Alaska festival celebrates winter’s passage

Celebrating the snow: Alaska festival celebrates winter’s passage

Chuck Roberts

In 1935, a few citizens of Anchorage, Alaska, came up with the idea of a party to celebrate the beginning of the end of winter. It also provided an opportunity for fur traders to sell their wares directly to the customer in an effort to cut out the middleman.

This encounter between trapper and buyer spawned the name for the annual event–Fur Rendezvous, or Fur Rondy as it’s more commonly called–that has evolved into one of the largest winter festivals in North America.

For about two weeks in February, approximately 70 percent of the population in this city of more than 260,000 takes part in the festivities such as dog sled races down city streets, ice sculpting, carnival rides, snowshoe softball, a masquerade ball and the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Joining the throng of humanity this year was about 150 Airmen from nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base. Each year, base volunteers turn out in force to assist primarily with crowd control during the opening parade and events spread throughout the event.

Their presence is highly appreciated and appropriate at an event that focuses on bringing the community together, said Mike Brown, a commercial fisherman during the summer and the Fur Rondy operations manager during winter.

“This is a military town, and it always has been,” he said while troubleshooting a parking plan snafu before the Fur Rondy Sno-Cross snow machine (as snowmobiles are referred to in Alaska) race got underway.

“It’s a good mix–a good fit,” he said of the Air Force contribution to the festival that has grown so large in popularity and composition that in 1956 a full-time staff was created to devote year-round attention to the event. Not only do Airmen provide “fantastic” support, but they also know how to take orders, Mr. Brown joked.

Cops and crowds

He may have lucked out with the group of Air Force volunteers he had scattered about herding arriving spectators into a frozen parking lot surrounded by mountainous walls of snow. Members of the 3rd Security Forces Squadron might have been the most highly trained volunteers on hand that day to perform their task.

Among them was Staff. Sgt. Jeremy Hodges, a patrolman who said he enjoyed helping with Fur Rondy. “It lets us get out in the community,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to give something back.”

Coincidentally, police were needed later that day when a spectator commandeered a racer’s snowmobile and wrecked it into a crowd of spectators, some of whom had to be transported to a local hospital. After the driver recovered and tried to flee the scene on foot, a spectator took the law into his own fist and decked him.

As Sergeant Hodges spoke, the whine of snowmobiles could be heard as racers got in a few practice laps on a race track that resembled a crater field covered with snow. Man and machine would suddenly shoot into the air above the heads of spectators surrounding the track each time racers attacked the frozen mounds dotting the course.

Perched on a steep snow bank marking the entrance to the event stood Airmen 1st Class Scott Roy and Terre Gales, also from the base security forces squadron.

“It’s all about community. Community involvement is very important,” Airman Gales said about why he volunteered to help with Fur Rondy. Being from Hampton, Va., another largely military town, he said he’s familiar with community support for the military. But he added that along with being the biggest state with the biggest mountain in North America, Alaska also has the most enthusiastic military supporters.

“This is the most patriotic state in the country,” he said. “If they find out you’re in the military, they love you and take care of you.” Likewise, he said he loves Alaska and the opportunity to explore world class camping, fishing, horseback riding and hunting. And both Airmen said admiring the beauty of the Chugach Mountains towering above the base is something they never grow tired of.

The dream comes true

Master Sgt. Kenneth Lawson had been trying to see those mountains for 18 years. That’s how long Alaska has topped his dream sheet. The production superintendent assigned to the 732nd Air Mobility Squadron drove 4,000 miles from Tucson, Ariz., to Anchorage with his dog, Mandy, to get there.

He heard about Fur Rondy before he arrived. He heard it was big, and he wanted to be a part of it.

“I wanted to get out into the community and see what Alaska is like. I want to be part of Alaska. I don’t want to hibernate for four years,” said Sergeant Lawson, who was pulling parking lot duty at the dog weight pull event.

Nearby, dog owners stood with their assorted canines as they waited to hitch their hounds to sleds weighted down with cement blocks. Some wilted not from the weight, but from stage fright induced by hundreds of onlookers cheering encouragement.

Among them were Master Sgt. Craig Wilson, his wife, Renee, and 15-year-old daughter Brittany. It was their third year in Alaska, and they also were volunteering at the weight pull. They’ll be able to attend one more Fur Rondy before moving next spring. As with many, putting down roots in Alaska took awhile to develop, but now the family will miss the outdoor paradise where they can see porcupines, eagles, moose, lynx and bears with a drive around base.

