In Southeast Alaska, the Taku winds can barrel down the side of mountains at 70 to 100 mph. In hurricane-country terms, that would rank...
JUNEAU, Alaska — In Southeast Alaska, the Taku winds can barrel down the side of mountains at 70 to 100 mph.
In hurricane-country terms, that would rank between a category 1 and 2 hurricane.
I have a healthy fear for winds with names.
So this little Alaskan fact, mentioned in passing the day before by our halibut-fishing guide, kept churning in my mind as our pilot, Jim, strapped me into a helicopter and pulled on his headphones.
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From a base in Juneau, Jim would fly us up and over the mountains to a dog-sledding camp on top of Norris Glacier, a 35-minute ride through jagged peaks, coated in white, steep and stiff like well-whipped meringue.
One of those glaciers is the Taku.
The weather, though, was beautiful, a sunny June day about 65 degrees, and Jim promised it would be an easy ride. No Taku winds. Those typically happen in the fall and spring (at least spring on the calendar; March in Alaska is often layered in feet-deep snow.)
The Norris is one of 38 large valley glaciers in the 1,500-square-mile Juneau ice field. From the prime seat next to the pilot, a panoramic view unfolded as the green spruce trees and placid, cruise-ship-filled harbor curved like a clam shell against a denim sky.
Flying at 120 mph, 3,300 feet above the Earth, it felt like a Disney ride.
Just a month earlier, Jim, a trim guy with a goatee, baseball cap and friendly grin, had flown this helicopter cross-country from Lake Charles, La., where he’d been working for the same aviation company, but in a different job: hopscotching about the oil platforms, flying folks over the Gulf of Mexico. Originally from Arizona, his family was headed up to spend the summer with him in the Last Frontier, as Alaskans like to call their state.
“My space is not just an Internet site,” he joked with a sweep of his hand over the toggles and switches just right of my knee in the cramped cockpit. “Don’t bump these.”
After a few minutes of Enya singing into our headsets — “I can only handle so much of that,” he joked — Jim turned down the volume of the recorded helicopter tour and narrated instead, pointing out Hole in the Wall glacier, Devil’s Paw peak and a remote science camp of wood-framed cabins on top of a nearby mountain.
Banking to the right, we pulled over what looked from above to be a squirming ant pile. Thousands of paw prints in the snow led to a circle of white tents and hundreds of barking hounds: Dog City, 2,500 feet above sea level.
Sled dogs used to get summer vacations. But 10 years ago, someone came up with the concept of dog-sledding tourist rides, and a perfect opportunity presented itself. Travelers flood small Alaskan towns during the summer, most arriving, as we did, by cruise ship.
Here would be a way to show off a famous Alaskan pastime, and the dogs, many of which run the world-famous Iditarod trail race in March and pull snow sleds throughout the winter, could train all summer, maintaining their peak athletic condition.
And, yes, they seem to love to do this. When they see helicopters landing, they start barking and jumping, whole rear ends wagging. They want to run — now.
A guide and her dogs
About 200 to 250 dogs live on top of Norris Glacier from May through September. The dogs are sent there (arriving on helicopter, too) by their owners, some of whom also work in the dog camp, so both human and pooch in a household can earn a paycheck.
That’s the case for Kristy, our guide, who strolled up to us with a firm handshake and a smile. Originally from North Carolina, Kristy’s a tiny woman, just 115 pounds, with bobbed brown hair. She teaches piano and recreationally mushes (a term believed to be derived from the French verb marcher, or to walk) during the winter in Fairbanks and works the dog camp with her pets during the summer.
She points out Matrix, a beautiful creature with a fluffy mane of brown fur and an intelligent gaze. “He’s my little stud,” she said.
The dogs, for the most part, are mixed breeds, with blood lines purposefully picked for strength, endurance, speed and even temperament. Think husky mixed with greyhound, malamutes and short-haired pointers. The result is a dog commonly referred to as the Alaskan husky. Brown, black, gray, dappled, most of medium build and short hair, with a few big hulks in the mix, their looks are more SPCA than Westminster Kennel Club.
What they do have in common is muscle. These dogs are the Kenyan runners of their sport, sleek and svelte, with taut backs and hindquarters.
Mushing burns lots of calories. These pooches eat up to five times a day, yet they stay marathoner fit. “People aren’t used to seeing athletic dogs,” said Linwood Fiedler, a musher for 30 years who has run the Iditarod 15 times. “They think our dogs are skinny, but these dogs are athletes.”
“Each dog has its own diet to fit their nutritional needs,” said Kristy, who cares for 25 animals during the summer. “And we’re trained in veterinary care; we can even do some surgery up here.”
Everything needed by human or canine arrives by helicopter, and all waste, including those produced by pups, is flown off.
For the most part, it’s a serene life. The dogs, who range in age from 2 to 10 years, enjoy private accommodations in plastic igloo-style doghouses and plenty of room to run over the moonscape snowpack. Even in summer, the snow is about 15 feet thick on top of thousands of feet of ice on Norris Glacier.
A sled “stroll”?
Wearing black snow boots provided by our tour, we crunched over the ice to the sleds, long toboggan-style wooden contraptions with low-slung seats in front and space for one person to stand in back.
On the Iditarod, teams of 12 to 16 dogs pull sleds more than 1,150 miles through mountain ranges, rivers, forests, glaciers and coastline. A team of 14 dogs can drag up to 800 pounds, running at top race speed of 10 to 14 mph.
By comparison, our run was a stroll.
Kristy hitched up eight dogs to a train of two sleds connected by a rope. Our horsepower was provided by Chinook, Nitro, StarWars, Dragon, Go-Joe, Taku, Yogurt and Mabel, all clad in tiny red or black snow boots so their paws don’t get cut up on the jagged, icy snow.
Kristy drove the lead sled with one passenger, while in the back sled, we took turns standing in the driver position and riding in the seat.
Driving is probably not the most accurate term. The dogs pulled, while Kristy provided “micro-steering,” shifting her weight from one part of the sled to another to keep it on track. The top of Norris Glacier is a wide open, level space — think football fields coated in white — surrounded by mountain peaks.
For real driving, she’d call out orders — “gee” for right, “haw” for left, “whoa” for stop. Each musher, though, often adds his or her own personal commands for the team, so at dog camp the guides learn each dog’s lingo.
It’s a sled dog’s life
After our 20-minute ride, we pulled back into the camp for an introduction to our four-legged escorts. Dogs are no different from most folks. Sometimes they feel social, and sometimes not. We stayed clear of the shy ones and were introduced by the handlers to those inclined to greet strangers.
Yogurt likes to do yoga poses, spread eagle with her belly buried in the snow. Nitro and Chinook nuzzled up as we stroked their thick fur.
Within minutes, Jim was beckoning us back to our helicopter for a flight down the mountain. As we pulled off, another group of helicopters was on its way.
The dogs run twice in the morning, twice in the afternoon, and relax the rest of the time.
Perhaps this was summer vacation for them after all.