GLACIER DOG SLEDDING IN SUMMER: ALASKA ICEFIELD EXPEDITIONS

The Thrill of the RideArriving at the Temsco heliport, I was excited about boarding a helicopter. I love helicopters, and it doesn’t matter whether it is a flight up the coast of New South Wales, Australia, or the Canadian Arctic, helicopter rides are just thrilling. The lift off and the flight movement is so unlike any other transport. I was booked on the first morning flight up to Mendenhall Glacier, the most accessible and famous glacier in Juneau. Most people visit this glacier by foot, driving along the scenic suburban roads to walk along a trail and bask in the glory of this amazing natural wonder, but this was seeing the glacier in her full splendor. The flight was amazing. These helicopters always fly in pairs and together we flew very close to the mountain peaks which surround the glacier. At one stage I had to really wonder whether our pilot had had a bad morning and wanted to end it all, or if he was giving us a real thrill of flying toward a pillar. Knowing I had no control of the situation I would endeavor to enjoy either outcome. And just before impact, we were sent sideways through a narrow fork in the rock. The thrill made the butterflies come alive in my stomach.But this trip was not about taking a scenic helicopter ride. I was on my way to take my very first dog sled tour and with me were 6 other first timers. Alaska Icefield Expeditions has set up a sled dog touring outfit on Mendenhall Glacier, which allows summer visitors to Alaska to enjoy the beautiful sport of dog mushing, which many of us take for granted. Most visitors come from the plentiful cruise ships which dock in downtown Juneau and want a taste of what Alaska is really about.Flying in to land at the camp, you have to really search for the tents and dog houses. Being white to blend in with the surround bright white snow, the camp is almost invisible. But at a closer look, the 300 dogs are in a uniform formation in 10 separate dog lots. This is an impressive camp.Upon landing we are greeted by a scene more appropriate in lower latitudes; ultra tanned bodies in shorts and singlet tops. Every face is sporting a pair of sunglasses and near by I see a bottle of SPF 44+ sunscreen. Camp Manager and Iditarod and Yukon Quest veteran, Bill Steyer greets the two groups of tourists. We are still reeling from our stunning flight and we are paired off with one musher per family or single group. We are guided through the tents to the dog lots where each musher is responsible for bringing and caring for their own 30 dogs. While the musher introduces us to their dogs and the describes the adventure we are about to embark on, the handler is scurrying around harnessing and hooking up dogs.I am paired with Dale Swartzentruber, an Iditarod veteran of 1977. Dale was using dogs owned by long time glacier musher Matt Hyashida. The dogs are also very impressive. I am introduced to our leader. Her name is Blondie and in 2002 she led Martin Buser to victory under the Burled Arch. Blondie looks like she should be in retirement, though in single lead she is an impressive figure. Our 10 dog team is completed by rowdy bunch of energetic puppies. This was going to be a fast ride.Visitors are given the option to sit in the sled or try their hand at the 2nd sled. Many this day took the option of standing on the runners. I chose to sit in the sled and be guided around the bowl shaped expanse. Blondie kept the pups in check and listened intently to the gee/haw commands as we take the trail less traveled. The scenery is spectacular. The pillars we flew through on our arrival now make up one of the walls of our private paradise. I look over at an ice fall which looks around half a mile away. Out here we have no ability to judge distance and I learn that the ice fall is actually over 4 miles away.The other groups are also setting out on their own adventures. The other mushes are very accomplished I their own right; future Iditarod rookie Sigrid Ekran leads a husband and wife on their ride, and past Junior Iditarod veteran and now a devoted member of the Second Chance League, Iris Wood of Fairbanks take three people together out for a run.The ride itself takes around 25 minutes and the trail is just under 2 miles long. We have our photo snapped as we head out into the trail, and most photos capture the mushers performing high kicks and group waves as the team runs by. There are a few stops along the way to take in the scenery and each group feels alone out on the snow.Arriving back into the camp, the team is stopped and we get out and thank our furry friends. They are all gentle dogs and love the attention. I leave the musher and handler to unhook