Travel

Winter fun warms up visitors

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Last December I stood on the deck of a lodge in Talkeetna, Alaska, and watched sunrise bleed down the snowy crown of 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. I had seen our nation's loftiest peak before, rising dramatically from the flat tundra but always shrouded in cloud. This view was rare and awesome, as the sunrise was in concert with the full moon. I snapped away, joined by a man who exclaimed, "I live here, and I never get to see McKinley like that."


FOR THE RECORD
Alaska -- A headline in the Travel section Sunday about Alaska ("Winter Fun Warms Up Visitors") referred to the state as the nation's 50th. Alaska is the 49th state.


I was only a visitor, but having enjoyed several summer adventures throughout the state, I yearned to see this land of sublime beauty in winter. It was less than 24 hours since I had landed in Anchorage under clear blue skies and driven the 113 miles to this village at the edge of Denali National Park. Every notion I harbored of these northern latitudes hibernating in a lockdown of gloom during the winter dissipated like a snowflake on my tongue.

I hadn't stopped to consider that Alaska covers five geographic zones. The sun doesn't rise in parts of the state from Nov. 18 through Jan. 24 -- but only in the far north. Talkeetna and Anchorage are in the south central zone, with average December temperatures of 20 degrees. The shortest day: five hours and 41 minutes. Though Anchorage gets about 67 inches snow a year, its climate is moderated by the Cook Inlet. The airport is seldom closed due to severe weather.

It was unseasonably cold at 8 below, but there was little wind. Everything I'd seen, from the peaks of the Alaska Range to the miles of hoarfrosted birch forest, was intensified through air crystalline with frozen moisture. Denali (McKinley's indigenous name means "great one") was my constant beacon on the two-hour drive north. The peak blushed lavender as sunset approached around 3:45 p.m. In the lengthy golden afterglow, I arrived in lively Talkeetna, a town of 500 residents that swells with Denali-bound tourists in summer.

"Winter clears 'em out," said Collette Folk, manager of the Fairview Inn. "We tell 'em it's cold and dreary, they don't plow the roads, sun doesn't rise and we grow horns and wings," Folk said, laughing, skilled in the Alaskan style of irony.

The Fairview, whose 80-year history includes introducing Talkeetna to its first bathtub, was full of animals: bear and wolf skins, moose and caribou racks, and Dall sheep horns. The animated talk was of the following day's annual Wilderness Woman Contest and Bachelor Ball and Auction. They take place the first Saturday each December, a ploy by the Talkeetna Bachelor Society to attract women. The auction is fun, benefits local nonprofits and launches a Winterfest that includes a parade of lights, dances and live theater.

I joined 21 other hardy women in a test of our wild-woman skills. But the qualifying 100-yard dash over icy snow, carrying two 35-pound buckets of water, humbled me. Only the four fastest women, of whom I was not one, competed in the remaining events, from gathering firewood to shooting "ptarmigan" to serving beer and sandwiches to actively vegetating bachelors.

I chatted with one of the Bachelor Society's founding members, 46-year-old Robert Petersen, a gold mining engineer known as Grog to his friends. Clad in rawhide and skins from hat to boots, Grog was the quintessential frontiersman looking for someone "to live remote for more than one night." Living in Alaska for 24 years in a cabin off the grid, he joked about telling outsiders (like me), "Yes, I have running water -- I'm always running for water."

I enjoyed rediscovering a town I had only breezed through one summer. I made warmup visits to Nagley's General Store, which has endured since the 1920s when it was built for trappers and miners, and to the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum, housed in a 1936 red schoolhouse with exhibits of the area's frontier days.

The log-cabin homes, some crafted with pegs, scribed logs and interlocking lap notches, included the 1917 cabin that has been the popular Roadhouse since 1944, a bunkhouse with home cooking. The Roadhouse exuded the aroma of its famous rib-sticking breakfasts -- biscuits and gravy, reindeer sausage, tart sourdough hotcakes, yeasty cinnamon rolls and bursting-with-fruit pies.

