Before going to Alaska, I knew very little about its famed sport of sled dog racing.
I’d seen the Disney renditions in movies like Snow Dogs, Eight Below, and Togo—but no amount of staged filming can compare to the real thing: a journey of more than 1,000 miles through the darkness of Alaska’s deep interior in a grueling race that can last anywhere from 8 to more than 15 days.
Described as one of the most difficult sports in the world, dog mushing obviously isn't for everyone. It requires extreme drive, extensive survival skills, an iron will to keep going, and unrivaled mental toughness. No one just ‘enters’ the world-famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race unprepared; they simply wouldn’t survive.
Facing Alaska’s brutal cold and immense and unforgiving wilderness requires extensive training and preparation. Dog mushers spend months getting ready for the race, taking their dogs on trial runs and training them year-round in a variety of ways in order to prepare for the battle that lies ahead.
Meet Jeff King, Iditarod Champion
One of those incredible mushers is Jeff King, who’s won a total of 4 Iditarod races during his career, as well as a Yukon Quest title and “twenty-four other first-place titles in races across Alaska and other parts of North America.” He was even inducted into the Iditarod Hall of Fame in 1999.
His website says he is “often recognized as the ‘Winningest Musher in the World.’” That’s quite a title, but one that he’s earned over thirty-five years of dedication and competition in the world of sled dog racing.
When my family met him in August of 2011 at his “Husky Homestead” near Denali National Park, he was 55 years old and had raced in the last 21 Iditarod sled dog races in Alaska. At that point, he was preparing for his 22nd race next March.
Husky Homestead Tour
The 1.5-hour tour involves “a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into creating a championship team and carving a life in Alaska’s Interior. Hear compelling stories from the trail and see actual racing sleds, arctic survival gear and equipment used to traverse 1,100 miles of Alaska’s most rugged terrain.”
And he was definitely a compelling storyteller! He had the group captivated with his tales of adventure out on the trail one minute, and laughing at his dry humor the next. It was both interesting and educational, really giving you a realistic look into what it’s like out there and the challenges any musher faces.
It was also good to learn how well the dogs are treated and to witness just how loved they are. We learned that their overall health and nutrition are closely monitored, they have training regimens and schedules, and their performance is recorded and studied. Essentially, they’re treated just like real athletes—because they are! Realizing just how high the standard of care is for the dogs he races was enlightening.
One of the best parts of the tour happened right at the beginning, though: meeting and holding adorable Alaskan husky puppies! Regardless of how good and interesting the rest of his presentation was, nothing could beat playing with these precious puppies. For any dog lover, this part alone makes the tour completely worth it!
This Sport Is Not For Me
The more I learned about this sport and what it requires of both the dogs and their mushers during our visit, the more impressed I became. Although it would be an incredible achievement to win an Iditarod, it’s not something I’m compelled to do in the least. I would, however, love to take a much shorter dog sled trip to see the Northern Lights at some point (led by experienced guides who won’t let me die, of course!)
As someone who’s perpetually cold (and was even cold 90% of the time on my two-week Alaska trip—during the summer), I almost can’t imagine anything worse than trying to survive a two-week trek through mainly darkness while enduring Alaska’s biting 40-below winter temperatures.
I have immense respect and admiration for those who partake in this race of champions, but I’m happy with someday briefly experiencing Alaska’s state sport, rather than making it a way of life!
Book Your Summer 2021 Tour
Jeff continues to operate Husky Homestead at his family home a few miles from the entrance to Denali.
The start of another season of tours is just around the corner, beginning June 1, 2021. A total of 10 tours are offered per week from June 1 - August 31.