Dog sledding in Alaska, also called dog mushing, is one of the top things to do in the winter. When people go to Fairbanks in the winter, their trip is usually to do two things: see the northern lights, or aurora borealis, and to go dog sledding. There are so many other fun things to do, but these definitely top on any list.
If you want to go dog sledding or if you’re on the fence, here’s what you need to know to see if it’s right for you.
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What is Dog Mushing
Dog mushing was declared the official state sport of Alaska in 1972. Using a team of dogs to pull a sled has been used for centuries and was once a primary form of transportation in many parts of Alaska.
Interestingly, though it’s now typical to have several rows of dogs in twos leading the sled, in historical times, the dogs fanned out from the sled evenly. There was no lead dog and every dog had an equal position.
Dogs were used to also haul sleds filled with supplies historically. With advances in technology and transportation, the reliance on sled dogs for this kind of labor was reduced though they were still used for transportation in some sub-arctic regions.
Now mushing is typically seen as an activity for tourists, and of course, there are still races like the Iditarod.
Though most people think of the Alaskan malamute as the typical sled dog, the Alaskan husky is more commonly used. It is a mixed-breed dog specifically bred for performance and durability in the Alaskan climate.
There are a number of sled dog breeds including the Alaskan husky, Alaskan malamute, Siberian husky, Canadian Eskimo dog, Chinook, Greenland dog, and Samoyed.
Historically, sled dogs were much larger as they were working to pull a heavy sled filled with supplies. The typical sled dog was around 75 pounds, whereas today they are more often between 35 and 70 pounds.
Interesting Facts About Dog Sledding in Alaska
Some of the information I pulled from a post on the Alaska Tour Jobs website:
- People began using dogs to pull sleds about 3,000 years ago
- Scientists believe the original sled dogs are from Mongolia and migrated north with their humans about 25,000 years ago
- Husky breeds became popular for dog sledding when they were used during the golden age of Arctic exploration
- At the beginning of the 20th century, most dog sled drivers still ran or skied beside the sled instead of riding on the sled
- Dogs were used in Alaska to deliver mail into the 1900s. Malamutes could keep going even when weather conditions would stop horses, trains, and boats.
- Mushers use the same commands to guide their teams as dog sled drivers in the mid 18th century, such as “haw” and “gee”
Why Dog Sledding is a Top Thing to do in Fairbanks
I wasn’t sure I wanted to go dog sledding in Alaska, to be honest. I am involved in animal rescue where I live, and I have heard stories about dogs that were badly cared for being worked hard at some of the places.
My concern was about supporting an activity that could be abusing animals, so I spent a lot of time doing research. I encourage you to do your homework to find a reputable place that cares for their dogs and treats them well.
Now, I want to be clear: these are working dogs. They work for a living, and they live outside with a small insulated doghouse tethered on a chain. I do understand that this activity won’t be for everyone and that’s ok.
I did my homework to find an ethical place and chose to support it and learn more. Here is what Eleanor, the owner of the place I went to, said about her relationship with her dogs:
“Dog mushers love their sled dogs. It’s as plain and simple as that. We know each and every one of our dogs as intimately as parents knows their children. We know each individual bark just like a parent knows their child’s voice…It is a special relationship mushers have with their hardworking canine friends and we do everything, day and night, to be sure they are comfortable, loved, safe, and ready to run….the very thing they love to do the most.”
How to Choose Where You Go
it’s really important to do your homework as there are unethical places that do not care properly for their dogs. If that’s something important to you, and I hope it is, then you need to do some investigating before you book.
Some people may believe that using dogs to pull a sled isn’t ethical. This post isn’t to change your opinion if you fall into that camp. But, if you’re unsure if this is right for you, I wanted to share some guidance to make sure you find a place where the dogs are treated well. Here are some suggestions.
Talk to locals and people who have visited to get recommendations for good places to go. If you wait until you arrive, you can talk to people but you can also talk to your hotel or the owner of your apartment. Find out who they recommend and who they suggest you steer clear of.
