Monday, September 3, 2012

A Winter Alaska Vacation? Why Not?

Summer is quickly coming to an end here in the Last Frontier.  In fact, the first kiss of real color is decorating the trees, turning the landscape into a beautiful kaleidoscope of red, orange, yellow, and green.  All too soon, the freezing will begin - we expect that to happen in just over a month in mid-October!

Have you ever thought about a great winter Alaskan bed and breakfast getaway?  What?  You say that you don't have the time? You say it's too cold?  You say there's just too much snow?  You say that it's dark 24 hours a day?  You say there's nothing to do?  Well the member inns of the Bed and Breakfast Association of Alaska would like to convince you to give us a try in the winter!


Photo from A Moose in the Garden B&B
An Alaskan vacation is an actual vacation!  When most people plan a vacation, they plan on several days away from home/work/their usual lives.  While we are a bit off the beaten path, making a quick 3-day weekend trip impractical, 5+ day vacations are the perfect option for an Alaskan getaway!  Direct flights to the state (usually to Anchorage or Fairbanks) are available from many U.S and Foreign cities.  So it really isn't a big deal to just come on up to Alaska from just about anywhere!  Flights to Anchorage take approximately 2.5 hours from Seattle, 5 hours from Denver, 5.5 hours from Phoenix, and 6 hours from Chicago.

The popular belief of many lower-48-staters, and even of those throughout the world, is that it never stops snowing here in the winter.  But believe it or not, many place in our great state actually get LESS snow than, say, Buffalo and some portions of upstate New York!  Even Minneapolis gets more snowfall than some areas in our state!  Let's compare NOAA's 1981-2010 total numbers (in inches):

        Yakutat, AK    143.4
        Rochester, NY    99.5
        Buffalo, NY    94.7
        Anchorage, AK    74.5
        Juneau, AK    69.8
        Kodiak, AK    68.9
        Cleveland, OH    68.1
        Fairbanks, AK    65.0
        Salt Lake City, UT    56.2
        Minneapolis, MN    54.0
        Denver, CO    53.8
        Homer, AK    47.4
        Pittsburgh, PA    39.6
        Barrow, AK    37.7

Granted, just like there are areas in the lower US that receive little to no snow each year, there ARE places in Alaska that receive an exorbitant amount of snow - (anyone interested in Valdez at 326.3 inches and Haines at 262.4 inches per year on average?).  However, this is the extreme end of Alaska's snowfall.  The general average for much of the state is between 40 and 75 inches per year!

Photo from Hatcher Pass B&B
We could go through the same comparisons in temperature, but we'll sum it up.  The average temperatures between November and March are between 20 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  Not bad, really!  Again, we have our extremes, but this is true anywhere!  And our dry air makes 25 degrees seem a lot warmer than it seems in much of the lower 48 states!

You think it's dark here all winter?  We beg to differ!  Some of the northernmost parts of the state DO have an extreme 2-month period during which the sun does not rise.  However, most of the state does have sunlight during at least part of the day:  between 5-7 hours of full daylight during our shortest daylight months of December and January.

Now we can talk about what there is to do in our great state during the winter months.  The question might be:  what ISN'T there to do, swimming and sunbathing aside?

Winter Activities
We've already talked about the Aurora Borealis.  Winter is certainly the time to catch this beautiful nighttime light show!  However, let us offer a few suggestions as to daytime activities:

Whale Watching
It doesn't have to be summer to catch a glimpse of our Beluga Whales!  Because these mammals live on the coast of Alaska year-round, you can watch them in action during the winter - most often in Kachemak Bay.

Whether you enjoy cross-country or downhill skiing, there are ample opportunities for both! 

World-class downhill skiing is available in Girdwood at the Alyeska Ski Resort, just 40 miles south of Anchorage.  Most major cities are also home to at least one smaller, local resort including Alpenglow and Hilltop areas in Anchorage, Egale Crest in Juneau, and Moose Mountain in Fairbanks.  Your bed and breakfast innkeepers can direct you to the local ski spots in their area.

Girdwood's Nordic Ski Club is committed to "developing and maintaining a sustainable Nordic/multi-use trail system in the Girdwood Valley," meaning that this is also a great place for cross-country skiing as well!  Other cross-country skiing areas can be found throughout the state.  Don't forget to check the reports on each area before you go!

