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The best time to see Alaska's mushers and their canine companions is in March. That's when the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins in Anchorage.
While die-hard fans travel to Alaska in winter to experience the majesty of the race, most Alaska visitors arrive from May to September. That's summer vacation for the dogs.
That doesn't mean your Iditarod dreams have to end. There are several current and former mushers with large kennels that are open for tours throughout the summer. In fact, you can visit the kennels and even take a summer sled ride with several former Iditarod champions.
Mushing, considered Alaska's own sport, is popular with visitors.
"Visitors want to learn about how Alaskans live and work," said Tammy Bruce, marketing manager for the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Interacting with mushers and meeting their sled dogs is an authentic Alaska experience that opens visitors' eyes to a different type of lifestyle.
"I think at first glance, visitors wonder why there are so many mushers and kennels, but the more they learn about our state while they are here, the more it makes sense to them. Traveling by dog sled is also part of the Alaska mystique."
Many Alaska mushers make the Mat-Su area home. The Valley has wide-open spaces for kennels and access to the Iditarod Trail during the winter months.
Mushing is part of Alaska's history. Before airplanes and snowmobiles made winter travel more comfortable, dog sleds were a main form of travel on the Last Frontier.
Vern Halter, a many-time Iditarod finisher and owner of Dream a Dream Dog Farm in Willow (www.vernhalter.com) , said history is part of the allure of dog mushing.
"We love to share the stories about the race, about the dogs and stories about our life as an Iditarod kennel," he said. "But most important, we like to give visitors a clear understanding of the importance of sled dogs to Alaska's heritage and development, and how the Iditarod Sled Dog Race keeps that tradition of long-distance sled dogs alive."
Halter offers tours of the kennel at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. daily from mid-April to Sept. 15. The tour includes a 15-minute video filmed on the Iditarod trail; an interactive presentation on the Iditarod race, the trail, gear, sleds and more; a tour of the 100-dog kennel and dog lot, with a chance to meet Iditarod veterans and puppies. A nature walk with the puppies is included, and rides behind a team can be arranged.
Training dogs, training other mushers and talking about mushing is Lynda Plettner's life.
The Houston musher has finished the Iditarod a dozen times and trains other mushers for the race. In the summer, her 300-dog Plettner Kennels (www.plettner-kennels.com) is buzzing with activity.
Sometimes, visitors are shocked to see so many dogs in one place. "(Visitors) are always amazed at the quiet for so many dogs and how clean the kennel is," Plettner said. "They love ... how we train them, what are the bloodlines. Some stay for hours."
Plettner's tours are $20 for adults and $10 for children. Rides are an additional $20. The kennel is open Mondays to Saturdays, and tours are offered at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. June through August.
Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser's Happy Trails Kennels (www.buserdog.com) also is in the Valley off Big Lake Road. The $35 tours ($15 for children) are offered at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. On the Kenai Peninsula, Iditarod veteran and 2004 champion Mitch Seavey's family offers tours and rides behind a team of Alaska huskies.
Seavey's Ididaride (www.ididaride.com) has given tours for years in Seward but now is offering rides and tours in Sterling too. The tour and ride is $59 for adults and $29 for children. In addition to a trip through the kennels and the chance to meet puppies, the tour includes a two-mile ride on a summer sled. The tours are led by Iditarod veterans, of which the Seavey family has three generations.
Other mushers offer kennel tours and rides from a variety of locations around the state. Some of those include four-time champion Jeff King at Denali (www.huskyhomestead.com) and Iditarod finisher Jerry Sousa at Talkeetna (www.sundogkennel.com).
Special sections editor Steve Edwards can be reached at email@example.com or 257-4316. Visit his Alaska travel blog at www.alaska.com/alaskology.