Dog Sledding Adventures in Alaska
I’m going to be honest. I’m a Summer lover. I chase the heat, search for the sun and follow footprints on sandy beaches. The idea of going overseas to a cold and wintry location just doesn’t normally appeal to me.
There has, however, always been one destination that has triggered a little curiosity for a while now. Alaska. It’s always come across as somewhat of a mysterious entity – a fascinating combination of beautiful natural scenery and fascinating local culture and history.
I decided that I should leave the surf beaches behind for just a moment, to pack the winter woollies and travel north to one of the coldest locations the USA has to offer – Fairbanks, Alaska.
Getting to Fairbanks
Fairbanks is known as the place to go for Alaskan adventure. Located just a short one hour’s flight north from Anchorage, it’s a cheap and easy trip from the state’s capital into Fairbanks International Airport. Due to its location, the weather is much colder, and snowfall is usually greater across the region than southern Alaska. In January we’re talking daily maximums of -17 degrees Centigrade. Interestingly though, in stark contrast, the daytime maximum in the summer months usually sits around 23 degrees.
For those looking to travel to Fairbanks for winter adventure activities, I’d recommend travelling in February or March. It’s not the ridiculous cold of December and January, but still cold enough for widespread snow coverage.
I’m a lover of any travel adventure that allows you to get close to animals – dog sledding definitely fits that bill.
For our dog sledding adventure, we head out to Black Spruce Dog Sledding. Base camp is located 45 minutes drive from the city centre, out in a beautiful part of Fairbanks – away from the city streets and buildings, in the middle of the forest. It’s a beautiful backdrop to an incredible day.
Upon my arrival, I meet the team, and get introduced to my guides for the day. They’re a warm and hospitable couple, who, through their love of dogs and the great outdoors, aim to give visitors a unique experience. Our briefing and rundown for the day is done in a small (but heated) tent out in the snow. There’s nothing “fancy” about this – it’s a truly authentic dog sledding experience. And as such, you’re put to work preparing for the sled ride.
Meeting the many loveable canines living at the property was amazing – these huskies are not your typical domesticated animals. They’re not used to commands like “sit”, and have a totally different interaction with humans than those pets who spend their days in apartment buildings. These dogs live to run, and in my opinion, are some of the luckier animals that actually get to do what they’re designed to do – and to stretch their legs and work off their insane amounts of energy.
They’re excited to meet their new human visitors, and when I go in to introduce myself, they’re literally climbing all over me. Their glossy coats, piercing eyes and infectious personalities make them some of the most endearing dogs you’ll ever meet. From the very beginning of our encounter, you can tell that they’re just so eager to get out and show me the local area.
I’m taught how to harness up the dogs to the sled, and we run through the order of dogs; who will run where, and for what reason. It’s quite a complex arrangement, and I’m surprised by the amount of planning that goes into the placement of dogs – the consideration that’s taken into matching dogs with partners that they can run next to, and their level of experience greatly influences where they’re placed. I’m almost dragged to the sled as we harness them up.
Once harnessed up, the dogs seem to know exactly what’s coming, and to say that they’re excited about it is an understatement. The barking and howling is deafening – it’s almost like they’re psyching each other up in a war cry warm up before they go on their adventure. It’s a flurry of wagging tails as we walk down the line, doing our final checks, and firing up the dogs with encouraging claps and shouts.
Stepping on to the sled, giving the command and holding on tight – with the words “Ready, Go!”, we’re off.
Sledding through the Fairbanks landscape is a truly remarkable experience in itself, but to be doing it behind these energetic, athletic animals is truly breathtaking. The cold wind and the spots of snow flicking back onto your face make you realise these dogs really do have some strength and power, and we’re travelling at some pretty decent speeds. But still, it’s not so fast that I’m prevented from taking in the surroundings. The snow covered mountains, and beautiful green trees around us frame a magnificent experience – and I can’t help but laugh at what an awesomely Alaskan adventure this is.
We stop for photos, and to change positions on the sled. As if annoyed, the dogs look back at me, almost demanding to know why we’ve stopped. It’s a great moment to be put under the dogs’ control – this is their territory and they’re taking me on an adventure in their back yard. They’re incredibly focussed animals and there’s never any need to direct or motivate them. Rather, telling them to stop is the hard part, and I do get the feeling that our trip would be a lot longer if they had their way.
Local Alaskan culture is everywhere around town – I’m not just talking about art galleries and museums. Fairbanks is very proud of its history – get a good introduction at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Centre. Located on the banks of the Chena River, it showcases the region’s native roots.
If you’re in Fairbanks during winter, check out the largest ice sculpting competition in the world. This massive outdoor gallery showcases some of the most intricate, extravagant and artistic ice displays on the planet. The sculptures are lit up in bright lights and sit nestled among the snowy forest. The entire scene is like something out of a picture book. It’s an incredible display of artistic talent and the perfect way to spend a cold Fairbanks evening. And for the kids, there’s even a giant ice slide to speed down.
Just a one hour drive from the city centre, Chena Hot Springs offers a unique escape from the cold weather. Submerging yourself into the warm natural waters, surrounded by snow capped mountains is an incredible experience. For me personally, the after effects were rather surprising. After struggling with the sub zero temperatures of Alaska, an hour in the hot springs seemed to warm up my body so much that the rest of the day felt significantly more comfortable for me. The cold didn’t seem to bother me anywhere near as much as what it previously had. It’s a wonderful way of taking a break from the cold weather, soaking up the stunning local surroundings, and relaxing in the warm hot springs.
The Fairbanks Reindeers
Alaska is home to hundreds of reindeer. It’s not uncommon to see them wandering around in the wild. Fairbanks has plenty of different spots to see these majestic animals, but if you want to get up close and personal with them, consider a visit to Running Reindeer Ranch. The family owned and operated ranch opens its doors to visitors seeking a unique reindeer experience. Located in the serene Fairbanks forest, the property is home to many reindeer who are accustomed to their visitors – and as such, are comfortable with being patted, fed and walked around the forest.
It’s a really brilliant experience for families with children, and for the big kids like me! The reindeers are full of personality, each with their own unique character, and with that, comes varying degrees of willingness to pose with you in front of a camera. But, if you’re able to snap a shot off at just the right time, you’ll have not only a great memory of meeting an Alaskan local, but a pretty sweet Christmas card photo too!
At the end of the day, this has to be one of the greatest travel adventures I’ve ever had. It’s a combination of captivating history, wonderful local culture and tradition, and mesmerising natural surroundings. To experience the beautiful Alaskan surroundings, in a city with such incredibly warm hospitality as Fairbanks is great alone, but to be able to do it in such a unique and special way with the most amazing of animals is a truly once in a lifetime experience.
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