The Norris Glacier, home of dog world, aka Alaska Heli-Mush camp, is one of most stunningly beautiful locations on planet earth. It is the summer-long home of 200 energetic Alaskan huskies and about 10 humans at a time, where we give dog mushing tours to gobs of cruise ship passengers and the occasional independent traveler. The folks that come up for the glacier dog sled experience take a helicopter tour of Juneau, traveling through the lush green tree-dense ecosystem of the Gastineau channel as they head for the ice field. The trees are quickly replaced with massive rivers of ice and endless fields of snowy mountains, as they enter the perpetual winter wonderland of the Juneau icefield. For a vast majority of our visitors, this is their first time on a glacier, for many it is their first time on a helicopter and being to Alaska and seeing sled dogs, and for some it is their first time seeing snow. The perception and overwhelming stun possessed by our guests at the impossible beauty and unlikeliness of this reality, is very much like icing on the cake for me as their guide. I have lived and worked in some of the greatest places on earth, but the appreciation expressed by our guests takes me back to some of those first times that I had for myself. Where I too stood deaf to the world around me, staring in awe as I formed into a sponge.
There are tours that go by fairly quietly, where no questions are asked, and the guests are simply soaking in every last drop of the adventure, not polluting the experience with looking through a lens or small talk. I never impose myself. For some people, the entire cruise vacation is packed with bright lights and scheduled events and being herded and put in lines. Just sit back and watch the dogs, make eye contact with every last mountain peak and preserve your senses for appreciation of the here and now. Other folks, want to know every little detail about me and the dogs and about camp, and I gladly take the bait.
What kind of dogs are these?
Most of the athletes on the glacier are alaskan huskies. Surprising to some that arrive with preconceptions of the hollywood version of the husky, these dogs are no pure breed. They all look a bit different from each other because they aren't bred to look a certain way. These working animals are bred for features that boost functionality and productivity, and which will compliment their lives as sled dogs. We breed for attributes like certain coats, tough feet, strong 'head', big heart and even bigger stomach, and let's not forget about attitude and friendliness. To be honest, i tell folks not to think of these athletes as a breed, but as a bloodline. A hybrid mix of blood, concocted to produce the most efficient and productive animal at running 1000 miles.
How do you choose the leaders?
This is a rather trick question, because the truth is, I don't. The dogs decide if they want to be up front. They all certainly get a chance to prove themselves at the head of the team, but some dogs just have absolutely no interest in being leaders, they would rather follow. Some dogs are incredible athletes, very strong and very smart, but for whatever reason in the universe, they don't care to lead.
Are your strongest dogs in the back of the team?
The dogs that are located closest to the sled are called the 'wheel dogs'. They hold a massively important responsibility of helping to steer the sled, particularly around tight turn where motionless trees can become obstacles. A great wheel dog will take turns wide, and help steer and avoid colliding with trees and whatnot, and there size really isn't that important. You can be the strongest dog in the yard. but if you're going to steer me into the tree, I will find another spot for you on the team.
Where do the dogs live in the winter time?
There are about ten different kennels represented at our camp, we host nearly 200 dogs, and they all go back to their respected homes come fall time. Some of the dogs live in the lower 48, most of them stay up here in Alaska. Some of the dogs do tours in the winter time, a lot of them train and compete in long distance races. My dogs and I are headed back to Eureka for this winter to work and train with Brent Sass and the Wild and Free Mushing team as we prepare for our rookie Iditarod!
We have been having an absolutely amazing time this summer, meeting some incredible and inspiring humans and dogs. We are looking forward to finishing off our summer very strongly, but can't help but itch n twitch at the idea of fall training and shifting back in to race mode!