the dogs and walk over to the group now formed around a large enclosure. Four little puppies are loving the attention of admiring onlookers. The puppies come out to play, being swept up into the arms of the audience and posing for photos.We go on a short walk around camp. I see the very simple yet amazingly effective water collection system. Rather than hauling up tens of gallons of water daily for the dogs, a tarpaulin is draped over the ice and the ends lead into a sunken water tank. Snow is piled on top of the tarp and the intense sun melts enough snow to water the 300 dogs and give the mushers a rustic shower.We hear the rotors of the approaching helicopters which have come to deliver more visitors and to sweep away the newly initiated back to Juneau, traveling over the melt pools and beautiful glacial features.The passengers are still feeling the high of running their first team of dogs, and they all have similar reactions. A woman from California gushed with excitement, “It was just wonderful. I wish everyone had the opportunity to do this.” Another reason for her making the trip was that “at my age I have to start doing daring adventures. The helicopter ride and the dog sled tour were both new. This has been one of the best experiences of my life.” Another added, “I came from Portugal and work on a cruise ship. I am so glad to have had this opportunity and would definitely do it again.” Bill Steyer adds, “Most people think this is one of the most unreal things.”My thoughts reflect back on the glacier camp, or Dog City as the Temsco pilots call it. This is a truly professional company. Alaska Icefield Expeditions started 7 years ago by Dan and Chris Turner. Matt Hayashida has been with the company ever since the inception. He has seen the company grow, move location and also open a sister company in Skagway. Matt also met his wife Sarah on the glacier. They now have a beautiful little girl named Lilly.Back to Sea LevelMatt and Sarah now run another sister company named Gold Rush Sled Dog Tours. This is a dryland based tour. With a smaller army of dogs and mushers, this tour caters for the visitors on a budget. The tourists board a bus and are taken on a scenic ride south of downtown Juneau. This area has beautiful large coastal trees with trunk sizes rarely seen in Fairbanks. Turning on an old mining road we follow the route laid down for the now abandoned AJ Gold Mine Gastineau Mill. Sarah tells me that when they first arrived at the mine, “It looked as though one day they decided to just shut down the mine and not return.” The miners’ boots were left in place, and equipment left as if waiting to be used again.This historic scene lends itself to be a beautiful setting for a sled dog tour location. The hills rise sharply on two sides and a view of glaciated mountains is visible through an opening in the valley. The sound of rushing water soothes you as you scour the hillsides for wildlife such as mountain goats and bears.The gold mine camp has been transformed into a mini Gold Rush town with cabin façades suggesting a tavern, an outfitter, roadhouse and a Town Hall. Walking through the cedar façade, you unwittingly enter a tent, each with a different theme. One of these tents holds Matt’s equipment for his latest Iditarod attempt, another holds beverages and snacks and yet another holds a truly breathtaking collection of photographs taken from the Gold Rush era. This is what really made this tour outstanding. The smaller number of dogs and smaller area makes this tour feel a little more humble.Five mushers have brought their dogs here, including Two Rivers Musher Abbie West. Abbie is also responsible for landscaping of the area with colorful flowering plants, and adding an artistic touch to the touring carts named Raven and Orca. These carts are a well thought out design and are made in part from material acquired from a transfer station. These items include the components of a 1979 Honda and a Toyota Camry and also a few metal bed frames. The full suspension and bucket seats gives these carts a very comfortable ride.The trail follows the road which we drove up, turning around at a pull out to return up the same hill. The trail is 0.8 miles, and the 14 dog team makes light work of the hill. The newer cart, Puffin, which is still being constructed, will have a small electric engine onboard to allow teams to be reduced in number to a more manageable size of 8 or 10 dogs.This little sister company is still in its infancy, being its first year. The camp is still growing and in time will blossom into a huge tourist attraction for those budding mushers wanting to remain firmly on the ground. e

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