“Only in Alaska” Sports: Alaskan’s Most Popular Pastimes
Many Alaskans are passionate about competing in sports and cheering for the State’s – and their respective region’s and local – sports teams and athletes. Yet, while professional football and basketball might seem like natural indoor stadium sports fits for this cold weather state, no current franchises exist in Alaska. Heck, Alaska doesn’t even have a professional hockey team these days! Despite this, there’s plenty of athletic competition and reasons to rah-rah around Alaska, a nonstop hub of unique sports that are inspired by northern life and landscapes.
In Alaska, cross-country runners and skiers, mountain climbers, back-country skiers and snowboarders, sled dog drivers and snow machine drivers, Alaska Native sports enthusiasts and student-athletes are among the state’s biggest, brightest stars.
Alaska Native culture and Alaska’s rugged roots make for some of the state’s most interesting, demanding and competitive sports. Alaska Native lifestyles and legacy created many games of strength and smarts, steadiness and savvy, from the ear pull to seal hop to one- and two-foot high kicks and the blanket toss. Many of these events evolved as popular competitive pastimes as a matter of survival. There’s often a uniquely Alaskan story, or sometimes many, that describe their origins. You can experience the games and athletes in person at big annual statewide events like the World Eskimo Indian Olympics and the Native Youth Olympics Games, or during exhibitions at places like the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.
The state’s official sport also hails from rural Alaska – dog mushing. Once utilized for transportation and hauling food, family and materials, canines and their sleds now pull in the attention of race fans around the state and beyond. There are events for all levels of dog teams and drivers. Friendly community races take place just about every winter weekend in many communities, while the pros compete in annual high stakes events: super-fast, short-distance sprints that jet through urban areas like the Open North American Championship and the Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship; and grueling thousand-mile marathons through Alaska’s toughest terrain like the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Yukon Quest, which have worldwide followings and keep Alaskans enthralled at every checkpoint update.
Of course, other outdoor, snow-focused sports are popular here. Alaskans have won Olympic medals in cross-country skiing, downhill skiing and snowboarding, not to mention top honors in extreme winter sports. Nordic skiing is so prevalent, and skiers are so passionate, that Alaska’s larger communities have excellent groomed trail systems and races for all skiers, including throwback wood ski events and long marathon-length skis. Anchorage and Fairbanks trails even occasionally host national championships featuring future Olympians.
Alaska’s snow machine racers also take on short- and long-distance events, all of them at ridiculously high speeds. The Iron Dog is the toughest of them all as teams of two rip across a course that spans more than 2,000 miles between Willow, Nome and Fairbanks. Other snow machiners prefer big air to high speeds, competing in high-flying X-Games-like events of skills, thrills and occasional spills.
Even the niche Arctic sport of curling is hot here. Though it’s played mostly in Fairbanks by beer-chugging recreationalists, there are serious athletes among them who occasionally sweep for spots on the nation’s U.S. Winter Olympics squads.
Alaska also has a rabid running community, whose members pile up miles outdoors and indoors year-round. The racing season comes alive in the summer, though, with everything from 5K fun runs to ultramarathons taking place in practically every corner of the state. There’s an equally obsessed, and possibly even crazy, mountain running clique whose races including speeding up steep peaks and conquering treacherous trails.
Road runners, trail runners, and brave and bold weekend warriors all try to hit the lottery for entry into Alaska’s most popular racing tradition – Mt. Marathon, the annual, 100-plus-year-old 4th of July spectacle in Seward. This Alaska race draws thousands of fans to watch hundreds of entrants run from downtown, stride up the super-steep Mt. Marathon nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, then run recklessly back down the mountain’s risky and rocky slopes to a hero’s welcome at the starting/finish line. Winners of Mt Marathon become instant Alaska athletic legends, and even the latest of finishers in this grueling grind feel like proud survivors, if not legends in their own minds.
And sure, most of America’s classic sports are also played in Alaska – though many come with an Alaska twist. One of Alaska’s – and America’s – most fascinating and quirky sporting events is the Midnight Sun Game, the 100-plus-year baseball tradition hosted by the Alaska Goldpanners every Summer Solstice in Fairbanks. Locals and hardcore baseball fans and media from around the world pack Growden Memorial Park for this one-of-a-kind game. The game consists of the standard nine innings, but the first pitch is hurled at 10:30 p.m. and the field is lit exclusively by the Midnight Sun – no manmade light allowed. Patrons forgo “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and instead sing “The Alaska Flag Song” at midnight.
There are other Alaska sports of all sorts, from riflery to river boat racing to an annual Running of the Reindeer, which is as fun and funky as it sounds. No matter the sport, when it comes to Alaskan athletes who win both outside and on the world stage, they are worshipped by their fellow Alaskans. That starts with youth and high school teams that return triumphantly from national tournaments, to college players who win titles in individual and team sports, to elite athletes who star on the biggest and brightest stages of professional basketball, football and hockey. Alaska has produced national champion collegiate athletes in numerous sports, Olympians in many disciplines, including a few gold medalists, and champions in the National Basketball Association, National Football League and National Hockey League. Most remain close to their Alaska roots, returning for clinics, fundraisers and special events.
Alaska’s Sports Hall of Fame, located under Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, is a fun and fascinating tribute to many of Alaska’s special sports, awesome athletes and magical moments. If your travels to Alaska bring you to the Anchorage Airport, be sure to make time for a stroll through their exhibits showcasing Alaska’s sporting legends, highlights and history.