A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
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Denali National Park kennel worker Jessica O'Connor hooks up a dog team during a sled dog demonstration at the park.
Iditarod athletes star during the sunny months too
Yanking on their lines and ready to run, my dogs barked crazily until I finally pulled the snow hook and we were off. Immediately, the chaos of launching the team was over and the dogs were quiet, now intent on the duty ahead of them: Run, and run fast.
Dog mushing, long associated with Alaska and considered the state's official sport, is one of the joys of winter in Alaska. These talented canines can take an adventurous musher far into the wilderness, across frozen lakes, over mountain passes and along frigid, ice-encrusted coastlines. By dog team, a musher can see parts of the country literally inaccessible by most other means of travel.
For those who live here, or visit during the winter, it is easy to see the sport in progress. Many communities host races on weekends, and competitive mushers gather teams of up to 20 dogs for races ranging from four miles to more than 1,000. From the local clubhouse race to the glitz and glamour of the world-class Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, watching the sport of dog mushing is nothing short of amazing.
Unfortunately, the majority of Alaska's visitors come here in the spring or summer, when the snows of winter have receded and the long, sunlit days of summer warm the landscape. While we Alaskans may revel in the reprieve from the cold and darkness, for the dogs it is a time of renewal and recovery, a long vacation from a winter's worth of work.
However, don't fear the sport is gone for good come summer. For those intent on learning more about mushing, with its rich history and colorful characters, there are plenty of options for experiencing dog mushing in the offseason.
From rides in carts pulled by dogs, to educational presentations, to dog sled rides high atop a glacier, here are a few of the best options for watching these canine athletes in action.
Jeff King's Husky Homestead Tours (907-683-2904; www.huskyhomestead.com): This tour is one of the best for learning about what it takes to create a professional Iditarod racing team. Learn about the Iditarod -- a long-standing race that takes teams 1,000-plus miles from Anchorage to Nome -- and how Alaska huskies are trained and raised to become the best. Jeff King, four-time Iditarod champion and longtime Denali Park musher, offers 1 1/2-hour kennel tours during which guests are shuttled to his scenic log home at Goose Lake and immediately greeted with tiny puppies to pet and hold. Learn about the training, equipment and tenacity needed to become a successful competitive dog musher. Tours are $49 for adults.
Denali National Park (907-683-2294, www.nps.gov/dena): Denali National Park and Preserve is the only park that still uses working huskies to patrol its grounds in the winter. These dogs are a valuable part of the Denali ranger team, and visitors can learn more about their work during daily summertime programs. The tours attract nearly 50,000 visitors each summer. Meet the dogs, view the kennel and get a better understanding of these animals' tenacity.
Godwin Glacier Dogsled Tours (888-989-8239 or 907- 224-8239, www.alaskadogsled. com): It doesn't get any more "out there" than this. This outfit combines helicopter flightseeing that will take you to a glacier, and an energetic team of huskies ready to go for a run in the summer snow. Your tour begins as a helicopter ride high above the glaciers and mountains surrounding Resurrection Bay. After landing, enjoy a day tour or an overnight camping trip with guides who can tell Alaska tales and answer all your Iditarod-related questions. Rates range from about $450 to $520 per person and include winter gear.
Earthsong Lodge and Denali Dogsled Expeditions (907-683-2863, www.earthsonglodge.com): Want to totally immerse yourself in the life of a musher? Stay at this Healy-based lodge and see how these canines are part of the family. In the summer, especially during the cool mornings, the owners will show you how they train dogs using carts. Prices start at $155 for a standard cabin.
Plettner Kennels (www.plettner-kennels.com, 877-892-6944): Linda Plettner, 11-time Iditarod finisher, offers easily accessible kennel tours just off Mile 53 Parks Highway. Pet the puppies, handle the equipment and meet the roughly 300 dogs living there. If you're completely hooked after this, she may even lease you a team and train you to run the race yourself. Tours are Mondays through Fridays beginning at 10 a.m. The price is $20 for adults. Rides are another $20 per person.
Seavey's IditaRide Sled Dog Tour (www.ididaride. com, 800-478-3139, 907-224-8607): The Seaveys are to mushing what the Kennedys are to politics. Generations of the Seavey family have competed in the Iditarod; most recently, in 2004, second-generation musher Mitch Seavey won the race. The Seward-based tour includes a cart ride (two-mile and 1 1/2-hour options) and kennel visit, plus a full-day tour including Exit Glacier, or a Sterling-based presentation. This is a great option for those doing day trips from Anchorage, because you'll also get to see the scenic town of Seward. Tours range from $59 to $130 per adult.
Wildride Sled Dog Show (www.ididaride.com, 888-221-6874): This is another Seavey operation that offers a more humorous side of dog mushing in Alaska. Offered right in downtown Anchorage, it is a convenient way to meet some of Iditarod's best dogs, but also learn about the sport's history and training methods. The Seaveys promote the show as a "sled-dog rodeo." That show is twice daily in the summer and costs $19.
Outdoor and adventure travel writer Melissa DeVaughn can be reached at www.melissadevaughn.com.