Published On: Tue, Nov 14th, 2017

Alaska glacier tours offers unreal sights

KNIK RIVER VALLEY, ALASKA—It’s like a trip into a too-perfect alpine wonderland. One minute, I’m in a dense boreal forest, tucked deep into a valley surrounded by the rugged majesty of the Chugach Mountains. The next, lifted high above it all in a helicopter, I’m zooming around their flanks and presented with a scene straight out of a painting by pioneer-prospector romanticist Sydney Laurence, with snow-capped summits and three separate glaciers spreading before me.

Over the headset, another rider expresses his desire to see a bear and, as if on cue, two black bears appear on a high, green, alpine meadow just to our right.

“I didn’t know I had such powers,” the man laughs, as we continue over a cartoonishly blue pond at the bottom of Colony Glacier, helicopter pilot Lief Nilssen noting that here, in this part of the world, there’s a glacier in every valley.

As we begin our descent toward the vast, white expanse of the Colony Glacier, a small camp reveals itself, at first just a cluster of dark dots against the bright backdrop, which, as we draw closer, form into tents — and kennels.

Getting closer, I feel a wet nose nudging my arm, turning to my right to see the eager face of Harris, a brown Alaskan sled dog.

Dropping into the snow just outside of camp, I can feel her energy, hearing handler Sierra Bobby saying, quietly, under her breath, “open the door, open the door.” Bounding out at the first possible moment, the second they crack open the door, Harris is perhaps even more excited than I am about what lies ahead here for us, high in the Alaskan wilderness.

I’m less than an hour’s drive north of Anchorage, but looking around, it feels like I’m at the North Pole. Part of a weeklong Alaskan adventure, I learn that you don’t have to venture far from the state capital to find great northern adventures. Here on the Colony, I’ve arrived for a dogsled ride that I won’t soon forget.

Once the rotor blades have stopped, Justin Savadis, who owns and operates Snowhook Adventures, meets our small group of sledders out on the crunchy snow, next to a series ofsmall dog kennels, each one occupied by a pup.

As we chat, Savadis holds a familiar dog upside down. “Meet Harris, my vicious Alaskan husky,” he smiles, as Harris makes happy noises at being reunited with her master.

He adds that, with his wife Rebecca, they spend the most days between May and September right here at camp with their 40 dogs, each one housed in its own little kennel, which is also equipped with a kitchen tent (complete with oven and stove) and even satellite internet. Glancing around at the frozen landscape, he adds, “we go down for a couple days at a time, to remember what green looks like.”

Soon, Harris is harnessed up with 15 of her best friends, including a dog named Dickory, who has run the famous, gruelling 1,500-kilometre Iditarod race a total of nine times, and Fritz, who has led the team on six — the same number of races that Savadis himself has run.

But we won’t go nearly that far on this sunny afternoon. With the dogs straining forward, barking wildly with anticipation, Savadis gives us a quick briefing, instructing us to keep our feet on the rudders, and, no matter what, to hang on. “The dogs don’t look back to make sure you’re on,” he laughs.

With my feet firmly planted, and everyone else seated on two connected sleds, Savadis calls out “ready . . . let’s go!” and releases the brake. (“We never say ‘hike,’ or ‘mush,’ like in the movies,” he adds, as an aside.)

With a sharp heave, we’re off — the eight pairs of huskies pulling hard, a total of five people on the sleds, with Savadis controlling our speed from the lead. As I stand in the musher position of the second sled, he turns around, standing backwards to chat with me as we make our way quickly through the snow.

Savadis explains that the dogs only need to travel a route once, and they remember it forever — whether it’s the short four-kilometre path we’ll be travelling today, or the whole length of the Iditarod. He adds that the dogs have a complex social structure — they work in teams, some form friendships, while others don’t get along.

And he assures me that he only keeps the dogs tied up when the chopper’s here. “Forty loose dogs with a helicopter, that can get real interesting, real fast,” he says.

We loop around long, languorous curves on the Colony, spotting yet another glacier — the fourth I’ve seen today — called Cascade, as well as snow-draped mountains and the endless blue sky above.

The snow beneath my skis swishes by in hushed tones, the cool air flowing and, after stopping twice to allow the dogs to rest, we double back to the main camp, where I’ve switched out of the driver position to sit at the front of the lead sled.

As we pass into the home stretch, the dogs dig in for a big finish, their paws kicking little flurries of snow back in my face.

And while the chopper awaits, ready to fly me back off the glacier to the edge of civilization (and reality), I imagine — for just a moment, as we slide to a stop — that rather than a simple, beautiful glacial course, I’ve just finished the real thing, the Iditarod, all 1,500 kilometres of it.

Tim Johnson was a guest of Alaska Travel Industry Association, which didn’t review or approve this story.

When you go:

Get there: Air Canada flies daily direct to Anchorage from Vancouver, with connections to the rest of Canada.

Stay: Located deep in the Chugach Mountains but less than an hour’s drive north from Anchorage, Knik River Lodge is an ideal base for outdoorsy adventures, with three helipads on site plus nearby access to whitewater rafting, kayaking, hiking and biking. The property features 22 cabins, each with a valley view and kitchenette, as well as on-site dining at Raven’s Perch Restaurant, which serves Alaska classics and classic favourites.

Tour: Knik River Lodge offers the Classic Alaska Dogsled Tour with 35 spectacular minutes in the air, plus an hour on the glacier. Trips start at $ 545 (US) and are capped at nine guests.

Around Anchorage:

You don’t have to drive far from Alaska’s capital (and largest city) to find the wilderness. In addition to the Knik River Valley, a short drive south of the city will take you to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center where you can view a wide variety of rescued (orphaned or injured) Alaskan wildlife, including wolves, foxes, moose, muskox, bison and bears (both black and brown).

Even closer to town, a short drive up to the base of 1,070-metre Flattop Mountain will connect you with a vast network of trails — hike the summit (about 2.4 kilometres, one-way) or connect to the backcountry from the parking lot, part of Chugach State Park.

And, accessible from right in the heart of the city, the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail will carry you almost 18 kilometres, all along the waters of Cook Inlet.

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Alaska glacier tours offers unreal sights