Glaciers and dog sledding, what can be more descriptive of Alaska? OK, perhaps igloos, but I didn’t see any of those.
Exhilarating, breathtaking, immense, all words, describing our recent participation in a true Alaskan experience– dog sledding on the Mendenhall Glacier. Temsco Helicopters, Inc. operates this awesome Alaskan adventure in conjunction with the oldest operating dog sled tour company in Alaska, Alaska Icefield Expeditions out of Juneau.
Staff greeted us at the Temsco heliport, gave us a brief orientation, showed us a safety video and gave us glacier boots and sun glasses to put on. Each helicopter holds five passengers with seating arranged by weight. There are windows all around and viewing is excellent. Note, no backpacks allowed on the helicopter, cameras- without case- gloves, hats, jackets are the only acceptable carry-ons.
We lifted off on our flightseeing tour to the Mendenhall Glacier and headed over rugged terrain toward the jagged mountain peaks. As we pass alongside the mountain peaks, the views are spectacular. The scenery below is unique, this exact landscape cannot be found anywhere else and in reality, very few people have the opportunity to have this view of it. We are all in awe. We seem to be standing still, maybe hovering– yet, the pilot said we were flying 135 miles per hour. All five of the passengers sat wide-eyed and fearful, silently hoping the pilot was going to elevate the helicopter high enough to make it over the jagged peaks. A few times, we were sure we would not make it, yet here I am.
When we reached the Glacier, we followed its path—in air it was even more impressive to be able to see the length of this gigantic ice mass. All too soon, we were flying over the dogsled camp. It was hard to see because everything in camp must be white to blend in with the snow per regulations of the Tongass National Forest. There are between 250 and 300 dogs here at any given time during the summer. Each dog is tethered to its own little house. Many like to lie on the roof of their house.
After exiting the helicopter, we find it is not an easy walk to our assigned dog team, even with our glacier boots. Most of us sink into the snow many times. The snow pack is about 30 feet deep at the beginning of each season. The mushers who take us out are all professional Iditarod and Yukon Quest mushers with trail experiences–they are happy to share with their new team. We get personal answers to our questions about the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. Many of the dogs are also Iditarod experienced. We are encouraged to meet and greet each of the dogs pulling our sled. The mix breed huskies are anxious to meet us. They are slim in body unlike the “White Fang” vision most of us in the lower 48 have in our minds. The dogs get very excited, they are anxious to be picked, to pull the sled.
Each of us gets a turn at riding and mushing. Both were fun, but it gave us a new respect for the dogs and the mushers who can travel a minimum of 40 miles a day during a race or rescue mission. These people are a hardy group. Friendly and noisy as the dogs are once the mush order is given, by mouth or release of the sled brake, they assume the position, heads down, tails up and it is all work, until the stop order is given. Our team of twelve dogs pulled four passengers on two sleds with one musher. Each member of the tour gets a chance to be musher/driver, standing on the back of the sled, if they wish and you better be hanging on when the sled starts to move.
Being on the snow- packed ground, surrounded on three sides by white snowy mountains gave me a new perspective. I asked about the rumbling noise from the nearby mountain. Our musher told us it was an avalanche. “Should we be worried it is so close,” I asked. He told us that mountain base was three miles away. It looked like only 100 yards away. Avalanches occur quite frequently and we continued to hear rumblings. I can see how easy it would be to lose your way amid all the white setting.
Since the camp is located, right on the glacier it moves six inches per day, along with the glacier. The mushers stay in tents with no facilities or showers. They work six days at a time and then get one day off the glacier at a facility, with showers and washing machines. The rounded tents look like covered wagons of the old west. The food kitchen looks like the old chuck wagon. They say the camp cook feeds them very well. They keep a two-week supply of food on hand in the event of bad weather preventing the helicopters from flying in. Even though it seems like a harsh life at the camp, the staff returns year after year. Barrels containing all waste, human and canine are flown away from the camp by helicopter every other day.
This was an once-in-a-lifetime experience, but a pricy one. Not everyone will want to pay $499.00 to take this trip. However, all participants I talked with felt it was well worth the price. Some brought children or grandchildren along. Lighter in weight they were able to walk on top of the snow easier. Based on their show of enthusiasm, I am sure this was the thrill of their life. All tours are subject to weather permitting. I recommend taking the morning flight if possible, if the weather turns bad, you may be spending the night on the Glacier with the mushers and dogs and while the food may be good you may miss your shower and a warm commode seat.