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Mushing tours see explosive growth on local glaciers

Competition for location, expenses of maintaining operations may thin the pack

Posted: Tuesday, January 18, 2000

Mushing on glaciers is getting to be a dog-eat-dog business.

Although dogsled rides on glaciers were pioneered as a new tourist activity in Juneau just three years ago, there already has been some jostling among businesses interested in a piece of the action.

The activity has grown rapidly.

In 1997, Era Helicopters provided 216 flights for tourists who went on mushing trips with Nunatak Dog Sled Tours, operated by musher Bob Kling of Juneau, according to the U.S. Forest Service, which issued the helicopter landing permit.

In 1998, Kling and Era made 566 trips to the Norris Glacier, about 13 miles northwest of downtown Juneau.

Last year, Kling and Era parted company for reasons Era would not elaborate on, and Era did 1,080 flights for its own mushing operation on the Norris.

Also last year, Haines musher Dan Turner, under the name Alaska Icefield Expeditions, had an additional 487 flights through TEMSCO Helicopters, going to the Mendenhall and Herbert Glacier. The Herbert is just northwest of the Mendenhall Glacier.

Together, the 1999 numbers constituted a seven-fold increase in flights from the inaugural year.

Era employed the services of Iditarod veteran Linwood Fiedler. Yukon Quest veteran Turner brought in his own Iditarod celebrities, former champions Libby Riddles and Joe May.

Kling, who initially brought in Riddles in 1997, was sidelined for 1999. But he says he intends to pursue an arrangement with Coastal Helicopters for landings on the Herbert Glacier this summer. That would mean three dogsled operations vying in the market.

It's unclear whether the glacier dogsled tours can continue to grow at the same breakneck pace and whether the market can accommodate three operators or more.

``It seems there are a limited number of good locations,'' said Pete Griffin, the Juneau district ranger for the Forest Service.

It's also an expensive proposition that might be too daunting for some.

Turner said he installed six huts on the glaciers for his operation's 100 dogs, who ate $16,000 worth of dog food in one season. With 13 employees and a weather-dependent business, it's a nip-and-tuck operation, he said.

Price also could put a lid on growth. Era charged $295 for a dogsled glacier tour last year, Era Base Manager Amy Windred said.

``It's a very popular high-end tour. It's not for everybody,'' said Era Aviation Vice President Richard Larew. ``How much market is there for it? I don't know. . . .

``You get these dramatic large growths as you get things going. (But) I think we've hit a plateau.''

Kling, who considers himself the pioneer of local glacier dogsled tours, believes he's been edged out by competitors through the Forest Service permitting process.

Kling said he is the one who located the site on the Norris Glacier. Yet Era dumped him a year ago and got a Forest Service permit to do its own mushing operation on the Norris, as if it had been Era's idea to start with, Kling said.

Larew of Era said the original idea was conceived jointly. As for the split, he would only say that Era made a business decision to stop working with Kling.

Turner, the Haines tour operator, said he actually applied for a Forest Service permit in 1995, before Kling. Yet Kling got his permit first, contrary to what Turner says he was promised by the acting ranger at the time.

After splitting with Era, Kling had hoped to start his own operation in 1999 with Coastal. He lost out on that season, however, due to a series of setbacks.

After being denied a permit to the Norris site - preferable to some others because it's level and particularly scenic - Kling applied for the Herbert. But a permit there was delayed when the agency decided to do an avalanche study following the deaths of two snowboarders.

And then in June, Coastal Helicopters had a fatal flightseeing crash. In the ensuing turmoil, Coastal's partnership with Kling was delayed, and he gave up on the season.

In December, Kling identified a spot on the Mendenhall Glacier that he thought would work well for the coming season. Griffin of the Forest Service initially was ``very encouraging,'' Kling said.

But the Forest Service announced early this month that helicopter landing permits won't be altered in 2000 because the agency was late in starting work on a new environmental-impact statement. As a result, Kling can't use the Mendenhall site because Coastal doesn't have allocated landings there under its current permit.

He says he will use the Herbert Glacier instead, but he expressed concern about increasing helicopter congestion there.

``I hate to play the safety card - like in the O.J. Simpson case, they talked about the race card,'' Kling said. But on the Herbert, ``The slightest thing that could go wrong will go wrong.''



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