But until the moving truck pulls in front of the house signaling another passage of Air Force life, they’ll continue to celebrate the passage of winter just as the founders of Fur Rondy intended. Cabin fever can be a reality, Renee said, but the magical summers make it worthwhile.

Would she recommend an assignment to Elmendorf?

“Oh no, we’ve got to keep it a secret,” she said laughing.

Elmendorf AFB at a glance

Mission: Home to the 3rd Wing and host base to Alaskan Command, Alaskan North American Air Defense Command Region, Joint Task Force Alaska and 11th Air Force. The 3rd Wing’s mission is to support and defend U.S. interests in the Pacific and around the world by providing units capable of worldwide air power projection and meeting Pacific Command’s theater staging requirements. The wing flies the F-15C Eagle, F-15E Strike Eagle, C-130 Hercules, C-12 Huron, and E-3 Sentry aircraft.

Location: Elmendorf is northeast of Anchorage, just minutes from downtown. The base is surrounded by mountains and is located next to the Port of Anchorage. Anchorage is as far north as Helsinki, Finland, and as far west as Honolulu.

Getting around: By air: Flying is the easiest way to reach Anchorage. Ted Stevens International Airport is the only port of entry to Anchorage and is located about 20 minutes southwest of the base. By road: One of the most memorable ways to get to Alaska is by way of the Alaska-Canada Highway, a two- to four-lane road that winds and rolls to Alaska through Canada. By boat: The Alaska Marine Highway System is another option for folks traveling to Alaska. The ferry carries passengers and vehicles from Bellingham, Wash., to Haines, Skagway or Seward, Alaska. From these destinations there’s still a scenic drive to Anchorage.

Population: Anchorage: about 260,000; Elmendorf: about 7,700 active duty Airmen and civilians.

History: The base began taking form in 1940 when 25 local men began clearing brush near Whitney Station, just north of Anchorage. Later that year, the first Army Air Corps contingent arrived consisting of the P-36 Hawk assigned to the 18th Pursuit Squadron. The attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in a rush to bolster the Alaskan forces [See “The Lost Frontier” June 2003] and resulted in the Alaskan Air Force being redesignated the 11th Air Force in 1942. During the Cold War, Elmendorf became increasingly important to the defense of the northwest corner of North America. The Alaska Air Defense Sector and the Air Operations Center at Elmendorf still serve as the nerve center for all air defense operations in the state. In 1990, as a result of a strategic realignment of Pacific forces, Elmendorf became a Pacific Air Forces base. With F-15C’s, F-15E’s, C-130H’s, C-12s and E-3s, the 3rd Wing is responsible for Alaska’s air defense and support of Pacific Air Forces.

Climate: Alaska enjoys all four seasons, contrary to popular belief. The winters are long, and daylight is limited to about six hours during the middle of winter. January is the coldest month with an average temperature of 15 degrees and an average of about 10 inches of snow. Spring and fall are extremely short but very colorful. Mid- to late-April begin what’s known as “breakup,” or spring thaw, and by early May, summer has started. The Alaskan summer lasts four months; July is usually the hottest month, with an average temperature of 65 degrees. Fall begins in September with the changing of colors but only lasts a few weeks before “termination dust,” the first snow on the mountaintops.

Cost of living: Given the remoteness of Alaska, prices in Anchorage are comparable to major cities in the continental United States.

Education: A multitude of both public and private elementary, middle and high schools are available on and off base for military family members. In addition, there are major colleges and universities in Anchorage, including the University of Alaska, Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University.

Recreation: Alaska is a paradoxical blend of the natural and the man-made, the primitive and the sophisticated. It boasts all the conveniences of a metropolis, as well as all the wilderness of America’s “last frontier.” Anchorage offers a multitude of fine dining, museums and theater while allowing fishing, hiking, biking and skiing enthusiasts to enjoy their sports at the same time. Then there’s snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, watching the Northern Lights, dog sledding, camping, hunting and hang gliding. Alaska is also known for its many festivals and fairs, such as the Iditarod, Fur Rendezvous Winter Carnival and the State Fair. The base is also within driving distance of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, and many scenic state and national parks.

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–1st Lt. Elizabeth Paul, 3rd Wing Public Affairs

COPYRIGHT 2004 U.S. Air Force, Air Force News Agency

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group