Dog Mushing in Alaska

On Martin Luther King day I got to take a new ride out for a spin.This ‘ride’ was not like many you find in the lower 48! It had 16 legs and accelerated like a drag racer; when the dogs at Black Spruce Dog Sledding take off they do so with gusto! Check out the video below for an excerpt of an afternoon of mushing!

This actually wasn’t my first dog-sledding rodeo, but it was 11 years ago that I was on a on a dog sled. Some things I remembered well. For instance, I remembered the excitement! As you stand on the rear of the sled and the dogs are baying and pulling against the gangline the feeling of thrill builds! When the quick release (a rope and pin tied to a non-moving object) is pulled the team takes off like a race car. Rule #1 is to hold on!  From the kennels we headed out with our tag-sled team for a 13 mile loop. The dogs settled into a rhythm of about 7 mph on the uphills and ~10 mph on the flats. That is the pace that Jeff tries for when racing his dogs for mid-distance (300 mile) and longer races (1000 mile Yukon Quest or 2000 mile Iditarod). The constant pace of the run is essential for the dogs, they perform the best by establishing that pace.

On this particular trail it’s not long before the beginner’s baptism-by-fire comes into a view. A 90 degree turn after a road crossing was looming and my senses were keen as I considered how to navigate the obstacle. Jeff coached me by telling me to lean into the turn and try to stand on one ski while peddling one foot on the outside of the turn. He deftly performed the lesson he gave to me and I deftly tipped the sled into the snow bank! “I’m Down!” was all I had to call before Jeff had put on the break and I righted myself. Rule #2 – hold on during a fall! Fortunately, it was the only time I dumped the sled on our tag-sled tour. However, that doesn’t mean other section did not feel harrowing! On steeper down hills it was critical to keep plenty of weight on the drag to slow the sled and the team down. Zipping between black spruce trees we hurtled over snow drifts, wound through tight corridors, and leaned around turns. It’s amazing to me how mentally active you have to be when riding with a dog team in those conditions! Anticipating the turn or terrain ahead was essential to placing my weight correctly in the sled. Being centered, on the left ski, or the right ski changed how well I coped with the turns and the terrain.

I think it took me about five miles to start to feel comfortable in the sled. I no longer felt that I was going to tip at each turn and I began to feel my body relax. The smile which had not left my face since take off was still glued on. The joy of running with the dogs is infectious and the beauty of the scenery was unforgettable.  During the night and morning a heavy ice fog had built up scales of hoar frost on the trees. The encapsulated trees glinted in the sun that burned through the fog bank. We concluded our 13 mile tag sled run (2 sleds pulled by a larger team), and then I took my own 4 dog team out for a short, local loop. It was great to test my skills with my own (albeit smaller, but more manageable) team! By the time I left that day the sun, now low in the sky, ricocheted through the gem-encrusted limbs in an orange light ending a truly great day!

For more information on the kennels you can always check out : http://blacksprucedogsledding.com/

Gray Jay Black Spruce Dog Sledding
At the kennels the Gray Jay is a food thief. All food containers have to stay closed to keep these marauders out!
Laughing Sled Dog
We stopped to tell some jokes along the trail – I guess Inferno thought they were pretty doggone funny! 🙂 In reality though, each time we stopped the dogs LOVE to dive through the powder that their ganglines allow. Here, the dog “Inferno” is enjoying a roll in the snow.
Sled Dog Profile
Take a break – but ready to run!
My team of 4 is taking a quick breather - but they're ready to keep running!
My team of 4 is taking a quick breather – but they’re ready to keep running!
The sun breaks on the hillside behind black spruce encrusted in hoar frost.
The sun breaks on the hillside behind black spruce encrusted in hoar frost.
The hoar frost built an intricate lattice of ice on each needle of this black spruce. Quite pretty!
The hoar frost built an intricate lattice of ice on each needle of this black spruce. Quite pretty!
Hoar Frost builds up up on a black spruce limb. Look at the size of those crystals!
Hoar Frost builds up up on a black spruce limb. Look at the size of those crystals!
A shrub with a heavy layer of hoar frost was illuminated by the setting sun.
A shrub with a heavy layer of hoar frost was illuminated by the setting sun.
A frosty beard after the 13mile tag-sled run!
A frosty beard after the 13mile tag-sled run!

18 thoughts on “Dog Mushing in Alaska”

  1. You are right, Ian, there is like running a dog sled. I’d say it’s a great joy. One can’t help but be happy since the dogs are so excited and eager to run. Yes, the first rule really IS “Never let go of the sled.” If a musher ever does, the first question he/she will be asked is, “Why did you let go of the sled?” (Over and over and over.) It’s a huge embarrassment. Tipping, sliding, falling, and being dragged are no big deal; letting go is a different story. I’m glad you had such a good experience.

      1. Waaaay too long. It’s been over 30 years now, but I did do some work in the chutes at races after that. I still have my sled, so I haven’t given up the idea of sledding again. Of course, since it’s not just about “riding,” it gets more challenging!

  2. Happy dogs…tails wagging, canine grins. Not sure if they can uproariously laugh, though, as I did as I read/watched this masterpiece. The mobile-selfie was epic! I was fascinated by how ‘crooked’ your number 3 dog ran, Most dogs run as though they need a wheel alignment. But he took this to the extreme…almost as though RR leg was too short! Fun followup to a fun day!

    1. Yeah, Jeff was explaining that some dogs just ‘crab’ and they always do it in the same direction. So, the solution : put them on the other side of the line so they crab to the center!

  3. You had the same smile in the video as you did mushing eleven years ago at Scout camp:) It is a vivid, wonderful image I have of you coming up over the hill, long, blondish locks flying in the wind wake created by the dogs as they hurtled along the trail and that smile pasted or frozen on your face. As I recall, you yelled “haw’ and made that 90 degree turn almost effortlessly. Others, as I recall, were not so fortunate. Looks like an epic day! I love the name “Inferno”!

  4. I just watched your video again. Gosh, it’s such fun to hear those dogs and see how happy they are. There are people who call sled dog owners cruel and inhumane for using their dogs for the purpose they were bred for. If the critics could understand how much the dogs love their “work” and that pulling/running is relative freedom for the dogs, perhaps it would change some people’s minds. My 1st cousin-once-removed lived by Rothsay and owned about 45 sled dogs. The sound of excited dogs was what I heard every time I drove into the farm yard. Good memories. Looks as if you’re making some, too.

  5. Wonderful photography! Just viewing your photos and videos brings me such joy and excitement for the upcoming trip I have planned there. I do hope to be able to try dog sledding. An experience of a lifetime! Thank you for sharing all of this wonderment. I truly enjoy it immensely.

    1. In my experience, sled dogs roll in the snow to cool off. Snow both insulates and cools, so it serves them well. I don’t doubt the dogs love snow. Perhaps, Ian observed something more.

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