Sled Dog Puppies and Glaciers

I, of course, had heard of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race before heading to Alaska. But after an opportunity to meet Alaskan sled dogs and learn more about mushing I have become completely enthralled with the race. Reading books by mushers, getting up to the minute updates on last year’s race, and following several contenders on Instagram has become a bit of a hobby. Here is the story of what prompted this new interest.

After our visit to Whittier we were able to resume our original itinerary which meant we were headed to Seward. Upon arriving in town we stopped by the Kenai Fjords National Park headquarters. It was a bit of a surprise to learn that only Exit Glacier is reached by road. The rest of the park is accessible by water. Several boat tour companies offer a variety of cruises through Resurrection Bay allowing passengers up-close views of wildlife and glaciers.

We had read about dog sled rides on Running to Travel‘s blog post about her trip to Alaska. To be honest, at first it didn’t strike me as something we’d want to do. However, the more we learned about it, the idea became more intriguing. So shortly after arriving in Seward we booked a ride at Seavey’s Ididaride Sled Dog Tours. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I only recently got the pun in the name…I.did.a.ride.) The Seavey family has a long, successful history of mushing. Mitch Seavey has won the famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race three times and holds the speed record. His son, Dallas, holds the title of youngest Iditarod winner.

Our tour started with an informative lecture about the history of the Iditarod which traditionally has run from Anchorage to Nome. Our guide recounted the story of the “Great Race of Mercy” in which 20 mushers and about 150 dogs transported desperately needed serum to the village of Nome where in 1925 a diphtheria outbreak threatened to overwhelm the entire town. A sled dog named Balto won acclaim for being the lead dog on the team that covered the final stretch. There is a dispute about which dog holds this title, however. Many people claim that a dog named Togo and his musher Leonhard Seppala actually deserve that accolade. Regardless, the medicine made it to Nome in under 6 days, saving the community.

After the talk we were taken to the kennels where we learned more about the dogs, their training, and mushing.

Then we were taken to our “sled” which was a cart on wheels with several tiers of seats. The dogs were led out of their kennels and hooked up to the sled.

There was no question they were eager to get going. Once the last dog was added to the team we were off in a flurry of barking and tail wagging

As we bolted out of the kennel yard we realized that our musher was steering solely with verbal commands. The only mechanical way to slow down or stop was with a foot pedal that dragged on the ground and slowed the dogs and sled. We marveled at how responsive the dogs were to the “hike”, “gee”, “haw” and “whoa” commands our personable musher used. This group of dogs certainly worked as a team. When the sled slowed down and stopped to give them a break all of the dogs went to the right side of the trail to relieve themselves and then on an invisible (to us) signal from a lead dog they all switched to the left side of the trail in unison to pee on that side. We all found that completely hilarious!

Our musher was fascinating. He had come to the United States from an eastern European country where he was studying for an advanced degree in an impressively complicated science subject (we forgot exactly which one). But he came to Alaska to work with sled dogs to overcome his fear of dogs. His enthusiasm and sense of humor added an unexpected spark to the event.

We asked him to include himself in the pictures he obligingly snapped for us along the trail.

After the ride we were sent a souvenir photo. But first, unbelievably, we were taken to hang out with sled dog puppies and encouraged to hold and pet them. We were currently dogless at home after decades of always having a dog. We had toyed with the idea of signing up to foster dogs after we returned home from our Alaskan trip. The moment this little bundle of sweetness landed in my arms a visceral jolt of longing surged through me and there was no question we would once again have dogs in our home.

We left the tour with a vastly expanded knowledge of sled dogs, mushing, and the Iditarod. I have become so captivated by sled dogs that I followed the Iditarod closely last year, have added several mushers to my Instagram account, and have read books written by people who have run the Iditarod. I am currently reading Winterdance by Gary Paulsen which is so entertaining it literally had me LOLing in bed so much the other night Mike asked me to pipe down. Now I am begging him to read the book, too. If you have any interest in a first-hand account of training for and running the Iditarod I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Paulsen’s writing transports you to the solitude, adventure, and beauty of the trails and offers a glimpse into the emotional bond between a musher and his dogs. This Newbury Honor author’s skill in weaving humor, excitement and emotion into an epic tale of adventure is fabulous.

