Dog Days of Summer: Team Petit & Pinzgauers double tour thrills
By P.M. Fadden
Girdwood Mushing Company, in partnership with the Great Alaskan Tourist Trap, offers Summer Sled Dog Tours, an all-terrain tour and dog-cart ride designed to thrill as well as educate. The three-hour, two-phase, adventure excursion combines Iditarod contender Nicolas Petit’s interactive kennel experience and dog-cart ‘mush’ with locally guided Pinzgaur off-road motoring.
Clients gather at the Hotel Alyeska’s Tramway Station. There, amidst an atmosphere of excited anticipation, they are warmly met by an entertaining guide who briefs the party on safety before introducing the Pinzgaur machine.
Of Austrian-Swiss manufacture, the 1976 model, 6-wheeled Pinzgaur readily navigates otherwise unpassable terrain and capably ascends ninety-degree slopes. Its two-person, moose-rack-mounted cockpit opens to a rear bed of open-air bench seating allowing passenger’s full wilderness exposure.
“The Pinz is great,” said Brian Holliman, a third-year Pinzgaur mechanic in his first year driving. “It allows a unique opportunity to drive open-air through the wild.”
A life-long Girdwood local, Holliman provides a rocking musical backdrop while informing clients on area features and history as the Pinzgaur rumbles Crow Creek Road (and off it) to arrive at Girdwood Mushing Company.
“It’s a fun course to drive,” said Holliman. “We’re on the cusp of the busy season now, and I feel pretty lucky to share this fantastic place I live in.”
“This is awesome,” said passenger Whitney Petrosa.
Petrosa is one among seven visiting East Coasters aboard for the off-road, dog mush extravaganza. “We’ve only just left the tram, and I love it already,” she said.
After an earth-churning, bush whacking, 1,000-foot elevation climb, the Pinzgaur parks at Girdwood Mushing Company’s Kennels where passengers are greeted by Normandy, France transplant turned Girdwoodian, Nic Petit.
Well known among mushing circles, Petit has established himself as a serious contender amongst the famous Iditarod Dog Sled Race field. At 36, Petit was 2011 Iditarod Rookie of the Year, 2013’s Most Improved Musher and given 2015’s Humanitarian Award. He finished seventh in the 2016 Iditarod and tenth in 2015.
“Ever since adopting my first dog ‘Ugly,’ I’ve had a special relationship with my teams,” said Petit. “It’s important to me that my dogs receive excellent care. I live and work beside them every day.”
Petit, taking time from a busy 2016 Iditarod preparation schedule of training and sponsor hunting, welcomes clients with an introduction to the some 26 dogs at home in his kennels. A visit to Girdwood Mushing Company is a hands-on experience, and while each four-legged racer is named and anecdotally described, clients mingle and pet the team. Petit encourages photos throughout his greeting, and the amiable dogs oblige with poses atop their kennel huts.
While visitors familiarize themselves with his compound home, Petit describes the gear employed to handle, house, care for and mush a dog team.
“I place my team before my place in the race,” said Petit. “I’m always learning how to work better with my gear and my dogs.
Petit is particularly excited by the youthful capability of his team. The dog’s ages and individual racing achievements are described as the team is assembled for a ‘line out’—the attachment of dogs two by two along a lead cable connecting to a specialty designed, four-wheel, dual bench-seated cart.
“I feel the personal aspect of my mushing makes Girdwood Mushing Company unique,” said Petit while guiding a client volunteer on how to harness a dog. “A ‘line out,’ for example, is a rare sight during a kennel visit. Here, the clients are part of it.”
“My visitors get to know us, and what we love to do as welcome friends to both myself and the dogs,” he said.
With the team safely harnessed, Petit instructs clients to seat themselves aboard the cart. An undulating, circuitous trail, over which the team and passengers will soon rocket, winds through the bush ahead. Petit demonstrates the verbal commands required for control of the well-trained team as the dogs launch forward to follow the trail.
Musher and team are audibly and visibly in-tune during the mush, a state demonstrated when from Petit’s near whispered vocal commands dictate the team to sharply swerve at a last minute turn, speed up or stop all-together. The Holliman-driven Pinzgauer machine motors alongside each cart ride, offering action views for clients awaiting their turn. The vehicle also serves as bear scout. A mush with Petit’s team immerses clients in the natural environment of the Crow Creek location, which requires safety measures be taken to minimize surprise encounters with the furry-pawed, lumbering locals.
Petit closes his mush and kennel tour with a client pleasing Puppy Compound stop.
“These puppies are so adorable,” Petrosa said. “I wish I could take one home with me after the tour ends.”
Competitive mushing success hinges upon care in breeding. It is a critical professional aspect which Team Petit takes lovingly serious.
Clients are invited to play with a weeks-old pup litter while Petit describes race day, final preparations and displays gear he has employed to achieve Iditarod success. The personal touch of the day’s tour, as well as Petit and Holliman themselves, emphasizes for clients that, in the mushing profession, integrity comes first.
“Receiving the 2015 Humanitarian Award is really, to me, better than a first place finish,” Petit said of his official recognition as the Iditarod team to finish in the most well-cared for physical state.
“What I want to do now is extend that humanitarian mindset through all components of Girdwood Mushing Company to continue to improve the client’s tour experience.”
Support for Team Petit can be logged through the musher’s official website: teampetit.com, while Summer Sled Dog Tours can be booked daily from 9 a.m., 12:30, or 4 p.m. through the Great Alaskan Tourist Trap, located at the corner of Alyeska and Seward Highways.
This article was sponsored in part by the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area.