Touring Plans blogger Kristi Fredericks and I were both on a recent Disney Cruise Line sailing to Alaska. During the Juneau port stop, we both chose dog-sled related excursions for our families. Kristi took the “Dog Sled Summer Camp” excursion with her husband and two sons, ages 8 and 11. I took the “Dog Sled on the Mendenhall Glacier by Helicopter” excursion with my husband and my 17 year old daughter. Here are the particulars to help you decide which type of experience might be right for you.
DOG SLED ON THE MENDENHALL GLACIER BY HELICOPTER
- Price: $579.00 for all guests ages two and up. Guests under age two are free.
- Any price add ons?: Guests whose weight (including clothing and gear) is greater than 250 pounds will encounter a fuel surcharge. There is an opportunity to purchase a professional photo at the end of your dog sled ride. Expect to pay about $20, cash only.
- Time requirement: The total excursion time is about 2.5 to 3 hours.
- Physical issues: There is a steep step up/down to get into the helicopter. The helicopter seating is tight. Guests with motion sickness or fear of heights issues may be bothered by sensations in the helicopter. Once on the glacier, you will be walking on level snow (“glacier boots”, which are fitted over your regular shoes, are required and provided free of charge). The dog sled ride is in an open vehicle, with no safety restraints, over mostly level snow. The vehicle shifts substantially during movement. Guests who wish to “mush” (drive/steer the sled) must stand on the back of the sled.
- Age limits: None.
- Other restrictions: Guests are not allowed to bring iPads or similar tablet-style devices on board the helicopter. Cell phones and cameras are allowed. No backpacks, purses, or camera bags are allowed on the helicopter. There is a storage locker at the heliport, free of charge.
- Other important details?: Helicopter flight is strongly impacted by the weather. You excursion may be cancelled without much warning if adverse conditions arise. If you have sensitive eyes, I strongly suggest bringing sunglasses. I took mine off for a few photos and was nearly blinded by the bright sun reflected off the snow.
Erin’s experience with Dog Sled on the Mendenhall Glacier by Helicopter:
Our trip began with the signing of various waivers and a somewhat less than discrete inquiry about everyone’s weight, necessary information for balancing the helicopter seating. Once the formalities were out of the way, our group of about 15 boarded a small bus for a 15 minute ride to the Juneau heliport. Along the way, our driver pointed out the Alaska governor’s mansion (an easily accessible large white house close to the center of town) and other local points of interest, as well as several dozen bald eagles who were hovering over a nearby salmon hatchery. At the heliport, we watched a five minute safety video, had a last chance to visit a restroom (there are none on the glacier), and were fitted with over-the-shoe glacier boots which had a cleat-like bottom to prevent slipping.
The group was then divided in three helicopters and given specific seat assignments based on weight (families were kept together). We had headsets and microphones to better hear the pilot and our fellow passengers. The helicopter pilot took us on a 15 minute aerial tour of the Mendenhall Glacier, pointing out geologic features, wildlife, and describing the history of the area. We were free to ask as many questions as we liked and the pilot was quite knowledgable. I had been on a helicopter tour in Hawaii a few months earlier and found this to be an infinitely more interesting experience, mostly because the geography of the area was unlike anything I had ever imagined. Truly, I felt like I was visiting the ice planet Hoth. As we approached the glacial landing field, we could see that the only thing for many miles was the dog camp, which is indeed only accessible via helicopter.
On the glacier, our group was further divided into family units, with each family getting its own dog team, sled, and trainer/guide for an hour. Our guide, James, was charming and easy to talk with. We learned that the camp is home to 270 dogs and six puppies, about dozen trainers, and almost nothing else. The trainers live in tent-like structures six days a week during the summer, returning to town just once a week to shower and do laundry.
James introduced us to each of the dogs on our team and told us their age and personality. We learned about why each dog had her particular position in the pack, how they were trained and harnessed, and what their life was like. The dogs were extremely friendly and social; they loved hugs, pats, and all manner of positive reinforcement. Before going on the excursion, I had been worried that I might feel badly for working dogs such as these, but the pups clearly loved their job. As soon as they were clipped to the harness, they were ready to GO. James patiently answered all our questions about dog stamina, calorie intake, and daily habits, as well as describing the renowned Iditerod sled race, for which many of the dogs were being trained.
We then hopped on the sled for an approximately two mile circle around the camp and across the glacier. With four of us (me, my husband, my daughter, and James) on the sled, it couldn’t go as fast as it would while truly racing, but I was impressed with pace. We stopped a few times along the way so that we could take turns in the various sled positions, have more time to bond with the dogs and, of course, take about a billion photos. Dog sledding was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and new experiences are almost always a good idea in my book.
As we waited for our return helicopter. We got to help socialize the on-site puppy litter, playing with them for about 10 minutes. My dog-cuddle-deprived daughter (we have no pets due to family allergies) was in absolute heaven. During the 15 minute helicopter ride back to town, we learned more about the natural elements of the area. Again, simply mind-blowing scenery. Then back on the bus for another 15 minute drive back to town. We had the option to be brought back to the ship directly or left in central Juneau to explore the town. We opted for the latter.
While this excursion was quite expensive, for us it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.
