Meeting huskies and going on a sled ride in the summer!

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 being long gone this tour also promised us a sled ride – how could we turn down this opportunity. So, we set 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 center 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 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 kennels. 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 through 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, colors 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 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 route we got instructed on the basics of mushing. All too soon we were back at the kennels.

The next stop on our 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 but the apparent 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.

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