Alaska in winter: not all that cold, and plenty to see

January 06, 1991|By Universal Press Syndicate

As far as biologists are aware, there exists no animal either dumb or disoriented enough to migrate north in winter. The great gray whale, the humble mallard, the little tern, all head south when the weather starts to bite, and most of us, harboring some shared clump of DNA, follow suit without really thinking about it.

Which is precisely why, for our good health and contrary sense of well-being, we should occasionally buck the Cancun-bound tide of pasty faces and cocktail umbrellas and point one's personal compass north. More specifically, north to Alaska.

And why not? The views still are there, 20,000 feet of Mount Denali rising abruptly from the tundra -- a somewhat nondescript land feature whose marshy hummocks, covered in snow, suddenly turn graceful. The wildlife are still there, such as the big-schnozzed moose that wander Anchorage neighborhoods, biting the hearts from garden cabbages. The people are still there, the halibut fishermen playing penny cribbage in the sawdust-covered Salty Dawg Saloon in the weathered little fishing town called Homer. In summer, the town's status as the last stop on the North American road system draws flocks of RVs, but in winter the tourists are only the bald eagles that come to feast on the salmon left for them by a soft-hearted local who goes by the name (appropriately enough) Eagle Lady. Everywhere in Alaska, prices are lower, crowds are smaller and temperatures in the south-central and southeast parts of the state -- despite Alaska's Eskimo-and-igloo reputation -- closely mimic those of Minneapolis

For cross country skiers, Anchorage suits pretty well as a base camp. Thanks to a jock mayor, the city is spiderwebbed with groomed, lighted tracks, some of which have been deemed challenging enough to host world championships. Back-country types can catch the nordic train from Anchorage to Grandview, a mountain pass four hours from town, then thrill to the regionally famous accordion of Marge and the Polka Chips, the official ski train band.

Or, for slightly steeper pursuits, there's the 3,000 feet of almost uninterrupted vertical at Alyeska Ski Resort, the almost-home of the 1996 Winter Olympics. Alyeska, an hour's drive south of Anchorage, hunkers closer to sea level than any other resort in the world, creating an arctic terrarium of sorts: blizzards and deep powder near the top, spring corn snow at the bottom.

Up north, reachable by train or road, lies Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest city, a town where all the parking places come equipped with plug-ins to keep the cars from dying. But the advantages here are merely harder to see: Several hot springs have burbled up in Chena and Circle, 55 and 135 road miles from town, respectively. Thanks to a little molten rock thousands of feet below the surface, you can cross country ski all day and loll in a tub of 110-degree water afterward.

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