Sunday, August 05, 2007

Vacation In Pictures -- Day Skagway -- Part Two

After the parade was over, Blaine, Renee and I found a local bakery and had coffee, hot chocolate and croissants while waiting for time for our excursion. (Oh, who am I kidding? Blaine had coffee … black … and *I* had hot chocolate and croissants, wondering all the while why I have a weight problem and he doesn’t.)

The day had started out overcast and cool -- I’ll admit, I had gotten a bit spoiled with all the warm, sunny weather we had encountered, and was hoping the sun would break through in Skagway, as well. Instead, as we made our way to the Temsco offices for our dogsledding excursion, it started misting, then drizzling, then downright raining on us. The walk was only ten minutes or so, but it was miserable and cold and I worried the entire afternoon would be like this. Nothing smells worse than wet dog, and I sure didn’t want this trip to take place in the rain.

We arrived at their offices, were greeted by name, watched a safety video, were WEIGHED (does the humiliation get any worse?) and then were given glacier boots and a safety vest. If excitement were electricity, you could have hooked me up and powered Manhattan right about then.

Our ride:

We got all settled in and buckled up, and took off from the landing pad. What I found funny was that Blaine, whose undergraduate degree is in aerospace engineering, has always stood firm by his belief that helicopters are aerodynamically unsound and honestly, defy the laws of physics and have no business staying in the air. He used to be required to take helicopters to the missile sites in North Dakota when the roads were too bad for driving, and he would grumble and bitch about it the entire time, and swore that he would never fly in a helicopter again once he was released from missile duty. And all those years, at all those state fairs, when I wanted to take the kids up in helicopter rides … he refused to allow it, stating bluntly it was unsafe. But there we went, up in a helicopter, over frozen tundra no less, without a backwards glance or complaint from him. I guess sometimes the excitement of a vacation can make a person, even an aerospace engineer, forget about gravity and those pesky laws of physics.

The views from the helicopter were amazing. I felt very “Into Thin Air”-ish, and can only assume Mt. Everest must look similar. Except those people climbing Mt. Everest are actually hiking and trekking and using ice axe-picks and crampons on their shoes and freezing to death, and not riding in a heated helicopter, protected from the elements and listening in on two-way radios. But still? Awesome views. The pilot provided us with a running commentary on the sights -- mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, trees, oceans, etc., below.

The flight lasted about fifteen minutes, and then we arrived at the dog camp, which was at an altitude of approx 7000 feet. There were five teams of thirty dogs apiece, for a total of 150 animals. Each team had a handler and a helper, although our handler was quick to tell us that the helper is the one doing all the dirty work. How dirty? Well, let’s just say that 150 dogs leave a lot of “presents” in the area. This dog sled camp is located in a national park, so they are not allowed to leave anything -- ANYTHING -- in the area. It’s a working camp, so the dogs each have their own doghouse and are kept chained unless they are pulling a sled. Of course they rotate the dogs for work, and they are continuously moving the chains so the area doesn’t get too icky each day.

I was a little dumbfounded to think about how much work is involved to keep the place tidy. Every piece of poop gets picked up and flown back down the mountain. It was actually quite fascinating. (The maintenance of the camp; not the poop.) They fly all supplies (including the dogs, of course) in, and ship all trash, back out. They don’t have running water, so even the dirty water that is used to wash dishes is shipped back down in the helicopters. At the end of our tour we got to tour the kitchen tent and meet the woman who cooks, three squares a day, for twenty five grown men, without running water or electricity. Everything is run on a generator, including her teeny tiny stove, and the refrigerator is a hole cut in the floor where they set items directly on the snow.

I mean, think about it. Here at my house, I have a sink, fridge, oven, stove, microwave, crock pot, blender, food processor, electricity and running water, and some days am too challenged to get a hot meal on the table for my family of five. This woman cooks three meals a day, for near thirty adults, in a tent the size of my master bathroom, AND keeps a clean kitchen at that, with pretty much a Bunsen burner and washes dishes in a bucket. And she is really, really good at her job … I know this because she gave us warm, freshly-baked cookies when we were through. And they WEREN’T break-apart fridge cookies! Honestly, I was fascinated and could talk even more about it, but want to show you the pictures of the highlight of the trip.

We met our handler, who talked to us briefly about the running of the camp and his own team of dogs. We chatted about what motivates someone to do this sort of thing for a living, what goes into an Iditarod champion, and what these handlers do with their dogs in the off-season. He must get asked the same questions over and over, but he was a good sport and was polite about everything. It was all really, truly interesting. Then, the moment we had been waiting for. He had ten fresh dogs attached to a four-person sled; two people riding and two people “mushing”. I’m not going to pretend that he wasn’t doing 99% of the actual mushing, but it was still exhilarating to be along for the ride.