Still chatting about our lively experience with the sled dogs we moved on to our next Alaskan experience-hiking to a glacier. Exit Glacier is part of Kenai Fjord National Park. A short drive beside a meandering river brought us to the Exit Glacier Nature Center.

A wooden building with a large awning from the front, providing cover in front of the main double entrance doors.
The Exit Glacier Nature Center photo from the NPS website.

The trail left the Nature Center and wound through wooded areas with periodic openings in the trees that offered views of the river and the glacier. There were signs along the way with the year of when the glacier had extended to that point. The distance that the glacier has receded during the past century was stunning.

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_7488-1-768x1024.jpg

The weather was cool and with scattered fallen leaves on the trail and the pervasive smell of wildfire smoke, the hike had me thinking of fall.

After our hike we were ready to check into our next Airbnb cabin. As we followed the directions we were surprised to discover our cabin was adjacent to the Ididaride center. We were absolutely enchanted by this adorable cabin nestled in what we learned was officially a rain forest. We felt as though we were entering a fairy tale cottage.

The pristine interior was cozy and inviting. It was perfect!

This tiny kitchen was all we needed to store our snacks and to make our lunch for our cruise the next day.
Our cottage was set amidst this verdant landscape,

The next morning the wildfire smoke was still completely pervasive. When we arrived at the pier it was hard to see beyond the ship and boats moored in the harbor.

There is actually a stunning landscape just across the bay but the smoke obscured it. We hoped that when we left land the smoke would recede.

There are two large cruise companies that provide full and half day cruises around Resurrection Bay. We decided that Major Marine Tours offered the tour that best fit our interests. Our tour had a National Park ranger on board who provided in-depth and captivating information about the landscape and wildlife we saw. Our captain maneuvered the large vessel astoundingly close to shore to allow us fabulous views of a variety of birds and sea life.

The scenery of Kenai Fjords National Park is stunning. Thankfully, the further we got from port the more the smoke dissipated allowing us clear views of the craggy coast line and eventually the glaciers.

A bald eagle flew off the rocks and an unexpected wave of emotion welled up in me. Anticipation grew as we glided past islands and soaring cliffs heading to Aialik Glacier. Finally, it loomed ahead of us.

It was massive!

Our boat glided closer and the passengers gathered on the upper deck. Perhaps it was having the engines slow and the wind decrease but there seemed to be an awed hush as we gazed at this enormous mass of ice and snow. When the first huge chunk of ice calved from the glacier and splashed into the bay, we all gasped. During our stay in Aialik Bay, the glacier calved several more times. We were absolutely mesmerized by the sheer drama of watching the immense force of tons of snow and ice thunder into the water below, pushing waves out into the bay and making us marvel at the courage of the people in the tiny boats closer to the glacier.

Beside the wonder of being so close to this dynamic, spectacular glacier we also saw multiple harbor seals and sea lions basking on rocks and chunks of ice and sea otters floating past on their backs.

Before we reluctantly departed from the majesty of the glacier, the crew scooped up chunks of glacier ice. Cocktails with this surprisingly crystal clear ice were offered as we motored back to Seward. After the excitement of visiting the glacier, the rhythmic sway of the boat lulled us into a drowsy state (possibly enhanced by the cocktail). We compared photos and marveled at what we had seen to fill the time until we docked.

We would return to Anchorage the next day to reluctantly fly home. However, memories of this fabulous time in Alaska have buoyed our spirits during this forced period at home. Our experiences there have completely unexpectedly been woven into our lives. I now routinely listen to several Alaskan podcasts including Alaska Public Media’s Outdoor Explorer and Dark Winter Nights. I seek out books about Alaskan life and this time of year, I eagerly await the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

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