Dog Sledding in Kenai Fjords National Park

My frozen Alaskan adventure continues in Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward Alaska. After flying over Denali, Samuel and I drove back to Seward where he was currently working. We’d arrived at our destination after dark, but the night sky was so clear that we could just make out the outline of mountains surrounding the city.  Getting up the next morning, I was excited to see what views this landscape would yield as revealed by the daylight. Alas, a snowstorm had rolled in during the night, obscuring the highly anticipated surrounding mountains.
We made our way to my favorite breakfast spot of the trip at the Breeze Inn Restaurant and Lounge, which had quite tasty blueberry pancakes. Following breakfast, Samuel promised me we’d spot an otter in the wild. Brimming with anticipation, we walked across the street to the marina where we walked up and down the docks eyes glued for any telltale ripple. While we saw many ducks and other birds, but no furry otters. In a last ditch effort, we drove down Lowell Point Road, which is a drive that is sandwiched between the water and a cliff face.  It was a beautiful drive, even if the dirt road was a bit dicey during a snow storm, as several inches had fallen at that point. The extra searching paid off as we spotted not one, but two of our water loving friends. One was actively eating, diving down intermittently to go get more food, while the other was leisurely grooming itself. I was little kid giddy when we spotted them and I could have definitely stayed longer watching the otters in their natural habitat, however we had to get back for our dog sledding excursion!
On our way back into town, Samuel made one more pit stop with bird watching in mind. We drove into the Seward Waterfront RV Park, which is often frequented by majestic bald eagles. Much to my delight, we immediately spotted two perched in a near by tree. In the photos below you can see a few of the beautiful birds. One of the bald eagles who had been blocked from view along the waterfront surprised both of us when it flew directly in front of our vehicle as we were crawling along, wholly focused on the birds in the trees. While these birds of prey look massive up in the trees, when they are flying, their wingspan lends a whole other level to their overall size.  Just as with the otters, I could have sat in this park watching the birds for hours, but we had an appointment with dog sledding and a national park that we couldn’t miss!
During the planning stage of my trip we knew we were going to be in Seward during my visit, therefore we were volleyed ideas regarding how to best visit Kenai Fjords National Park during the winter. During summer months taking a boat tour of the fjords is quite popular and highly recommended, however due to the time of year I was visiting those tours were not operational.  Another idea mulled over involved renting fat tire bikes and making peddling to Exit Glacier. We did end up seeing a handful of people biking along the path as we were dog sledding and it most definitely looked like something we  could have done, but in retrospect we are happy with the option we ended up choosing. As we were looking up various excursions, Samuel and I became both intrigued by dog sledding, due to having never previously attempted the sport. Dog sledding in the broadest sense brings back memories of Balto, the animated movie we’d watched over and over again as kids.
After booking our tour and the initial excitement subsided, there were the usual nerves and uncertainty that accompany any novel experience, centering around the unknown. Will I be warm enough? Will I be able to control the dogs? What if the dogs are not nice? What if my feet or hands get too cold? Will I be too tired after the 15 miles round trip route? What if I make a fool of myself? WHAT IF I GET TOO COLD? Worries aside, we were really looking forward to this new adventure. Similar to our Denali flyover, we chose our tour company based on overall reviews and as a whole the Seavey’s Ididaride‘s family page was quite impressive with the father having set the speed record for the fastest completed Iditarod, and one of the sons having won five (the family as a whole had won 7 of the last 8 races). The night before our scheduled tour we received a text from Danny Seavey, confirming our meeting time and warning us of the snow storm that was likely going to be still ongoing during our trip. Most importantly, (in my mind) Danny had clothing recommendations.  He suggested we wear layers and gear that are appropriate for a day of downhill skiing. It was also mentioned that we should bring an extra dry pair of gloves in case ours get damp from the snow storm.
As the time of our excursion drew nigh, Samuel and I were all bundled up and brimming with excitement. We were both wearing snow pants, parkas, Under Armor leggings/long sleeves, sweatshirts, hats, and gloves.  We both had face masks and sun glasses but really didn’t use much of either. Samuel wore his sun glasses throughout but I didn’t feel the need despite thinking I might. Alas, my glasses ended up getting broken on my pocket, leaving me in search for a new cheap pair. The snow was falling pretty steady the whole time we were out with an approximate temperature of 10ºF.
We drove to the meeting point at the corner of Old Exit Glacier Road and Herman Leirer Road, which leads to the entrance of Kenai Fjords National Park. At this intersection a gate closes the road to the park as it is not maintained during the winter.  Upon arriving, Seavey and his two helpers already had the dogs out and tied up around the vehicle. The dogs were so excited to go that they were yipping and vocally expressing their impatience to be on the trail.  Danny encouraged us to introduce ourselves to the dogs while we were waiting on the other visitors to arrive. I immediately was drawn to Taku, a large white fluffy dog who loved getting attention.
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After the last of the guests arrived, Danny grouped us all to give us a brief pep talk and training on dog sledding basics. We were excited upon the revelation that we were the first of this specific tour of the year. It has been an abnormally snowfree year in Seward up until this point in the winter. Additionally, if it had been a normal tour, we would be paired up and split time between being the head musher, with your partner riding in the sled, before switching back and forth. Based on the size of the group, number of dogs, and quantity of sleds we had enough sleds for us all to get our own team for the entire ride. The beginning stage of assigning dogs to teams and hooking them up to the sled was chaotic but allowed time to bond with your dogs.  Right away I was assigned Whisperer and Sydney as my lead dogs. While I was waiting for the other teams to gear up I gave my dogs all sorts of attention while they were vocally ready to get on the trail.
Samuel’s dogs were also being super cute with how eager they were to get moving, with Zoey barely able to contain her excitement. She kept jumping up in the air and essentially doggie paddling over and over and over again.
Eventually, the lead team started off, then second and third, leaving Samuel and my team in the rear.  I was still waiting the assignment of one last dog, and I had been eyeing Taku, sighing with relief every time he wasn’t picked for someone else’s sled. Needless to say, I was thrilled when Taku was made the last member of my sledding team!
Starting out, I was understandably nervous but once settled in I was surprised with how smooth the ride was, with little to no balance issues. Danny had recounted a quite amusing tale of how uncoordinated the Duke basketball team was dog sledding, which makes sense due to their center of gravity being located so much higher than my own. The only times that had almost resulted in a tumble on my part  was when I was attempting to take a picture and my adorable companions took off more aggressively than anticipated.
The ride was so smooth that I felt comfortable taking photos throughout our excursion. My phone died right away from the cold, but somehow Samuel’s phone lasted throughout the ride.  My camera battery endured surprisingly well throughout this chilly ride, with the level hardly dropping despite taking tons of photos. Although the mountains throughout Kenai Fjords National Park were obscured due to the heavy falling snow, the overall effect was scenery that appeared straight out of a movie.  Adding to the visual sensory, the fresh snow had the added result of muffling any ambient sounds, heightening the sense of isolation.

