Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mushing with the Sled Dogs

My “1000 Places to See Before You Die” book mentions Chena Hot Springs as an ideal place to view the Northern Lights, so we made arrangements to spend a night there. Getting there from Fairbanks involves two easy steps:

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:

Or, you can wear the hat with the pom-poms on the earflaps tied up at the top of your head, like this, for those nice balmy days they get up there occasionally in the Arctic:

(I'm also wearing Rebecca's adjustable facemask under the hat--that's the black part around my neck, which is not part of the hat.)

Ray lent me his serious winter coat, which was pretty long on me and made me feel invincible, in a “Michelin Man” sort of way. With four layers of clothing, a face mask, good boots, and Ray and Rebecca’s gear, I was ready to face the weather.

I’m not sure exactly why, but there was something about my “Eskimo Michelin Man” outfit that made people smile when they saw me. So I smiled back. I was very happy to be there.

I did find, however, that smiling in the bitter cold made my teeth hurt, so when I was outside, I tried to limit my smiling to only those times when it was absolutely necessary. Like when I was getting my photo taken, or when I was meeting someone...other than that, I didn't allow myself any frivolous smiles.

I walked to the kennels, and the first person I met was Laura, the musher who took me out for a ride. Here she is with her personal pet dog in the sled.

When I first arrived, all the sled dogs were calmly relaxing in their little houses, but once they saw her bring out the harness, the dogs went CRAZY. Here’s a video clip of how they acted:

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.

Me, with my right hand still in my pocket under the caribou robe:

Here I am with Laura’s personal pet dog, not an official member of the sled team, but not tethered up so he was able to follow us to join the fun.

Here is the pair of young, inexperienced dogs:

Here is a photo of the lead dogs:

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.


Lori said...

I LOVE DOGS!! This has been my favorite post so far. What a thrill this must have been. I am so loving this. Thank you so much for taking us on this ride.

Grandma Kate said...

Oh my goodness, that is absolutely heaven to me. I use to own two Alaskan Malamutes and they were the loves of my life. Well, I've never met a dog that I didn't love, but I'll do a better job keeping Sophie off of you now that I know you are uncomfortable around dogs. The pictures are wonderful - thanks for sharing.

Becca's Blog said...

That is just so cool to me! You have been able to experience so many neat things. What a fabulous trip of a life time!