Special Correspondent Caleigh Jensen visited with mushing champion Vern Halter at Dream a Dream Sled Dog Tours. You wanna mush? Here is her report. –Scott
Those who haven’t been to Alaska assume three things: we live in igloos, we have polar bears and moose as pets and everyone rides with a sled dog team to get around town.
Igloos? Polar bears? That’s a bit of a stretch. But I sometimes wish the sled dog myth was true. What’s more Alaskan than that? Bundling up in layer after layer of gear, rounding up a team of huskies and spending hours twisting and turning through the wilderness, catching views of the mountains and frost-covered tree branches. This is the breathtaking landscape that is my home state. It just sounds magical, doesn’t it?
“Magical” doesn’t describe it, though. I spent an afternoon with Cindy Abbott at Dream a Dream Sled Dog Tours. She’s a five-time Iditarod musher and the only woman to both summit Mt. Everest and complete the Iditarod. I asked her what advice she had for visitors who are curious about sled dogs, mushing and the Iditarod. She turned the question on me, and I was speechless for a second before I came up with my answer: come with a completely open mind, because no matter what you expect a dog sled tour to be like, it will exceed your expectations.
Dream a Dream Sled Dog Tours is nestled in Willow, about an hour and a half north of Anchorage. When I pulled into the parking lot, I was greeted by a group of what Cindy calls her “house dogs” — pet dogs who are retired from the Iditarod. During my tour, I met Dream a Dream owner Vern Halter, an Iditarod veteran (he’s also the Mayor of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough). Then, we headed to the gear room to get ready for the tour.
Cindy bundled me up in her special-made Iditarod gear (and might I add, I’m the first person to wear it aside from her), and when I say bundled, I mean BUNDLED — Mukluks, another coat and snow pants over top of the set I was already wearing, a neck warmer, two hats, wristlets, gloves, another set of gloves with three hand warmers in each and a pair of mittens.
Next, we headed out to the backyard full of Alaskan huskies to pick our team. When the dogs saw us in our mushing gear, all 42 of them went absolutely wild — like, the most excited I’ve ever seen a dog, x42. They could hardly sit still, barking, whining and pleading to be chosen to take us out on a tour. Cindy picked a team of 14 lucky dogs, only two of which have not yet run the Iditarod, with Banana and Flood in the lead. We hooked the dogs up, hopped on the snow machine (it was too icey for the sled) and we were off.
The team ran perfectly in-sync for the entire two and a half hour tour, side by side with their running partners as if they were one. They obeyed each of Cindy’s commands — “gee” for right and and “haw” for left — winding around the icey turns with perfect precision. When we passed two other sled dog teams on the trail, the team didn’t even turn their heads, continuing on as if no one had passed us at all.
The love both Cindy and her team had for the sport was evident in every move they made. Whenever we took a break on the trail to let the dogs catch their breath and snap some pictures of the view, the team took a quick bathroom break, rolled around in the snow and were whining to continue on after less than a minute. They could hardly control their excitement as Cindy and I walked back toward the snow machine, knowing that they would soon be back to doing what they were born to do — mush.
I’m not kidding you when I say I was in complete awe during the entire experience. From the beautiful drive to Willow to having the honor to be in the presence of an Iditarod racer and her team to driving and commanding the dogs myself… I had to pinch myself.
Make this the season that you embrace your inner musher. Do it! Don’t even hesitate. Cindy hears this so often from her guests, but it’s true: this is single best thing I’ve ever done in Alaska, and I’ve lived here my entire life.
Dream a Dream Sled Dog Tours is located at Mile 64.5 of the Parks Highway. Tour prices range from $179-$239 for groups of one to 12 guests. To book, CLICK HERE to visit the website. Or CLICK HERE to email Vern Halter . Or, give him a call at (907) 495-1197.
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