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 The pace was comfortably slow as we progressed for two reasons as explained by Danny. First, it was important to pace our progress as the dogs could potentially overheat in this ‘warm’ 10 ºF weather. Secondly, we were actually going the approximate pace of teams in an Iditarod as the lengthy race is more focused on endurance than sprinting. We took various breaks on our way to Exit Glacier, with the overall speed being leisurely and enjoyable. We met more people than I was expecting on the trails, from fat tire bikers, and dog walkers to cross country skiers. When we finally reached the main Exit Glacier viewpoint it was a bit anticlimactic due to the heavy snow obscuring the iconic glacier. Making it to the end of the path, we all congregated in an old log cabin where Danny started a fire in a stove while we enjoyed hot chocolate and snacks.  With our damp gloves drying on the stove top we learned so much more about Danny and his family, along with their history dog sledding. As we were talking about the famous race, I learned that my three dogs had all taken part at some point, with my precious Taku even being a member of one of the nine day teams.  We also learned about how Danny’s father, Mitch, had broken the speed record for the Iditarod by resting two of his dogs at a time, allowing the animals be more refreshed and race longer in a day.  The past several years of the Iditarod, multiple rules had been put into place to attempt to thwart this loophole, however each year the family had found a way around the new rule whether it was keeping the dogs in the sled or on their seat.  Alas, this year the rules changed the teams from 16 dogs to 14 dogs, which doesn’t allow for the extra resting animals. Honestly, I can see both sides of the debate from the sport purists and from the aspect of the dog’s health.  I’m sure there are quite heated debates in both corners regarding the pros and cons of both methods.  More on this later in the post as our forty five minutes or so of thawing out came to an end and we began our return journey.

