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ALASKA DOG SLEDDING

In Alaska, on top of a snow covered glacier, a camp is set up, just for a few months each summer.

Under twenty people, including six mushers, and a few dozen Alaskan huskies live here. They go on daily dog sledding tours with visiting tourists to stay in top shape all year round.

Alaska Dog Sledding

The Denver Glacier, where the dog camp is located, is a part of the larger Juneau Icefield near the historic port of Skagway, in Southern Alaska.

Everything is brought up here by helicopters — dogs, shelters, snowmobiles, food and supplies, as well as the visiting tourists. And everything has to be taken out in the end, nothing can be left behind in this pristine land.

Alaska Dog Camp

On the glacier, the dogs sleep in their dog houses. Some prefer inside the house, while others sleep on top of it, or just curl up in the snow.

Alaskan huskies enjoy the glacier very much, it is akin to kids summer camp for them. They get to run on the snow doing what they love, exercise and socialize with other dogs, and they receive a lot of attention from people visiting from all over the world.

Dogs are always excited to stretch their legs and have some fun. Other than pulling a sled, they are like any other dogs really — they love eating, playing, sleeping, and meeting new people.

Alaska Dog Camp

Dogs go on daily runs pulling sleds to keep in top shape at all times.

Most days they give tours throughout the day on a rotation schedule. It is ideal for each dog to run at least twice a day, however, depending on the weather sometimes they run more, and sometimes less.

 

Today is a beautiful day for a dog sled ride.

 

Dogs at the camp howl when the sleds are leaving because they love running so much that they wish they were in the teams heading out. They want to be a part of the excitement as well... and in time they all get their chance.

Alaska Dog Sledding

Alaskan Huskies can be considered mutts. They are the culmination of years of breeding various dog breeds together so as to target traits ideal for short and long-distance mushing.

These traits will vary depending on whether the dogs are meant to be competitive racers or freight-haulers. That is why they may look different. Some of the 'racier' types of dogs have hound or other short-coat breeds in the bloodlines. They are meant to cover a lot of ground quickly.

The dogs we are running today (pictured) are considered to be more of the trapline/cargo huskies, which are meant to haul heavy sled-loads over great distances in extreme conditions. They tend to be larger, with thick fur.

Alaska Dog Sledding

The dogs that come to stay at the glacier camps in the summer come from primarily Alaska; however, it is not uncommon for dogs to be driven up from the Northwest United States. At the end of the season they return home from the summer camp.

These dogs came from Eagle, a small village bordering Canada in central Alaska. They belong to a musher's family and their neighbors.

On the glacier the dogs are fed dry dog kibble that is designed for highly active dogs, like the sled dogs. It is a quality food, with high levels of protein and fat (considerably higher than what is necessary for most pet dogs). It is not uncommon, however, for sled dogs to have their diets supplemented with different types of meat at home. Some of the more popular meats mushers feed include fish (chum salmon is a favorite), lamb and beef.

Mushers and dogs develop close ties. Dogs will bond closely with any human that gives them love and attention they deserve, and mushers couldn't achieve what they do without love and respect for the dogs they run.

Alaska Dog Sledding

Dog sledding is a truly awesome sport involving both man and animal. The animal athletes are truly remarkable.

What a great a great pastime it is!

It is an incredible feeling to share such a beautiful country with such devoted animals.

 

 

Q & A With A Dog Handler:

 

Is the glacier moving?

Yes, although very slowly. A glacier is basically a very, very slow river of ice. Evidence of this movement can be seen by crevasses and other glacier formations.

Is the dog-camp set on the glacier itself, which part of it?

Yes. Dog camp sits directly on top of the glacier. The actual glacial ice is buried by several feet of snow. This snow melts each summer, gradually exposing the ice. Since we need snow to dogsled, we gradually move our camp up this glacier.

What is interesting about glaciers?

Everything really! They are beautiful yet intimidating. It is very peaceful to wake up to such an amazing environment every day... you have to pinch yourself to know you're not dreaming!

Is the glacier dangerous?

Yes, a glacier has several potential dangers. Most noteworthy are crevasses and moulins. Crevasses are cracks that form in the ice due to movement. Depending on the glacier, crevasses can be a couple of feet to several hundred feet deep.

