If you’ve never flown in a helicopter, gotten up close and personal with a glacier or driven a dog team, then don’t miss this experience if you find yourself cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage.
Do-able from either Juneau or Skagway, this excursion is not to be missed! Departing Holland America Line’s SS Zuiderdam in late June, my 82 year old Dad (read Father’s Day gift here) and I were shuttled to the airport. Here we boarded an ERA helicopter with four other passengers and our pilot, Jerry, a young Czech with an infectious grin, an impossible head of curls and a great knack for flying “helos”.
Our flight took us up over the city of Juneau, Alaska’s state capital with panoramic views of mountains and the expansive Gastineau Channel. Crossing gushing, multiple waterfalls which cascaded down nearby cliffs we spotted the occasional mountain goat (guests often see bears as well) then angled in over the massive Taku Glacier, its multi-hued ice etched in seemingly motionless waves, belying the fact that glaciers do move, albeit slowly. The Taku is one of the few that is actually still growing, most of its sisters being on the run from global warming.
Our chopper soon spotted the mushers’ camp and descended along with four others in a scene reminiscent of a polar Apocalypse Now (minus Wagner…Jerry preferred to play light rock into our headphones).
Arriving on the Norris glacier (its crevasses covered in 15 feet of snow, making dog-sledding much safer) veteran musher Patrick Mackey greeted us and introduced his team. Mackey, his swarthy good looks belying his Celtic surname, explained that he was of mixed Irish and Portuguese heritage. His dream was to race his dogs in the grueling 1000 mile Iditarod across Alaska and summers on the glacier were a great way to train and raise funds to do this.
Patrick’s team, was composed not of purebred Huskies and Malamutes, like we see in the movies, but was a truly heterogeneous mix of breeds. They greeted us with unmitigated enthusiasm. These dogs love to pull and far from being exploited, their spirits fade if they are deprived of the opportunity.
Patrick soon had his four passengers either seated or standing on the runners, in mushing position. Our canine friends took off in a scampering mass and we were soon off across the snow. The peaks around the glacier were starkly beautiful, capped in snow and ice, sometimes an improbable blue in color. Dog sledding is a profoundly peaceful way to travel, at least when the dogs aren’t barking and the runners of the sleds evoked an eerie hiss when our canine companions were silent.
My father and our two friends, an Australian gastroenterologist and his wife, took turns in the driver’s position. One of our number, who shall remain nameless, demonstrated the necessity of holding on tight in the mushing position by promptly falling onto their behind when the team took off (but redeemed themselves admirably afterwards, I might add).
As we journeyed the sky became overcast and the winds freshened. Blue skies became brooding gray, which seemed to suit the glacial terrain better but illustrated how swiftly weather can change here in the Alaska Panhandle. While women had been wearing tank tops on the glacier an hour earlier, warm jackets and gloves were now a necessity and we were glad we had been advised to bring ours.
After our trip we had a chance to meet and pet the dogs, all gentle, but some a bit shy, others friendlier and liberal with their kisses. Dogs are housed in their own light-weight fiberglass igloos and humans in moderately larger tents. All the gear has to be flown onto the glacier by helicopter at the beginning of the season, and everything (yes, even dog poo) is removed when the operation shuts down. It was easy to see why the expedition was pricy but it was also the high point (no pun intended) of my Alaska voyage. If you are going to do only one tour, this is it.
We spotted our helicopters on the horizon and advanced toward the landing field, bidding Patrick and his dogs, adieu. Jerry hustled us into the chopper as the advancing weather front was threatening to complicate our return trip. Wind and rain made for an exciting journey back, though just routine to Jerry who was used to the mercurial meteorological temperament of this part of the world.
Dad and I were soon back in Juneau in time for a pedestrian tour of the town and a little shopping. I could now cross dog sledding off my bucket list and had a hell of a good time doing it!
If you go …
All Photos By George Burden – All Rights Reserved