I went to TripAdvisor to start my search for places to go and spent a lot of time reading reviews. I love this site for hotels and activities and use it frequently to help me plan travel itineraries. The reviews are great and the forum also provides great information and suggestions.
Just Short of Magic: The Best Dog Sledding in Alaska
I chose to go to Just Short of Magic. Reviews were very favorable and Eleanor is an amazing woman. She was an equestrian and a teacher at a small boarding school in Vermont before moving to Alaska.
Eleanor has been working with sled dogs for over 20 years and moved to Alaska more than 15 years ago to pursue her passion for this work. She clearly loves her dogs and has a dedicated devotion to working with them.
When we arrived, the group before us arrived late so she was a bit busy trying to get them out as quickly as possible to not shorten their ride or encroach on ours. She has a lot of gear including boots, scarves, gloves, and jackets in an assortment of sizes.
There were two older dogs inside the house who greeted us. Eleanor later explained that they were retired when they let her know they no longer enjoyed running. She does adopt some dogs who retire, and these two got to stay with her and live inside.
There are around 40 dogs living here in total, and she keeps that many to ensure that she can rotate them frequently to ensure that they have adequate time to rest. We had twenty minutes or so to meet the pack, so we did.
They were all really excited to meet us and with only a couple of exceptions, ran right over to us to be pet. Several immediately rolled over on their back for belly rubs and I fell in love more than a few times.
All of the dogs are showcased on her website and you can read a little bit about each of them and their personalities. I especially liked Blue. These are not neglected dogs who aren’t loved, but a pack of working dogs. They clearly love what they do and where they do it.
Dog Sledding Options
Eleanor offers several options for dog sledding rides including a half-hour tour, a one-hour tour, and a two-hour “dog mushing school” tour where you learn more about the dogs and their behind-the-scenes care including harnessing them and driving the sled.
Tours are offered year-round though rides are not offered in the summertime for the dogs’ welfare due to the heat. In the fall, the rides showcase the dog team pulling a four-wheeled ATV.
In the summertime, you can spend intimate time with the dogs. Eleanor will share with you a view of the real world of dog mushing. You can ask questions and be personally involved with this unique experience.
Dog Sledding in Alaska: The Ride
I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive about the ride. I like the false sense of security I get encased in the metal of my car when I go high speeds, and being on the sled going fast when I had no control at all set me on edge.
I had also read that it can be quite bumpy so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Reviews did vary pretty widely.
It was really amazing. The dogs were all jumping up and down, super excited to get moving. Their enthusiasm was contagious. My friend and I shared a sled and Eleanor rode on the back.
Within the first few seconds, I was comforted by the sway of the sled and in no time I started filming the ride and really enjoying the peaceful and beautiful snowy surroundings. We rode through pine forests and birch forests, and both were beautiful.
It was quite cold with the wind on our faces, but it wasn’t too bad as I was so lost in the beauty of it all. The ride flew by and it felt like minutes though it was close to an hour.
We learned after we got back that one of the lead dogs, Plasma, had his first time at the helm on that day, and Eleanor was beaming with pride about how well he did. He’s very young for the role—only just over a year, but she said she saw leadership qualities in him and wanted to give him the chance.
Why You Should Visit Just Short of Magic
Our visit to Just Short of Magic was one of the highlights of our trip and a top thing to do in Fairbanks. Be sure to do your homework, as dog sledding in Alaska can be a truly amazing experience. Get there early to bundle up and spend time with the dogs.
Just Short of Magic is on Chena Hot Springs Road, around a half-hour from downtown Fairbanks. Do take the caution of moose crossing the road very seriously! We were glad that we did!
Just Short of Magic is located at 5157 Chena Hot Springs Road, Fairbanks, Alaska 99712. Tours can be booked in the morning and afternoon easily on the website, ranging from $75 to $225. Eleanor also offers a B&B experience in a yurt, which can be booked online. And there are tours that you can do during the summer months as well, so check them out!
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