Speed dating with a dog team

Colony Glacier Dog Camp - an amazing place to spend the summer.

Colony Glacier Dog Camp – an amazing place to spend the summer.

When I asked my friends on Facebook what questions they had about my summer glacier experience I kinda figured people would be interested in the logistics. The mundane details of life – brushing your teeth, dinner, shoveling the dog yard as altered and accomplished in such an “out there” location. But what surprised me is how many friends were more interested in the guests who came and mushed with us on Colony Glacier. They wanted to know their stories and reactions, not the details and logistics. Which is working out great for me, because after an entire summer of working hard at details and logistics I am ready to done with that till next summer. But the people and the stories, now this is going to be fun.

They came and went by Tanalina Aviation Helicopter from the Knik River Lodge. It was a bit like speed dating a dog team. Now I have never actually speed dated, but having seen “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and reading an article about it in a girly magazine I feel I have a pretty good handle on the concept.

Guest came and had their personal individual time to experience mushing and the incredible dogs. Of course it can’t last forever, when the date is up, they fly back to green ground while the mushers and dogs prepare for the next date.  Each date was different. People had different expectations; were interested in different aspects of mushing or glacier life. But unlike speed dating, which is set up in a comfortable environment where people can get to know each other in a non-threatening safe place; our date happened in a place unlike anything they had ever experienced in their entire lives! And this is not just my assumption based on the fact that I found the Colony Glacier to be breathtakingly spectacular.  I know this because a majority of then told me exactly that! “Wow this is the most amazing/beautiful/*insert superlative adjective here* place I have ever seen!”  People walked around in jaw dropping awe, or grinning from ear to ear. And I learned something this summer, everyone smiles on a dog sled. Seriously I did not have one single person who didn’t break out into uncontrollable smiles, it was great. Verbally they ran the gamut from giddy babbling to speechless. For almost everyone it was a first experience with Alaskan sled dogs, making them as much a virgin as the 40 Year Old Virgin. It was clear we had the upper hand in this relationship, and that came with responsibility.  First and foremost for the health and welfare of the dogs, then the safety and enjoyment of the guests.  We worked diligently, and I am very pleased to report that it paid off and we gave great dates.

I was surprised by what some people wore. A majority of people were reasonably dressed. But inevitably some people just do not know how to dress for a first date. We tried. Gus and I had a collection of coats, gloves, and neck gaiters to help ensure it was a comfortable date. One woman was completely underdressed and as I helped her into extra layers before her dog sled ride she kept repeating “Why is it so cold? How can it be this cold? Ect” There are actually many variations on this question, and she went through about 12 before I finally had to ask, “You did know you were booking a tour to run dogs on snow on a glacier right?” to which she replied, “Of course, I just didn’t think it would be cold!” Now to be honest “cold” is relative, she may have felt like she was freezing, but lucky for her that day it was almost 50F which really isn’t that cold.

But hands down the most surprising thing someone wore…..
Drum Roll Please….

A Bikini! Really. We had a guest finish her ride, then peel off everything she was wearing but the bikini underneath for an impromptu photo shoot.  She was not a model (although she was beautiful) and was not doing it for money or on a dare, just for fun. She was sporting an itsy bitsy teeny weenie blue bikini that she had to hold onto when she ran to keep from losing it.  She had come up with her brother and father. Her bro got into the spirit and joined her for a few shots in his boxer shorts.  The whole time Dad just shook his head and said “I don’t approve, but they are over 18 what can you do?” “I have dogs, they listen better than kids, and if not I can tie them up” was my reply. Seriously, you cannot make this stuff up.

Bluebird day on the glacier.

Bluebird day on the glacier.

OK I was also surprised how many people were literally moved to tears by the experience. When it happened it humbled me. Something I do so often that I maybe even take it for granted a little is really so exceptional that it is ‘moved to tears’ worthy.  One in particular really affected me, it was the one time I was also moved to tears.  It was a full day of tours, and a great day for it.  Blue skies with the entire glacier resonating in glorious sunlight, we called those days “bluebird” days. It was about as picture perfect as you can get for guests. But the downside is the sun and heat make it a bit harder on dogs. The trail gets softer as it gets warmer and the snow turns into a mushy consistency mushers call ‘mashed potatoes’ a term that pretty much sums it up.  As the chopper appeared on the horizon we got the call in on the pilot radio, “Colony Dog Camp, this is Hotel Kilo* inbound with 3 exceptionally happy people”. The team was harnessed and ready, I was going to be running the tour, and Gus and I had discussed that it would be best to use the lower trail for this run. Now let me back up a bit.  In an effort to deal with mashed potatoes and help make sure things stayed fun for the dogs we would have a few options for trails. That way we did not have to run the same trail all the time. And it gave us choices, like the low and the high trail; which were the same distance but the low trail had significantly less elevation change which made it easier on the team. While the high trail took guests closer to some of the really dramatic views.
*Hotel Kilo was the radio call name our helicopter pilot used.  His real name was Jarius, but I called him Sunshine.

The exceptionally happy people, mom, dad, and son, landed and the plan was to take them on the lower trail.  After the camp tour, some dog yard visiting, and a safety orientation we were ready to hit the trail. Hotel Kilo was right, these folks were uber happy, and it was infectious. We got to the fork in the trail, and I knew what I was supposed to do, I knew what the ‘right’ thing to so was, and yet for reasons I didn’t understand at the time (but do now and you will too in a minute) my gut said, take the high road. I made the right hand turn and could almost hear Gus groaning “what is she doing?”  It was a great run! The team was jamming, the ice flow shimmered in the distance. While mom took her turn driving the sled dad turned around to snap some photos and as he watched her mush said “I have not seen her look that happy since I don’t know when”.  The son was totally psyched to find out that he was absolutely old enough to take a turn driving the sled, and I even let off the brake a little so he could have fun going over the ‘whoop-de-doos’ we usually slow down for. After the tour as they were preparing to head back down dad came over to say thank you and was crying.

