Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Come for the Iditarod, stay for the festivities!

Furs ready for auction.
Iditarod can take up a lot of your time, and depending how long you plan to visit it can be the only big event you get to. However, Iditarod is the finale of a two week "celebration" that happens every year in Anchorage called the Fur Rendezvous! An Anchorage tradition that got its start in the mid 1930s, Fur Rondy celebrates Alaska's history as well as its present. Fur Auction, Miner & Trapper Ball, sled dog sprint races, blanket tosses - all represent the Alaska that was and is.

Rondy began as a way to build a community out of the very small town of Anchorage and the surrounding areas. Deciding to host a 3 day sports tournament while the miners and trappers were in town to sell off their haul, the Father of Fur Rondy - Vern Johnson - created an event that spans over 80 years. It has grown to include so much more than skiing, hockey, youth sled dog race, and bonfire. For 10 days in late February and Early March Alaskans and tourists alike gather to celebrate in a festival like no other.

Today the festival hosts carnival rides, Native art and sport, World Championship Sled Dog Sprint Races, Fur Rondy on Ice, Snow Sculptures, fireworks, Running of the Reindeer, and SO much more! They still hold the fur auction, the Miners and Trappers Ball, there's a Melodrama. Options are endless and the days are packed. Most events are free to watch, and those that do require a fee for admittance the cost is not big. Some allow any and all to participate (like the Running of the Reindeer) and it's the most fun.

Iditarod's Ceremonial Start is normally held the final weekend of Rondy, but is not the final event. Some mushers even stick around to participate in the Running of the Reindeer (Seaveys have done it a few times, weirdos). If you're in Anchorage the weekend before Iditarod weekend (perhaps for the Jr. Iditarod?) you can catch the World Championship Sprint Dog Races. When the Iditarod was still in its early years, many Rondy race teams also ran the Iditarod.

A team races into the finish of the 2010 Fur Rondy Sled Dog race.
So what events are must do's at Rondy?

The first weekend is the celebratory weekend. Beginning on Friday, there are event long exhibits like the photography contest, the snow sculpture championship. The Rondy Melodrama - which is a highlight for many Rondy fans - also begins and runs through the end of the 10 day event.

Rondy on Ice takes place on the weekends. This is put on by the local figure skating club, but once in a while they have guest stars. This is not Stars on Ice or Ice Follies level skating, but it's still cute and once in a while there's a surprisingly well done performance. Olympian Keegan Messing used to be the star of the show, but now that he's an international competitor Rondy takes place during his competition schedule.

The Alaska State Championship Snow Sculptures begin sculpting the first friday of Rondy, with judging typically on Sunday. These are works of art that only last so long. With our Rondy's becoming warmer, the sooner you view them the better. Visit Sunday around noon during the judging, when sculptures will look their finest.

The Frostbite Footrace is fun, and you can participate or cheer the runners on. Many dress up. It's in the snow, so if you're into something like that (I'm judging you). Typically the run happens on Saturday morning.

Following the Footrace is the Parade. This is another fun way to celebrate our past and our present. You will get to see all of the Fur Rondy royalty and they're dressed in, well, fur. Gorgeous furs. A lot of the crowd will be in furs as well. It is FUR Rondy, after all.

The Open World Championship Sled Dog Race is a 3 day event where the best sprint mushers compete in three 25-mile heats over three days. This may be bias showing, but this is probably the most exciting part of Fur Rondy. Unlike Iditarod, which is slow going to start off with and averaging 8mph, the sprint races are... well... more about speed. You can watch from downtown where all the events are happening, or you can go out onto the trail (like by the Native Health Campus, or Tozier Track where they turn around and head back into downtown).

And don't forget the FIREWORKS. These happen on the first Saturday of Rondy. You can see them from just about anywhere downtown. If you're looking for photo ops, shooting from the carnival with the lights of the rides in the foreground is fun, or go down to ship creek and shoot them with the snow sculptures. Locals also like "sunset park" on Government Hill, and if you want to get further out there's Earthquake Park/Point Woronzof for some awesome cityscape with fireworks photos.

During that weekend there are also the Outhouse Races, the Fur Auction, and the Snowshoe Softball Tournament.

If you're coming for the Iditarod start, and following the schedule I suggested in an earlier blog in this series, you'll most likely come in too late to catch the Rondy races. But! There's still SO MUCH to see and do at Rondy!

The second weekend has the Running with the Reindeer. This takes place on Saturday following the Iditarod Start (well, okay, not directly following, but...) This is a fun, safe event that is a parody of the Running of the Bulls over in Spain. There's no death involved for the reindeer at the end, and honestly it's more a "race the reindeer to the finish line" than it is a "run for your life you're about to be trampled." I think your fellow runners are more dangerous than Rudolph.

Saturday also hosts the Beard and Mustache championship. The men are serious about their facial hair, and some of the beards are legendary.

Whenever you come, there are events that happen continually.

