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Alaska school offers course in dog sledding 101

March 3, 2000
Web posted at: 11:49 a.m. EST (1649 GMT)

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (CNN) -- There's a thrill in the air. Over the next few weeks, crowds will line backwoods trails to cheer on the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Alaska's best-known sporting event kicks off in Anchorage on March 4. Eighty-one teams leave that day, bound for Nome -- 10 to 17 days and 1,151 miles (1,841 kilometers) away.

VideoSeveral schools offer lessons for hardy first-timers who want to experience sled-dog travel. One, "Paws for Adventure," is at Chena Hot Springs Resort, some 50 miles from the interior Alaskan city of Fairbanks.
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The race is as historic as it is daunting. Dog sledding, or mushing, was historically a vital form of transportation for Alaskan natives, and later served the miners who flocked to the territory in search of gold. The tradition appeared moribund by the 1960s, with the introduction of snowmobiles (or snow machines, as they're called in Alaska).

But the Iditarod, which debuted with a 27-mile (43-km) circuit in 1967 and in 1973 became a route of 1,100-plus miles (1,760 km), helped rekindle interest in the sport. Other mushing races also have helped draw enthusiasts to mushing.

Several schools offer lessons for hardy first-timers who want to experience sled-dog travel. One, "Paws for Adventure," is at Chena Hot Springs Resort, some 50 miles (80 km) from the interior Alaskan city of Fairbanks.

Leslie Goodwin, owner of "Paws for Adventure," quit her job as a schoolteacher when she became hooked on mushing

Here, visitors bundle up -- temperatures can stay well below zero in the daytime -- and learn the basics of the dog-sledder's life.

Leslie Goodwin, who runs the school, takes out groups of up to four mushers, each with his or her own sled and team of two to five dogs.

"I have 26 dogs, and they all have different personalities, very different personalities," says Goodwin. "I have to think about that in the people that I put with them when I match them up for mushing school."

Click, Clack, Hudson, Kronk, Lillie, Moose... the animals' names are neatly painted on their doghouses. Their characters are as varied as the patterns of their coats -- some intense, others subdued -- but they all have one thing in common: They live to pull sleds. Bred over generations for that task, the huskies want nothing more than to hit the trail. As Goodwin approaches the kennels with her students, the dogs yelp and howl with excitement, straining at their chains.

Pound for pound, the canines are the strongest draft animals in the world. A racing team of 16 dogs, pulling a loaded sled weighing 300 pounds or more, can run up to 14 mph (22 km/h). Goodwin's student-musher teams average a stately eight mph.

Beginning sledders start out in the late morning (the sun doesn't rise until after 8 a.m. this time of year) with a lesson in how to hitch the dogs. Goodwin demonstrates how to trundle an animal into position, lifting its front legs off the ground with its harness, "like a suitcase."

Yasuharu Ko, of Saituma Prefecture, Japan, fumbles with the straps as Anemone licks his face.

"She loves you," says Goodwin.

"I love you too!" Ko tells his four-legged friend.

Next the students learn the commands: "hike!" for go, "whoa!" for stop, "gee" and "haw" for right and left. Perhaps most important, they practice how to stomp the brakes: a treaded piece of rubber to slow the sled, a metal claw to dig into the snow and stop it. A team of eager huskies isn't likely to come to a full halt without some mechanical help!

After setting up and practicing, the new mushers take a run of about 10 miles (16 km) on the Yukon Quest Trail, site of a race that's less famous than the Iditarod, but tougher.

Ko and two other Japanese visitors quickly get the hang of it, but Mika Nariyama has some trouble. Her two-dog team isn't quite fast enough for her. "Hike! Hike!" she repeatedly commands, as her sled falls behind the others. Eventually Goodwin adds a third and then a fourth dog to her team; the gap between the teams narrow until Nariyama catches up with the pack.

As the teams venture farther from base camp, signs of civilization drop off. The air is crisp and quiet, save for the deep, hollow roar of wind through the pines, and the steady rush of sled runners in snow.

The trail winds past other mushers' isolated cabins, accessible in winter only by sled or snow machine. Each house has huskies tethered outside. Their barks pierce the silence as they smell Goodwin's dogs approaching.

After a couple of hours on the trail, the teams are noticeably slower -- the students too, who are feeling the cold. Goodwin leads them across a frozen river and back toward base. It's time to unhitch, give the huskies a well-deserved rest, and look forward to a soak in Chena's hot mineral baths.

But for those who haven't had enough, the dogs are always ready for another trip. More ambitious students can take overnight trips of up to 40 miles (64 km).

And who knows? Some might end up professional mushers like Goodwin, who started out as a schoolteacher in the Alaskan bush before she got hooked.

"It's addicting," she says. "I love it, and my dogs love it, and it's important for the dogs to be run. If they weren't it would be pretty sad."

If you go...

Chena Hot Springs Resort is reachable by paved road from Fairbanks, which has an international airport with direct service from Anchorage, Seattle, San Francisco, and other cities.

You can make a day trip from Fairbanks, or stay overnight at the resort, which boasts great views of the aurora borealis, or northern lights. Hotel rooms and cabins range from $115 to $200 per night; tent sites are $20; recreational vehicle sites are $40.

Chena Hot Springs Resort
P.O. Box 73440
Fairbanks, Alaska 99707
On the Web:
(800) 478-4681 or (907) 452-7867

Leslie Goodwin offers half-day and full-day beginner's mushing lessons for $250 and $450 respectively; an overnight trip is $550; and a four-day, three-night adventure is $1,750, all meals and lodging included.

Paws for Adventure
On the Web:
(907) 451-8104

Weather: Fairbanks, Alaska
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Hamann journal: Real mushers don't say 'mush'
December 12, 1999

Official Iditarod Web Site
Paws for Adventure
Chena Hot Springs Resort

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