Experience Dog Mushing Without Snow
By Jeannine Stafford-Jabaay
“Welcome to my summer home, where me and my 35 kids live.”
– Nic Petit, Iditarod Dog Musher
Petit stood with his arms open to the 16 of us who had just arrived in 6-W drive Pinzgauers, a cross between two ATVs and open-air jeeps, each complete with a full antler rack on top. Behind him, some very animated, barking huskies seemed even more excited about our arrival.
I was recently asked to take a summer dog sled tour in Girdwood, Alaska and share my experience. I was more than willing to join the tour, but having grown up in Alaska around dogs, snow and wildlife, not to mention very colorful Alaskan characters, my expectations were low. I called the Tourist Trap and was offered a morning or afternoon tour running seven days a week.
The drivers of our antler-adorned vehicles picked the group of us up from the base of the Alyeska tram. I was the only solo passenger. The rest were couples and families from all over the nation visiting Alaska. The driver of my vehicle, Tyler Schmitt, is the Lead Handler and Tour Manager for Petit’s operation, Alyeska Tours.
I hopped in front with Schmitt to get an up close feel. In the first five minutes of the ride towards Crow Creek Mine, I learned more about the history of the town of Girdwood and the Alyeska Mountain than I have in all my years living in this state. Schmitt answered my questions as well as many other questions, particularly about bears.
“When we get there, Nic will introduce you to each of the dogs before you will get a chance to interact with the dogs yourself,” explained Schmitt. “And then we’ll start the dog sled tour, before we take you to meet the puppies and give you a small presentation.”
At the mention of puppies, the little girls joining me on the tour all giggled in anticipation.
We made our way up the bumpy trail in our conspicuous transportation over narrow creek bridges, through off-grid communities, past several popular trailheads, and along the base and valleys of the mountains that line the Girdwood community. The scenery was breathtaking. By the time we arrived at Petit’s summer home, I was looking forward to making the trip back down to the tram just to take it all in again.
Petit was abundantly friendly to each of his new guests, and he took his time explaining the lineage and personalities of each of his “kids.” Only one rather mellow dog roamed freely, as the rest had their own doghouse and leash. I took in the air around me, more than surprised that instead of the smell of wet dog and waste, the property was tidy and the air clear and fresh.
“When you meet a new dog,” said Petit to the group, “you should never reach out with your hand to their face. You don’t know if they’re going to bite you. Instead you should reach out like this.” Then, he turned around sticking his rear end out. Laughing heartily at his own joke, I knew I liked him already.
Once we all began mingling with the dogs, I was impressed with their friendliness and the comfort each husky exuded. They were well-behaved, albeit hyped up and ready to pull a sled. They seemed to know and value that we were their ticket to their own exercise. I snapped a selfie or two with different dogs, which inevitably led to some unrequested face licks. At one point, Petit came out holding three one-day-old puppies that had been born to one of his dogs the day before. The little guys could not open their eyes yet, and so we just looked adoringly at the small critters so full of life. With the newborns tucked safely back with mom, we worked our way from doghouse to doghouse getting acquainted with the Iditarod dogs.
“Look! A puppy!” announced Petit. “That’s my way of getting everyone’s attention,” he whispered to me. Toward the back of the property stood Petit holding a two-month old fuzzy husky. Gathering the guests around the lone pup, Petit explained how to harness a sled dog. Recruiting guest volunteers, the dogs were unleashed one-at-a-time, running enthusiastically to get yoked then hitched to the line. Carrying several of the oversized creatures like new born pups, Petit explained the training involved in preparing each sled dog. The bond between Petit and his “kids” was palpable, almost as though they truly were his beloved children.
Once the dogs were tethered and ready to pull the sled on wheels, we were divided into groups – one group to ride, the others to take videos and photos to swap. The barking of the four-legged mushers was remarkable, their energy causing several dogs to leap directly into the air in eagerness.
And suddenly they were off. Petit managed steering the dogs with calls such as “gee” and “haw”, causing the line of dogs to veer left or right as they ran. He demonstrated how his dogs were trained to stop then move to the right of the lane, and he allowed the guest riders to make kissing noises to once again start up the ride.
“Like some mushers at the time, I used to yell at the dogs to get them to obey,” shared Petit. “But I didn’t like that much. So, once I got my own dogs, I stopped yelling and trained them to obey my calm voice and kissy sounds. I guess that’s like kids. Although I don’t know much about them real well. One time a guy asked if I could train his kids like I do my dogs. ‘Can I bring my chains?’ I asked. He said I could,” joked Petit.
Each group of riders took turns lapping through the woods, edging through an active commercial gold mine.
“Do you hear that?” Petit asked. “Nothing to hear. That’s because your fee in part pays these miners to take time off while we’re riding.”
The Crow Creek mining area has rich history on the Turnagain Arm. Just two years ago, a long-forgotten and overgrown sluice box was unearthed which extends over 600 feet. The Crow Creek miners have managed to reclaim much of the sluice box for historical posterity.
Arriving at a tucked away cabin ornamented by a quaint pond, the riders all dismounted and were ushered into a room filled with racing and Iditarod memorabilia. Petit showed off his many trophies, awards and recognitions. He explained the gear needed to become a musher, complete with a wolf muff to ward off snow and ice when traveling in a blizzard.
Petit first ran the Iditarod in 2011, when he won Rookie of the Year. Since then, he’s placed in the Top 10 five times, most recently placing 2nd in 2018. Although the progression of awards was exceedingly impressive, it was clear that the award most treasured by Petit and his team was the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award that he won in 2015, a prize that recognizes the overall care of the dog team.
“I think Nic would rather win that award again than the Iditarod itself,” shared Schmitt. “I think it’s just a matter of time that he wins that again.”
Donning every guest with a used dogsled bootie that was worn by his own dogs in racing, Petit then brought the guests back outside to the Puppy Petting Pen at Petit’s Pavilion. Five-week old puppies were gently held by each guest, one that fell fast asleep on me within minutes. I had the extreme pleasure of holding three pups at once, although the bottom fella didn’t like that much, so I reluctantly surrendered them back to their momma who was watching me with protective caution.
The ride back down the road to Alyeska was once again a delight. Schmitt provided suggestions on places the guests may be interested in and shared some Alaskan traditions complete with music from Hobo Jim.
As I reflect on the tour, I am reminded just how unique our state is. Folks such as Nic Petit are dedicated to educating visitors and locals on authentic Alaskan life, including the joys and trials of raising and racing dogs.
“I don’t have any major corporate sponsors, so you all are now Team Petit,” concluded the well-respected musher. For information on how you can become a part of Team Petit, visit www.AlyeskaTours.com or call (877)783-5566 to make a reservation.