1. Get on the road conveniently named “Chena Hot Springs Road”
2. Drive about 60 miles until the road ends and you find yourself in the parking lot of the Chena Hot Springs Resort.
There’s not much else along that road, so it’s pretty hard to get lost. That’s a good thing, because it was dang cold that day. The wind was blowing, and the cold was the kind that makes your nostrils stick together when you inhale; getting lost around there that day would have been a Very Bad Thing.
After settling in, the first item on the agenda was to take a dog sled ride while it was still light. Since Ray and Rebecca can do that anytime, they decided to pass on going for a ride in the freezing wind, but instead focused on getting me bundled up for the experience.
Rebecca lent me her versatile fur hat, which you can wear down like this on a cold day:
For the rest of the time we spent at the resort, we always knew when a dog sled was preparing to embark, because no matter where we were at the resort, we could hear the dogs do their “Oooh! Oooh! Pick Me! Let me pull the sled!” howling in advance of the run.
Laura got the dogs all harnessed up, I climbed on the sled, put a caribou robe over me, and we took off through the snow. Here’s a little video of the ride:
I had wanted to take a longer video, but because I had removed my bulky glove in order to operate the camera, my bare right hand was so cold that it hurt. I couldn’t tolerate having it out any longer, and so I stopped the video to put my hand in a pocket, and eventually replaced the glove when we stopped. (After that experience, I learned to wear a thin glove on my right hand, so I could operate the camera with it on, and continued to wear the bulky glove on my left hand. That’s why I have mis-matched gloves in my later photos. It just dawned on me, as I was writing this, why my right hand has been slightly red and swollen, and the skin was peeling off as if I had been sunburned, all week. Thankfully, it's back to normal now.).
Laura was a great musher. She took me over a beaver pond where the resort is harvesting large blocks of ice for the art in the nearby ice museum. She told me the names of each of the dogs, a little about their personalities, and a little about the jobs that are associated with each position in the team.
The dogs closest to the sled are called the “wheels”, and are critically important because they are the ones that bear the brunt of turning the sled around the corners. The lead dogs are also extremely important, as they respond to her voice commands. She told me that some dogs were natural born leaders, and others just didn’t know what to do without another dog in front of them.
One of the dogs had been in the Iditerod several times, and was sent to Chena Hot Springs for his retirement. Another dog was a great lead dog when he was on a real trek, but got bored when he had to take tourists on the same trail over and over again, and so he would mischievously try to lead the other dogs up and over banks and off the trail when he could.
She pointed out the youngest dogs in the team, and I could see they weren’t as skillful in the harness as the other dogs were; at times, the two of them would both be on the same side of the harness.
We stopped in a beautiful clearing, where Laura took these photos of us all.
After we returned to the kennels, Laura gave me the chance to pet and interact with each of the dogs. As a person who hasn’t been around dogs much, I’m generally uncomfortable around them. But I found myself very comfortable around these dogs. They were calm and friendly. One of the inexperienced dogs was so excited to interact that he got a little tangled up in the harness as he tried to jump to see me.
The black lead dog was especially gregarious. As I walked around petting the other dogs, he really wanted my attention. He came up and leaned against my legs. I petted him for a while, but then went back to interacting with the other dogs. He leaned against my legs more, and so I petted him more. When I stood up straight to chat with Laura, he couldn’t stand not having my attention, so he stood up in front of me on his hind legs, placed his paws on my shoulders and his face right in mine so I could ignore him no longer. Hello doggy!
After I finished chatting with Laura and petting the dogs, I happily walked back to our room, smiling inside about what a beautiful experience that had been.