Sunday, June 30, 2013

Troublesome Glacier Dogsledding

If you want to go dogsledding in Alaska in May, and you are below the Arctic Circle, chances are you’ll be pulled along a dirt track by a team of dogs hitched to a training cart. But if you want the full experience, with snow and sled, you’ll have to go to higher elevations or better still, to a glacier.

We began the scenic drive from Anchorage to Palmer, Alaska, and saw a lot of signs like this.

avalanche

When we were about 20 minutes from our destination, we became hopelessly lost. Becoming hopelessly lost in Alaska is a pretty good trick, because there aren’t many roads. We pulled into a parking lot where two young lumberjack-looking guys with full beards were sipping coffee.

“Excuse me,” I asked. “We’re trying to find the Knik River Lodge.”

“Oh, you’re WAY off,” one of them said. “It’s about 65 miles in the other direction.”

Immediately, the other guy snorted coffee out of his nose, and I knew I was being played. They both had a good laugh, and then gave me clear directions to our destination. Winters are really long in Alaska, and everybody looks forward to Screw with Tourists season.

We arrived at the lodge, and took a helicopter flight up the Knik River valley.

Mountain Palmer 5

Knik Valley

Glacial Valley Palmer

You may notice that the river meanders along a barren gravel plain. I asked if the river flooded that plain, depositing the gravel. The guide told us that on rare occasions, the glacial lake at the face of the glacier becomes dammed by ice floes, and when those break free, the river rushes through the valley in a raging torrent. But the gravel was left there during the last ice age, when the glacier extended through the entire valley, grinding the surrounding mountains into dust.

The glacier has since receded, and now consists of three separate glaciers that meet at the head of the valley. We flew over the majestic landscape and approached the dog camp, set up on the surface of Troublesome Glacier.

Dog Camp

The dog camp is set up in early spring and stays there until the snow gets slushy or the tourists stop coming.

dogs and copter

There is a doghouse for every dog. This is the only one with a name printed on it.

grumpy

The dogs yelped and whined at our presence, because it meant that 10 of them would get to do precisely what they had been bred to do: pull a sled. The dogs were approachable, but seemed skittish and distracted. They really, really want to pull.

A grizzled old guy lives in a tent alongside all of the dog houses. He claims to have a doctorate in Organic Chemistry from the University of Washington, but now he lives with the dogs for a few months every year. He has competed in the grueling Iditarod dogsled race, but stopped after a few broken bones and a dogsled wreck where his team ran off and left him with a 7-mile walk through blizzard conditions.

The team was hitched to two sleds, one behind the other.

dogsled team

The PhD drove the front sled, and we took turns driving the rear sled. I have a video of the experience, which was fantastic, bordering on mystical.



Troublesome glacier forms a natural bowl, covered in snow. The surrounding mountains are gorgeous, snow cladding them like fondant.

Mountain Palmer 3

Mountain Palmer 4






4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I work in NYC, and we think it's ALWAYS "Screw with the Tourists" season. But if it really is Tourist Season, why can't we shoot them? And what's the limit?

Anonymous said...

Awesome!

turningheads kennel said...

Sometimes it is very troublesome to dog sledding at very low temprature.

turningheads kennel said...

Dog sled tours on Godwin Glacier are some of the most fun you can have in Alaska! After your sled ride, cuddle our lovable puppies, take pictures of the beautiful Alaskan scenery, and talk with your Alaskan musher about his best trail stories.