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.