Day 1 Our adventure starts at 9 AM, meeting in downtown Anchorage at your previously arranged B&B or hotel. Here we’ll make a quick check of gear. We’ll then make a stop if necessary at REI, an outdoor gear supplier if anyone decides that they might need additional items. Before we head out of town, we’ll make a stop at the Millennium Hotel, the official headquarters of the Iditarod Race. Located on the edge of Lake Hood, the world’s largest seaplane base in summer and home to many that equip their planes with skis and operate from there in the winter. As things build toward the Race several days away, preparations are evident as the phone banks are installed, radio communications set up and of course, the Official Iditarod Store doing a brisk business. Afterwards, we’ll head out of town hugging the edge of the Turnagain Arm, between the Chugach Mountains and the sea. Lunch is in Girdwood at the famous Bake Shop. If conditions allow we’ll make a short detour to Portage Lake, where its namesake glacier often provides a stunning backdrop of beached icebergs. Crossing Turnagain Pass in the Kenai Mountains we’ll take the 16-mile cutoff to the tiny end-of-the-road town of Hope, oldest gold rush town in Alaska, (far older than Anchorage). This sleepy little village of 150 souls still has a definite frontier flavor with most of the buildings of log, from the old Social Hall still used for weddings and most town functions to the old church. We’ll overnight here in log cabins overlooking Bear Creek and after dinner, have our first introduction to mushing.
Day 2 After breakfast we’ll head through and up and over the Kenai Mountains, descending onto the “shelf” that is the eastern part of the Kenai Peninsula. Our next several days will center about the community of Soldotna as we head to the home and kennel of Iditarod musher Jane Faulkner. In the shadow of the imposing volcano Mt. Redoubt on the other side of Cook Inlet, we’ll set about getting conversant with this ancient means of Arctic locomotion, the dog team. As the detail and mechanics involved will most likely be new to most of us, Jane and her “right hand”, kennel partner Mindee Morning, will lead us through in progressive steps. First we’ll start with a detailed hands-on explanation of the equipment and general techniques for driving the dogs. This will be followed by short forays on freight sleds pulled by snowmachine (we’ve found that the machine is much more willing to stop for the novice musher, than is a fully charged dog team with someone completely unfamiliar behind it!). The short groomed course here is perfect for getting the feel of the “body english” required, and to build in the comfort that anticipates turns and bumps out on the trail. Next step, is learning to harness some exceedingly enthusiastic dogs and “construct” a small (and forgiving!) team. We’ll keep at it on the groomed trails out back until we feel we’ve gotten to that satisfying point of confidence that will set the stage for the next day’s trip over wilderness trails. You might be tired by now, but for those game and confident in their skiing, now would be the time to try “skijoring”–dog-powered skiing! As twilight descends we’ll drive back east through Soldotna, lodging for the night in the lovely log accommodations of the All Alaska Lodge on a bluff overlooking Longmere Lake. We’ll have our hearty and well-earned dinner of Alaskan goodies here as we discuss the big day tomorrow. Later that evening the northern lights will surely see their way fit to give us a display.
Day 3 With a hearty breakfast in the belly, we’ll load up and drive the half hour to meet the “rest of the crew”, both two and four-legged, at the kennel of Jane’s partner Randy Adkins, a two-time Iditaroder. By now harnessing up the dogs begins to feel like a natural part of a day’s routine (the Call of the Wild is not species specific . . .), though this time the level of energy is multiplied wonderfully by the increased number of dogs. Then it’s off down the trail driving your own team as we snake through the frozen lakes and muskeg of the CoHo loop area, each team supported by a handler. The relatively level nature of the terrain aids in this next transition to wide open trails and more dog power up front. These are the principal training grounds for several top mushers, and if conditions allow, we’ll visit the dog lots of a couple of recent top-five Iditarod finishers. We’ll thus spend the day exploring like denizens of old, sliding over the snow to examine stories told by the animal tracks and witnessing some of the other seasonal phenomena that are hard to put into words when someone asks, incredulously, why one would enjoy winter. We may well cross paths with some other mushers, or, even moose, lynx, eagles, etc. Lunch is on the trail wherever the urge hits, with never an experienced musher far from hand, should you like some additional feedback on your dog driving technique (or maybe just a rest in the sled basket!). Pleasantly fatigued we’ll deservedly celebrate a wonderful day with dinner at the St. Elias Brewing Company on the way back to the lakeside lodge. The northern lights will have an opportunity to either top their previous night’s performance or make amends for a no-show.
