Dogsledding in Alaska — With a 1-Year-Old (No, Really!)

alaska dog sled
alaska dog sled

Dog sledding in Alaska (Photo: Thinkstock)

Clearly my husband and I didn’t think gallivanting around the Inside Passage of Alaska via helicopter, cruise ship, and train with my parents would be adventure enough, so we took our 1-year-old son, too. And then put him on a dog sled.

For various reasons involving my parents’ 40th anniversary, my husband and I found ourselves adrift at sea this May on a Holland America 7-day Inside Passage cruise (roundtrip from Vancouver), wondering how exactly to keep our child active, on schedule, and not throwing tantrums. This was a very classy cruise ship filled with gray-haired people wearing tuxes and pearls on dress-up night.

It is well known that youngsters this age are prone to hysterics. Any minor changes in normal activity can set them off. Wrong PJs? Screaming. Nap time delayed by minutes? Screaming. Certainly having day care’s loving, doting, and structured environment replaced by a bobbing boat of adult activities was not the wisest of moves.

But you see, our child is an abnormally well-behaved little one, who is well traveled (first baseball game was at Fenway; second was at Dodger stadium) and most of the time will entertain himself. See? Here he is playing with grandma and a hat.

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(Photo: Erin Green)

I also did some diligence via the Internet; multiple websites said our cruise line had children’s programs, and mentioned something called “Toddler Time.” In short, we had this covered.

Things went sour on day one when my husband dutifully took the little dude to the children’s area for “Toddler Time” and upon arrival was promptly told “not in this children’s area.” Turns out no one on board had heard of “Toddler Time,” but they had heard of U.S. regulations that said children under the age of three are not allowed in play areas that aren’t sterilized daily. Goes to show you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet — call and verify with a human! What ensued was my husband and I not taking in some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth, but frantically looking for ways to stave off hollering, kicking, biting, and crying.

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The route along the Inside Passage, some of the beautiful scenery we weren’t taking in. (Photo: Erin Green)

After singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” for most of day one, we searched for other people to entertain our child: grandma, grandpa, the wait staff, the gymnast hired by the cruise as a post-dinner theater entertainer, who — as it turned out — my son was captivated by for one blissful hour. We also searched for places he could safely run around without fear of going overboard or bugging the clientele. Two locations fit the bill: the fully enclosed outdoor tennis court and the fully enclosed basketball court.

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Basketball at sea is a fine way to keep busy — and not fall overboard. (Photo: Erin Green)

Gale-force winds quickly sent us back to the confinement of our stateroom for the next few days. Lessons learned during this time: Pack more games and toys than you think you need and print out lyrics to nursery rhymes you don’t know because the Internet will fail you at sea.

You can imagine how eager we were to get to Skagway, the home of our single booked excursion: dog sledding. This was territory we knew. We have two labs at home. “Dog!” was our son’s first word. With visions of Iditarod glory in our minds, we trekked off to the Temsco Helicopters launch area, watched a safety video, outfitted ourselves in special glacier boots, and waited for our metal-bladed red Pegasus to whisk us to the top of the Denver glacier in the Juneau Ice Field to meet some doggies.

The sojourn upward started as planned, that is to say, the child looked happy at the prospect of being off the boat and rockin’ some bitchin’ shades (to protect his wee eyeballs from the glacial brightness). Yet how hard was it going to be to keep the wiggly rascal on my lap in a squished helicopter? Turns out, not very hard because the little man fell asleep about 15 seconds into the ascent. Aside from my own general nervousness about flying, it was a stunning ride!

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Slick shades, mad muggin’ — like father like son. (Photo: Erin Green)

Forgive the cutesy portmanteau, but “Flightseeing,” as it is called in the Alaskan tourist circles, is really the best way to see what our northern state has to offer. From the ground, it’s pretty, but the all-consuming sense of being outmatched by Mother Nature doesn’t take over until you can see the expanse of the ice field surrounding you in every spherical direction save directly above your head. (But enough about that – bring on the dogs!)

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Soaring in a helicopter over the Juneau Ice Field. (Photo: Erin Green)

Once landed and safely away from the helicopter blades, we were greeted by the thunderous barks and howls of dogs clearly thrilled that some of their numbers were going to get picked to go running. The loud staccato barking was music to our ears. Their “Owwwouuuuuuu” was greeted by our toddler’s “oooohhhh.”

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Ready to run on the Denver Glacier. (Photo: Erin Green)

As we navigated through the salt and pepper sprinkling of pups in an encampment that wouldn’t look out of place in the beginning of “Empire Strikes Back,” the young one’s mood soared. Happiness found!

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Happiness is a friendly husky. (Photos: Erin Green)

The only thing that could top these moments of gushy-hearted humanity, was the polite tones coming from our guide, saying it was time to hop on the sled — and anyone could drive if they wanted. I quite literally jumped at the chance, landing on the twin legs jutting out from the back of the sled, leaving the toddler and dad to funky snow-walk to their seats in front, while I anxiously waited to say:

“MUUUUUSSSSSHHHH!”

And we were off! (Well, we were off after our guide told the dogs to go. It seems the dogs weren’t as tuned in to my directives.)

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Mush mush! The silent glide of dog-sledding. (Photo: Erin Green)

The surprising thing about dog sledding is how quiet it is. The dogs immediately pipe down once they’re working. Their trotting legs and the whir of the sled crunching the snow below are the only sounds you hear. And the view. The VIEW! Beyond the sight of doggy tushies, there is nothing but snow, sun, and mountain awesomeness. It is quite simply a slice of life-affirming nature-scape in the Alaskan heavens.

That is, until you hear the smack of me hitting the deck because turning left in one of those things while taking a picture of your family takes more dexterity and core strength than I thought.

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Moments before my fall… don’t selfie and drive. (Photo: Erin Green)

No bother — our friendly guide tells me you aren’t a real musher until you’ve fallen five times. To boot, it’s unusually hot up there on a 70+ degree day: The sweat bead rolling down my back has now been tempered by a snow bath.

And so it went on our little loop around the glacier wonderland. My husband and I took turns driving. A nice Australian couple crossing this off their bucket list took a turn too. (The husband ate it in the snow as well — a fellow fifth of a musher!)

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Puppy love. (Photo: Erin Green)

All too soon we were back at camp. As if the guide company knows how bittersweet this moment is, they save meeting the husky puppy until right before you have to go back to town. With its kisses fresh on our cheeks, we boarded the helicopter back to town where we spent the rest of the day doing something else our little guy loved: Swinging at the park.

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A spectacular new city park in Skagway. (Photo: Erin Green)

A couple of tips if you decide to take your family dog sledding in Alaska:

• Save your money to make this happen. With the helicopter involved, this isn’t cheap. $500 a person is average. (Like airlines, a lap-child is free; unless your combined weight is over 250 pounds.)

• If you’re cruising, book the excursion through your cruise line to ensure you have a ride to the heliport. We didn’t and ended up walking 30 minutes through town (with the toddler!) to get there.

Erin Green is an award-winning video programmer and director of video distribution for Yahoo. Although she laments the fact that she didn’t travel more before having a child, goshdarnit, she’s making it work — the world awaits!

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