I had overlooked eating until late in the day when I ducked into Cafe Michele and dined heartily on tasty venison stew. The French restaurant, along with the contemporary Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge (closed this winter), mark the town's bow toward gentility for tourism.

Bachelors on the block

The auction's Male Order Catalog revealed 35 eligible men looking for a woman -- from a "longhaired leaping gnome" to "just a pulse" -- to share their passion for the Alaska wilds. The highest-bidding women procure one drink and a dance from their bachelors ("anything else is strictly up to the parties involved"). Past years' events -- the auction started in 1981 -- have resulted in everything from a 12-year marriage (ended in amicable divorce) to a love child, now an 8-year-old boy.

The auction took place at the brawny VFW hall where eager and curious women (I was among the latter) claimed their prizes. Auctioneer Robert Forgit, former weather anchor for KTUV-TV in Anchorage, brought in $300, the evening's highest bid.

My bachelor, a mellow, bearded 33-year-old on whom I bid $70, was looking for "one who is going to stay in Alaska." Despite my transience, he delivered my drink -- two, in fact -- and a dance, as we joined the revelers who packed the Fairview for the ball. Amid the bacchanalian atmosphere, we danced with others too, and drifted apart. My drive back to Anchorage was blessed by the same enchanting arctic light as the ride up. The city, where half of Alaska's 600,000 population resides, sparkled under its blanket of snow and Christmas decorations.

I stayed at the Hilton because of its convenient downtown location and walking distance to many attractions. After the scale of life in Talkeetna, the hotel seemed big and impersonal, but I came to enjoy the warmly lighted lobby with its captivating Native Alaskan art, including a bear shaman carving and sculptures in fossil whalebone and soapstone. In the lobby's Hooper Bay Cafe, I sipped cappuccino and watched people come and go, clad in winter skins and furs as fashionable as any in New York City.

Anchorage, a cosmopolitan city, is cradled by the canine-sharp Chugach Mountains and Cook Inlet. It has an unlikely mix of natural wonders and culture -- symphony, ballet, opera, theater and museums.

I decided to start with its outdoor pleasures and considered an outing to Alyeska Resort, south of town, where alpine skiers, including Olympic medalist Tommy Moe, take on downhill runs from gentle to double black diamond. I was also tempted by the prospect of ice fishing, popular on lakes surrounding the city.

Keeping the winter lively

In the end, I fell back on my favorite winter sport -- cross-country skiing -- because it was the most accessible, two blocks from my hotel, on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. With rented equipment, I glided out on the 15-mile scenic path along Cook Inlet's Turnagain Arm and in minutes was in a bright wintry wilderness spying an immature eagle in a spruce. A moose browsed among the alders, heedless of me. I went as far as Earthquake Park, the site where chunks of shoreline slipped into the inlet, destroying 75 homes in the 1964 Good Friday earthquake -- a magnitude 9.2. I turned around when dusk turned the Chugach peaks purple.

On downtown's 5th Avenue, I stopped to buy a hand puppet of caribou skin and wolf fur for my nephew. The shopkeeper told me to return in February for Anchorage's Fur Rendezvous. Dating to the 1930s when fur trading was Alaska's second leading industry, the two-week-long "rondy" offers everything from a Frostbite Footrace to the Miners & Trappers Ball. And if I stayed on until the first Saturday in March I could really have fun, watching the downtown kickoff of the "Last Great Race on Earth" -- the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,150-mile run by dogs and humans through the arctic interior.

A thriving restaurant scene

If Alaskans suffer from winter blues, none crossed my path, especially not in Anchorage's hip restaurants. The city offers a surprising array of good eateries, though prices are higher than for equivalent dishes in the Lower 48. Newer downtown establishments I enjoyed included the innovative Glacier Brewhouse (try the wood-roasted duck on soba noodles) and Bear Tooth Theater Pub, with mostly Mexican dishes. But I gravitated to an old favorite, Simon & Seaforts, for traditional seafood -- briny steamed clams and buttery scallops -- with views of Cook Inlet.

Sunday morning took me past the Aviation Heritage Museum on Lake Hood, where on past trips I've marveled at the vintage aircraft on display -- from a 1928 Stearman to a 1960 Iroquois helicopter. I was reminded why Alaska is called "the flyingest state" in the Union: It has more pilots and airplanes per capita than any other.