Day 4 A rib-sticking breakfast will lay the groundwork for yet another notch in our mushing experience. Today we’ll head the few short miles to the trails of the Peninsula Sled Dog and Racing Association, for our foray into the hills of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Again hitching up the teams and mushing might just give rise to thoughts that maybe you could easily get used to a life of . . . just maybe . . .someday . . . As this part of the Refuge is strictly non-motorized, we’ll be blissfully on our own without snowmachines in these wooded hills, to appreciate the great views of the Alaska Range in silence (minus the dog panting). It’ll be a fine contrast to the days previous, with the wooded trails and undulations of these mountain foothills. (Now that you’ve mushed the trails, you might even want to join the Association (25 bucks) and get your patch to prove it.) With afternoon goodbyes to new friends, both two and four-legged, we’ll head back through “civilization” and Soldotna, before retracing the couple hours of road back to Hope. Surely en route, an eagle or two will pose over the blue waters of the Kenai River or with a mountain backdrop behind Tern Lake or Turnagain Arm. Dinner is at Discovery Cabins before an evening briefing on the Iditarod itself via video.
Day 5 Breakfast is early to hit the road and get to the Race start in downtown Anchorage. The start has an atmosphere all its own as literally thousands of dogs and people are crowded into a tiny area, all focused on the event that for many, is the experience of a lifetime. You’ll have lots of vantage points for great pictures or just plain gawking. The perennial contenders have their own professional determination while many others are participating for the first time, though every one of the mushers, spouses, and handlers are concentrating on the grueling and perilous 1100 miles of wilderness ahead. After watching the teams be released at two-minute intervals and taking probably dozens of photos, we’ll head to Lake Hood, to board our bush ski-planes for the 70 mile trip to the remote Skwentna Roadhouse on the Skwentna River, just a few hundred yards from the first official Iditarod Race Checkpoint. Landing on a tiny airstrip here you’ll see how folks live far from roads and the rest of the world. Dinner is, of course, sumptuous, after exploring a bit about the neighborhood on foot or maybe snowshoes. Rumor has it that there will be some local dog teams on hand that might need exercise . . .
Day 6 A great breakfast makes the morning leisurely, with plenty of time to relax by the woodstove or catch up on your journal. If the weather is clear, Mt. McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain should give proof just to the north. In the afternoon we’ll wander over to the checkpoint to watch the dozens of Iditarod volunteers busy about preparations, as the dog teams race our direction. After dinner, we’ll bundle up and head out by foot or snowmachine to the river bonfire and await the first dog teams, straining our eyes in the darkness for the first glimpse of a bobbing headlamp in the distance. After a short while, the checkpoint will be buzzing with dozens of dog teams and mushers, meticulously checking their dogs over, before tending to their own needs. It is evident here the experience of each musher in their efficiency in checking each dog, feeding the team and bedding it down as well as themselves, in preparation for the days and days of sleepless trail ahead. It is a scene that is difficult to put into words and one that will stay with you long afterward. Hopefully, the northern lights will grace us and lead us back to our cozy homestead, with thoughts no doubt of those on the trail, the sled bag their only accommodations.
Day 7 After breakfast we’ll bundle up and head back out to the checkpoint to see who remains; some teams strategically resting, others in despair contemplating the end of their Iditarod dreams. Though weary, the former are often quite congenial and open to chatting about their experience thus far. Lunch is back at the Roadhouse and afterward, we’ll await the arrival of our bush plane ride back to Anchorage and civilization, though not without a different appreciation for the unique world of the arctic winter and the people and passions that are so much a part of it. Stopping in at the Iditarod Headquarters for a musher update, your mind might wander to how, that while in so many ways the world has changed, in some ways and places it hasn’t much at all. And now, though the trip is officially over, those staying the night might want to get together for a culminating dinner and do a bit of reminiscing…
Come experience the true essence of the Far North, learning to “mush” your own team in the Alaska wilderness, before witnessing firsthand the indescribable “Last Great Race”, the 1100 mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. First, we’ll spend three wonderful days progressively learning to drive dogs with an Iditarod musher. And then after attending the Race start, we will fly by ski-equipped bush plane to a remote “roadhouse” seventy miles west along the Iditarod Trail. There we’ll overnight and wait for the next day’s arrival of the first teams as they navigate up the Susitna and Yentna river systems, to the official checkpoint of Skwentna. Toasty by our bonfire on the river, the succession of teams struggle in through the night, getting their first dose of the mercilessly mercurial conditions that will dictate their lives for the weeks to come. The next day it’s back to Anchorage, with a visit to the chaos of Race Headquarters before good-byes in civilized comfort. This very special tour is for those that long to experience the real Alaska, and the reasons so many have chosen to call it home year around –from those that came for the gold rushes and decided not to leave, to those that still spurn the comforts of modern civilization for the adventure of frontier living. Offered only once a year, no experience is necessary for this incomparable tour that guarantees memories that most can only dream of . . .