As experienced cruisers with hundreds of days on water, we often encounter want-to-be cruisers who ask where they should go. Alaska is our go-to answer.
Though we’ve explored Alaska several times, every visit reveals something new. Before our voyage last year on the Westerdam, friends and colleagues offered some well-heeled advice: take a flight and go dog sledding.
We were able to accomplish both on one exhilarating “Dog Sledding on Mendenhall Glacier by Helicopter” excursion in Juneau with Temsco Helicopters that we booked through Holland America.
First greeted outside Juneau’s pier terminal by the cordial, informative tour bus driver, we rode to a small airport about 20 minutes away. There, after an orientation and safely briefing, we were fitted with glacial overboots and paired with another couple for the helicopter ride and the dog sledding.
These choppers are built specifically for sightseeing with lots of windows and, of course, headsets to block noise from the blades plus hear info from the pilot. Quickly airborne, we saw Alaska’s bustling capital city. Gastineau Channel on one side, mountain on the other, the view soon became a live model railroad scene.
The pilot headed toward Mendenhall Glacier, crossing countless acres of wilderness comprised of the Tongass Rainforest, deep ravines plus mountainsides covered in timber and patches of snow. He suggested we keep an eye out for bear and moose, which we didn’t spot, but soon the glacier came into view filling the cabin with a sense of awe.
Constantly shooting photos and videos through the windows, we tried to capture the scene: White snow and ice, tinged with black sediment and flanked with aqua blue spires caused by pressure and sunlight trying to pass through the frozen water. An eerie sight was the other two copters that took off before us – now tiny specks in the distance.
We were in the air maybe 20 minutes when we began a slow descent onto the snow-covered glacier. What looks like a line of debris became more visible, and we realized it was the sled dog camp. What waited were around 300 very friendly Alaskan huskies.
Our landing was soft, made so by a thick carpet of snow. Both a U.S. and Alaska state flag welcomed us. When we stepped onto the snow, it was surprisingly slippery. Getting a firm foothold was tricky, but the overboots definitely helped as we eagerly trudged toward the camp to the tune of constant barking, as the dogs were eager, too. For some, it meant a chance to run, for which these dogs are specifically trained.
The camp has both human and animal shelters. Many of the dogs were standing atop their line-up of doghouses, arranged in rows like a military barracks.
Our sled driver was Jeremy. He and his wife have both participated in the famed Iditarod Race, the Super Bowl of mushing, where dogs and mushers race 938 miles in early March from Anchorage to Nome. These dogs need strength, stamina and the will of a Ninja Warrior competitor. Matching those qualities are the drivers who also train here.
Jeremy was friendly and jovial as he briefed us what to expect on our 25-minute-or-so ride. We and the other couple shared the dog team, switching from a front sled to one behind it halfway through our ride. When Jeremy shouted the order to mush, his wild-and-crazy dogs made our sled burst forward to a chorus of barking and yapping that raised our adrenaline level.
Bits of snow fly back at us as the team pulled with admirable force, making it feel like we were competing in the real race. That’s understandable because the dogs’ performance over the training season will determine which ones actually do get a shot at the Iditarod.
We easily glided to the halfway point, then stopped for a short break to take in the scenery and switch places with the other couple. This second leg was just as exhilarating as the first; our smiles felt as wide as the expanse of snow in all directions.
Back at the starting point, Jeremy told us the dogs’ names as he praised them for their good job. He talked about how their personalities differ and how the lead dog is especially chosen for keeping the others in line.
A final highlight for everyone on this excursion was not only the sledding itself, but the chance to hold and cuddle Alaskan sled dog puppies as a final photo op.
This three-hour excursion literally raced by, and though pricey was an unforgettable way to enjoy a unique glimpse into the 49th state.
Kathy M. Newbern and J.S. Fletcher of Raleigh, NC, are award-winning freelance travel writers and photographers specializing in cruising, spas and luxury destinations. This sailing was their 72nd cruise, and with the addition of Greenland and Iceland, they’ve now reported on 76 countries and each continent. They’ve written often about Holland America, including the Koningsdam and Nieuw Amsterdam most recently. Their travel writing also inspires their other venture, YourNovel.com, where they put any couple in their own personalized romance novel.