Lake George

Wild Knik River Lodge – Off the Beaten Path

Growing up in Palmer I can easily remember when parties were thrown around makeshift campfires in the exact spot that the Knik River Lodge now stands. I remember the trips out to Jim Creek and spending hot summer days playing in the river and exploring the braided banks. Local tales of wild adventures would spill out over s’mores as we camped out under the midnight sun.

Today, when you make the turn onto Knik River Road and follow along the banks of this mighty glacial waterway, snaking its way deep into the mountainous valley, it is easy to see how wild this space of Alaska still is. Overlooking the river valley and scouring the far banks for meandering wildlife, one wonders how long it would take to hike down to the river and what treasures might lay hidden in the sandbars. It can be a challenge to find wild spaces in the world today, and sometimes it can be just as difficult to take the time to experience them.

Often when we do take the time to travel, it is easy to quickly overload an itinerary to try to see and do as much as possible. Suddenly, there is a need for a vacation after a vacation, simply to recover from the vacation. I know this from recently planning my own vacation to explore the Oregon coast. I quickly had an overly enthusiastic itinerary to try and see the entire region, every brewery, each park, all the cute restaurants and of course get in a cheese tour – all in 4 days. That is not a vacation; that is a marathon.

Alaska is too big to see in one lifetime, even for a resident, let alone during a one-week vacation. But there are wild pieces that can be explored from different angles – riding in a helicopter, standing on a glacier, and of course vista gazing from a big wide deck with a fresh Alaska grown meal. At Knik River Lodge we hope guests have a chance to relax and make their own adventures from one location.

In planning my own vacation, I came to better appreciate the planning put in by our guests to try and balance the Alaska sized travel distances with truly having a vacation. Each summer we have the opportunity to share the lodge with guests, but it is not just the cabins and buildings, but rather a chance to share our wild space.

Knik Glacier Dogsledding Tour

Knik Glacier Dogsledding Tour

As our helicopter tour approached Troublesome Glacier near Palmer, Alaska, I had to blink a few times to make sure I was seeing properly. There, in the middle of the white snowy expanse, were forty dogs next to a neat grid of small kennels. They were barking and leaping excitedly. Four humans stood amongst the constant motion of dogs. The people and their dogs on the glacier, aside from the mountains and a tent, were the tallest shapes on the bright white and treeless landscape. We were landing on the glacier, in the middle of summer, to visit a dog sledding team.

Off the beaten path, this dog camp is set up in a place more remote than most people can fathom, yet it is a 50 minute drive and 20 minute helicopter ride away. So easy to get to, yet so far away. There are no roads leading to the glacier. There is no cell service. There are no permanent structures. Under the camp lies snow and then ice; fathomless deep blue depths of glacial ice crushing into the earth far below. Mountains jutting into the sky flank the glacier which drops into a lush river valley fed by additional nearby glaciers. Despite its name, Troublesome Glacier, there is nothing particularly troublesome about the glacier itself, except maybe its remote location.

The only way in and out is by helicopter. So – what on earth is a dog sledding team doing here?

Summer Dog Sledding In Alaska: Training Grounds for Winter Races

Contrary to what I’ve come to assume is popular belief over many conversations, Alaska summers are long and warm. It doesn’t actually snow here all year round, or at least not in most of the places people live. For dogs raised to pull sleds over distances, a practice called dog mushing (rhymes with “rushing”), summers are a time when these dogs lose their fitness. There’s no snow to run, so the dogs are much less active in summer months than is required each winter.

With no snow, summers are long for these dogs. “These dogs love to run and pull. Without winter, sled dogs grow restless. They were born and bred to run”, said our guide Sierra.

For this team, the owner Justin Savidis, six-time Iditarod race finisher, decided to pack his kennel up to a glacier during the summers. On Troublesome, there is snow year-round. A winning arrangement all around. The dogs stay happy. They stay fit and trained for the racing season. And visitors, like myself, pay for this once in a lifetime experience to experience dog sledding on a glacier – which in turn supports the upcoming season of dog mushing.

Managing Dogs On a Glacier, Not for the Faint of Heart

Generally, their summer season on the glacier runs from May through September. As you might imagine there are some unusual details in keeping dogs on a glacier for five months. It’s intense and in tents –handlers live in wall tents erected directly on the snow during their three-week shifts, and cook in a small communal wall tent. The crew take turns cooking and scrubbing pots after dinner. And then there are the dogs.

To start with, the dogs must actually get to and from the glacier itself. That means the dogs must be helicopter-shuttled in, about 13 at a time. The helicopters are modified for the rides accordingly. The seats come out. Dogs are seated next to dogs they’re friendly with, but if the pilot senses an altercation coming on s/he may tip the helicopter slightly to discourage a fight.

Each season requires about a ton of kibble to feed the full dog team– plus raw beef. These dogs are, after all, running. Sled dogs take in 4,500 calories a day, or more when they are doing distance races like the Iditarod.

But what happens to all that food after the dogs eat it, you might wonder? The dogs create over 3 gallons of waste per dog, per day. The kennels are cleaned five times a day by handlers to keep them clean, but then do they just flush the poop down a glacial crevasse somewhere?

The answer is of course, no. The operation must operate within parameters set by its permit through the State of Alaska, and any good steward knows you pack in what you pack out. For the dog poop, that means it leaves the glacier the same way the dogs and humans do: by helicopter.

Dogs Need Sunscreen on Glaciers

Another peculiarity of operating on a glacier is the sun glare. In Willow, the community just south of Denali where the dogs live in the winter, the routes the dogs take are tree-lined. Up on Troublesome, there are no trees. When the summer sun comes out and stays out it can create a hazard for dogs, particularly those with lighter fur.