Another quickly-growing ski pastime in Girdwood AND in places like Valdez is heli-skiing.  You've probably seen it on TV:  a helicoptor drops you off at the top of a mountain for an extreme downhill adventure.  However, the inherent dangers of becoming lost, getting hurt, and even avalanches mean this sport is only for the best-prepared skiiers!

Snowshoeing is basically a hike over the snow.  Most major trails in the state are perfect for showshoeing after it snows!  Of course, in the winter you can snowshoe OVER the lakes instead of around them... but do be careful if the area has not had a good freeze for several weeks before you go stepping out onto the water!

It's true that many Alaska residents use a snowmachine (a.k.a snowmobile) to get around once snow covers the ground.  It's only practical!  However snowmachine tours are readily available for everyone who wants to experience the thrill of zooming through the snowy land!

Ice Fishing
Interested in catching your dinner?  Or maybe you just want to do some catch-release fishing?  Available on most lakes, this sport is best done on lakes that are stocked for fishing and offer resources like equipment rental and warming huts.  Popular lakes for fishing are Quartz Lake (about 40 miles southeast of Fairbanks); Delong, Jewel, Sand and Campbell Lakes (in Anchorage); Lake Clunie (near Chugiak and Eagle River); and several lakes near Ketchikan in the extreme SE part of the state.  However, lakes dot our entire state, so as long as there has been a good freeze cycle and an outfitter for equipment, there is the chance to ice fish!

Dog Sledding
Whether you just want to visit the dogs themselves to see how they are trained, or if you want to experience a trip yourself, there are tours offered all over the state.  A dog sled is pulled by 12-16 dogs at speeds of 10-12 miles per hour.  Actual sledding tours can occur on trails nearby to where the dogs are raised, or opt for a thrilling adventure where you are dropped off via helicopter onto a glacier with dogs and sled waiting to take you around the glaciers!

Photo From Rose Ridge Vacation Chalets
Glacier Viewing
Speaking of glaciers, there is way more frozen water in the winter!  Some are actually visible by land:  car, snowmobile, skis, snowshoes, etc.  If you visit a coastal town, boat tours are popular ways to see these frozen behemoths.  Of course, the more thrilling way is to take an airplane or helicopter tour, sometimes even landing on a safe area of a large glacier for a closer look!

Ice Climbing
For the more adventurous, you can CLIMB a glacier!  Somewhat similar to rock climbing, but much easier to find your grip because you're using climbing pick hammers and boots outfitted with ice cleats, this sport can be just as easy as climbing a ladder.  No matter what your skill level, you will be taught the basics and techniques (which are much more important than strength, just like in rock climbing), and you will be top-roped on anything from a slope to a vertical surface.  Whether you're young or older, a beginner or experienced, anyone can ice climb!

Hot Springs
Okay, okay, we said you couldn't swim during the winter.  Well, that's only partially true!  There are over 100 known hot springs in the state, and several are near roads and highways!  Your innkeeper will probably know the closest warm water in the area!  Of course, there may be nudity issues if visitors want to actually "bathe," so please keep that in mind.

Other Activities
Of course, there's always the old-fashioned sled ride down an area hill for those who want to stick closer to the warmth of their chosen Alaska inn!  Your host(s) may have some available, or local stores will probably have a good supply throughout the winter!  You may also run into a snow or ice-sculpting competition being held in the area, or find any other number of other events throughout the winter months.

No matter what you choose to do here, your innkeepers can point you in the right direction for an area tour, a guide, or activity.  All you have to do is book your winter getaway to your favorite BBAA Inn to find out for yourself all we have to offer during those "cold months" of the year!

Photo From A Room With A View B&B
Warning:  Wildlife
If you encounter wildlife during the winter (moose, beaver, wolf, coyote, wolverine, or even polar bear, etc.), try your best to admire from afar.  And never, under any circumstances, come between a mother animal and her babies!  Ski poles can be used as a form of defense, but if it comes to you trying to outrun a wild dog or a bear, you can guess who will win.


Marc Zee said...

Alaska does indeed have many great and unique outdoor activities for visitors. Dog Sledding and Ice Climbing sound like some exciting activities, while whale watching and snow shoeing sound like some good lower impact options.What an amazing region.

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