On our first morning in Alaska we meet our guide and traveling companions in the lobby of the hotel. Elias, the guide, is welcoming and condescending. I like him immediately; I’ve always enjoyed arrogant men. There are eight people in the group and we go around the circle and introduce ourselves, then immediately forget each other’s names. We’ll be together for the next several days, so I imagine we’ll know more than names by the end of this.
From this point we begin the journey to a dog-training site on a glacier where we’ll learn about mushing. We were instructed to dress warmly. I wear long johns beneath quick-dry pants; on top, four layers—two wool, one fleece, and a rain jacket. Putting on this many layers is labor. And fashion has no place here, a circumstance that is always sad.
It’s a two-hour drive to the helicopter that’ll lift us to the glacier. The journey is broken by a couple of short ambles across boardwalks over swampy areas, with brief commentary offered by Elias. This is the first time we hear about the earthquake of ’64, when the land dropped ten feet and huge areas were flooded with seawater, which caused the trees to die. These trees now stand, forlorn, skeletal silhouettes, preserved by the salt. They are called ghost trees and it’s against the law to cut them down because they’re part of Alaska’s history. (We’ll hear about these ghost trees at least three times a day during our stay. This is because guides are required to constantly share tidbits, and the number of tidbits is limited.) Everybody takes pictures of the trees.
The drive is on a well-maintained highway, bordered by the Cook Inlet on one side and a glacier river on the other. There seems to be a lot of water. Gushing or placid, creeks and rivers, tiny trickles between modest rock formations, and dynamic splashing falls from impressive cliffs. Water, water, water. Also, rain. All this wetness has an effect on our reactive human bladders. During the two-hour drive we must make three toilet stops, all at public non-plumbed toilets.
The helicopter depot also has an outdoor closet toilet, which leads me to my first Alaskan conclusion: plumbing is a luxury here, and someone is making a fortune by providing inexpensive, smelly facilities for the tourists. Before we clamber on to the helicopters, we don even more rain gear—an additional raincoat, rain pants, gloves, and rain boots over our hiking boots. Staying warm is hard work. Take a picture.
A helicopter ride to the top of a glacier—eh, I’ve done it before. But it allows us to experience the panorama that Alaska is famous for. It lives up to the hype. Spectacular jutting peaks, gray with splotches of snow. A painfully blue sky giving way to rolling fog. Intensely virginal. The cameras go click, click, click.
Alighting adjacent to the camp, another tourist group leaves as we arrive. Beyond the landing point, sixty dogs bark and run circles around their shelters, eager and thrilled, as though we’re the first bundled people they’ve ever seen. We’re greeted by a red-cheeked young woman, who immediately begins telling us about our surroundings. And look—there’s a perfect spot for picture taking.
The ice is thick and we slide with every step. The camp is owned by Mitch Seavey, a multi-time Iditarod champion. It is understood, but not discussed, that our tourist money finances his dog-mushing passion. The Iditarod is explained—where, how often, how far, its history. Distracted by the shrill yipping and the cold, I absorb very little of the information. Expecting to see huskies, I’m surprised by the mixed-breed look of the animals. I’m not sure how many people work on this glacier, but four are in view. Our hostess explains that she and her co-workers live up here full-time during the summer, then move the animals off the mountain during the winter. As she talks, one of the dogs drops a steamer. Another worker, a young woman, rushes out with a shovel, scoops it up, and carries it away. I imagine they need to be on top of the poop or the whole glacier would be brown.
We’re told that a significant aspect of the sport is dog selection. A good sled dog should be lean, strong, social, and possess exceptional stamina. We’re led through the mechanics of sledding—going and stopping, balancing and steering. We watch as the excited dogs are led to the lines. More pictures.
“The dogs love what they do,” our sled person tells us. A member of our group asks where the toilet is. He’s pointed to a white booth perched at an angle. While it’s stupid to expect the porcelain option on a glacier, I fear I’m going to become weary of stewed sewage.
“Where are you from?” I ask our pro. “Why are you here?”
“I’m from X—” Insert any lower state. In the days to come, I’ll discover that all our guides, with the exception of Elias, are from elsewhere. “I’m here because I love dogs. I’m going to vet school in the fall. Also, my boyfriend’s here.”
The boyfriend issue is pertinent. While I was in college I had a friend who, whenever she wanted to feel attractive, would run up to Alaska for a couple of weeks. Because Alaskan life is rugged, the state attracts many, many manly men, which means easy pickings for the mammary-endowed. If there were a competition for horniest state, Alaska would win hands down.
A dozen fervent dogs are in harness. Two passengers per sled, plus the driver. I take the standing position on the back rails while David takes the seat in front. The musher stands between us. The two large claws digging into the snow are the brakes; and when our guide removes them, the dogs take off, and they take off fast. Hang on! Zero to fifteen in a single second. Whee! We thump over small bumps; and we coast into and and out of large dips. Balancing is tricky, but I soon get the hang of it—feet set, soft knees, firm grip, relaxed shoulders. Our driver communicates direction by leaning. I imagine it takes practice.
We fly across the snow for quite a distance, stopping along the way for David and me to switch positions. There’s picture taking. We return to the group, thank our new friend, whose name we’ve already forgotten, climb into our whirly lifts, and wave good-bye to the glacier and its inhabitants. We all decide that this was a fun and interesting excursion.
What I’ve learned so far:
1. I won’t be putting on an item of clothing every morning—I’ll be putting on everything I brought.
2. Dogs like to have a job to do.
3. The workers are migratory. The whole state closes down in the winter.
4. Pulling the camera out every few minutes is annoying. From here on out, I'm relying on David to take the pictures. Thanks, David.
5. Everything is wet. I’m going to be damp for the next ten days.
Next stop, Riverside Lodge, where hopefully I’ll be able to find a nice glass of Malbec. Also, I hear there’s a sauna.