Driving Dog Sleds in Alaska

by Lou on June 28, 2005

300 dogs are barking at once and it’s bedlam. Pandemonium reigns; a cacophonous madhouse as three teams composed of 12 dogs each are in harness, hitched to dog sleds sleds, barking, and eager to go. These dogs are born to run. They’re bred for it. The remaining 270 dogs that were stretched out atop their kennels or cooling off in the snow just 15 minute ago when we arrived have joined the chorus. When they saw 36 of their ilk in harness and making ready to run they all wanted to run too, and now they’re yapping, howling, crooning, and keening, as if a full moon has risen over a den of werewolves.

But it’s not night. It’s day. In fact there’s very little night in mid June in Alaska, and three couples: Barbara and Rick, Lenny and Susan, and Deirdre and I are standing on top of a glacier somewhere east of Skagway and much higher up in elevation. We’ve flown in via helicopter and are getting ready to drive some dog sleds.

I’m as eager to go as the dogs. Contrary to what you see in old movies, these dogs are not all Alaskan huskies; they are mixed breeds — mutts for the most part — but they are bred to run and trained for the task. The lead dog on our sled has run the Iditarod three times, won it once, and at 12 years of ages this will be her last year as a working dog; she’s set to retire at the end of the season and chill out as a pet for Matt and his wife who own this dog camp. Matt’s wife just had a baby and so Matt is here on his own, living on the glacier all summer long, together with a group of mushers, college students who help out, and a cook. They live in tents right on the ice, shuttle down to Skagway via helicopter once a week for a proper shower and a chance to do laundry and then it’s back to the dog camp to give tourists like us the experience of a lifetime: driving a dogsled team and careening in and out of mountain passes, and flying up and over alpine lakes and glaciers via helicopter on the day that our ship made port in Skagway.

All of the mushers working here in the summer season are full-time dog breeders who raise sled dogs for a living. To sign on, they must bring a minimum of 30 dogs with them. Everything is ported up over the mountains to the top of this glacier via copter: the big cook tent that serves as a mess hall and social gathering spot for employees, smaller sleeping tents, loads of plywood used to construct some 300 dog kennels, fencing materials, sleds, portable toilets, food, two Hummer-sized track vehicles used for towing things across the ice, all the dogs, and everything else you can imagine.

After an orientation we’re ready to go. Ever since Lenny convinced me that this was a once in a lifetime experience and we really had to take this dog sled trip even if it was a little pricey, I’ve been ready to scream out that line I’ve heard in a hundred old movies and TV shows about the Yukon. “Mush, you huskies,” I shout at the top of my lungs, and we’re off. Two sleds in tandem, pulled by a dozen dogs who are trained to run up to 100 miles in a day but only do 10 miles a day in the summer off-season just to keep in shape and maintain their conditioning. Deirdre is sitting in the front sled, the musher stands behind her, and I’m riding the runners of the rear sled. It’s my job to stay vertical and to apply the breaks upon command of the musher who, after all, is the only one who really knows what he’s doing.

We drive across the snow-capped glacier until the dog camp is a small object far behind us. Lenny and Susan and Rick and Barbara are mushing along in other sleds. The mushers try to keep the sleds apart because the dogs are so competitive that they do not like it at all if another sled passes theirs on the trail. After the dogs stop for a short break ¾ the dogs tire easily in the heat, and that anything above 10 degrees Fahrenheit is considered hot by sled dog standards ¾ Deirdre and I switch positions and she drives while I sit in the sled towed along by the dog team. A short time later Deirdre slips on an icy runner and is pitched off the rear of the sled into the soft snow. But only her pride is wounded as we switch positions again and Deirdre opts for the relative comfort of the lead sled’s seat for the remainder of the journey.

After returning to camp we’re given a tour of the facilities. There are a number of dogs with litters of puppies and Deirdre falls in love with one of them. I’m sure she would have tried to negotiate for the dog if only there was some way to smuggle that pooch back on the Sapphire Princess.

This really was an incredible adventure, one I’d recommend to anyone who takes an Alaska cruise. It was an experience so amazing that each moment continues to play itself back in my head like a tape on an endless loop, and it’s been doing that for days.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: