approximately 895 words
By Melissa DeVaughn
Whoever conceived of training dogs to pull a sled must surely have done it out of necessity. Historical photographs can be found in museums and galleries throughout Alaska, showing images of early Alaskans using their teams to check traplines, visit other villages and travel safely in winter.
Visitors, too, can benefit from the sport's popularity. Many contemporary mushers offer learn-to-mush programs, or simply offer short dog sled rides for a small fee. It is great training for the animals, and helps the people who own the dogs keep them in shape for competition.
According to the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports, archaeological evidence shows mushing goes back some 4,000 years in the northern regions of North America and Siberia. Think of sled dogs as working animals and that evidence makes sense: just as early American farmers depended upon draft horses to plow fields, so too, did the people of northern regions depend on sled dogs for survival in harsh winter conditions.
So, perhaps it's the long history, combined with the romantic, Jack London-inspired tales of man and dog, which attracts people to mushing today. In Alaska, mushing is part of life in winter, and dog drivers of all ages and abilities take part in the official state sport.
“Alaska’s four-legged athletes love to run and accessing Alaska’s state sport, dog mushing, has never been easier,” said Amy Geiger, director of communications at the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. Fairbanks is recognized as one of the state's most popular areas for mushing, although opportunities for sled rides exist throughout the state.
Whether you prefer a quick ride in a sled or a weeklong dog sledding adventure, Geiger said it can be arranged.
“There are tours at working kennels where people can meet the dogs and hear captivating tales from veteran mushers. They can try a 30-minute ride in the basket or learn to drive their own team at a half-day mushing school. Some guides will even fly you to a remote lodge and mush a team on a multi-day excursion.”
Another Fairbanks-area mushing opportunity includes the Chena Sled Dog Kennel Tour at Chena Hot Springs Resort. Tours can be arranged in winter or summer and the visitor center provides a great place to hang out either before or after your ride. Or sign up for the mushing school and embrace the sport further by learning to drive your own team of dogs.
Closer to Alaska's largest city, Anchorage, the possibilities are just as plentiful. In Willow, Iditarod veteran, Vern Halter's Dream a Dream Iditarod Farm and Dream Inn B&B has it all. The bed and breakfast offers spacious apartments where guests can base their winter or summer adventures. Summer kennel tours offer a short or full-day wilderness run on a wheeled cart. Or ride and drive your own dog team along the beautiful winter trails on half, full or even multi-day tours. When you think you're ready for the pros, Vern also offers the dogs, facilities, equipment, trails and coaching for the ultimate adventure, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. This two-year training program is made for rookie mushers whose ultimate goal is to qualify and train for the Last Great Race.
Along Turnagain Arm in the ski town of Girdwood is Alpine Air Alaska Inc. Guests embark on a helicopter ride into the majestic Chugach Mountains, land on a snow-covered glacier and drive their own team of sled dogs. It's a great way to break up a skiing vacation with something a bit different, and will make for a great tail — er, tale — when you get back home.
Located approximately 125 miles south of Anchorage just outside the coastal town of Seward, Seavey’s Ididaride Sled Dog Tours offers summer and winter adventures providing visitors with the first hand experience of feeling the energy of 13 Iditarod dog athletes. A family of three generations of champion mushers, the Seavey family offers summer adventures by wheeled cart in Seward and a glacier dog sledding trip out of Girdwood, as well as winter tours from Seward.
More off-the-beaten-path locations include an overnight mushing adventure in the historic Bettles Lodge, in Bettles, a village in the Brooks Range accessible by airplane only. This trip also includes the option of adding mushing days to your itinerary, or just relaxing at the lodge, watching the northern lights (nearly guaranteed to come out if the nights are clear), or visiting the neighboring village and its Native Alaskan residents.
So, now that a mushing trip has been moved to the top of the to-do list, there are a few more bits of information to tuck away. First, come prepared so you're ready to have fun. Many tour companies provide warm clothing and boots, but ask ahead. If not, dress extra warm and in layers. Also, don't wear the fancy fur coat or leather jacket unless you don't mind it getting dirty. Sled dogs are affectionate creatures, and even the best behaved of them can't help but jump up and down a bit when they get excited for a run.
Second, remember this one very important rule: Never, ever let go of the sled. Most likely, this will not be an issue for those who attend a tour because the kennel owners use only extremely well-trained dogs that are unlikely to try to run off. Even so, be prepared and hold on tight.
IF YOU GO MUSHING:
Alaska Vacation Planner Hotline (800) 862-5275
Chena Hot Springs Resort: 56 miles from Fairbanks (907) 451-8104, PO Box 58740, Fairbanks, AK 99711,
Dream a Dream Iditarod Farm and Dream Inn B&B: in Willow, about 65 miles from Anchorage (907) 495-1197, PO Box 389 Willow, AK 99688,
Alpine Air Alaska: in Girdwood 42 miles south of Anchorage (907) 783-2360, PO Box 519 Girdwood, AK 99587,
Bettles Lodge: in remote Bettles above the Arctic Circle, (800) 770-5111, P.O. Box 27, Bettles, AK 99726,
Seavey’s Ididaride Sled Dog Tours: located in Seward, (907) 224-8607, P.O. Box 2906, Mile 1.1 Old Exit Glacier Rd. Seward, AK 99664.
State of Alaska Tourism
Media Line: (800) 327-9372
Media email: Alaskatravelmedia@thompsonpr.com