During a bustling summer tourist season, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage draws thousands of visitors eager to catch more than a glimpse of their favorite 49th state critter. Across the grassy, brushy land near the Placer River at the end of Turnagain Arm, AWCC is the kind of place most guests to Alaska expect to see when making the trek north. It’s not a zoo, not a wildlife park, and definitely worth more than a drive-through. And it’s not just for summertime travelers.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is a not-for-profit organization that strives to provide sustainable shelter and care for animals not able to live in the wild, which means, of course, the facility remains open all year. Moose, bears, musk oxen, caribou, and other northern critters make their home at AWCC, under the extremely thoughtful care of a dedicated staff. It’s a favorite destination for us when family or friends come to town, and a worthwhile recommendation for newcomers to Alaska. Located just an hour south of Anchorage, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is going to be a busy place this winter, and anyone with a spare half-day should indeed make the trek along the Seward Highway to visit.
It’s quiet. Winter brings a hush to the Portage Valley, a nice change from the busy, bustling, and often noisy season of summer travel. While many Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center programs are not carried over to winter, there are definitely enough opportunities to find a staff member feeding the bison, or moose, or Snickers, the porcupine. Even the animals seem quieter in the winter; save for explosive puffs of frosty air coming from their noses on a crisp, clear, winter afternoon. Take a moment to gaze up at the Chugach mountains while walking the pathways; you won’t be disappointed in the quiet yet sharp beauty of the peaks beyond the center.
It’s informative. Did you know the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center has a herd of Wood bison ready to release back into the wild in 2015? Once thought extinct, this now thriving herd is due to be released after years of careful breeding, observation, and assistance from many government agencies. Do walk the back area of the center and read the interpretive signs, and learn more abou these tenacious, enormous, and awe-inspiring animals. It was National Bison Day yesterday, and it also happened to be the first snowstorm of the season, making our trip a delightful whirl of snowflakes and furry, contented creatures near the fenceline.
FYI – the brown and black bears were still awake and wandering their respective hillsides, and are expected to remain up for at least a few more weeks. This is an excellent time to visit as the bears take in their last few thousand calories of food before burrowing into their dens. It’s fun to watch the bears nosh on donated Haloween pumpkins and leftover salmon and other snacks contributed by the community.
It’s outdoors. As a proponent of outdoor family activity, even in the winter, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center meets our criteria for multi-age fun. Babies and small children can be pushed in a jog stroller, carried in a backpack, or pulled in a sled along the plowed roadway. Preschoolers to older school-agers can frolic along fence lines and skid around the center without too much trouble, but do be aware of curious animals and their equally-curious human counterparts. My favorite part, however, is the free rental of kid-friendly kicksleds, an activity started last year. Whereas older children can become chilly and/or a bit bored with all this walking, the kicksled program allows for some speedy gliding along the smooth tracks of the narrow road. With little traffic, youngsters can scoot up and back and away again as parents relish time to read signs, take photos, and absorb the atmosphere without too much interruption, save for the “Watch me!” coming from up the road.
Plan to spend at least a few hours walking or gliding the Alaska Wildlife Center property. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through January 3, 2015 (and then open only on weekends through February), the best time to visit is midday during the winter months. The sun is as up as it’s going to be, and animals are generally moving about in anticipation of perhaps a little treat coming their way from staff. Admission is $12.50/adults, $9/military, $9/age 4-12, and free for kids under 4. AWCC does also have a number of free admission days throughout the year, the next happening the day after Thanksgiving. Watch the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center website for details.
Kicksleds are offered first-come-first-serve, and it’s an honor system check-out process. Generally AK Kid lasts about an hour before tiring, and that’s a good time to go into the gift shop for a hot chocolate, anyway.
Dress warmly against a breeze coming from Turnagain Arm, and add hand/foot warmers, hats with ear flaps, face masks, and extra layers as necessary. Bring a picnic lunch or heavy snacks to keep kids’ energy levels up; the gift shop sells some snacks and hot drinks.
Winter is the time to get more than one bargained for at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This is our life, and it’s a wonderful way to show kids how furred friends make it through a frigid 49th state winter.