“You see” he said “my father recently died, and it has been hard on the family. But up there for the first time since he did I felt him. I don’t know how to describe it, but I felt his presence out there, like he was there with us. “  I honestly believe that is the reason my gut told me to take the high trail, which I hadn’t planned on doing and which made the dogs work a little harder, but took this family where they needed to go.

Then there was the “better then sex” lady.

OK so I had four guests on the last tour of the day. A married couple who were celebrating their anniversary. And a mother daughter from Puerto Rico. The father and son had gone on an earlier ride, but because of scheduling the girls had to go on a later trip. Everyone was in a great mood in spite of somewhat overcast conditions. To be honest sometimes overcast days created some of the most otherworldly conditions. I sometimes compared it to mushing on the moon, it was so unlike anything else. But I digress….

So guests are loaded up and we take off, the couple started out on the tag sled so I had the mother and daughter in the main sled with me. As soon as we take off mom starts this great non-stop sing song of encouragement to the dogs.  At least I assume it was encouraging; she seemed really encouraging bouncing in her seat and clapping. But it was all in Spanish, so truth be told neither I nor the dogs really knew what she was saying. The entire first half of the trip she went on, it was wonderful. It was apparent the dogs understood enough to know what she meant and they were loving it. We had it set up so guests switched places and everyone got a turn to drive the sled. And at the halfway point we switched places and it was mom’s turn to drive the sled. I didn’t think it was possible for her to make noises that sounded any more joyful than the ones she was making for the first part of the trip. I was wrong. And in the middle of it all she yells at the top of her lungs “this is better than sex!” At that point in time the woman in the main sled with me turns and asks, “What did she just say?”  So I repeated, “This is better than sex.”  “Well” she replied “she is just not having the right kind of sex”. Let me repeat, you cannot make this stuff up.

OK this was not surprising: A lot of people have “mushing” on their bucket list. And it was pretty cool to be able to give them that experience. Even more so when the person in question had a diagnosis and knew there was a very finite time in which to cross items off the bucket list. Then it was actually an honor. One in particular will stick with me, mostly because the family had so much fun together, you could literally see how much they loved each other. We took longer than usual on that tour, but that will happen when you get the entire family involved in an epic snowball fight.

Dew Claw

The Office was an important part of camp life.

Back to what surprised me; how many people took pictures of our “refrigerator”, which was basically an extra-large soft sided cooler. Even though we were on snow the sun could be brutal and the refrigerator kept things cool in the sun while preventing anything from getting too cold or wet due to rain and direct contact with snow. We would be showing guests the camp, which wasn’t much so it was a quick tour. The tents we slept in, complete with propane heaters, cots and multiple airline kennels so we could have dogs inside during the brutal storms that would periodically thrash us. The “office” where we file our important paperwork, (our outhouse, haha). And the kitchen tent with the “refrigerator” outside next to it. None of which seemed particularly photo worthy when compared to the natural scenery all around. But for folks who don’t think living in a tent off the grid with 36 dogs sounds perfectly sane and normal apparently it is. Other noteworthy and surprising photos include a young guest who asked if could be harnessed and put in team for a photo, (see for your self: here & here) a few folks who took photos posing with the outhouse (including one who said he took a selfie), and the mother who wanted and got a photo of her young son locked in one of the dog kennels inside my tent.

Every day brought a new cast of characters to the Colony Glacier, and I am sure they found us as interesting and entertaining as we did them. And really, isn’t that the definition of a successful date?

Of course there were always tons of questions, but isn’t that always the way on a first date. People wanted to know all about the dogs.  Many expected the Siberian Huskies often shown in movies and media, or at least bigger dogs.  We would explain that these dogs were actually Alaskan Huskies, a leaner marathon style athlete. I actually blogged about it awhile back if folks are interested, check it out. People were very interested in poop, as we were obviously making it so what were we doing with it? For the record all poop was collected, double bagged and flown down to be disposed of off glacier. Anyone who had heard of Iditarod wanted to know if I had run it, and when they found out I had there were usually a lot of follow up questions.

But one question got asked above all, and it came in 2 flavors. How do you do this?   It can be asked with the wide eyed amazement of a kid who just got a free pass to Disneyland. Or the bewildered pity of someone who really cannot understand what a woman of my age did so wrong with her life that she now has to live like this and work so hard. Sometimes it was unclear as to whether the asker meant specifically the actual act of living on a glacier for the summer or generally to the entire Alaskan musing lifestyle.  Either way the asker was trying to wrap their imagination around a lifestyle in a place that was so far away from any reality they were operating in that the possibility that my life was actually quite “normal” for me was questionable.  And I say all this with the knowledge that I do the same thing when I travel to big cities in the lower 48. You must all understand that these memories I share are my own perceptions of this amazing summer. My memory is as affected by my perceptions as much as the guests were by theirs.  And Yes, I can say with absolute assurance that people continue to surprise me. But in my opinion that is a good thing.  My job would be totally boring without the surprises you get when speed dating.

Want to date the Dew Claw Dogs? In addition to working with Knik River Lodge during the summer we are also offering custom mushing adventures this winter, learn more.
And to the many wonderful people who joined us on Colony Glacier this summer, thanks it was a great date!

About Jodi

Jodi Bailey and Dan Kaduce live a life with dogs. They own Dew Claw Kennel a competitive long distance kennel where dogs come first. Jodi and Dan have each finished both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod 1000 mile sled dog races, in addition to many other races in Alaska. http://www.dewclawkennel.com/
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