February is often my busiest month, at least in terms of email volume. Here's how a typical message might begin:
Dear Erin, my daughter is 10 and has loved the Iditarod ever since she saw the movie "Balto." Do you know any mushers who might send her a signed poster/letter/photograph/lock of dog hair? Sincerely, Parent of Husky-Crazy Girl
I've heard from parents whose children print headshots from the Iditarod roster and post them on bedroom walls. One mother told me her daughter likes to harness the family dogs, a Labrador retriever and a slightly cranky terrier mix, to her wagon and "mush" them around the front yard. Such dedication. Such enthusiasm.
It's no wonder then why sled dogs and sled dog rides are wildly popular with Alaska visitors, whether that's a summer spin around the forest in a wheeled cart or a ride in the basket or on the runners of a real, live, loud sled dog team for those lucky enough to visit during the winter.
I say "lucky" because riding with a sled dog team during the traditional season of mushing is an opportunity for a slice of Alaska life unmatched during the shorter and snowless summer. Many resident families forget to try a ride in winter, so focused are we on school, sports teams, and getting out of here for spring break.
We shouldn't. The culture of sled dogs, mushing, and the men and women who rely upon these canine athletes for livelihoods and recreation is far more meaningful than a mere lap around a dog yard parking lot. Sled dogs are part of Alaska identity, and our children represent the sport's greatest conduit for understanding and preservation.
Cacophony of sound
Ever watched team of sled dogs being hitched up? The cacophony of sound is deafening as four or five, then maybe 50 dogs clamor for attention, yowling in anticipation as the musher goes up and down the yard, choosing dogs, snapping ganglines, patting heads —never once trying to shush the exuberance. Remind you of anyone living in your house?
As most of us know from experience, dogs and kids go together like few other symbiotic combinations on earth. Caring for a creature that will be a companion is a heady experience and a worthy one. Even if only for a few hours.
How might a parent accomplish this? Sled dogs and their acoutrements are expensive, time-consuming, and require hours of commitment by owners, regardless of their age. Tours are an excellent start for a snapshot experience, but many operators barely scratch the surface of mushing as a lifestyle — something some of us pine for but rarely get to see.
Most mushers love to share their craft, talking dogs and equipment with anyone willing to listen, and many Iditarod veterans open their kennels to visitors.
The Yukon Quest started Saturday, and the Iditarod less than a month away, so excitement is high among sled dog enthusiasts. I've found two Alaska businesses that manage to combine the intricate details of Alaska's state sport with realities of day-to-day care and comfort of sled dogs. As an added bonus, both are committed to passing these skills on to youngsters during the busy Alaska mushing season.
• Dallas Seavey Racing, Willow. The Seavey name is giant in Alaska sports, with Dallas perhaps the most flamboyant star among his family's three generations of successful mushers who have crisscrossed the state on a dog sleds. Operating a series of long and short opportunities from his home base in Willow, Seavey's Iditarod Experience Sled Dog Tour is my top choice for families curious about the Last Great Race.
In about two hours, kids can tour the kennel, including Dallas' latest training innovation, a treadmill housed in a semi truck trailer that can accommodate an entire team. They might also watch as drop bags are prepared for the upcoming race, and observe personal care for dogs due to travel nearly 1,000 miles between Anchorage and Nome. Massages, supplements, booties, caboose sleds — it's all there, and Seavey guides and handlers do a masterful job of showing guests just how much work it takes to keep a kennel of dogs healthy and happy.
The highlight of the tour is, of course, the sled ride, where kids can choose to park themselves on a bench seat on the guide's sled, or take the handlebars while riding an attached sled, also known as the "whip." Riders are in charge of hanging on, leaning in, and braking hard when directed by guides, making for an exciting 5-mile run across the frozen muskeg of a nearby lake. While independent travelers often choose to make the long drive from Anchorage to Willow, I opted for an all-day, worry-free trip with Salmon Berry Tours that included transportation, lunch, snacks, and an interesting history of both the Iditarod and Southcentral Alaska. At $199/per person, it's also a pretty good deal. www.salmonberrytours.com. http://dallasseavey.com/alaska-sled-dog-tours. (907) 947-4210. Tours operate through March.
• Sirius Sled Dogs, Fairbanks. What could be more welcoming than a cozy cabin, softly purring tea kettle, and a pack of sled dogs sleeping on the floor, especially when that floor is full of kids after a busy run through the forest? I've never experienced anything quite like Anita Fowler's kennel of Siberian huskies, spoiled rotten in the most delightful way. Fowler's philosophy is love, and there's plenty to go around as each dog has his or her special spot on the team, in the house, or in the backyard. Guests to Sirius are treated to a casual, comfortable experience with the goal of education and family fun, start to finish. Dog-crazy guests will learn how to harness and hook up the team while catching personal stories about who's who in the kennel. Fowler starts all rides by wearing the team out a bit, then invites visitors to take a turn driving on their own as Fowler lounges in the basket, offering suggestions and encouraging her canine kids to do their best.
Bred for muscle in order to haul supplies long distances, Siberians are bigger and fluffier than their Alaskan husky counterparts, and it's an interesting contrast for visitors used to the slighter, smaller race dogs they see in the Iditarod. The 6-mile trip is a scenic journey among spruce and birch forests of Murphy Dome near Fairbanks. Denali and the expansive Alaska Range came into view several times during our hour-long ride. Afterwards, settle in at the off-the-grid cabin for hot chocolate and snuggles with dogs you've come to love during the day, taking in the atmosphere of winter in Interior Alaska. Fowler may even show off the latest crop of puppies. There's no rush, no sense that Fowler, or her dogs, have any priority other than you. And that's pretty nice. The only downside is attempting to pry the kids away when eventually you must return to Fairbanks. $175 per person, www.siriussleddogs.net, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Tips: Dress kids in multiple layers, with hats that cover ears, and face masks or goggles to protect faces from wind and snow whipping in the face during a ride. Mittens are a must to prevent cold fingers.
Be prepared for noise. Sled dogs are very loud, and if you have kids sensitive to noises, add ear plugs to your supplies.
Come prepared to learn. If your family is truly interested in the mechanics, history, and personal investment of dog mushing, these are the trips for you. Hands-on participation is encouraged, and adds greatly to the experience.
Remind kids to follow all directions of mushers, guides, and kennel owners. While dogs are friendly at both locations, they are animals, and can become stressed or nervous on occasion. Ask before approaching any dog, always.
Looking for other mushing kennels offering experiential winer tours? Utilize the Visit Anchorage or Explore Fairbanks websites for a list of options. www.anchorage.net or www.explorefairbanks.com.