In Alaska. Over mountains and lakes and snow and many a rocky precipice until we landed on a massive glacier.
I have a fear of heights, but I love mountains. I know I should have a little fear of flying, because that is very high, but I don’t. During the safety briefing before we boarded the helicopter, there were many instructions about how to walk out on the helipad: stay between the yellow lines, stay with your guide, if your hat blows off DO NOT run after it. Don’t deviate from the instructions, and load in the order the guide tells you. It was all about not getting chopped up by the rotors, which I was definitely pro that.
But, instructions about what to do in case something happens to those (very flimsy) rotors that are holding us up in the air and we start to go down? Not so much. In fact, nothing. Because, I realize now, what would be the point? If you fall out of the sky onto a mountain in a thing roughly the size of a Volkswagen, emergency exits and flotation devices are not really going to figure in. But I didn’t think about any of that at all while we were flying. I think my whole thought process during the 30 minute flight over the mountains consisted of, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh. Wowwwwwwwww. Ohhhhhhhhh.”
I’ve seen movies and National Geographic specials about the glaciers, but to fly over one is stunning. There is no sense of scale because there are no roads or buildings to compare. You just know it’s huge. It is blindingly white because new snow was still falling regularly in late May, and the mountain peaks threw dark blue shadows across the vast whiteness.
As we continued up the glacier (it was the Mendenhall, not far from Juneau), we spotted a faint grid of black dots on the snow far up ahead. It had to be manmade, and as we got closer, we realized it was the dog camp where we were going to learn about dog sledding and meet the dogs and finally ride a dogsled. Each tiny dot was a doghouse. There were probably 200 of them, flat-topped, and on many of them, the occupant was happily standing or sitting on top, barking and howling as if welcoming us.
Our guide explained to us that sled dogs are not the blue-eyed Huskies that you see on commercials that are bred for their beauty. These dogs are small, strong and amazingly eager to do one thing, and that is pull the sled. They don’t mind the cold. In fact, the May weather was a little warm for them. They prefer the frigid air, and hard-packed, icy snow. Running is what they do, and they each burn more calories on a race day than an adult male human.
The two lead dogs of our team were veterans of the Iditarod. This team runs only for one particular “musher,” and they respond to his voice. It was amazing to watch them watch him, waiting for his voice signals. They pulled like their lives depended on it. There was joy in every muscle in their bodies.
When we stopped and got off the sled, we went up and petted each dog, telling them they did a good job, and they just about wiggled out of their skins with delight. We got kisses. When we boarded the sled again, they were ready to go, jumping up and down with excitement.
Back at the camp, we thanked the dogs and our musher for the ride and went over to visit the puppy pen. A mom dog had a litter of 9 day old pups and we got to hold them! Incredibly adorable! They fit in our two hands and their eyes weren’t open yet. It is so hard to believe that those little guys will grow up to be strong, eager sled dogs like the ones that pulled us.
After a while, the helicopters returned; three tiny red dots against the blue sky. They landed one by one, a careful and precise distance apart. The dogs howled their good-byes and we boarded to fly back to the heliport. The trip back seemed way too short. I couldn’t look hard enough at everything – the vast glacier, the moraines of ground up stone and dirt pushed up by the pressure of the slowly moving ice, the sharp mountaintops, the light and shadows. I knew I probably would not see these things again, and that this incredible place is undoubtedly thawing away, and someday will be gone entirely.
The Mendenhall Glacier. I was so lucky to see it. I am proud that my children saw it. I hope their children see it.