Seated in front of the dogsled with my son David and the driver both standing behind, I was hanging on for dear life as 16 dogs whisked us across the Godwin Glacier, high in the Kenai Mountains east of Seward.
It was a challenge to take photos and hang on as the canine-powered sled quickly gained speed, bouncing over ruts on the snowy trail that was now softening under the high-angled sun of the Summer Solstice.
“Hang on,” the driver yelled, as we made a sharp turn uphill.
My son and I are lifetime Alaskans, but it was our first dogsled ride.
What amazed us was the power of 16 harnessed dogs. The next thing we noticed was the team’s focus and discipline. These dogs, the guides told us, were thoroughly trained from the time they were four or five months old.
Getting started: We began our helicopter tour to the glacier at the Seward Airport, just outside of town.
After crossing Resurrection Bay, soon passed over the blue buildings of Spring Creek Correctional Facility, termed one of the most “scenic” maximum security prisons in the nation.
The helicopter then climbed upward following the 4th of July Creek drainage. The entire flight to the glacier was no more than 12 minutes, but it seemed like we entered a world unto its own. In less than a quarter of an hour and 12 miles, we had left the green of summer and stepped into a winter world of ice and snow.
Descending onto the Godwin Glacier at an elevation of 3,700 feet, we came upon what could only be described as a “dog city,” with row upon row of dog houses. Along with a couple of small, Quonset-style dwellings, the camp looked strange in this glacier wilderness.
“It took a lot of helicopter sling loads to get the entire camp, dogs and other equipment up here,” the guide said. “And throughout the summer we have to keep moving the camp.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the snow over the glacier is always melting,” he replied. “The snow level drops about eight inches on any given day. It plays havoc with the stability of our skid-mounted buildings and the dog houses.”
We were told that at this location, the snow depth was about 90 feet and beneath it, the glacier ice was about 1,000 feet deep.
“We picked this spot because there are very few crevasses, if any,” he said. “It’s very stable. Each year before beginning the tours (May-September) we survey the area and check to see if surface conditions have changed.”
Meeting the dogs: About mid-point in the two-mile dogsled ride we stopped for a rest. It gave David and me a chance to meet the dogs and take a few more photos.
The dogs have interesting name like Athena, Zeus, Zema, Kermit, Gremlin and Madori; to name a few, and each one responds well to its name, even with strangers.
“They all have different personalities,” the guide said. “We’re with them all summer and really get to know their quirks and attitudes.”
Back at camp we were introduced to three puppies that would eventually become sled dogs. Jumping energetically, they seemed eager to get out of the pen and join their adult counterparts.
More than an hour had passed since we landed on the glacier and I could already tell that sun block was needed. Under clear blue skies, the temperature was about 60 degrees. Jackets soon came off. I opened a thermos of coffee and sat down to enjoy the view.
Before long, the pilot told us it was time to head out and return to Seward.
“I wish we didn’t have to leave,” I told David. “Being here makes me feel like a time traveler. Much of southern Alaska looked like this 10,000 years ago.”
“I agree,” he said. “This is awesome.”
For more information on the Godwin Glacier Dogsled Tours, go to: sewardhelicopters.com and click on “Glacier Dog Sledding.”
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher. To reach Frank Baker, email: firstname.lastname@example.org