The first Saturday of every March marks the start of the annual Iditarod, where the top endurance athletes of the canine world race across a snowy expanse of almost 1,000 miles. That’s right: While your pup is busy hogging the couch and begging for leftovers, dozens of trail-hardened dogs and their mushers are toughing it out in the Alaskan wilderness.
This year’s event featured record-breaking temperatures, with a low dipping down to -39 degrees. While there’s something intoxicating about the sight and sound of dozens of huskies howling in anticipation of a run, racing sled dogs isn’t for the faint-hearted. The good news? You can get a taste of the action by hooking up with a dogsledding outfitter for a daylong or half-day excursion, meaning you’ll be done in time to warm your feet by the fire come nighttime.
Lucky for me, the weather was unseasonably warm in Montana’s Paradise Valley when I met up with the crew from Absaroka Dogsled Treks. They operate out of Chico Hot Springs, a gem of a place just north of Yellowstone National Park, something like the love child of a high-end spa and rough-and-tumble dude ranch. After a brief primer on rules and mushing fundamentals (e.g. don’t insist on hugging every single dog until AFTER the trek is complete), we climbed into the trucks, where the dogs were already situated behind us in their cozy compartments. Bumping along a snow-packed gravel road, we gradually gained elevation and disappeared deep into the Gallatin National Forest.
One thing that was immediately clear upon arrival at the trailhead was just how much the sled dogs love their job. Prepping for an outing is a lengthy process, and though our guides moved with efficiency and purpose, the dogs were impatient to get to work. Once unloaded and tethered to the side of the trucks, their yips and howls grew steadily in volume, finally reaching a crescendo when all the dogs were harnessed, lined up and ready to run. Their full-bodied strain against the brake mechanism was comical but had me wondering if they might actually break free, leaving behind a few of us humans, stragglers needing one final trip to the loo.
Finally, with all the guests situated in our respective sleds, the guides released the anchors amidst the deafening screams. Upon the moment of departure: silence, but for the rush of wind and crunch of paws against snow. Ten Alaskan Huskies stretched out in front of my sled, completely engaged with the effort and the singular joy of pulling. I sat in the basket of the sled, tucked under woolen blankets and grinning ear-to-ear. They say that unless you’re the lead dog the view never changes, but I have no complaints about spending an hour watching husky butts - especially with the majestic Absaroka Mountains showing us a different face around each curve of the trail.
Dummy that I am, I had signed up for the shortest dogsled trek option, which meant no hot cocoa or grilled trout or thermoses full of French onion soup out on the trail. The upside, of course, was that we were back to the trailhead with plenty of daylight left for dog-hugging. It was a job the other guests and I took seriously, and the athletes, relaxed now and satisfied from their efforts, were grateful recipients of all the ear scratches we could deliver.
Dogsledding outfitters operate seasonally in a number of different states, with Alaska, Minnesota and the Northern Rockies region leading the way in terms of reliable snowfall. Compared to the 2017 Iditarod entry fee of $4000, spending a hundred dollars for a day on the trails is the perfect entry-level way to enjoy the dogsledding experience. Check out a few of the outfitters below, and if you go, be sure to give those huskies some extra love from me, okay?
Absaroka Dogsled Treks, Pray, MT
Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, Ely, MN
Good Times Adventures, Breckenridge, CO
Wilderness Adventures Dog Sled Tours, Lake Tahoe, CA
Mahoosuc Guide Service, Newry, ME
Kim Wishcamper is freelance writer and dog photographer, and a recent transplant to Asheville, NC. While she misses the Rocky Mountains, she’s found plenty of beautiful places to crash her mountain bike here in western North Carolina. In her spare time, she stays busy being bossed around by a sweet, old, incredibly handsome Siberian Husky.