ALASKA Day 3 Part II: Gone to the Dogs!

There's a new Disney movie coming out in February. It's called Eight Below and it recounts the true story of a dogsled expedition in Anarctica that is cut short by vicious weather. The people need to be evacuated fast, but they don't have room for the sled dogs. The rest of the movie is a story of survival--of the eight dogs left behind, and the mission to rescue them. Eight below my ass! You really got to hand it to Hollywood. This morning, when I went dogsledding, around 10:30 just after the sun came up--it was 35 BELOW with the windchill factor taking it down to 50 BELOW! Just a little bit different from the 50 degrees ABOVE that we've been in averaging in Columbus all of January, eh? But that's what I came to Alaska for.

I started out the day getting up around seven-thirty this morning and getting dressed. You saw the list of the stuff I packed. I put on every bit of it and drove over to Sourdough Sam's for breakfast. Sourdough Sam's is a greasy spoon on the corner of University and College that serves breakfast all day and some really good lunch and dinner specials. "Sourdough" is a term they use to describe Alaskans that have lived here a long time--like 20 years or longer. When Alaska was being settled by Americans, those arriving from San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest brought their sourdough cultures with them to make bread, so the people that come to live in Alaska are called "sourdoughs" and Sourdough Pancakes are pretty much ubiquitous throughout the state.

Sourdough Sam's is also one of those few establishments that serves exotic meats, such as reindeer. That's right folks, I ate Rudolph. Seriously, they serve Reindeer Sausage and it was excellent...a little spicy, but really not a lot different from a really good beef sausage from Chicago. I didn't decide to try Rudolph, er, I mean, reindeer until after I saw it on the menu. I knew I needed to eat some protien before the dogsled tour and I simply figured that if I traveled all the way to Alaska and truly wanted an Alaskan experience, I would try some of the local specialties. It's all part of the adventure. The sourdough pancakes were also excellent, rivaling the Original Pancake House's trademark recipe in Birmingham and Charlevoix, Michigan.

So after breakfast I drove over to Sun Dog Sled Dog Tours ( and met Elise Miller, the proprietor and sled team driver. (Contrary to public belief, no one tells a sled dog team to "mush" There is a set of commands, but mush is not one of them. The term derives from the French word moucher, which means "to go fast." And then I met the sled dogs and Elise instructed me how to sit in the sled.

The two lead dogs are named Dudley and Percy, and both are named after characters from the Harry Potter Series. Both dogs were extremely friendly, but once they were hooked up to the sled, they were all business. All the dogs were excited and jumping on their leads when they saw Elise all bundled up in winter gear. They knew there was sledding afoot, and you could just hear each dog screaming in dog barks: "Pick me! Pick me!" As each dog was hooked up to the sled, the other dogs seemed to get more desperate, as if they were fearing they weren't going to be picked. All their eyes were bright, their tales were wagging, and they were alert. It was really quite a sight.

Finally we were ready to go and Elise said "okay" and the dogs took off on the nine mile trail into the woods north of College Avenue, past the fairgrounds and on to the old Creamery Dairy property which is now a Wildlife Refuge and major stopping and nesting ground on Alaskan waterfowl's migratory route.

The ride was simply magical. The sun barely made it above the horizon, almost as if our wonderful life-giving star 93 million miles away took one look at the Weather Channel forecast for Fairbanks and said: "Unt-uh. There's no way in hell I'm dealing with that cold. So the sun stayed low on the horizon, but it bathed the stunted old-growth forest covered in crusted snow with a salmon-pink glow. The lighting was like a neverending sunset. But it was more than enough to see the trail and watch the dogs and see how deftly they steered and controlled the motion of the sled and kept it from swinging off the trail in sharp curves as well as grabbing snow to swallow to drink on the run. We started off like a bat out of hell, but after the first mile, the dogs had worked off their excitement and settled into a more stately pace. But it was still fast and the dogs kicked up a dusting of fine snow that coated my jacket and the creases in my ski goggles.

All the while, Elise talked about the sport of sled dogging, the snow conditions or lack thereof, the optimum temperatures for sledding, the races like the Iditarod and other lesser warm up events. She also talked about the one true danger on the trail: Moose. Unlike Bullwinkle, Moose are nasty creatures that will charge and attack humans and sled dog teams. Moose are bigger than horses. Moose can crush a sled dog's skull with one stamp of its feet, and the sled dogs will stand their ground when confronted by a Moose in a confrontation the dogs can't win. Elise explained that a Moose can completely tear through a sled team and that they are the one hazard that must be avoided at all costs. This is why our expedition did not start until after 10:00 am, which is after the sun came up.

Well, periodically, the dogs would speed up and you could tell that they smelled something and were trying to track whatever it was. Elise said that there were Moose on the trails, so when the dogs started switching into tracking mode, we both became more alert. Sure enough, we saw two Moose. Magnificent creatures indeed, but they were ones we needed to hurry past. Fortunately, the two Moose we saw were not in any mood this morning to charge so I got to see them in the best possible light.

Sadly, the tour quickly came to an end. My toes, even through two smart wool socks, my hiking boots, and a blanket thrown over them did get a little cold, but other than that I was fine. But the biggest disappointment was that I was unable to take any pictures. The extreme cold drained all the life out of my camera batteries, and the camera was inoperative. #^^(!<^@*(*$!!!@!@!####!@! But Elise did give me a souvenir: an official Sun Dog Tours Certificate of Completion, noting the date and the temperature. The rest is indelibly imprinted in my memory--all the sights, the moose, the smells, the feels of the fine snow kicking up from the dogs' feet, the sounds of the sled gliding over the snow and crunching over the dirt and grass patches, and so much more.

After sledding I went over to the University of Alaska--Fairbanks Museum of the North and spent a couple hours looking at the exhibits of Alaskan wildlife, geology, history, and the Northern Lights. And then I drove around town, criscrossing the Chena River and being awed that there were patches where the river was still unfrozen. Large amounts of steam rose from the open water and immediately condensed into ice fog, through which the sun shone creating amazing crystal ice rainbows in the air up to 30 feet above the river.

At 3:30 I found the movie theatre and decided to see Brokeback Mountain. It won all those Golden Globes, it's a huge Oscar contender, and strangely, it is not playing in Columbus. Go figure. It was a good movie, but not perfect. The cinematography was absolutely stunning, and Anne Hathaway, Michelle

For dinner I went to Boston's Pizza ( It seemed to be the place where everyone was going as the parking lot was packed. It was wonderful. Turns out it's a chain based in British Columbia and only opens in locations like Fairbanks, a little off the beaten path, and without major competition from the likes of Applebee's, Friday's, and the like. I had the Shanghai Spaghetti with shrimp and it was great. I'm going back tomorrow night for the Chicken Thai pizza--obviously an attempt to copy California Pizza Kitchen, but we'll see.

Reindeer, Dogs, Moose and -35 degrees. What a great day!

Thanks for reading.


Erin said...

Glad you enjoyed your visit to Fairbanks.

April 14, 2006 4:51 PM

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