Hitch up your snow pants parents and get ready for one of the most exciting winter weeks of the Alaska year. Fireworks will be booming, sled dogs will be howling and kids will be scrambling for rides on the Gravitron in between shots of hot chocolate and elephant ears. You guessed it, Fur Rendezvous is upon us.
Perhaps no other event says Alaska more than Fur Rendezvous, an 81-year-old winter festival that celebrates the spice of life on the Last Frontier. Back in the old days, Fur Rendezvous had a bit less flamboyance, as folks celebrated the last months of winter and a successful fur harvest by trappers. Sell the furs, feed folks, play a little snowshoe baseball on the Park Strip and light up the night with an enormous bonfire. It was a party, all right, but as the years slipped by and Anchorage's population grew along with its metropolitan status, Fur Rendezvous did as well, evolving into Alaska's largest winter-themed gala, drawing thousands to the city for a week of cultural and recreational experiences.
The allure for locals is obvious: a chance to embrace our far northern lifestyle with a little panache as we dress in goofy costumes and run around the streets of town or chase a herd of reindeer down 4th Avenue. It's all about the atmosphere. I still remember our inauguration to Fur Rondy 10 years ago when our youngest was a toddler, and the way his eyes lit up watching fire trucks in the Grand Parade and sled dogs straining against harnesses in the chute of sprint races. Of course, all we could see was his eyes due to below-zero temperatures hovering around Anchorage that day, but cold was a critical element for a valued Fur Rondy experience.
Who hasn't boasted that they rode the Ferris wheel dressed in boots and heavy parka, caramel apple in one hand and chemical heating pack in the other?
Sadly, weather conditions for the 2016 Fur Rendezvous festival are lacking in the frigid-temperature-and-snow department, but event director Jeff Barney assures me that the show must, and will, go on — with a few adaptations. We chatted via email last week as he and his cadre of volunteers scrambled to make final preparations for activities that kick off Friday and run through March 6.
"The sprint (sled dog) races will be shortened to 20 miles rather than the usual 26 as teams head out to the Campbell Tract and back over three days of racing," he said. "But everything else is still happening; the pond hockey classic tournament is still on, and we've even got a few new events like the Big Fat Ride (aimed at fat-bike aficionados)."
The key to a successful Fur Rondy is our willingness to head outdoors with bundled-up kids, ready for whatever Mother Nature throws at us. No snow? No problem. Some things, like the amusement carnival, parade and fireworks show will definitely be more comfortable with warmer weather. Other events, like the snow sculpture competition and sled dog races, Barney said, are happening with a lot of Alaskan ingenuity as dump trucks bring load after load of snow hoarded at disposal sites.
Here are my picks for a tip-top, outdoor-themed Fur Rendezvous experience this weekend with youngsters. Be sure to refer to a daily schedule of events in Alaska Dispatch News and on the Fur Rondy website (furrondy.net) for any changes and registration information..
• Rondy Carnival, ongoing Friday, Feb. 26-Sunday, March 6. Face the Gravitron, circle the Ferris wheel, and nosh on that candy apple, the carnival is one of the most popular Fur Rendezvous destinations. Tip: Go Friday right after school for the shortest lines, or Sunday morning when it first opens. Make sure kids have warm clothing and mittens; most rides are constructed of metal parts that become very cold after sitting outdoors for days.
• GCI Snow Sculpture Competition, Friday, Feb. 26-March 6, with judging on Sunday, Feb. 28. Head down to Ship Creek and watch teams attempt to create intricate sculptures out of blocks of snow. Lovingly prepared and pampered by Anchorage city workers, these blocks of snow are fetching a high price this snowless winter, so better see them while you can. Tip: Visit Sunday around noon during the judging, when sculptures will look their finest.
• World Championship Sled Dog Races, Friday, Feb. 26-Sunday, Feb. 28, starting at noon. Different from distance sled dog races like the upcoming Iditarod, Rondy races are sprint contests with fast and furious examples of dog and musher syncopation. Best places to watch the action include Cordova Street, Goose Lake and the Campbell Tract near Tudor Road. While the race distance has been shortened, teams will still be competing for cash prizes and excitement is definitely high.
• Frostbite Footrace and Costume Fun Run, Saturday, Feb. 27, 9:30 a.m. Our personal favorite, the Frostbite Footrace is a chance to get silly with the kids, trotting a circle around 6th and 7th Avenues in downtown Anchorage while dressed as just about anything at all (we were carrots and reindeer one year). Sign up online via the Fur Rondy website before Feb. 24, or the morning of the race at Glacier Brewhouse Restaurant. Tip: Race, then settle in by the windows of Glacier Brewhouse for a ringside seat to the Grand Parade immediately following.
• Big Fat Ride. This new event is offered in partnership with the Fat Bike Expo happening at Egan Center all weekend. Organizers are looking to break a world record with 1,000 fat bike riders cycling from downtown to Westchester Lagoon, where refreshments and festivities will occur. It starts 2 p.m. Saturday Feb. 27 at West 2nd Avenue and Christensen Drive. Don't have a fat bike? Some stores will be renting them, so consult the expo website at www.fatbikeexpo.com.
• Outhouse Races, Saturday, Feb. 27. After the race, parade, fat bike ride and perhaps a nap, join other porta-potty enthusiasts along 4th Avenue for one of the most popular events of Fur Rendezvous. Teams construct their own outhouses, then push the thing with one rider along 4th Avenue in pursuit of the fastest time. Awards will be given for creativity, speed and even a Red Lantern (last finisher).
• AT&T Fireworks Extravaganza, Saturday, Feb. 27, 6:45 p.m. Tired yet? Don't be, you still have fireworks to witness. Focus your gaze toward Ship Creek on Saturday evening for a bountiful display of fireworks in the cold Alaska sky. A fixture of Fur Rendezvous, the fireworks are one of the few opportunities in Anchorage to see them, July 4th being somewhat light at night and all.
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 resource. Connect with her at email@example.com.