‘Reimagined’ Fur Rondy adapts to pandemic times in Anchorage

Aperson in a flannel shirt takes a photo of a snow scultprues on a sunny day
A visitor takes a photo of a snow sculpture on March 2, 2021, at the annual Snow Sculpture Competition, one of the few events of the 2021 Fur Rondy Festival that was unchanged due to the pandemic. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

There might not be the usual crowds lining the streets of Anchorage, but organizers of this week’s ‘reimagined’ Fur Rondy festival said they’re excited to bring some normalcy to this year’s events. 

“A sense of balance, a sense of mental relief, families to connect together and go do something that’s more of their tradition during this time,” said Fur Rondy Executive Director John McCleary. 

But a lot of what was traditionally held in person in ballrooms and bars will be held virtually this year. The fur auction, the Melodrama, and the Great Alaska Talent Competition are all moving online due to coronavirus concerns this year. 

Some events had to be scrapped entirely, like the World Championship Sled Dog Race, the Miner’s and Trapper’s Ball, and the Jim Beam Jam, a country music concert that traditionally kicks off the weekend. 

“It’s hard to have a Jim Beam Jam on internet,” McCleary said. “It’s just not gonna happen.”

For the lucky events that could move online easily, there have been some bright spots. Megan Killorin directs the Great Alaska Talent Competition and said thanks to an idea from their sponsor AARP, they opened up an age 50 and older competition. Killorin said that they’ve had a handful of great entries that offer a different flavor to the show, which is usually dominated by teenage divas singing pop covers. 

A 19-year-old could come in and sing Ariana Grande and blow it out of the water but somebody 50 and older has an older outlook on music, and it can bring something totally different to the table,” she said. 

Several 50-plus competitors have already qualified for the event finals, which will be judged on Sunday. 

The event also added a TikTok division which they hope to build on in coming years. Killorin said moving to a virtual format was a necessity, not only because of the pandemic but because the traditional venue at the Hard Rock Cafe was shut down. She said virtual performances opened her eyes to the need for competitors to develop skills performing on camera. 

“As a vocal coach, I think that digital format of performances is not going away. It was here before COVID was here. And so I’m thinking to myself, they need to be able to perform in both aspects, in live and in digital,” she said. 

Another performance event, the old-timey Melodrama musical play, is also moving online. The interactive event is beloved by audience members who throw popcorn at the villainous characters. 

“It’s going to be held, but it’s virtual so you can only throw popcorn at your TV screen,” said McCleary. 

Audience members can pay $10 for that privilege. 

Some events had more minor changes, like the outhouse races, which were moved to Westchester Lagoon. The 5-kilometer Frostbite Footrace and costume contest was held, but changed from a mass start to a wave start. The snow sculpture competition is still being held at the port with few changes.  

Fur Rondy, a traditional marker of the end to a long winter of cabin fever, is still playing its usual role to some extent. After almost a year without public concerts on city grounds, Friday will host the Blizzard Bash at Town Square, where concertgoers can skate on the ice rink while listening to music from Nothing But Trouble. Killorin, the lead singer for the group, she can’t wait. 

“I’m really excited to be playing back in Anchorage again, and honored, of course,” she said, “It’s a fun little event, just cold, but we’re Alaskans. We know what we’re doing,” she said. 

A full schedule of Fur Rondy Events can be found online.