Husky Dog Sledding – Juneau Ice Field, Alaska

High up on the Juneau Ice Field In Alaska a husky dog camp had been setup to offer authentic husky dog sled rides on the snow-capped glacier, rather than through wooded trails as sometimes offered in other locations lower down the mountain.

To get to this location you had to take an exciting helicopter ride from Juneau, which in itself was a tremendous experience giving you the most incredible perspective of the mountainous geography of this region.

Leaving the heliport in Juneau the helicopter flew down the narrow fjord, where the cruise ships were docked at Juneau, then headed round the coastline to the start of the gigantic Juneau glacier field. The view from the helicopter was spectacular with an unsurpassed viewpoint of the steep fjord walls, waterfalls and numerous sea inlets.

The Juneau Icefield is an ice field located just north of Juneau, Alaska and continues north through the border with British Columbia and is the fifth-largest ice field in the Western Hemisphere, extending through an area of 3,900 square kilometres (1,500 sq mi) in the Coast Range ranging 140 km (87 mi) north to south and 75 km (47 mi) east to west. The icefield is the source of many glaciers including the Mendenhall Glacier and the Taku Glacier.

The icefield is home to over 40 large valley glaciers and 100 smaller ones. The Icefield serves as a tourist attraction with many travellers flown in by helicopter for quick walks on the 240-to-1,400-metre (790 to 4,590 ft) deep ice and the massive, awe-inspiring crevasses. The icefield, like many of its glaciers, reached its maximum glaciation point around 1700 and has been in retreat since. In fact, of the icefield’s 19 notable glaciers, the Taku Glacier is the only one presently advancing. Much of the icefield is contained within the Tongass National Forest. Since 1948, the Juneau Icefield Research Program has monitored glaciers of the Juneau Icefield. On the west side of the icefield, from 1946-2009, the terminus of the Mendenhall Glacier has retreated over 700 metres (0.43 mi).

As we neared the sled dog camp up on the Juneau glacier you could only see small dots on the snow but as we landed on the snow we could then see a small camp comprising tents for the mushers (sled dog handlers) and small igloo-shaped kennels for the husky sled dogs.

We were met by the mushers who had been spending the last week or so living up on the glacier with the dogs. The dogs were all so excited and barked constantly knowing they were soon to be out there on the snow pulling our sleds. After a brief introduction to the sled and the basic techniques of mushing we were soon on the sleds and being pulled by a team of around 10 husky dogs through the snow.

Sled dogs (also sledge dogs and sleigh dogs) are a group of dog breeds and mongrels that, historically, were bred for the purpose of pulling a dog sled. These dog sleds were important for transportation in arctic areas, hauling supplies in areas that were inaccessible by other methods. They were used with varying success in the explorations of both poles, as well as during the Alaskan gold rush. Until snowmobiles became reliable, sled dog teams delivered mail to rural communities in Alaska and northern Canada.

Sled dogs today are still used by some rural communities, especially in areas of Alaska and Canada and throughout Greenland. They are also used for recreational purposes, and are raced in events known as dog sled races such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. Numerous sled dog breeds are also kept as pets or raised as show dogs.

We took turns to stand at the rear of the sled and act as brake man which was a really authentic experience. The dogs were incredibly enthusiastic and obviously enjoyed their job.

At one point we stopped to change positions on the sled and noticed a peculiar red coloration in the snow. This looked like there had been something killed in the snow but in actual fact was a red coloured algae known as watermelon snow.

Watermelon snow, also called snow algae, red snow, or blood snow, is Chlamydomonas nivalis, a species of green algae containing a secondary red carotenoid pigment (astaxanthin) in addition to chlorophyll. Unlike most species of fresh-water algae, it is cryophilic (cold-loving) and thrives in freezing water. Its specific epithet, nivalis, is from Latin and refers to snow.

This type of snow is common during the summer in alpine and coastal polar regions worldwide, such as the Sierra Nevada of California. Here, at altitudes of 10,000 to 12,000 feet (3,000–3,600 m), the temperature is cold throughout the year, and so the snow has lingered from winter storms. Compressing the snow by stepping on it or making snowballs leaves it looking red. Walking on watermelon snow often results in getting bright red soles and pinkish pant cuffs.

Dog sledding and it’s not only an Alaskan tradition, but also a state obsession, one that’s celebrated every March with the running of the 1,150-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome.

After our dog sledding trip around the upper part of the glacier under the mountains we returned to the camp at which point our musher took the opportunity to introduce us to the dogs who had pulled us. The lead dog “Doc” was a stunning looking dog with bright blue eyes and a great character. All the other dogs were friendly and all had different personalities.

As the helicopters arrived back on the glacier we knew it was time to say our farewell to the dogs and the mushers, leave this remote location and return to Juneau. As we flew back the weather started to deteriorate so we were very lucky to have had the opportunity to complete this excursion.

It was an unforgettable experience and probably one of the highlights of our visit to Alaska.

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