When Royal Princess pulled into Skagway, the morning was young enough that a mist still clung to the edges of the harbor. With each successive hour, the trails of fog gave way to rays of sun and by afternoon the sky shown clear – a perfect day for a helicopter “flight seeing” tour and an encounter with some speedy pooches.
I’d been working aboard the ship for the season in my capacity as cruise director, but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to experience one of the state’s singular sports – dog mushing. An animal lover all my life and big fan of the outdoors, I was intrigued to interact with Alaska’s most unique athletes and see their remote summer camp high up on a glacier. I was thrilled that we were finally on our way. Our bus ride to the airport doubled as a safety orientation, and on arrival we were fitted with life vests and moon boots and placed in helicopter groups.
Nestled into the chopper, no sooner had I placed the headset over my ears than we soared upward. I watched as the Alaska gold rush town shrank away from us, along with the rest of civilization.
With nothing in my line of sight but crystal blue sky, I had a moment to reflect on my good fortune. I was, after all, en route – by helicopter – to an experience most people wouldn’t even know to dream about – except perhaps just after the annual Iditarod race, when the results of this grueling 1,150-mile race from Anchorage to Nome form only a momentary blip on the media landscape.
Ahead, the rugged terrain gave way to ice fields, which gave way to mountains, then majestic valleys, and finally to massive glaciers. We soared across them all, snapping photos by the dozen along the way. Some 20 minutes into the flight, we rounded a corner that put Denver Glacier into view. Moving closer, small dots that flecked the glacier came to form tents and kennels in neat rows.
The blades of our helicopter quit their chop, chop, as we settled onto the ice. As the door opened, I could see that our welcoming committee consisted of 90 excited dogs, barking and jumping on and off their kennels. Though I never imagined I’d need sunglasses in a place with such excessive snowfall, the fine weather and sunshine resulted in a searing glare off the white ice. Got shades? Check.
After a brief orientation, we met our mushers and were introduced to each member of our team of 10 Alaskan huskies. The dogs practically danced with excitement to meet us. For them, this was a summer holiday, a period of relative relaxation before their training started for the Iditarod. They didn’t look as I had expected: a uniform collection of well-groomed steeds like I had seen in a movie. These were different than the dogs I’d had as pets – they were working dogs, bred to race. No characteristic was an accident; it was chosen, cultivated. Speed. Intelligence. Strength. Endurance. A hybrid of so many breeds, including the native Inuit dog. Once acquainted, I sat in the sled, which triggered the dogs to pull on their harnesses. The musher jumped on the back, released the anchor and away we sped across the ice. The pace was breakneck. Some 10 minutes later, we stopped to admire the vista. Then it was my turn to have a go at driving the team, and with the help of my musher we were off again, with the dogs hardly registering that they now had a novice in command. The sun’s glare was intense, but the snow field glistened and bits of ice flew up as our sled’s runners cut across the glacier.
I felt very at one with nature, as if I had gone back in time. Now I knew firsthand how the early Alaskan settlers traveled. We could have been at the North Pole, it seemed so remote and apart from the everyday world. I’ve ridden in many forms of transportation in my journeys, but never had I traveled with such a sense of place. This WAS Alaska.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we returned to camp for some puppy play time. Holding the latest litter of future sled dogs in our arms, feeling their soft fur and little wet tongues, was the perfect end to our time on the glacier. The helicopters fired up, and soon we were heading back to Skagway. I sat back as the images of the day played back like a movie in my mind. Was that really me on that sled?
I’d been in Alaska all season, but never had I felt so connected to the Great Land. It was a magical way to finish up my time there, and also the perfect way to get a really unique Christmas card picture!