ANCHORAGE -- “First time here?” asks Jerrod. He sees the overhead light and stops by my seat. “No worries. These Alaska pilots do it every day. Snow is like mother’s milk to them.”
Out the window, I can see the Chugach Mountains, frosted white like so many cupcakes. Jerrod smiles confidently and buttons his uniform for the landing. I hold my breath as he hurries back to his seat, and sure enough, our plane floats down onto a snow-blown runway as smoothly as a skater gliding on ice. I hear an audible sigh of relief from my seat partner as flurries whirl around the window. She relaxes her grip on the armrest and takes out her lipstick.
Snow, mountains of it, is the reason I’m visiting Anchorage in February. According to today’s weather report, the town is on track to break the record for total annual snowfall, a record set more than 50 years ago. I tell friends I’m here to interview the dog mushers assembling for the annual Iditarod race to Nome. With snow still falling, it’s going to be a classic send-off, the photo-op event that recent warm winters have up-ended.
But my real reason — undeclared — is the urge to go to extremes, to feel what it’s like to live on the frontier’s frozen edge. And that means heading north toward the Arctic, where winter temperatures sink into the cellar and snow stretches away for miles, deep, white and still. I won’t be risking life and limb, not really. Tracking polar bears on foot is off the table, and so is ice-climbing on 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley (Denali), North America’s highest mountain. But the call of the north in its glittering best is irresistible.
If you’ve been to Alaska, chances are that you toured it in summer, when the days are warm and the sun dallies in the heavens until midnight. By November, it hangs low over the horizon, beaming amber rays over a snowy landscape. And it’s that moody half-light that makes the 49th state glitter like the jewels in a pirate’s chest.
With that in mind, I’m continuing north to Fairbanks, flying to Talkeetna for two days, then driving the rest of the way. On the highway, blue skies turn gray as a storm moves in, giant flakes floating down on the windshield as if a feather bed had been ripped open and shaken above us.
The road disappears in a swirl of ice dust, then reappears at the base of snow-smothered peaks. Icebound rivers, their rapids frozen solid in mid-flow, gleam an opalescent silver-green. The ice lasts until spring, finally cracking into chunks that sweep downstream, crushing anything in its path — often moose, stranded on the ice as it starts to shift.
Will “break-up” be in early April, late April, mid-May? We stop to buy a ticket for the Nenana Ice Classic, $2.50 for the chance to guess when this year’s ice will finally crack apart. May 2 feels lucky. Last year’s winners guessed April 22 and split the purse, $338,000, or thereabouts.
As evening falls over Fairbanks, clouds of tiny ice crystals in the air refract lingering rays, creating rarely seen “sundogs,” pairs of identical glowing shapes. By 8 p.m. the aurora borealis flickers over the city park where the annual Ice Carving Competition is held. Teams of carvers, each issued a dump-truck-sized chunk of ice sawn out of the Tanana River, set up their gear and, working by spotlights, wield saws and files late into the night. The ice is crack-resistant but hard, easily carved into fragile forms: flowing strands of hair, a horse’s prancing legs, flower petals and dolphins leaping above crashing waves. Illuminated by colored lights, the finished sculptures are stunning.