Dogsledding in Alaska - How I became a musher in 3 cold days
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
My hands are shaking as I step onto the back of my rig.
Twenty-one dogs hitched to three mushing sleds are lunging excitedly in their harnesses, howling and barking at an almost unbearable decibel. On the previous two mornings,I had some help controlling the dogs at the start. But today, as we leave the isolated Sushana wilderness cabin, I'm on my own.
There are three moves required to manage a controlled morning start without falling off the back of a dog sled. And today, running the last team in our group, no one would be left to help me if I failed. The dogs positioned last in the group are the loudest and most frantic at starts, losing all patience and pretty much going ‘ballistic’ as they watch their friends enthusiastically dart off into the snow without them. Today is no different. My team is pretty much in a frenzy at this point and my heart is pounding.
I step nervously onto the claw brake with both feet. Our guide takes off first, leading the way with her team. My husband is in motion next, systematically releasing his restraints and quick to follow, his dogs howling in eager pursuit. My dogs reach fever pitch. My turn.
The next thirty seconds feel like an hour.
I quickly stoop over, maintaining pressure on the claw brake, yank on the fifteen pound boat anchor buried in the snow and heave it clumsily onto the top of my rig. The sled lurches forward, loosening my grip. The dogs, sensing some release of their restraint, double their efforts at engaging the sled and completely ignore my desperate shouts of ‘woah!!!’
My heart rate is soaring again as I grip the sled bar in semi-panic with one hand, and pul hard on the final rope securing the rig to a small tree. We're off! And I am streaking through the frigid sub–zero air, ducking small branches as the dogs frantically chase after the other teams.
And then, just as quickly as the excitement had escalated, all goes quiet – all but the low-level swish of the blades as they glide over the snow and the rhythmic panting of the dogs as they settle into their more sustainable trot.
I was mushing my own dogsled team.
And after three days, I was finally starting to get the hang of it.
When I first thought of a mid-March trip to Alaska, it was because of an article I read on an airline flight about the Northern Lights. I had always wanted to see the Aurora Borealis and the article stated that Fairbanks was prime position for viewing that time of year. Since getting to Fairbanks was a bit of a haul for only a weekend, I began researching what else we could do in the middle of winter in Alaska. When I say ‘we’ that includes my husband and partner in adventure. Although I do much of the travel planning in our household, he is the professional landscape photographer and always onboard with anything that involves the outdoors. You can check out some of his best work here, including images from this trip.
After doing some research and reading many of positive reviews, I decided to go with John Nierenberg at EarthSong Lodge. Reassured by his 20 plus years of mushing experience and his willingness to custom tailor a trip, we excitedly plunked down our money. At this time of year, John partners with Denali Touch of Wilderness Bed & Breakfast for the first night and then provides 3, 4, 5, 7 or 10-day trips into the snowy Alaskan Wilderness.
I am well known amongst friends for my willingness to jump into new adventures. Although I wouldn’t call myself highly skilled in any particular area, I have done everything from peak-bagging in Idaho to adventure-racing in Scotland, mountain trekking in Italy to road cycling in Iceland. However, my weakness is my sensitivity to cold. The idea of experiencing Alaska in the winter was, let’s just say, a little daunting. So, unsure of how much I would enjoy this new challenge, I opted for the 4-day, 3-night Sushana Cabin tour of Western Denali National Park. And when we were done, I wished we had stayed longer.
How it Works
With an EarthSong Dogsled tour, we actually learned how to mush our own teams. I initially had some silly idea that I’d maybe get a turn at holding ‘reigns’ of some sort but would mostly sit warm and cozy in a fur blanket in the sled, watching the Alaskan Wilderness go by as I sipped coffee out of a thermos. I was very wrong.
In three short days I became a dogsled musher.
On Day One, I was introduced to the dogs in the yard and started by watching the daily procedure to prep and harness each dog. I was never pressured and only needed to participate as much as I was comfortable. I am a dog-lover and typically immerse myself into almost any experience I take on. So naturally, I jumped right in. Once the sled and teams were set up, I actually did get to sit in the sled on the first run in order to get a feel for it. But after about an hour and a few lessons on vocal commands, I switched positions with the guide and took my place on the back runners. All of the first day was on fairly even terrain, so although I was nervous, I managed not to fall off the sled and the dogs actually followed a few of my commands. We ended this day with a warm meal and a comfortable bed at Denali Wilderness Bed & Breakfast.
The next morning, we woke up to bluebird skies and…. minus 30 degree temperatures. No lie. My nostril hairs froze within two inhalations when I stepped outside. Although slightly panicked at the dramatic image of my frozen carcass on the Alaskan tundra, I put on the five layers I had brought with me, ski goggles, gloves with hand warmers, two pair of thick socks, a windproof beanie and walked stoically out to the car. Ten minutes later, I was shivering uncontrollably. Check out Nic's Cold Weather Photography Tips here.
