Springtime Dogsledding in the Last Frontier
It’s midmorning near Fairbanks, Alaska, and I’m indecisive about my wardrobe. March is a bit bipolar up here, swinging between bright sunlight and a wintry mix of sleet and snow. I’ve got to make up my mind, though, since my comrades are already yelling at the top of their lungs that they’re ready to go. There’s 10 of them, and every single one is impatient to get on with the day, appropriate clothing or not.
“Put on the hat,” my guide and friend Anita suggests, pulling up the snow hook. “It’s going to be a fast trip.” Jamming the beanie over my ears, I signal amidst the cacophony that I’m ready. Anita sweet-talks Sookie, leader of this motley crew, with a “Let’s go, Sugar Bear!” and we’re suddenly and silently sliding away into the frosted spruce and birch forests of the Goldstream Valley. It’s spring, the snow is fast, the daylight long, and we’ve got a team of sled dogs doing what they love best; run.
While residents of the Lower 48 states begin making plans for gardening or baseball season come March, most Alaskans are still shoveling snow off their front porches. Winter at northern latitudes stretches out longer than most of us care to think about, but from the perspective of winter recreation enthusiasts, it’s pretty perfect. After all, if one can’t control the weather cycles, one might as well embrace them.
Dogsledding is Alaska’s state sport, with deep cultural connections ranging from Arctic transportation for hunting to the famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race, a 1000-mile haul from Anchorage to Nome. It’s also one of the most popular attractions for the two million people visiting Alaska each year. Most of those arrive between the months of May and September, getting their sled dog fix through short kennel tours offering cart rides, or more expensive heli-mushing experiences high atop glacial snowfields.
In March and April though, fewer tourists vying for a spot and more moderate temperatures (think 20 degrees above Zero rather than 20-below), families with dog-crazy kids wanting the real deal – huskies, mushers, and sleds with all the trappings – show up for a day or more of sleddogging the way it was meant to be experienced.
Gee or Haw? Learn the Mechanics
Dog sledding is a sport of science, and everything centers around these four-legged athletes providing the power. Visitors to a working sled dog kennel during the snowier months can have the chance to witness, and in many cases participate, in daily operations in addition to jumping on a sled. Would-be temporary mushers learn about nutrition (sled dogs can burn up to 10,000 calories per day during a long-distance race), sled construction, training, and dog care.
Have more than a few hours? Consider an overnight adventure deep into Alaska’s wintry backcountry, where the enduring spirits of wilderness and human innovation meet in perfect harmony. Harness your team, hitch up, then mush through the mountains before settling in for an evening of hot cocoa while viewing the colorful curtain of aurora borealis from your sleeping bag.
Know the Options
Sled dog kennels serving winter visitors are generally found between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and operate through the end of March or beginning of April, depending upon snow coverage and temperature. Most are easily reached via rental car, but visitors should have a working knowledge of driving in snowy or icy conditions. If driving your family around a slippery road system doesn’t sound appealing, consider booking a tour that provides transportation to and from the kennel.
Also important is the procurement of winter gear. Sled dog rides are chilly affairs, especially if one is riding in the “basket” and not moving around during the trip. Make sure everyone has adequate base layers and warm, waterproof outerwear, including mittens (they keep hands far warmer than gloves), hats covering ears, snow boots, and sunglasses to protect against the glare of Alaska’s famous midnight sun. Don’t want to purchase mountains of outerwear? Rent from Alaska Outdoor Gear Rental in Anchorage and send it back at the end of
Planet Earth Adventures: With a 10-day adventure centered around the Iditarod and aurora borealis, this is a trip of a lifetime for race fans. Be prepared for adverse weather conditions, lots of driving, and an abundance of time with sled dogs.
Dallas Seavey Racing: This four-time winner of the Iditarod now operates a successful tour business in Talkeetna, about three hours from Anchorage. Guests receive an in-depth tour of the kennel before mushing into the dense spruce forests of the Seavey homestead. Multi-day trips also offered.
Dream A Dream Sled Dog Kennel: Tours range from a few hours to a three-night, four-day immersion into life as a sled dog handler/musher on the Dream A Dream campus. Longtime musher Vern Halter spends time with each guest, making sure they understand the complexities of mushing, Alaska, and the art of driving a team.
Denali National Park Sled Dog Kennels: No rides are offered here, but those visiting the park during snowier months should absolutely stop by for a visit. These dogs represent the last of the Park Service’s working kennels, and winter is their time to patrol, haul supplies to remote stations, and, for the puppies, learn about life as a sled dog. Also a bonus: the park is never crowded in the winter, and Nordic skiing and snowshoeing here can be spectacular.
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