The handlers not only sunscreen the dogs, but the white-fur dogs have black mascara applied underneath their eyes to prevent snow glare from harming them. Sled dogs with make up. That’s something I didn’t expect to see out on the glacier.

Finally, there is the glacier itself. The handlers are continually monitoring the glacier, which is a constantly shifting entity. If crevasses appear, they re-route the dog run, or move camp entirely.

Overall, the dogs’ main exercise during the summers will be tours like the one I’m on – a two mile route over soft late-summer snow. The dogs barked, leaped, and howled excitedly as we approached because they knew the helicopter meant they’d get to run. The experience of actually sledding behind them is surprisingly quiet. Aside from the slight clicks, whooshes, and panting from the dog, it’s an experience of vast silence even as we’re pulled into the expansive view. It sinks in how far away and surreal this place truly is; how far away from the hubbub of the world we are. I find myself wanting to stay in this moment, and even though I can’t I am grateful to bring it back home with me.

I know that the others on my tour feel similarly. One woman, a mother from Las Vegas, shakes her head as we approach the helicopter. “I’m mushing dogs in ALASKA, coming from Las Vegas,” she marvels. “It’s incredible.” I couldn’t agree with her more.

Knik Glacier from Helicopter

Knik Glacier Helicopter Tour – First Time Adventure

A friend once advised me to not overwhelm my out of town guests. Remember, she said – what you’re used to in Alaska is once-in-a-lifetime level adventure for many people. Take it easy and don’t cram too much on an itinerary.

I remembered this as I looked suspiciously at the helicopter. I was standing in what is practically my backyard, at the beautifully perched Knik River Lodge located just 20 minutes from my home in Palmer and a 50 minute drive north of Anchorage. The view was stunning; the braided shining river on expansive flats framed by deep green mountains cutting into the sky. I briefly wondered if I really needed to get in for my first helicopter tour, or if perhaps I could call it a day. Maybe this was just enough adventure. The lodge has a lovely restaurant with big windows, a deck, and wine.

A little girl on the helicopter flightseeing tour to the Knik Glacier was all confidence. “Don’t worry,” she told me. “It’s just like a plane, only a bubble.” We walked toward our ride, the little girl and her family of five buzzing about getting to go see the glacier.

It was a classic early August day in Alaska, feeling like early fall most other places. The air was cool. Silver clouds threaded the mountaintops, shifting slowly and revealing new scenery. Yet, I was dressed as though I was going sledding.

I followed the girl and the others in my group aboard the helicopter, stiffly pulling myself up into the compartment. I had my very own pair of headphones, like all the other people I’d seen in helicopters! I supposed that even if I was scared during my first helicopter ride ever, at least I’d get a crazy-eyed selfie.

The helicopter rumbled to life. And then it just kept rumbling and vibrating in a bigger and bigger way. Finally Pam, our pilot asked, ready? We rumbled our way right off the ground. As we gained height, we slowly started to turn. Now we were in the view.

The little girl and her cousins were excited and asking Pam questions as quickly as their microphones would allow. Pam was all smiles and answers, and it made me relieved to have both her calm and competent energy, combined with the kids’ enthusiasm. For me, my fear of heights was eclipsed by rounding the corner past the first mountainside.

Knik Glacier came in to full view

The whites and shocking bright blues of the massive, frozen waves of ice filled our windows. As we flew, I could see new cracks revealing deeper blues; the occasional aquamarine pond stood out in sharp relief to the white ice. I’d viewed Knik Glacier from far away, and even skirted it in the winter by bike. But I’d never seen it like this before. I had no idea how far it went and how massive it is, until that moment.

And, I had no idea that there was yet another glacier beyond Knik called Colony Glacier, which we now passed on our left.

I marveled, how is this all right here, in my backyard, and I didn’t know? How many people in Anchorage, a fifty minute drive away, have no idea that this is so accessible? How many tourists drive right past the Knik turnoff, on their way to catch a train as they try to somehow cram in all of Alaska to a seven day trip?

Meanwhile, the cousins continued questions over the headphones as we banked a turn toward yet another glacier: “Do bears like ice?” Pam laughed. “No, they don’t like ice at all!” She pointed out white dots on the steep shoulder of a mountain below and asked us if we knew what they were. “Those are Dall Sheep,” she said. The kids gave another round of “woah’s”.

The only time Pam politely told the kids she’d reply to their question in just a minute was when she was concentrating on landing the helicopter on the glacier. That seemed fair. We lowered down until we softly settled, then we waited for the rumbling to gradually subside. In a few minutes, we took turns stepping out onto the ice until we were all there; standing on the ice next to a helicopter in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

Glacier Experience

We had spikey crampons if we needed them, but the spot we’d landed was crusted with sand-like debris that made it easy to walk. There were small natural bores and holes that revealed deep blues. There was nothing nearby big enough to fall in but I still watched my step. The air was at least twenty degrees cooler than it was back at the lodge, and I was glad for my winter clothing. I stooped down to touch the ice. Underhand, the glacier felt slick and enormous – not like the rutted cavities of freezer cubes; but condensed. Pam explained that the deep blues were created by the enormous pressure of so much ice pressed down for so long. When I examined it up close, I noticed it was perfectly clear, with no bubbles.

Surrounded by undulating walls and jagged, car-sized spikes of ice, it was still difficult to really grasp the enormity of the glacier – even when I was standing on it.

Now that I was an old hand, getting back into the helicopter and taking off made me less anxious. Even easier was arriving back at the lodge, where the restaurant and my glass of wine were waiting. I walked the few steps back to my (freestanding!) cabin with the equally beautiful view; a porch with a flower basket framing the river valley, and took off my hat and snow pants before returning to the main lodge.

I’ll bookmark this place for my next visit of out-of-towners because while it’s Alaska at its best, it’s all the experience without the overwhelm.