Bringing Alaska South for the winter

By Jessi Stone Assistant editor | Jun 04, 2014
Photo by: Jessi Stone Alaskan dog musher Hugh Neff, his dog Walter and Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone speak to community members about a possible winter festival in Maggie.

In an effort to increase winter tourism in Maggie Valley, leaders are trying to create excitement about a possible winter festival that could include dog sledding events, skiing, snow tubing, ice sculpting and more.

Tourism in Maggie Valley is still pretty steady in the summer, but keeping tourists here during the colder months would help local businesses keep their doors open.

“Ten years ago when Ghost Town was still doing well, hotels could afford to close down for the winter,” said Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone. “But not in 2014. We need that winter business.”

And DeSimone was introduced a year ago to someone who could definitely help make a winter festival in Maggie Valley a national attraction. Alaskan dog musher Hugh Neff made a visit to Maggie Valley last summer and was given a Maggie Valley Police patch, which was prominently displayed on Neff’s parka while he raced 1,000 miles across the state in the Yukon Quest.

Neff returned for a second visit last week to speak to students at Jonathan Valley Elementary about his unusual career. He also took the time last Thursday to speak to members of the community about hosting a winter festival in the valley.

DeSimone and Maggie Valley Realtor Jim Blyth we’re excited about the possibilities. DeSimone said the town was in a unique position to be known as the “southern tip of winter sports” since it already has Cataloochee skiing as an asset.

Blyth, a former mayor of North Pole, Alaska, met Neff through mutual friends and has followed Neff’s journey during the Yukon Quest and Iditarod races earlier this year.

“There’s a lot of groups in the Southeast that would love to come here to see a dog sledding event,” Blyth said. “And there’s so many things we could do.”

Neff said he thought having a multiple-day winter festival would be very beneficial to the town’s tourism industry. If his schedule permits, he is willing to attend the event and bring along his sled and several of his mushing dogs. Even if he couldn’t make the event, he said he knew plenty of mushers who would be willing to be part of the festival.

“I travel all around the country and people and love dog mushing, but really people just love dogs,” Neff said. That fact was obvious as he spoke to more than 300 engaged students at Jonathan Valley who had tons of questions about mushing.

Neff said Cataloochee’s facilities and night lighting made it an ideal location for nighttime sledding events with the dogs.

“They couldn’t run far because of the elevation but there’s a loop we could do,” he said.

He added that perhaps the Alaskan mushers could race their dogs against Haywood County’s dogs — the Plott hounds.

DeSimone said the town could use a “tongue and cheek” approach to these traditional winter Olympics by doing it as only Maggie Valley could — with a southern twist.

Neff added that he could see it being called something like “Moonshine Mushing” since the dog sledding would be done at night in Cataloochee.

“I see a lot of potential in this,” he said. “People can’t afford to travel far to go skiing or to go to Alaska to see something like this — it would really set us apart.”

Blyth said the demographics of Alaska really weren’t that different than Haywood County. Before the 1980s, Alaska’s main industries were lumber and oil, but when those industries took a downturn, the state started to focus on increasing tourism. Today, tourism is Alaska’s No. 2 industry behind oil, and much of that can be attributed to Alaskan cruises, Yukon Quest and the Iditarod.

“We could come up with a festival in the winter and incorporate these types of events — that would help us,” Blyth said, adding that the festival could be a week or up to 14 days. “We could easily do 5,000 room nights and that’s just estimating 500 families coming.

Blyth said it would be ideal to hold a winter kick-off in December with Neff present before he begins his racing season in Alaska. That would give people in Haywood a chance to learn about the races and follow Neff’s race online.

The idea of an ice-skating rink has been floated before, and DeSimone said he would still like to see that happen if funding becomes available.

Those in attendance, the Maggie Valley and Haywood County Chambers Of Commerce and the Haywood County Tourist Development Authority, seemed enthusiastic about the possibilities.

Blyth said the next step should be to form a committee of people who really want to make the festival happen. Even if the first event is a scaled down version, Blyth said he believed there was still enough time to plan the festival for the next winter.