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Alaska winters are long and February for many in Anchorage feels like the last few miles in a marathon of snowy days and cold, dark nights.
Locals say that might be why, in the 1930s, the city began a wintertime festival during this month called “Fur Rendezvous” that coincided with when miners and trappers came to trade. There were parties and sporting events, and at the center of all the excitement were amateur dog sled races through town.
Anchorage was just a little grid of streets back then. Now it’s a busy city with sprawling neighborhoods and office towers and 300,000 residents. But the Fur Rendezvous tradition, known as “Fur Rondy,” is as strong as ever. Fur Rondy is part of what makes life in the northern city unique, especially for kids.
“Fur Rendezvous is the perfect ticket for easing out of our midwinter funk,” said Anchorage mom Erin Kirkland, publisher of AKontheGO.com and author of “Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children.”
The week of winter celebration this year began Feb. 24 with a sled dog race that covered a 25-mile course through Anchorage neighborhoods, along the trails of the city’s forested parks and across major intersections. At the start of the race downtown, trucks lined the streets and furry faces peeked out of windowed cabs. Kids gathered to watch as dogs were harnessed up. The animals yelped and leaped, waiting for their turn to go.
“Sled dogs have the best job in the world, pulling their human along the trail. Mushers depend upon and know intimately each of their canine athletes, and the devotion on both sides of the sled is evident,” Kirkland said.
Spectators hauling kids in sleds and backpacks gathered along the race route for “trail-gate” parties. Children squinted down the trail, waiting for the teams to appear and then scrambled out after they passed in search of lost dog booties, a major prize. The ceremonial start of the 1000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will follow the same route this weekend to cap off Fur Rendezvous, drawing even larger crowds.
“Parents and grandparents remember the days when they stood trailside waiting for their favorite team to swing by,” Kirkland said. “Now they bring their children and grandchildren.”
The sprint mushers ran the urban course three times over three days. They were young and old, male and female, from all over Alaska and Canada. Most have their own kennels, breeding, raising and training various types of huskies and malamutes. The winner, announced Sunday, was Roxy Wright, 66, a great-grandmother from Fairbanks. Spectators clapped as she crossed the finish line. Right away, she went to snuggle her lead dogs, Cloud and Pale.