No better day lived!
It’s probably a little-known fact that sled dogs poop on the run, but it comes as a bit of a jolt when you’re in the lead sled seat and discover it for yourself. They do. They’re trained that way, and the next generation of Iditarod dogs is already learning this distinctive skill as they summer at Mendenhall Glacier Sled Dog Summer Camp in Juneau, Alaska. We met upcoming teams of 9-week and 13-week old Huskies who will literally be following in their parents’ footsteps.
The tour begins with a ticket purchase and a weight check. Both are disturbing, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for which there is no substitute. So you do what you have to do to make it happen. Assigned seating in the helicopter from the helipad to the glacier is based on weight balance in the aircraft.
The guides will show you a quick safety video about making sure you heed their directions and stay in the yellow lines when entering and exiting the helicopter, and you’ll have to sign the waiver in case you forget and walk into a blade. The ten minute helicopter ride is the most beautiful scenery your eyes will ever behold, there above the snow-capped mountains with rivers, streams, and creeks the basins for the outpouring of melting glacial ice plummeting to the depths below, attracting krill – and therefore whales – to these waters. And then – – then – – then, you round a mountaintop and there below, you see the spectacularly striated Mendenhall Glacier, with its variegated white and blue layers of ice. It’s nothing short of spectacular, and you have to catch your breath for a moment. The beauty up and slaps you square in the face.
You see the equivalent of flotsam and jetsam in the snow below and wonder what in the world it is, and through your helicopter earphones they tell you. That’s dog camp. There’s a United States flag and an Alaska flag staked right in the 30 feet of snow that you’ll be walking around on in the glacier boots that fit snugly over your own shoes and gather your pants at the ankle shins, buckling tightly there to keep your legs warm.
Next, you meet the mushers and the dogs. You take turns “driving” the sled, which basically means you lean the opposite way if the sled begins to tilt. It’s still all about weight distribution and balance. The musher uses voice commands and a snow anchor to take the dogs on their trek, and they know left from right with words like “HA!” They also know the sounds of the clicks of her tongue. Yes, our musher was a female college student from Savannah, Georgia, attending school in Fairbanks and working at the dog camp for the summer so she can train her dogs for the Iditarod, which she has already successfully completed, along with two of the lead dogs on this team pulling us. Just like helicopter weight balances, these dogs are strategically placed for their muscle and demeanor. Her two most muscular but calm sled dogs are placed in the front, and the next two most muscular but a bit more anxious dogs are at the rear where they are closest to the weight of the sled but chomping at the bit to follow their team.
The sled stops at various points along the way for those on this adventure to rotate seats on the sled. Each seat offers a different perspective. And it also offers the musher the opportunity to once again untangle Pumpkin, who is a master at getting criss-crossed in the ropes, because Pumpkin hasn’t quite yet mastered the art of pooping on the run. But her musher obviously is holding out hope for this dog, sweetly petting her face and telling her that she thinks she’s smart before asking her, “Can you believe I said that about you, Pumpkin?”
High above us, at the top of the mountain, thunder! A small avalanche came rushing down. We saw the evidence of danger and realized the risks of hiking mountains in the snow. The musher pointed out the pile of broken-rock looking snow at the base of a nearby mountain, telling us that this particular avalanche had occurred last week. Her buddy had been planning to scale the rocks of this one, but after the avalanche told us that he valued his life more than the view. When we saw two hikers at the summit of a high mountain from the helicopter on the way back, we knew the risks they’d taken to get to where they stood, and there were no success t-shirts proclaiming their accomplishment waiting for them up there.
After our ride, we met the entire team of sled dogs. We even saw one named Boo and thought fondly of our own Boo Radley, currently kenneled at the groomer’s, no doubt cussing us in forbidden dog language for leaving him with his brothers in one small space. Now that we know what true teamwork means for dogs, we’ll be training our schnoodles to work together more. To collaborate. To poop on the run.
Before the return ride, we met the puppies and got to hold and hug them. The spirit of the team is already alive, thriving. In the picture where I am holding the puppy, his attention is not solely on me. He is yearning to be returned to the pen, to his team of brothers and sisters, where his heart is. He is the future generation of sled dogs, and you can already see it in his heart.
He is right where he belongs on this glacier.