Luckily, the first order of business on Day Two was to get fitted into these terrific arctic 'one-sie' pullovers with gigantic over-mitts and large insulated over-boots. I can honestly say it worked. I actually lasted eight hours that day in -20 degrees temps and did not get cold! We spent the rest of the morning practicing how to harness the dogs, learning each of their names and personalities, and loading the sleds. Then it was show time. On the second day, right from the start, we were in charge of our own sled teams. The vision of me chasing down a runaway dog-harnessed sled across the Alaskan tundra fleetingly crossed my mind. And I started to wonder if I had gotten in over my head.
Not a Passive Sport
When gliding over a fairly level snow field, a lot of time is spent just standing and riding. But overall, mushing is far more physical than I had ever imagined. At its least demanding, it involves frequent weight-shifting on the back of the runners to distribute pressure on the sled in different ways. This effects direction, facilitates turns and keeps the sled in the track of the team in front of you. Getting distracted could easily cause the sled to gradually veer off into fresh (and very deep) snow. This in turn, could lead to ‘dumping’ the sled as well as a sudden snow bath.
Negotiating inclines or small hills is the next-level challenge. The sled, with me on it, weighed more than the all of dogs combined. So when gliding downhill, the lines would become slack and the sled would run faster than, and potentially into, the back of the dogs. I controlled this line tension by creating drag through the brake pad with my foot.
On steeper terrain, I needed to step up control by using the steel ‘claw’ brake, which really dug into the snow. The most fun I had on the trip was on the last day as we returned on a section of trail called Moose Alley. Here, on a steep, winding, narrow trail through a forest of trees, I was in constant motion: ducking low branches, quickly weight shifting to skid the back of the sled laterally and make a hard turn, dragging the mat or claw brake at precisely the right time (sometimes while simultaneously weight-shifting) in order to keep the sled line tight and not careen into trees. The movement felt a little like downhill mountain biking. But imagine being tied to the biker in front of you.
Should this be intimidating to anyone who is not physically fit? No. I saw some teams who ran sleds with many more dogs. Our group ran with 6-7 dogs per sled. The guides knew we were physically fit and I believe they knew that we would enjoy, and could handle, the challenge of the terrain. They were right. However, two other guests from another tour that we encountered, ran with 9-10 dogs on each sled. This meant they simply had to hang on, keep their balance and they pretty much got a ‘free ride’. So anyone who has back issues, any physical limitations or simply would rather be a less active passenger, a dogsledding adventure is still possible. Just ask to run with more dogs.
So how exactly does a musher control or stop a team of overly excited dogs who love to run? This question crossed my mind on the first day, when I noticed that there were no reins on the sleds. The answer lay in a combination of braking and voice commands. As I mentioned, I could slow the dogs down a bit on level terrain by dragging the rubber ‘mat brake’ with one foot. But on hills, it didn’t have the gripping power of the steel claw brake. So to completely stop the dogs, I had to combine screaming, “woooahh!!!” energetically and putting one or both feet on the claw brake.
In the mornings, when the dogs were in their most excited state, a small boat anchor wedged into the ground provided additional resistance. And finally, as an extra backup for any premature false starts, a small rope clipped around a tree or post provided final restraint. This was a necessary precaution as once the boat anchor is pulled up, the claw plus my body weight alone was ineffective against seven strong, and highly motivated dogs.
Talking 'the Talk'
I learned the commands of “gee” and “haw” for right and left turns, as well as “up tight!” to tell the lead dog to sit still at the front in order to keep lines taught. I learned how to put a dog into ‘two-wheel drive’ by walking the dog by its collar up on its two rear feet. In the morning, this was the only way to control a dog’s excitement until he was hooked to the sled. Then there was the ”woah” command I mentioned, when I wanted to stop (not always effective) and “let’s go!” chirped assertively to get them running again.
This last command was also not always effective.These dogs are smart. On really steep hills, which increased their load as they ran, they would suddenly stop and look back at me as if to say,“hey, can we get a little help up here??”. This meant I either had to give several one-legged, scooter-like pushes on the ground beside the sled, or step off and run beside it until the ground leveled out. On one particularly steep hill, I had to summon all of my strength to push the sled from behind while screaming like a psychotic cheerleader “let’s go! let’s go! Let’s GOOO!!” Then, and if, my encouragement was successful, my push was effective and the sled managed to clear the hill, I still had to somehow hang onto the sled while running behind it. Sweating by now in my over-suit and close to exhaustion, I had a few near-misses trying to catch up and jump back up onto the runners. I think those little excited beasts would have happily run away with the refreshingly lighter load if I had missed a step. Gratefully, most of the uphill work was on the way out to the cabin. The days traveling over the tundra and the return route were either on level ground, or downhill.
I love animals of all types and I was initially concerned when I saw them sleeping outside in sub zero temperatures. I was also was amazed that they seemed to run more comfortably at -20 degrees, than they did at +20 degrees. My first lesson on the subject was a reminder by the guides regarding their ancestry. Indigenous Alaskans used these dogs for hauling gear and tracking game long before tourists wanted to learn how to mush. These dog breeds have adapted to the cold over time, run more efficiently in the cold and can actually tolerate sleeping in temperatures as cold as -50 degrees Fahrenheit. I would not have believed that last one, unless I had witnessed it myself. On one sub-zero degree night, we invited a few of the lead dogs into the cabin to sleep by the fire. But only one stayed. After ten or fifteen minutes, the other dogs were panting and pawing at the door to get outside, comfortably curling up into a ball on the frozen ground.
