Thousands of feet above Juneau an ancient icefield is home to majestic mountains, dozens of glaciers and, during the summer months, a camp of Alaskan huskies waiting to take sightseers on the ride of their lives.
From May to September, trips to the Juneau Icefield through Juneau Flightseeing Tours include an aerial tour of four glaciers by helicopter, followed by a dog sled tour guided by veteran mushers.
Andrea Shirley, 61, and Joyce Richmond, 51, visiting from Boston this week, described the tour as phenomenal and breathtaking.
"You're removed totally from any reality of the world," Richmond said. "It was just another land."
"I felt like I was at an IMAX movie; it was just so incredible," Shirley said, referring to ultra-large-screen movies.
The 30-minute flight to the icefield gives sightseers a bird's-eye view of the Taku Glacier, Hole in the Wall Glacier and Dead Branch Glacier, just before reaching the middle branch of the Norris Glacier, where the dog sled camp is located.
There, seasoned mushers give visitors a chance to sled with veteran huskies who have run the 1,200-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that stretches from Anchorage to Nome.
With a panoramic view of Nugget Mountain, visitors spend an hour at the camp mushing across a 2-mile trail that encircles the camp. Instructors also give lessons on safe use of the sled and the commands used with the dogs while on the trail.
The camp of about 170 dogs is operated by 14-year Iditarod veteran Linwood Fiedler under his company, Alaska Heli-Mush, which contracts with Juneau Flightseeing Tours. Fiedler took second place in the 2001 Iditarod and brings his team of prize-winning huskies from Anchorage to Juneau every year to continue their training and give tourists the opportunity to go a on a dog-sled adventure.
During a trip to the camp on Tuesday, Fiedler's son Dalton, a dog trainer and longtime musher, said the huskies begin their training at 6 months old, but are not ready to start running races for another two and a half years. At the peak of their training, the dogs run about 100 miles a day. The sled teams average speeds between five and 10 mph.
Along with building the stamina of the huskies, trainers also work with them on responding to commands and obedience.
"We examine these dogs on a constant basis, and you need to be able to have a dog that will let you do that," Fiedler said. Trainers look for signs of soreness and cuts on the feet, he said.
He said running a sled team includes deciding where to place the dogs.
"You've got to figure out who can get along with who, socially," Fiedler said.
He also said it is important to position the dogs by strength in order to get them to run smoothly together down the trail.
"You'll often put stronger dogs closer to your sled. You've got dogs that are more protective and like to be up at the front of the team," he said. "You also want to rotate your leader, so the same dogs aren't leading all the time."
Fiedler said the dogs' position is solely up to the musher, noting that some keep the team in the same positions for an entire race.
"That's the thing about mushing, I can tell you something, but you could ask someone else and they'll give you a whole new answer," Fiedler said.
Dhaval Parikh, 32, a tourist visiting from Philadelphia on the cruise ship Ocean Princess, said the aerial tour of the glaciers and sled dog tour were the most spectacular sightseeing experiences so far.
"My wife's the one who really wanted to do this. She's scared of dogs, but she had a great time," he said.
Parikh said it was his first experience seeing a glacier, which, for him, was just as impressive as visiting the sled dog camp.
"I'm actually hard-pressed to say whether the flight over the glaciers was better than the dog sledding," Parikh said. "They were both equally remarkable."
Though he had seen photographs and video footage of glaciers before, Parikh said it was nothing compared to seeing one up close.
"The pictures don't do any justice to it; the size of the glacier is just immense, and that's one thing that strikes you," he said. "You lose perspective from the air and on the ground. Every now and then you'll see a clump of trees to give you reference, and you're just amazed by the vastness of the (ice)field."
Tickets for the sled dog tour run $349 per person, but locals receive a 20 percent discount. Donna Leamer, flightseeing manager for Era Helicopters, which owns and operates Juneau Flightseeing Tours, said the flights are dependent on good weather conditions and the number of passengers scheduled.
Flights to the camp coincide with cruise ships scheduled to visit Juneau, and run as early as 8:45 a.m. and as late as 5:45 p.m.
Leamer recommends dressing heavily and wearing a hat and gloves. Glacier boots are provided by Era Helicopters.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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