The museum didn't open until noon, so I headed to the new Alaska Native Heritage Center, which represents the 11 cultural groups that make up the state's native people, including the Athabascans, Inupiaq, Aleut, Haida and Tlingit.

As for the Anchorage Museum of Arts and History, with its native art and depictions of 10,000 years of Alaskan history, a visit any time of year is de rigueur. In the Alaskan Gallery, a re-created Athabascan village reminded me that winter was not an optional adventure for any of the state's Aleuts, Eskimos or Indians. I missed a local native group's holiday concert in the lobby because I was so mesmerized by their masks, walrus tusk ornaments and beaded cormorant-skin garments. But the festive atmosphere lingered in the air, as it did everywhere in Anchorage. Old-fashioned Christmas carols poured from radios, and I found myself singing along. After all, I was closer to the North Pole than I'd ever been at yuletide.

*

Alaska in winter

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service to Anchorage (change of planes) is available on Alaska and United airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $462.20.

From Anchorage, reach Talkeetna year-round by plane, train or car.

WHERE TO STAY, EAT:

Fairview Inn, P.O. Box 1109, Talkeetna, AK 99676; (907) 733-2423, www.denali-fairview.com. This low-end lodging is classic Alaskan roadhouse. The bunkhouse rooms are comfortable, though small and basic, with beds, dressers and shared bathrooms. Doubles $63.

Talkeetna Roadhouse, P.O. Box 604, Talkeetna, AK 99676; (907) 733-1351, www.talkeetnaroadhouse.com. Offers bunkhouse-style rooms; the bakery-cafe serves delicious hearty breakfasts and lunches Saturday-Monday and family-style dinner Saturday night. Double rooms start at $62.50.

Swiss Alaska Inn, P.O. Box 565, Talkeetna, AK 99676; (907) 733-2424, www.swissalaska.com. One of the nicest hotels in town; quiet, family-friendly, relatively spacious nonsmoking rooms with private bath. The casual restaurant offers continental and American fare, from halibut and salmon to schnitzel and steaks. Doubles $70.

Chinook Wind, P.O. Box 825, Talkeetna, AK 99676; (907) 733-1899, www.chinookwindcabins.com. Offers relaxing, stylish wood cabins in town with kitchenettes, TVs, satellite dish, phones, private baths; doubles $80.

Denali Overlook Bed & Breakfast, P.O. Box 141, Talkeetna, AK 99676; (907) 733-3555, www.denalioverlook.com. Five miles from town on a scenic bluff with panoramic views of the Alaska Range, this post-and-beam inn has tasteful antique furnishings, a stone fireplace and continental breakfast. Winter rate, $125 double occupancy.

Historic Anchorage Hotel, 330 E St., Anchorage, AK 99501; (800) 544-0988, fax (907) 277-4483, www.historicanchoragehotel.com. Downtown's oldest hotel (1916) is nostalgically restored and on the National Register of Historic Places; doubles start at $89.

Hilton Anchorage, 500 W. 3rd Ave., Anchorage, AK 99501; (907) 272-7411, fax (907) 265-7042, www.hilton.com. Biggest selling points are a convenient downtown location, art-rich lobby and comfortable rooms with views of the Chugach Mountains. Doubles start at $99.

Glacier Brewhouse, 737 W. 5th Ave., Anchorage, AK 99501; (907) 274-2739. Spit-roasted and wood-grilled meats and fish are top-notch in this business-casual eatery that has a number of brews on tap. Entrees start at $17.

Simon & Seaforts Saloon & Grill, 420 L St., Anchorage, AK 99501; (907) 274-3502. Lean on tradition at this self-described "great Alaskan dinner house" serving fresh seafood and rock salt-roasted prime rib, with broad views of Cook Inlet. Entrees start at $15.50.

TO LEARN MORE:

Alaska Travel Industry, 2600 Cordova St., Anchorage, AK 99503; (907) 929-2200, fax (907) 561-5727, www.travelalaska.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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