Your helicopter banks above an immense ice field, a great white sheet of some 30-football-fields that blindingly reflects the brilliant June sunlight. The evergreen shores, sapphire waters, and a jumble of Juneau rooftops are only minutes behind you, but here the only color comes from a few bare boulders jutting out of the mountainside and a cluster of brown specks on the valley floor below. Those specks are the sled dog camp and you’ve come to meet the huskies that make their home there.
The wop-wop-wop of the chopper blades thrum in your ear as you drop into the bowl and fly towards the camp. When the helicopter door opens, brisk glacial air crystalizes inside your nose as you clamber out onto the snow-packed field. You immediately appreciate the Arctic boots provided by your guide, and you squint in the piercing sun.
Your little group feels like ants as you walk across the vast space towards the kennels. Out on this lonely, empty, wild glacier, the yips and howls of the dogs offer a lively welcome, and the resident Iditarod-veteran lopes over. In an oversize brown cowboy hat and fringed furry mukluks, bleached blond stringy hair and a wind-worn smile, she huskily says, “Welcome to Norris Glacier Dog Camp.”
You are free to wander the doghouses, five straight rows of white miniature igloos. You stop to stroke the huskies, one at a time, and wiggle your fingers to the soft undercoat of their dense fur. Their cornflower blue eyes are striking out here in this sea of white, gray, and brown. Their pink tongues loll and drip, salivating for the run!
Your guide joins you and the other tenderfoots, sharing chilling tales from the 1049-mile annual race to Nome. She explains how the camp works and how everyday Alaskans use dogsledding in their daily lives. As she walks past his kennel, she addresses her lead dog, Asha, with a loving pat between his ears. He squeezes his eyes shut and points his nose in the air, soaking up her attention.
Masterfully, she wrangles the lunging, yapping dogs, one by one, into the 16-dog harness, then jumps on the sled for a quick demo loop. With a “Hike!” they take off. She turns the team right with a “Gee!” then left with a “Haw!” Once they get revved up, convincing them to stop can be tricky, but her well-trained team comes to a halt with a jingle of the tack. The dogs stand panting, their exhales making small puffs of steam in the air.
Now it’s your turn to take charge of the sled. Unfasten your seatbelt and hold on tight!
Like the takeoff on a rollercoaster, with the acceleration of skiing nearly out of control, the sled lifts ever so slightly off the snowpack and, almost airborne, takes the first wide curve around the field. Thankfully, the dogs know where to go on this snowy oval, but your mind recalls movie scenes of frozen river crossings and treacherous forest switchbacks, and you wonder – do the dogs always lead the way?
The sharp air, the piercing sun, the powerful dogs, the flying momentum – you feel so exhilarated that you find yourself laughing out loud into the wind.
When, all too soon, it’s time to leave, the chopper lifts up and sweeps you away from the husky camp. You look out at the azure Alaskan sky and recall the blue of the sled dogs’ eyes.
“That was a trip of lifetime”, you say. “Let’s do it again next year.”
Sharing the love of travel!