We went about half a mile (maybe more? It’s hard to tell how fast you’re going, and of course, it’s hard to judge distance when you are on top of a glacier and everything is white and frozen and looks exactly the same!) Then we stopped and got to meet his dogs, more up-close and personal.

{You wouldn’t believe the amount of dog hair these bad boys were shedding. And I thought Lager shed a lot, it was nothing compared to these winter working dogs!}

This was the one excursion that Keith absolutely, positively, no-way-he-is-changing-his-mind, refused to join us on. He was deathly certain that we were all going to be gobbled up by a polar bear on the glacier and nothing we could say, and nothing the dog handlers could say, about no bear in his right mind going anywhere near a camp with 150 barking dogs in it, could change his mind. While I never want to deny a person their opinions, I have to say, he missed one hell of a time.

And he couldn’t have been more wrong. I mean, do you *SEE* any danger here? What on *EARTH* was he afraid of?????

The animals were beautiful, friendly, obviously love their "job", and surprisingly calm:

A few figured if *WE* were resting, then they were going to rest, too:

Then we loaded up again and headed back to the camp. The actual dog-sledding part of the trip probably only lasted half an hour, but it was so enjoyable. We stopped again and switched places so we all three had an opportunity to be the back “musher” and although I wondered if it might be lame, I have to tell you, it was really, really fun. Probably the funnest thing we did the entire week. I mean, think about it. How many people get the chance to say they’ve driven a dog sled, across a glacier, in Alaska????

{We do, that's who!}

Then, when we got back to the camp, and before touring the kitchen and eating all her cookies, we spend a few minutes getting to visit the puppies they had at camp that were not yet old enough to be trained.

{I got about twenty pictures of Renee with this dog, but in pretty much every single one, the dog is licking her on the face, or in the ear, or even once up her nose. It was a damn friendly dog, let me tell you.}

{Cute, too.}

{And thus ends pretty much the coolest, most awesome Alaska excursion ever!}


Anonymous said...

Ok, I'll ask......what did the dog handler say does motivate them to do what they do? Im fascinated to know?
Bonita In AZ

MakesMeSmile said...

I have truly enjoyed reading about your trip. The pictures are awesome, but your narrative just really sells everything. Thanks for sharing.

Grove City OH

The Running Girl said...

I've been gone a few days and just know got caught up on your adventures. The dog sled adventure looks fantastic and when we go on a cruise to Alaska (even if it may be years from now), we'll definitely do that one.

lizinsumner said...

My vbff, and her husband and son, her parents, her brother, his wife and kids and in-laws all left out of Seattle last Friday for a week long cruise up to Alaska, so reading about your vacation makes me hope that they're having as much fun as you guys did. This was one of those "take a trip with the folks before it's too late" type of things, you know, and I must say that she was REALLY apprehensive about it. She promised me that they would take no plane excursions!! I love your pictures and commentary - but, I'm sorry, I just HAVE to ask: did Keith do ANYTHING on the cruise??!!! Bless his heart - I may have just found someone in this world who is MORE chicken**## than I am!!!!!!!

As for Blaine being an aeronautical engineer - why, oh why are you guys not moving to Seattle the minute the clock says "military retirement" and applying at Boeing??!!! Do you not know how much Boeing LOVES to hire military retirees - not to mention ones with aeronautical degrees??? Do you not know how much they would pay him????!!!! Right now I work with an ex-nuclear sub commander, retired from the Navy, and I'd kill for his paycheck!!!!!! Which, of course, doesn't count the navy retirement check.Sell the house(s) in OK and move up HERE! Bet I could get Blaine hired in less than a week.......

Anonymous said...

Love it all!!! The dogs are adorable, too bad Keith had issues, looks like he missed a whole lot.
Janice in TX

krueth said...

What a fabulous time you must have had. I just love reading about your vacation...I cannot believe all the snow and Ice up there, but glad its there and not here..ugh! I wondered also, what did Keith do on the vacation? but I just love reading your blog. Wendy

Renee' said...

An absolutely perfect day!!!! My favorite on the trip.

Cathy said...

Hey, I would be "scared" of that freaky white polar/grizzly/casper the friendly ghoast looking creature that ya'll ran into on the sled dog trip! Keith was smart to stay far away!! I'm glad ya'll made it past him...or it...or whatever!! (heehee)

I'm telling ya....with all this hiking to remote waterfalls and walking around on glaciers (at high altitude I might add) you are going to be more than ready to take on the Midnight Sun Marathon with me!! You have one up on me....I've never even been to Alaska!!
Cathy in Suwanee

Jen Wilkins said...

It looks like you guys had so much fun!!! Alaska is SOOOOOOOOOOOOO on my list of places that I want to visit in my lifetime! The pictures of gorgeous.

Hey -- did you guys come to Tybee? I hope I didn't miss you! Let me know if you're coming -- you know you're welcome at the beach house at any time.


Anonymous said...

Really fascinating!

Dixie in CA