The Melodrama is a local favorite. It is hilarious and is different every year, but it's always a good time. I hear they thrive on audience participation, and that there have been food fights in the past. This is a ticketed event, and tickets go fast.

The Native Arts Market is a must do. Even if you don't plan on buying anything chatting with the artists and looking at the artwork can be just as rewarding. Ask before you take photos as some artists frown on their art "going so cheap". Make sure to carve out enough time to really look at the craftsmanship of the beading, painting, and sculpting.

For a schedule of all the events, you can visit the official website or pick up a Rondy Guide. Most hotels will have them in their lobby free to their guests.

BEWARE - there are Keystone cops ALL OVER Anchorage during Fur Rondy checking to make sure that you are proudly wearing your Rondy button. If you are caught without the official button (which must be current year) then you will be taken to Rondy Jail where someone has to bail you out. You can also pay your own bail. This is one of the big fundraisers of Rondy. The buttons are collectible, and some are now worth some pretty nice dough. It's a small souvenir for your visit to Alaska.

Rondy is not an event you want to miss. Even if you just wander and take it in for a few minutes, spend time and learn a little bit about Alaska's idea of "fun".

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Coming for Iditarod, but what to wear?

Having the right gear is essential to not being miserable while outdoors.
The question of what to pack to wear for Iditarod is probably the number one question I field in the weeks leading up to fans coming to the race. As a life long Alaskan I am supposed to know the exact brand that will keep warm. But, because I grew up here and live here, I really don't do anything special. I'm wearing the same boots I've worn since middle school (a whole 20+ years ago!).

The easy answer is layer up. Bring a little bit of everything. It's so hard to predict what type of March we're going to have when it's two months away and it seems like we're in break up in January (which has become a "thing" in the last few years). Typical weather in March is right at or above freezing (so low to mid thirties), and snow is heavy and wet if it falls. The best advice is make sure to keep your feet warm. Cold feet are the worst to deal with. It takes a lot longer to cool your core than it does you feet, but your feet are a great conduit to freeze you! The other is make sure you have a "shell" over your clothes to protect from getting wet. Snow melt or rain is no fun. No one likes soggy britches.

So how do you prepare? As I said, bring a little bit of everything. After all, you aren't going to be outside all of the time. My weekend packing consists of t-shirts and jeans with clothes to go under and over for when I plan to spend more time outside. Unless you plan on attending an extremely formal event while you're here for Iditarod (the only thing I can think of that might qualify is the Miners and Trappers Ball and even that you just dress in clean clothes haha), you can go for comfy casual for your attire to all events.


Just as it is important for a sled dog team to be properly bootied, what you pack for your feet will be essential for your trip to Alaska. Obviously you will want to pack at least two types of footwear: boots for being outside for any extended period of time, and regular shoes to use in the airports, hotels, going out to eat, etc. If you are staying in a Hostel or communal bathroom/shower situation you may want to also pack some shower shoes/flip-flops for when you use the bathroom (which should be clean, but you never know).

You will also want different types of socks. Your standard cotton socks work for your every day walking around, but when you're out in the cold you're going to need something warmer. A good pair of wool socks will do wonders to keep your feet warm, and I always add a pair of cotton socks under them if it's especially cold (we're talking negative temps).

Recommendations for boots include:

Muck Boots - a quick social media survey had several mushers and livestock folk say they're the way to go. They keep your feet dry and warm - which is key if you plan on standing outside for the couple of hours to watch the teams go by at the Starts (or finish). Word is that you want to check out their Arctic Ice line of boots. You can order online, or if you have a Cabela's near you, you can go in and try on their selection of Muck Boots. You want a good fit. I recommend trying them on with thick socks so that you know how they fit when you're layered up.

Sorels - you can't go wrong with these boots. They are found in most sporting goods stores, including Cabela's. Again - wear thick socks when trying them on to make sure they will fit when you need them to. The Caribou is the one I like best, but as long as they're waterproof and insulated, you should be good. Go for substance not style. You're not coming to Iditarod to walk a catwalk.

Alaska Bunny Boots - and then there's the tried and true Bunny Boot. They will keep you warm but they are clunky and weird looking and probably heavier than the Iditarod visitor really needs (unless you're out on the trail, then they might be more practical than not). They are military surplus (basically) and if you've got time you can read the wikipedia explanation of them here.

For wool socks, you can't really go long as long as they are real wool. I use Bridgedale brand, which are about 20 years old, but I rarely wear them except for during Iditarod.

While the boots above come with tread that should keep slipping to a minimum, you may also want to look into a pair of ice cleats to put on the bottom if the ice is as bad as I'm guessing it will be this year - or if you plan on wearing your regular shoes outside at all. You don't want a bruised tailbone as one of your souvenirs from your bucket list trip.