The Denver Glacier is a smaller glacier relative to others within the Juneau Icefield. The majority of the dangerous crevasses on the Denver Glacier are located towards the bottom, which you flew over getting to dog camp. Where our dog camp is located on the glacier there is more than enough snow to fill in the cracks, which allows us to safely mush there. A safety monitor in camp also regularly probes for any cracks that may be a danger for us or the dogs.

Moulins are holes that form in the glacier. They are the result of meltwater dripping in the same location for a long period of time, eventually resulting in a hole that can lead to the bottom of the glacier (typically several hundred feet down). They are typically very easy to identify as they have a 'river' of water leading to them or can form under large pools of water.

So long as the areas are avoided, there is no immediate danger. These too are found more commonly on the lower part of the Denver Glacier. So long as an area on a glacier is probed and any potential dangers are made aware, an individual can safely enjoy the magnificent scenery.

Are there any other animals on the glacier?

The one animal that we consistently see in the camp other than dogs are ravens. They like to scavenge the dog food and try to get into our trash. It is pretty rare to see any other larger form of wildlife, although I myself have seen mountain goats. I have heard from other employees of a bear sighting as well as a porcupine sighting.

The avalanches

One of my favorite occurrences that happens early on in the summer are avalanches off of the rock faces around camp. They can be very loud. You almost always hear them before you see them. Camp is located more than far enough away from the avalanche shoots so as to avoid the falling snow; however, it is very neat to watch them.

The weather

As far as weather goes, camp can be 'soaked in' as we put it (surrounded by fog) for days or weeks at a time. Typically the week or more long periods are during the latter part of the season as the weather starts to worsen. Living on a glacier, we expect these occurrences and plan accordingly (with weeks worth of food and water etc.).

Accidents

As far as accidents go, we do get the occasional guest who falls off the back of the tag sled and gets to make an involuntary snow angel. We discourage guests from taking photos while standing on the back of a sled and holding the handlebar, but some attempt to do so anyway... and the result is a quick snow bath and a laugh.

How long does the camp stay?

Roughly 5 months including setup... about four months with full crew and all of the dogs. Alaska Icefield Expeditions offers tours from early May through early September. Camp setup typically starts three to four weeks before the first tour. Everything on the ice is removed in early September and re-setup come the following April.

This year our Skagway camp had 16 employees living on the glacier. This included 6 mushers, each with 35-40 dogs, 3 handlers, 2 managers, 2 part-time cooks, 2 photographers and 1 floating helper. Several of these employees played various roles such as safety monitors and 1st aid responders.

About the dogs

The majority of the dogs are considered Alaskan Husky. Every once in a while there will be a purebred Siberian husky in one of the camps, but this is typically not the case. Alaskan Huskies can be considered mutts. They are the culmination of years of breeding various dog breeds together so as to target traits ideal for short and long-distance mushing. These traits will vary depending on whether the dogs are meant to be competitive racers or freight-haulers. That is why they all look very different.

Some of the 'racier' types of dogs have hound or other short-coat breeds in the bloodlines. They are meant to cover a lot of ground quickly. The dogs I was running this past summer are considered to be more of the trapline/freight/cargo (they go by many names) huskies, which are meant to haul heavy sled-loads over great distance in extreme conditions. They tend to be larger with thick fur. I had a pair of brothers in my yard this year that had a lot of resemblance towards St. Bernards.

The dogs that come to stay at our glacier camps in the summer come from primarily Alaska; however, it is not uncommon for dogs to be driven up from the Northwest United States (Oregon, Washington, Montana and Colorado are a few off the top of my head). Alaska Icefield Expeditions leases the dogs for the summer and come the end of the season they return home from summer camp (as I like to compare the glacier to for the dogs). This past summer all of my dogs came from Eagle, Alaska. It is a small village bordering Canada in central Alaska. The dogs I ran this summer belong to my boyfriend's family and their neighbors. I have visited Eagle for about a month each winter the past two years to visit and run dogs.