DOG SLED SUMMER CAMP
- Price: $154 for persons 10 years old and above, $142 for children three to nine years old and is free for children two years old and younger
- Any price add-ons?: There is an opportunity to purchase a professional photo at the end of your dog sled ride. Expect to pay about $20.
- Time requirement: The total excursion time is about 2 to 2.5 hours.
- Physical issues: This adventure is wheelchair accessible, however the wheelchair must be standard size, collapsible and you must be able to walk on gravel to transfer to the sled.
- Age limits: none.
Kristi’s experience with Dog Sled Summer Camp:
Our group of about 30 guests started our excursion in two 15-person vans. For the next 30 minutes, we enjoyed a ride through the Gastineau Channel, past the AJ Gold Mine Site and into magnificent Sheep Creek Valley. The scenery was breathtaking and the ride itself was reminiscent of Kilimanjaro Safari at Disney’s Animal Kingdom with its bumps and ruggedness. All of my motion-sickness-prone family members hung in there just fine, but this rough ride is definitely something to keep in mind.
The Sheep Creek Summer Dog Camp is nestled in a valley below towering snow capped mountains. As we pulled in, we saw a multitude of brightly painted dog houses with dogs everywhere. They were in, out and on top of their individual homes barking and howling. We were quickly shuttled off the van, out of the inevitable Alaskan rain and into a tent where we were asked to fill out waivers. When the waivers were complete, we were divided into small groups and each assigned a guide. We were fortunate to have Austin Barr, the owner of LandCruiser Kennels who is currently assembling his own team for the Iditarod, as our guide. We headed out of the tent and into the rain following Austin to our specially designed wheeled sled that the dogs use for their summer training. These sleds reminded me of very large golf carts that would hold about six people each. We stood in the rain while we watched as the dogs were brought from their houses and harnessed. We got to pet each dog and hear a little bit about them as we made our way down the team to the sled.
In no time, we were off on our 15 minute journey through the amazing scenery which began with a souvenir photo being snapped of us. We all thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Our guide gave us lots of interesting facts and information about the dogs, sledding and the commands that are used as we made our way along the dirt trail. From time to time, we would stop for a few minutes to let the dogs take a break for rest and drinks. When we arrived back at the camp, we watch as Austin unhooked the dogs and gave them water. Once the dogs were cared for, we headed into another small tent for homemade cookies and hot chocolate. These cookies were a big hit and a pleasant surprise for my kids!
Austin guided us through several tents explaining in detail about the Iditarod, how the dogs are cared for and the equipment that is used. Each tent was filled with gear, photos and maps exhibiting dog sledding from the gold rush to today. Our last stop was a visit with the puppies. Our guide got one of the dogs out of the puppy area for us to play with and pet. Before we climbed in the van for the return ride back to the ship, we were given the opportunity to purchase our souvenir photo for $20 cash, which of course, we did.
To be honest, I was a little apprehensive about this Port Adventure. I’ve always grown up with dogs that have been treated as members of the family. I was concerned that I would be uncomfortable with the conditions that the dogs would be living in or the way that they were being treated. After visiting the summer camp and speaking with guides, it is obvious that these animals are well taken care of and loved. That being said, these dogs are not living the life my pets are accustomed to by any means. They stay outside in small houses, with short chains and pull sleds a few times per day. These are working dogs, but they seem to thrive on it. Overall, my family and I truly enjoyed this opportunity to get a taste of Alaska dog sledding.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
In addition to two dog sled activities we sampled in Juneau, other dog related options include the “Sled Dog Discover & Musher’s Camp” ($141 for ages 10 and up, $132 for kids ages 3-9), which is similar to the Summer Camp experience but includes slightly different terrain, and the “Dog Sled Adventure by Helicopter” ($579 for ages 10 and up, $429 for kids ages 2-9), which is similar to the Dog Sled on Mendenhall Glacier experience but takes place on the Norris Glacier. The “Disney Exclusive Dog Musher for a Day” ($729 for ages 10 and up, $529 for kids 5-9) excursion is longer than the other dog trips and includes a helicopter trip to Norris Glacier as well as more interactivity with the dogs (including grooming, feeding, and harnessing) and a tour of the camp facilities such as the cookhouse, living quarters, and veterinary clinic.
When evaluating which of these options are right for you, some things to consider are:
- What price point am I comfortable with?
- Do my party have any weight, age, or medical considerations which would pose concern?
- How much of my day do I want to devote to the excursion?
- Do members of my party have motion sickness issues or fear of heights issues which would contraindicate a helicopter trip?
- Is experiencing sledding on snow important to you?
- Is a particular type of interaction with the dogs important to you?
- Alaska is perpetually rainy in the summer. How will I feel about getting wet during my excursion?
- How disappointed will I be if my excursion is cancelled due to weather conditions?
Both Kristi and I loved our dog sled excursions. For my family, having an experience like this was one of the key reasons we chose Alaska as our vacation destination. My only regret is that my two younger daughters were away at camp and did not get to join us on the glacier with the doggies.
Have you done an Alaska dog sled experience? Is this something on your bucket list? Which type of dog interaction appeals more to you? Let us know in the comments below.