I’m quite sure that 95% of those reading this blog have never heard of The Iditarod before. The what? Yes, there you go, I get you… and I’ll be honest with you: until a couple of years ago I had never heard of it either. Until I fell in love with Alaska and learned that the Iditarod is the biggest dog sledding race in Alaska, maybe even in the whole world. (When googling “biggest dog sled race in the world” the Iditarod hit the top of the search results so maybe we should consider that a YES!).
It’s not just a race, it’s a battle of the toughest and then I’m not just talking mushers but also their dogs and the teams around them. In approximately 1.800 kilometers they race not just against their competitors but against the cold, the snow and the clock. Whoever makes it to Nome first becomes the winner of what’s also called “The Last Great Race on Earth”…
While everyone is off to work on a regular Wednesday in February 2012, I am on my way to Schiphol Amsterdam airport. An almost 24 hour journey will take me to Anchorage, Alaska, where I’ll be meeting with fellow Alaska lovers to experience winter in this state. I’ve packed my warmest clothes, brought no less than two winter jackets and even bought some brand new snow boots. Just to make sure that there will be no reason for me (aka “the walking fridge”) to be cold. After an incredibly long journey, lightened up by a band from Memphis that I meet in Seattle and is called Lucero, we touchdown in Anchorage. When my head finally meets the pillow I can’t sleep. I’m way to excited about all things coming up over the next couple of days.
On my first day I meet up with my former colleague Evelyne. She and her husband have moved to Alaska to start up their own lodge. We have a coffee and head over to The Millennium Hotel, where we accidentally walk into the Iditarod musher’s official press moment. We get to see them all, from the legendary multiple Iditarod champions Lance Mackey and Jeff King to boys and girls that seem much younger than me and somehow give me the feeling that maybe I should do something better with my life. After some champagne and pictures, show time is over and we head back downtown.
The next morning I’m meeting with the rest of my group for this trip: all super cool American ladies whom have come here to experience Alaska in wintertime. We set off for Alyeska, Alaska’s number one ski resort. As we drive along Turnagain Arm (which I’ve experienced in summer as well) we don’t get to see much. it’s misty and all we see is snow. Upon arrival we are going on a sled dog ride with former Iditarod musher Dario Martinez. While packing myself up in all the clothes I’ve got, I just can’t believe my eyes – never have I seen this much snow before, not even when in northern Finland, which is much higher up north than this part of Alaska. Everything is white, even the sky is. Perfect for playing!
We go on a short ride and learn all about the dogs. How eager they are to race and how they are being trained and taken care of. Even though it may seem like harsh on the dogs to pull a sled, they are actually enjoying it a lot. So if you ever consider going on a sled dog trip – don’t feel sorry for them, this is what they were born to do and what they love to do! Here’s a short video that gives you an impression of what it’s like to be on a sled (click).
Around lunchtime we head out to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a refuge for orphaned or injured wildlife. I was here just 6 months earlier as well but the winter gives it some extra charm. There are almost no other tourists so we can easily take pictures. Even the cutest grizzly cub decides to come out of his house and say hello to us.
And of course we also get the chance to ski. I’ve not been skiing for at least 5 years but luckily I haven’t really forgotten how it works so I spend about 2 hours out on the slopes of Alyeska. I don’t dare going up into the mountains all that high but have a good time close to the resort. We have an excellent guide that used to be ski instructor and immediately I feel the need to hit the slopes again when back home (but don’t do it eventually). That night we’re invited to go and see Lucero in a bar close by and no matter how much I like a party or two, I’ve been insomniac for days in a row and finally, when I settle into the most luxurious hotel room I’ve ever stayed at, I fall asleep.
The next morning we are heading back to Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod. At last! All the mushers have gathered and will sled through the streets of Anchorage to show themselves to the audience. The seats in front of them are filled with relatives or sponsors. It’s cold (duh) and snowing but I’m totally excited to see them all pass by. After today they are off to Willow for the official start of their race and then the challenge has begun: 1.800 kilometers to Nome located near the Bering Sea, which will take them anywhere between 9-15 days.
Later that day, we’re participating in “Running of the Reindeer”. Yes, you read that right! It’s one of the most bizarre events I’ve ever been in. Basically, you dress up and run ahead of a group of reindeers. Sounds crazy huh? Well, it is! But it’s a lot of fun and all the money raised with this goes towards charity so there’s no reason not to do it (once again, don’t feel sorry for the reindeer, really!). In my case, I dressed up in orange (Holland’s national color) and brought a Dutch flag. My outfit turned out to be good enough to get lots of attention and being pulled towards the microphone to answer the question “what the heck is someone from The Netherlands doing here in Alaska in winter?”
On my last day in Alaska, we went to see a couple of museums and headed out to Earthquake park. It was a very clear day and we could see Mount McKinley (125 miles away from Anchorage) which is North America’s highest mountain. I feel blessed being there again, looking at the mountains and take a minute to sit down, enjoy the sunshine on my face and stare at the mountains really far away. I consider myself incredibly lucky to be in this Great Land once again. There’s just no place in the world that I love as much as Alaska. No matter how cold it gets, how many times their mosquitoes have tried to kill me, how (generally) ugly their men are, how sick I get on their floatplanes or how lonely it can be…
After an even more exhausting flight home I am glued behind my laptop for the rest of the week. To see all about The Iditarod there is to follow and to learn that Dallas Seavey (who you may know from “Ultimate Survival Alaska”) becomes the winner and is until now the youngest Iditarod champion ever. In a couple of days the race will start again and even though I won’t be home to follow it all, I will be there in my thoughts. Some places you travel to and say “it’s been good, I’ll never be back here” but no matter how many times I’ve been to Alaska and how sad I am while taking off from Anchorage Airport, I always know there’s going to be a next time for me.
The tour I made was hosted by Visit Anchorage as a part of their Anchorage Wild Expert program. I will be forever thankful to them for inviting me on this trip, it was something I will never forget.
Credit for the photo of me cuddling the dogs goes out to Jody Overstreet who’s an incredible photographer! You can check her work out here.
So as I’ve come to the end of my story I realise that I should turn on the tv soon as there’s another show about Alaska on Discovery Channel which means crashing on the couch and dreaming. Many travelers consider Alaska too far, too cold, too expensive. And yes, it’s far, cold and expensive but you will never ever regret making the decision to go out there.
Would you consider a trip to Alaska? And what’s the thing you would most like to see there? Glaciers, wildlife, fjords? Let me know and I will inspire you with more posts about Alaska soon!