A couple of examples of this bizarre adaptation include counter-current circulation, thicker paw pads, two layer of fur and the curled up ‘sphere’ or ball position that maximizes the dogs low surface area to body volume ratio, thus reducing heat escape through radiation. You can read more about this breeds arctic temperature tolerance here.
Prior to this trip, when I thought about sled dogs, I would envision those fluffy Alaskan Malamutes or blue-eyed Siberian huskies. But the dogs used at the EarthSong Kennel are Alaskan huskies, the most common mushing breed, and the one most often used in the Iditarod race. These dogs are bred for temperament, intelligence, body type and endurance, and can vary in appearance. I was impressed how the guides knew all 18 to 20 dogs' unique personalities as well as their names. Some dogs would run more consistently next to others with less fighting. Other dogs worked harder if positioned in front or behind others. Some were sweet and eager for attention. Others were indifferent to our presence. That is, unless they saw us approaching their harness. Then the tail-wagging, restless pacing and impatient whining would start. I was amazed at how willing they were to have their legs threaded though the complex harnesses, and felt honored by their encouraging licks of patience whenever I put it on backwards or put a paw through an incorrect loop and had to start again. Dogs of any kind can be so sweet.
And then there was Doug.
On the first day, one of our guides told us about Doug: “Don’t freak out”, he warned – “this one sounds like something from ‘Star Wars’ when he’s excited”. Doug was an Iditarod veteran and loved to run. And every morning, Doug let you know you that he wished you would hurry up so he could just get on with it. With a deep-throated, scream-like vocalization that sounded more like Wookie than canine, Doug barely contain himself once harnessed and clipped to the sled. And the other dogs responded to his frenzy of adrenaline with a deafening, high-pitched chorus. I understood why the guides wore noise-cancelling headphones.
Courtney. What can I say about this 5’0 Mighty Mouse of a guide? She was fantastic. She and her husband Brian decided to live in Alaska and fell in love with mushing. John, no doubt impressed by their combined dedication, love for the dogs and strong work ethic, hired them to manage his kennel as well as lead many of the trips. When we arrived, Brian had just returned from a 5-day trip, so now it was Courtney’s turn. When we met her, she was all bundled up in her arctic over-suit, so her diminutive size was disguised. She handled even the most rambunctious dog with skill and authority, which impressed me further when I saw later in the cabin that she herself barely weighed one hundred pounds! And to add to her skill set, she was a patient instructor and full of knowledge about the area. Each night at the cabin, she single-handedly cared for all twenty-one dogs while we warmed up by the fire. She then went down to the frozen river to get large chunks of ice to melt on the wood-burning stove. The hot water was mixed with chucks of meat and fat to create a slurry meal for each dog. After the dogs were fed, she made the guests a hot meal. How she managed to cook such delicious, belly-rubbing pasta one night and then indulge us with steak and salmon the next, in the middle of the Alaskan Wilderness, I do not know.
But throughout all of this, although we knew she was as tired as we were, she maintained an infectious smile and engaged in interested conversation, all while in continual motion. She is one of the hardest working guides I have ever met. And to top it off, when poor weather resulted in our small cabin being filled with an additional three mushers, she volunteered without hesitation to sleep outside in the sled. In – 20 degrees! I could not make this up. She, wrapped in here arctic pullover, with a sub zero sleeping bag and her lead dog, climbed into her sled to sleep. The woman is seriously hard core.
I won't lie, it was tough for me at times. But I loved it. This experience pushed my boundaries on cold tolerance and reiterated what I knew from other sports, that good gear makes all the difference. Dogsledding in Alaska was an experience that provided a unique perspective on a way of life that I had never seen before. The quiet serenity of this vast, pristine part of the world was soothing to my soul. It was a chance to get away from the noise of the city, back into nature and see an aspect of life that was incredibly foreign to me. Alaska has fierce beauty and can be challenging. But under knowledgeable guidance, I safely learned and experienced something new and unique. And yes, we did get to see the Northern lights on one of the nights. Although we had to get up at One am and the temperature was sub zero, we were rewarded by the beautiful eerie green display of the Aurora Borealis. Would I do it again? You bet. And I’d do a longer trip. Courtney showed me a side of my mental toughness and physical tolerance that I didn’t know existed.
But I’m still not sleeping in the sled.
A Final Suggestion
If you are intrigued and are considering this adventure, I also highly recommend doing an aerial tour beforehand of Denali National Park with Talkeetna Air Taxi. This company has a long reputation for expedition and logistical support for both climbers and backcountry skiers. And their multi-generational family of pilots is phenomenal. I personally felt that the tour was worth every penny that we spent. I felt like I could reach out and touch the mountains! Staying at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge is another great choice due to its location to the airfield as well as its fantastic sunset views of Denali.
Take a look at some of these photos if you still need convincing.