Long Johns/Long Underwear

I personally prefer fleece. It's light enough when you don't really need it, and yet keeps you warm. Perfect for standing around watching the Iditarod (or any mushing). Unless you're headed to Fairbanks I wouldn't bother trying to find something really thick and warm. You could even get away with a good pair of cotton long johns. *Cabela's has a very good selection relatively fair priced. WalMart, Sportsmans Wearhouse, and others have similar - cheaper - options.

DO you need it? Depends on how well you do in cold. I typically only wear them for my legs, but I layer up on clothes. So if you are unsure, I'd get a pair just in case. They are form fitting, so you may want a size larger than what you normally buy.


Depending on if you need these after your Iditarod trip or not, you may be able to get away with a very cheap pair. You're already layering with pants and long underwear. You're really needing just another layer of warmth (which you can easily double up on pants, too) and that layer of protection against moisture. While cold, depending on the weather (it could rain) and if you kneel or sit in the snow even for a second or two you're going to get wet - you need something to protect yourself. If you aren't looking for something of quality to last you a long time, you can probably get away with something inexpensive on Amazon.com or some place like WalMart. No judgement, as long as they are waterproof and not breakaway pants you should be good.

If you're looking for quality, Columbia, NorthFace, Marmot, and Patagonia are great - but they are also name brands that cost some big money. You have to weigh the options. If you plan on heading out on adventure while in Alaska you might be better off getting these. Especially if you plan on going on a dog sled tour, snow machine tour, skiing, etc. Or, if you have to go to Fairbanks or plan to head to Nome, the heavier gear might be your better option in the long run.


I would argue that you don't want to go TOO cheap with your coat, but if this is a one and done trip you may not want to shell out a lot of money for a full on parka. I would suggest, in that case, getting a fleece jacket and then getting another lightweight shell coat (water resistant at the very least) to go over the top of it. Fleece will keep you warm, the shell will keep you dry and buffer any wind. Columbia and NorthFace both have this combo. Or you can just go with a set from all of them with the ski wear (which is perfect for most Iditarod fan weather). Ladies can also get some really nice "parka" type jackets from Woman Within.

There is also the option of getting a one piece snow suit, but that can be VERY bulky to pack, plus impractical as you will not always need to be so bundled up. Hopefully.

Typically how I dress for the long days of the Ceremonial and ReStarts is a cotton pair of socks under my wool socks (I've frostnipped my toes so they get cold very easily) Then I've got the long john bottoms on which are fleece, and my jeans. Depending on the temperature I will wear the long johns top then a tshirt and a hoodie. Then I have my snow pants, jacket, and boots. I look even heavier than I am, but I'm warm and really THAT is the important part! You want to be able to enjoy all of the festivities.

But wait, we haven't talked about hats, gloves, and scarves!


You need a WARM hat. The Alaskan in me suggests fur, but those are expensive and even I don't wear one! Ha! Fleece is a good option as is wool or heavy yarn. Make sure your ears are covered either with muffs or a headband if your hat doesn't have ear flaps. Nothing makes a person more miserable than frozen ears (especially when they start to warm up)!

I never use a scarf but I know many who do. You may want to think of a ski mask (though then you look like you might mug someone) or a balaclava. If you plan on going to Fairbanks or Nome, something to cover your face is a must. Nome has a LOT of wind, and Fairbanks is just bloody cold. Protecting your skin from freezing temperatures is a very important piece of the puzzle.

Gloves and Mittens, this is again a personal preference. I have several pairs of gloves that I use. As a photographer I rarely use what I should because I need the dexterity to be able to work my equipment, so I just go with knit gloves and keep them in my pockets when possible. If I really need help keeping warm I have hand warmers.

But IF I tried a little to be intelligent, I would use something like these. If you do wear gloves but plan to use your smart phone, pick up a pair of gloves that have the rubber fingers so that you can keep your digits warm while scrolling through Facebook.

And invest in HAND WARMERS. You can put them in pockets for your hands, in your pants pockets to keep you a little warmer under your jacket. In your boots to help your feet stay warm. HAND WARMERS ARE AWESOME and I cannot stress enough how everyone should carry them. IF YOU HAVE ELECTRONICS, they help keep your phone from freezing, and will help preserve your camera batteries when it's 32 degrees or colder. Cell phone batteries drain extremely quickly when they are outside in the cold. Handwarmers can help them last longer.

Every person is different. I grew up in Alaska, and other than my toes it takes a lot to really make me cold. One of my best friends who grew up here is ALWAYS cold (I'm pretty sure she'd be cold in 200 degrees) and so she would need a completely different get up than what I do. A good rule of thumb is wear more than you need, you can always take a layer off, but if you don't have enough you won't get or stay warm. Just remember cotton is not always your friend as if you sweat it will soak in and could make you colder faster/longer. Fleece keeps the water away from your skin and evaporates it quicker.

Have questions? Did I miss a tip that you think should be added? Comment below with your suggestions and questions!

*Note all recommendations are done through research and/or experience. I was not compensated for my recommendations, and no link gives me a kick back of any kind. All views are mine unless noted otherwise.