In June I made my second trip to Alaska, but this time there was a new adventure on the itinerary. Dog Sledding on the Mendenhal Glacier. It was awesome. Not that we raced the Iditarod or anything like that. We only went five miles-an-hour for an hour. Still, it was a wonderful experience.
The Mendenhal Glacier
Part of the overall impact of the adventure was the helicopter flight over the mountains and onto the glacier. From the air, you get an entirely different picture of the size of a 36.8 square mile chunk of ice.
Glaciers are comprised of fallen snow that, over many years, compresses into large, thickened ice masses. Glaciers form when snow remains in one location long enough to transform into ice, such as in a valley. Each year, new layers of snow bury and compress the previous layers until any air pockets between the ice crystals are very tiny. This takes hundreds of years. The ability of glaciers to move and flow like very slow flowing rivers gives them the power to reshape the land. Some are small like a football field, other may grow to be over a hundred kilometers long. Alaska is estimated to have more than 100,000 glaciers. Most remain unnamed.
At the terminus of the Mendenhal Glacier (where the ice meets the lake), the height is 10 to 70 feet and the width is 2,835 feet. At its thickest, the ice is 2,230 feet thick. Where the ice is breaking off into the lake, the color is deep blue.
So why does glacial ice look blue, but snow looks white? A December, 2008 WWF Travel blog explains it this way:
“Glacial ice only looks blue when it has become very dense. Years of compression slowly increase the density of the ice, from loose and fluffy snow to extremely dense ice. As it is compressed, the air trapped between the original snowflakes is forced out. When glacier ice becomes extremely dense, the properties of the ice change. It now absorbs all the colors in the spectrum except blue, which it reflects. It's the trapped air in snow that makes it reflect almost all the spectrum and appear white. So, white ice is new ice, blue ice is old ice.”
The exposed ice looks like the photo to the right, but much of the ice is covered by twenty-five to thirty feet of snow, much of which will melt almost to the ice by the end of the summer.
The Dog Sledding Camp
The dog sledding camp is on the glacier. At this camp, a staff of 13 live in tents for the summer season, and the only way to get in and out is by helicopter. Each dog has its own house that looks like a little igloo, but few of them were inside they day I was there. Our musher explained that most of the dogs are used to much colder weather and this was hot for them.
In our case, the sleds were double stacked with a three-person sled behind the dogs, with the musher standing, and pulling a two-person sled where one person stand and works the brakes.
The team had 12 dogs in two columns. Our musher, a young woman who just graduated from the University of Alaska and was going to graduate school to become a Veterinarian, said they do not use a single lead dog because the Alpha Dog would take control of the others. The musher must be in control at all times. Although I found articles on the Internet that talked about Lead Dogs, all the photo I saw of the Iditarod and other dog sledding showed two dogs in the lead.
During our ride, our musher (who owns twenty of the dogs at the camp) talked to the dogs in a normal voice, not shouting, and the dogs heard and obeyed. We stopped several times to give the dogs a rest and let them cool off and lick or eat the snow. The dogs wear booties to protect their feet, but they also can run without them. They love to run.
The Alaskan Husky Dog
Contrary to what I believed, the Alaskan Husky is a type or category of dog, not a breed, and they were smaller than I expected. Sled dogs are generally mixed breeds, primarily Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky, along with a number of other breeds such as the Greenland Dog, Pointer, and Chinook. They are bred to have very dense double coats, wide padded feet, erect ears, a curled tail, wedge-shaped head, and a muscular build.
History of Dog Sledding
For many centuries, people in northern countries have used dog sleds for transportation. It was the only way to get around. Dog sled racing began in the early 1900s, and the sport quickly evolved. Now, in addition to the famous Iditarod Race (Anchorage to Nome, Alaska), there are many such long distance races in Alaska and other parts of the world.
Dog sledding is a definite "yes" for any bucket list.