Exploring Alaska's Kenai Peninsula: incredible wildlife and the disappearing glaciers
After spending the previous day at sea we decided to focus our last few days in Steward on terra firma. Since arriving in Alaska and Emily finding out about the existence of kennels for dog sledding huskies that were open to the public, we had been pressurized into visiting one of these establishments. Luckily enough one such place existed close to Seward. Despite this being summer and the snow is long gone this tour also promised us a sled ride – how could we turn down this opportunity. So, we set off to the “Iditaride” Dog Sled tour.
Dog sledding is a big winter sport here in Alaska and the blue riband event of the sledding world is the Iditarod, the largest sporting event in Alaska (which is not saying too much). The official website of this annual event best describes it:
“A race over 1,150 miles of the most extreme and beautiful terrain known to man: across mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra and windswept coastline”
Today the event starts in Anchorage before heading off into the vast Alaskan interior and finally ends up in the remote North Western coastal town of Nome. Amazingly, the fastest time to complete the Iditarod Trail sled dog race across Alaska, USA, is 8 days 3 hours 40 minutes 13 seconds by Mitch Seavey on 14 March 2017
The race is named after the town of Iditarod, which was an Athabaskan village before becoming the centre of the Inland Empire’s Iditarod Mining District in 1910, and then turning into a ghost town at the end of the local gold rush. The name Iditarod may be derived from the Athabaskan haiditarod, meaning “far distant place”. The event in part is a tribute to the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the “Great Race of Mercy.” A diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome, especially the Inuit children who had no immunity to the “white man’s disease,” and the nearest quantity of antitoxin was in Anchorage. Since the two available planes were both dismantled and had never been flown in the winter, Governor Scott Bone approved a safer route. The 20-pound (9 kg) cylinder of serum was sent by train 298 miles (480 km) from the southern port of Seward to Nenana, where it was passed just before midnight on January 27 to the first of twenty mushers and more than 100 dogs who relayed the package 674 miles (1,085 km) from Nenana to Nome. The dogs ran in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles (160 km).
Anyway back to our tour! The kennels are operated by the Seavey family, a multi-generation dog mushing industry. As noted above Mitch Seavey holds to the current fastest time for completing the Iditarod! Our first stop on the tour is to see the dogs. They have some 90 huskies at this particular kennel. They were all chained to stakes that were just far enough apart so the dogs cannot reach each other. Their only shelter is a small plastic kennel which they can barely fit into. Karen and Emily were pretty shocked by these conditions, especially when you realize these dogs live out here even though the harsh Alaskan winters. We are told the dogs are friendly, although the sight of us has got them all of a quiver as they know our arrival means some will be going out on a run. These dogs would not fit most people’s vision of a husky. They are skinny, wiry dogs of various shapes, colours and sizes; bred for racing. We are told the husky is a mutt – a mixture of dogs bred to be the perfect sled pulling beast. After the initial shock of seeing the dogs in these conditions, we got to go over and started petting and fussing some of the dogs and they were indeed friendly.
Next up was the sled ride. Eight of us climbed aboard what could best be described as a metal-framed cart – with wheels instead of runners. We sat and watched as the handlers untied 14 of the dogs and hitched them to harnesses on the front of our cart. The back of the cart was tied to a large post to stop us from being pulled away before our musher was ready. Our young guide/ musher untied the cart and after a couple of simple instructions, we headed off. The tour was around 20 minutes long but was punctuated by stops so the dogs didn’t overheat. In the balmy Alaskan summers, it is too hot for these guys – they prefer minus 40 Fahrenheit. Along the route, we got instructed on the basics of mushing. All too soon we were back at the kennels.
Our final stop on the tour was the breeding kennels where they have a litter of small puppies and some that were a few weeks older. We were introduced to Danny Seavey – one of Mitch Seavey’s sons. Emily is in her element as we were allowed to pick up and cuddle the smaller pups and go into the kennel and frolic with the older ones. There were also a couple of Melamutes in the breeding kennels. These dogs look more like the traditional image of huskies; hairy rounded faces and powerful features – real beasts of burden. Apparently, these dogs are strong and great for pulling big loads but are too slow for racing.
Our final stop was a lean to building where we were shown a video about dog sledding and our young musher friend showed us some of the essential equipment used in racing; from the sleds to clothing to food. This was a hands-on demonstration so Jack and Emily were willing volunteers to dress up in clothing that the mushers wear to preserve their life at frigid temperatures at minus 40F and lower.
Despite being saddened by the apparently harsh conditions in which the dogs were kept (we were assured this is the norm) we had a wonderful time and learnt a lot about a sport about which we had no idea.
Planning your visit to the IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours
If you have a car, driving to Seward is easy on the unbelievably scenic Seward Highway from Anchorage. Seward is 130 miles from Anchorage and driving time is 2.5-3 hours. However, I highly recommend giving yourself all day for this spectacular drive, since there are so many amazing things to do before you even get to Seward!
Best time to visit Seward
The best time of year to go to Seward is summer, between May and September. Although there is plenty to do in the winter, it will be cold and you’ll have fewer hours of daylight. In addition you’ll find that many businesses are closed.
Most businesses are open in Seward from mid-May through mid-September. Some are open a bit earlier or later. The first half of the summer has less rain than the second half of the summer, although you need to be ready for rain any day of the year.
Other things to do whilst in Seward
1. THE SEWARD HIGHWAY
In the southern coastal areas, south of the gigantic peaks of the Alaska Range of mountains, the weather is relatively temperate ( it is still cold by most people’s reckoning in the winter) and they get a lot of rain (and snow in the winter – the roadside snow markers are about 12 feet high!!). No need to worry about snow today though! Our route took us down the Seward Highway along a tidal estuary known as the Turnagain Arm. The views are amazing with steep, snow-covered mountains of the Chugach Range on either side of the estuary and visible far into the distance. Absolutely stunning!
2. EXIT GLACIER
3. NORTHWESTERN FJORD CRUISE
Another Alaskan summer’s day – cold with a low dank mist covering the mountains. We had an early start, and we wearily raise ourselves from our slumber, grabbed a quick breakfast from the provisions we bought at the local store and hit the road. The plan was to take a 9 ½ hour boat trip from Seward up the Northwestern Fjord, some 70 odd miles down the coast. The overcast weather put some doubt in our mind on this endeavour, but we had already bought the tickets, so we were committed to the trip.
Where to stay in Seward
1. BEAR LAKE LODGINGS B&B
Bear Lake Lodgings B&B has lake views, free WiFi and free private parking, located in Seward.
The units come with hardwood floors and feature a fully equipped kitchen with a fridge, a dining area, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels, and a private bathroom with shower and bathrobes. Some units have a seating area and/or a balcony.
An American breakfast is available each morning at the bed and breakfast.
Bear Lake Lodgings B&B has a sun terrace.
After a day of hiking, fishing or canoeing, guests can relax in the garden or in the shared lounge area.
Moose Pass is 21 miles from the accommodation, while Cooper Landing is 26 miles from the property.
2. EXIT GLACIER LODGE
3. SUNSHINE HOUSE BED & BREAKFAST
Featuring free WiFi, Sunshine House Bed and Breakfast offers accommodations in Seward. Free private parking is available on site.
Breakfast is provided daily at the property.
You can engage in various activities, such as fishing and canoeing.