Daily life on the glacier

Life on the glacier is awesome! We wake up every day at 6am to care for the yards (feeding, watering, scooping, belly-scratching, etc). Breakfast is at seven and tours typically start at eight. The number of tours we do in a day varies. We are completely weather-dependent, as well dependent upon cruise-ship passenger demand. I would say on an average day each musher does five or six tours... however, there are many days (especially towards the end of the season) that the weather is bad and we won't see a helicopter for days. We pass the slower days by going on dog runs and puppy walks, playing cards, watching movies, knitting, reading and eating.

All of the employees eat dinner together every night... and every night is something delicious! Two to four people live in each weather-port. And as I'm sure you noticed, almost everything in camp is white, this is so we 'blend' in better with the glacier as well as to limit the sun's heat and thus snow melt.

Camp chores differ each day, they include trail scooping and grooming, moving huts (they melt-out and must be moved regularly), yard care (flipping dog houses for the same reason as the huts, setting poles, raking up dog hair, etc.), dinner dishes and kitchen cleaning, shoveling snow into the dog water tubs, and emptying honey buckets.

Dog camp has forever changed my life... it has given me very positive and rewarding experiences that I will cherish throughout my life. I'm sure you felt the same magic on your visit to us.

Daily runs

Do dogs go on daily runs pulling sleds to keep in top shape all year round?

Depends on the day really. Most days they give tours the majority of the day. Each musher has his or her own dog rotation schedule. I look at the day's schedule and plan accordingly. It is ideal if each dog in my yard can run at least twice in a day, however sometimes they run more and sometimes they run less... regardless, they are always excited to stretch their legs and have some fun. Other than pulling a sled, they are like any other dogs really — they love eating, sleeping and getting attention.

Dog houses

On the glacier the dogs sleep in their dog houses. Some prefer inside the house, while others sleep on top of the house, or they just curl up in the snow. I made it a priority to bring different dogs into my tent at night to sleep on the bed or floor... some dogs are definitely more comfortable with this than others, it just depends on the dog's personality really.

Do dogs like being on the glacier?

Yes, I believe the dogs do enjoy the glacier very much. As I mentioned earlier, it is akin to summer camp for them. They get to run on snow doing what they love (whereas they couldn't do this at home in the summertime), they get to socialize with other dog yards, and they receive countless hours of attention each day from people all over the world.

Do dogs like it when people visit?

Absolutely! There are a few shy dogs in every yard (they have personalities just like we do!), but the majority of dogs can't get enough of the attention, and the new smells.

Do mushers and dogs develop close ties?

Very much so. Like any relationship, a dog will bond closely with any human that gives it the love and attention it deserves. Mushers couldn't achieve what they do if they didn't have the respect of the dogs they run, this takes a lot of time and commitment. This also takes a great love of animals, dogs in particular!

What happens when the glacier camp closes?

Come the end of the season, everything in camp is flown down by helicopters. This is typically a several week process as the weather can be very bad towards the end of the season. The dogs are flown down first and then trucked home (the owners typically meet the dogs at the helicopter base).

About the camp

The huts are continually moved to address snow melt. However the entire camp in Skagway is moved three times in a season due to the lack of snow. We move farther up the glacier to get more snow, but as you move farther up the glacier the weather tends to get worse. The Juneau camp is not moved because there is more than enough snow in that location that it is not necessary.

Why to the dogs at the camp howl when the sleds are leaving camp?

They often howl because they love running so much that they wish they were part of the teams heading out. They want to be a part of the excitement as well... and in time they all get their chance!

What can you say about dog sledding?

I will say that it is a truly awesome sport involving both man and animal. The animal athletes are truly remarkable. I have never been so proud to be part of such a great pastime...dog sledding has largely influenced what I want to do with my life. I will be applying to vet schools next fall with the goal of being the best veterinarian I can be. It is an incredible feeling to share such a beautiful country with such devoted animals.

Is the glacier located on the border of the US and Canada?

The Denver Glacier (which is where the Skagway dog camp is located) is part of the larger Juneau Icefield. This icefield extends into Canada and farther south. The Mendenhall Glacier (which is where the Juneau dog camp is located) is also part of this same icefield.

Is it moving?

Yes, although very slowly. A glacier is basically a very, very slow river of ice. Evidence of this movement can be seen by crevasses and other glacier formations.

The bottom of the glacier is a huge icefield that is constantly moving and the camp has to be moved around every 2-3 weeks.

 

Skagway Alaska, July 2011


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