Darn it, Mother Nature. Just when we think we've hit the jackpot of winter recreation in Southcentral, you neglect places like Dalzell Gorge along the Iditarod Trail and force us to switch up plans for this year's race to Nome.
A Feb. 10 announcement moving the start from Willow to Fairbanks caused more than a few raised eyebrows as people scrambled for alternative transportation, lodging and activities. While not completely unexpected, the news complicated things a bit, especially for families who already had itineraries figured out for the Anchorage ceremonial start and the expected restart in Willow.
Fortunately, I recently made a trip to Fairbanks, taking time to explore my favorite haunts just in time for moms and dads committed to showing their kids this year's Iditarod. As usual, Fairbanks welcomed visitors with open arms. Deb Hickok, executive director of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, says her staff has been working hard to ensure Iditarod spectators have what they need for a successful and fun experience.
"Fairbanks is always glad to welcome the Iditarod. The race is a great addition to our robust menu of annual winter events," she said.
The restart, or "official start" is my favorite of the Iditarod's weekend of events. At the restart, teams are all business after a fun day schmoozing with admirers and making the ceremonial start's leisurely trot from downtown Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip. But the restart is real-deal Alaska mushing, right down to the last few seconds at the starting line. For many Alaska families, missing this is not an option. For newcomers to the sport, it helps give our state a unique personality.
A Fairbanks restart necessitated shifting the date one day to accommodate legions of dogs, mushers, handlers, volunteers and staff who have to break down in Anchorage and set back up in Fairbanks. Consequently, the restart is scheduled for Monday, March 6, with the first team set to leave at 11 a.m. That means Sunday is now a travel day for humans and canines.
For families headed to Fairbanks, there are three options: fly, drive or take the train. Alaska Airlines and Ravn both offer frequent daily departures. But beware, flights will begin to sell out quickly, so don't delay if considering the quick trip north.
The Alaska Railroad has launched a new Aurora Winter Train schedule that works well for those considering the restart in Fairbanks as their complete Iditarod experience. Whereas in previous years the train traveled north on Saturdays and south on Sundays, the 2017 Aurora Winter Train now offers midweek service for those wanting to savor the Alaska landscape for the 12-hour ride between Anchorage and Fairbanks. It's long, yes, but for parents with older kids (my preference is 7-year-olds and up due to the long trip and ability to self-amuse with books or games), the journey can be part of the weekend. The train departs Anchorage on Saturday, March 4, at 8:30 a.m. and arrives in Fairbanks at 8:30 p.m. A return trip south is available on Wednesday, March 8, with the same time schedule. The Alaska Railroad also has several winter packages available if you have a bit more time and a special rate for a midweek travel that is 25 percent off .
Finally, if you'd like the convenience of your own vehicle and don't mind sharing the Parks Highway with dog trucks (in itself a sort of random road trip party), expect at least seven hours of driving due to winter conditions and slower speeds. Pack gear for remote winter travel, including a shovel, flares, extra food, water and warm clothing for everyone in your family, just in case.
Lodging and fun
It's going to be tough to find a hotel close to the starting line along the Chena River, but with dedication and a bit of luck, families should be able to secure a room, or several. The place to start is the Fairbanks Convention and Vistors Bureau, where a comprehensive listing of hotels is available, including those with swimming pools, a kid-pleasing attribute. Another option, particularly attractive for those staying longer than one or two nights, is to search vacation rental options where kitchens, separate bedrooms and space for kids to spread out can be worth the cost. Try Home Away or Airbnb and make sure you confer with the sites' map to make sure you won't be so far out of town you miss the restart's festivities due to driving hither and yon.
Fairbanks officials tell me that shuttles will be available from many local hotels and locations around town.
If you arrive in Fairbanks before the race starts, or linger after the last team has departed, plenty of fun awaits, both indoors and out. The BP World Ice Art Championships will be in full swing, and this is an excellent opportunity to let the kids explore a wondrous world made completely of ice, including an array of incredible sculptures. Tip: Attend the ice park at night, when sculptures and play structures (also made of ice) are lit with strings of color that warm the soul, if not the body.
The Morris Thompson Cultural Visitor Center is headquarters for the visitors' bureau, and it also houses the Alaska Public Lands Information Center, where all things outdoors can be planned. Find maps for skiing, lists of museums and restaurants. The center itself offers a glimpse of Athabascan culture, Interior Alaska life and city history.
If your kids didn't happen to catch a glimpse of Santa's reindeer this past Christmas Eve, take them to the Running Reindeer Ranch for a walk with these interesting creatures. You're not going to just look at reindeer, you'll be walking through a birch forest with them, learning about their habitat, history and preference for lichen over carrots.
At night, when most children around the world are sleeping, Alaska kids are among the luckiest, for this is when the northern lights appear, especially in Fairbanks where cold, clear nights make for beautiful displays of green, red and purple. It's simple to ask your hotel for an "aurora borealis wake-up call," but for a really cosmic experience, go with a guide company like Aurora Chasers, a husband-and-wife team who make it their business to help guests truly understand the magic of Alaska's northern lights. An added benefit is learning how to photograph the aurora, great for older kids or parents with an interest in photography.
Of course, the focus should be on the Iditarod itself, but while you're in Fairbanks, it's awfully fun to make the most of a trip to the Golden Heart City. Mush on, then explore.
Erin Kirkland is author of "Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th State With Children" and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation.