In the spirit of journeying during periods less traveled, I’ve embarked to Alaska this winter. Follow the adventures here, and prepare to have your preconceived notions destroyed along the way.
Alaska’s Fur Rendezvous Festival is a real treat. The 2011 version is the 76th annual running of the event, and particularly over the past four years, things have been looking up for those involved. This year’s edition kicked off with a serious bang — the weather in Anchorage was absolutely amazing, and locals and tourists alike flocked to downtown in order to witness (or participate in) thoroughly Alaskan events like the Frostbite Footrace, dog weight pull, ice and snow sculpture carving and multi-tribal dance gatherings. The event is one that’s cherished by Alaskans all over the state. For one, it gives everyone a chance to come together and celebrate the awesomeness that is Winter in Alaska. Secondly, it gives Alaskans a reason to celebrate the impending arrival of Spring.
I had a chance to experience Fur Rondy as an outsider, but left feeling like someone who was welcomed with open arms. Peek the video above for a glimpse into the real magic behind this event, and read on for a bit of perspective that I gained from picking Ernie Hall’s brain.
%Gallery-117714%For those unaware, Ernie Hall is fairly big deal in Alaska. He moved here in 1959, the same year that Alaska gained statehood. Needless to say, he’s seen every single thing that has happened to The Last Frontier since becoming an official state within the US of A. For the past four years, he has been an integral part of organizing Fur Rondy, and I was able to sit down and pick his brain about the event. Currently, he sits on the board, and his job to ensure that sponsors are found, events are organized and that the community plays an integral part in everything.
According to him, Rondy had “fallen on hard times” a few years back. The issue was simple: the event had been ushered away from the locals, and turned more into a commercial spectacle. In truth, it’s the communities within Alaska that makes this all so special, and if you remove the pride factor, you’ve sucked the heart right out of the event. When he stepped in, he took it upon himself to convince sponsors to give him “one more chance,” and he vowed to let the community run things once again. Evidently, that’s exactly what happened.
During my stay this past weekend in Anchorage, I saw beaming Alaskans at every event. Crowds were noticeable, and people were genuinely excited to be here. The events themselves went off without a hitch. Ernie said that the 45 days leading up to the starting weekend were the craziest 45 days of his entire year, but once the planning was nailed down, he found that enjoying Fur Rondy was the easy part. Indeed, the events schedule rolled on like a well-oiled machine, and as a spectator, I kept finding myself in amazement at just how well everything was put together and just how “Alaskan” everything felt. If you’re looking for a neck-deep dive into Alaskan culture, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better opportunity than at Fur Rondy.
This year, two events in particular garnered a vast amount of attention. The first is Yukigassen. It’s a sophisticated snowball fight that’s hugely popular in Japan, and the tournament held here at Fur Rondy was the first sanctioned Yukigassen event in the United States. The battles were intense, and from the sidelines, it certainly looked like gobs of fun. I’m giving it 12 months before places like North Dakota, Minnesota and other snow-filled locales pick up on it. Even The Travel Channel’s own Bert Kreischer (from Bert the Conqueror) made it out to join in the festivities, and we caught up with him for an interview here.
Not only did he sling a few snowballs at enemies across the field, he also participated in the World’s Largest Outhouse Race. He brought a crew up to Anchorage in order to race down a snowy street, pushing a gal in a customized Bert the Conqueror outhouse in hopes of claiming the gold. It’ll eventually show up in a future episode, but you can take a sneak peek from my footage here.
I departed Fur Rondy with one overriding realization: this festival is just magical. Visiting Alaska marked my 50th state, and it’s safe to say that it’s easily one of my favorites. There’s no question that this state is vast, but you’re able to get a handle on quite a bit of the culture by just spending a weekend or two at For Rondy. Just interacting with the folks who show up here is a real treat, and it’s already got my considering a training regimen in order to enter next year’s Yukigassen tournament. Who says a boy from the south can’t hang with these Arctic folks? (Well, I do, but I’m working on toughening up.)
[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]
My trip was sponsored by Alaska Travel Industry Association, but I was free to report as I saw fit. The opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.