On the trek back, I gained a fourth dog to increase my overall dogpower, introducing Merlot into my crew.  I was also moved from the back of the pack to the front, adding a new perspective and allowing my dogs the open trail freedom.  They proved quite speedy in contrast to Samuel’s dogs that enjoyed a methodically leisure pace. Being the stereotypical big sister, I couldn’t help but rib Samuel regarding his dogs’ speed. Eventually, we traded one set of dogs, where I donated Merlot to Samuel’s squad and I gained Delta to my team. The way back seemed to go faster than our initial trip, thankfully so, as my hands and feet had just started getting cold as we neared the end. We did make several pit stops for photo ops in front of the Kenai Fjords National Park sign, as well as Danny video taping us in action as you can see below.

Arriving back at base, we said goodbye to the dogs we’d bonded with and headed back to the car where we put the heat on full blast. Due to the quantity of snow falling, the rest of my remaining day in Seward was relaxing in comparison to our morning excursion. Samuel and I ate a fantastic dinner at The Highliner Restaurant before heading out to the Yukon Bar for drinks with friends. While at dinner Samuel and I couldn’t stop reliving our bucket list worthy experience dog sledding during a snow storm through a national park. As a fans of all sports, Samuel and I had both independently come to the suspect during our previous conversations that due to winning 7 out of the last 8, as well as the family finding loopholes in the rules to gain an advantage, the Seaveys might not be the most beloved family in the sport.  Take any historically successful team and you’re going to either love or hate them, e.g., the Yankees, Cowboys, Man United. This thread of discussion led us down a wormhole of Googling, some of which we wish that we hadn’t stumbled across. I’d debated adding this line of conversation into my blog, although I would feel remiss to not briefly address it.  We were disappointed to find allegations of dog doping plaguing one of the successful Seavey brothers, as well as accusations of animal abuse.  As a dog lover, the corresponding images and discussions were difficult to read, however I always try to see both sides of the conversation.  In Alaska dogs are legally viewed as livestock (according to several of these articles), as such, having grown up around farms, the many of the images could have been transposed with livestock of a different type on a different farm. It is all about what lens you view the photos through. As a dog lover, where my Buddy would sleep cuddled up next to me every night, it is hard to imagine him outside all the time in cold weather, but I did grow up with outdoor farm dogs (Norwegian Elkhounds) who never came inside but were built for winter. When they did come into the house they were uncomfortably warm and couldn’t wait to go outside again. It would be the same case with these sled dogs, who were too warm on a 10 ºF day.  I’m in no way excusing some of the allegations, or defending the large operation at all, I’m just trying to understand both sides of a controversial topic. That being said,  the dogs we encountered on our trip were healthy, happy and excited to go sledding and I would still whole heartily recommend this novel experience.

Getting up bright and early, we departed after breakfast for Anchorage as we were concerned about Highway 1 and 9, especially through the mountains due to the ongoing storm that had already dumped two feet at the Seward Shipyard.  Needless to say, our drive back was quite interesting at certain spots, which I was thankful Samuel was driving and not me.
Once we got through the mountain passes, Samuel made one more touristy stop along the highway. In the many trips he’d made in between Anchorage and Seward there were always people stopping along the highway at this one location where a natural stream comes out of the cliff face. After the recent Anchorage earthquake the area had been quarantined off due to rock fall dangers, however it doesn’t appear to be deterring individuals from getting their special water. While we were stopped we watched one couple lug a full tank across the busy highway.  The water itself was startling cold but refreshing from the few sips I took. As someone who works where water testing is a regular point of conversation and testing, I was dubious of actually drinking the water. I decided to let the tourist part of me win over the scientist and tried the water only to find out it just tasted like well water we had growing up on the farm. These Alaskans should really to try the well water on my Grandma’s farm.
With my fantastic Alaskan adventure drawing to a close, I couldn’t help but be thankful for the new experiences I’d been able to go on from flying around Denali National Park to dog sledding through Kenai Fjords National Park. Alaska during winter had so much more to offer than I’d initially expected and I can’t wait to come back during the summer months to explore more of this beautiful state!

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14 comments

    • They really were adorable! That’s a great question. My Buddy’s feet would get miserable cold as well. These dogs didn’t seem to be impacted in the least. I know from experience our Norwegian Elkhounds didn’t get cold feet my Buddy (a terrier).

      Liked by 1 person

  1. What a great experience! My husband and I were in the Kenai peninsula as part of our honeymoon. I was intensely looking forward to seeing Exit glacier, but also felt slightly let down… and then was very sad when I saw the signs demarking the previous boundaries of the glacier when I realized how massive it used to be and how rapidly it is receding. Alaska was still one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been and I hope to go back some day – maybe I’ll get to try dog sledding!

    Liked by 1 person

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