day to bundle up and take an hour or two for communing with a camel or schmoozing a snow leopard, take heart in the mission of Alaska's home for northern animals and birds that remind us about conservation and teach our children about stewardship. It's worth the frosty nose and toes.
Alaska Zoo: If you go
*Location: 4731 O'Malley Road, Anchorage. (907) 346-2133. Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, with last admission 3:30 p.m.
*Cost: Adult residents $13; non-residents $15; seniors (65 and older) $10; military adult $10; youth (ages 3-17) $7, kids 2 and younger are free.
Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska On the Go: exploring the 49th state with children and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska's only family travel website. She lives in Anchorage.