Each year, 30,000 to 40,000 people from around the world gather in Anchorage to watch the ceremonial start of the Iditarod sled dog race. Thousands more turn out to cheer the winner at the finish line in Nome some 10 days later.
But most of Alaska's tourism takes place in the summer, and those warm-weather visitors don't get a chance to see the mushers in action.
There are other ways to get a taste of sled dog culture, though, even if your Alaska vacation is scheduled for July or August. You can take a sled dog ride on a glacier, you can attend a show in Anchorage about sled dogs, and you can tour a sled dog kennel.
Kennels in Alaska that welcome visitors include one in Denali National Park, where dogs are still used for winter patrols, and Trail Breaker in Fairbanks, which is the late Susan Butcher's kennel. Butcher was a four-time Iditarod champion and the second woman to ever win the race. She died in 2006 and her ashes were buried on the Iditarod trail during the 2007 race.
On a vacation last summer, my family and I toured the kennel in Seward run by Mitch Seavey, the 2004 Iditarod winner. Elsewhere on our trip to Alaska, we'd seen whales, bears, moose and eagles, but my 9-year-old son liked the dogs best of all.
Our tour of Seavey's kennel included time to cuddle and play with the puppies, plus a ride on a wheeled cart pulled by a team of dogs through the woods. Our guide, Mike Barnett, showed us the gear mushers wear to withstand temperatures that can run 20 to 30 degrees below zero, and he also explained that Alaskan huskies are mutts, not purebreds.
"They're bred for their athletic ability," he said.
That's why we thought some of the dogs looked like German shepherds, others looked like malamutes and a few even reminded us of our border collie Buddy back home.
For the record, animal-rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals oppose sled dog racing. "Dogs die every year in the Iditarod — at least three died in last year's race," said PETA spokesman Daniel Hauff. "Compassionate travelers can engage in countless other activities that don't support cruelty to animals."
But mushers and fans say these dogs love to run and work. The dogs are examined by their owners and veterinarians along the route. Dogs unfit to continue are cared for at checkpoints on the trail, then flown back to Anchorage by volunteers.
For those visitors who want to see Alaska's sled dogs up close, here are some options. Some kennels are open year-round and offer summer and winter sled rides; others offer tours primarily to summer visitors.
: Ceremonial start to the race, March 1 in Anchorage. Competition takes place on a 1,100-mile trail from Willow to Nome, with the winner crossing the finish line in 10 to 14 days; 907-376-5155. The Iditarod race commemorates the delivery of lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925 by a relay of dog teams. That historic event has been memorialized in movies and books about the famed dog Balto.
: Show about sled dogs in Anchorage for summer visitors, staged by musher Mitch Seavey, starring 20 dogs and four mushers; 888-221-6874. Adults, $19; children, $9.50.
- Seavey's Ididaride Sled Dog Tours in Seward; 800-478-3139. Adults, $59; children, $29.
- Denali National Park Kennel; 907-683-2294. The kennel is open for summer tours; free admission. Demonstrations and interpretive talks are offered several times daily.
- Husky Homestead, located on a private homestead just outside the entrance to Denali; 907-683-2904. Adults, $49; children, $24.50. This is the kennel of four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King.
- Trail Breaker Kennel, in Fairbanks; 907-479-3825. Lunch and dinner shows and tours. Visits must be booked through third-party tour operators; the kennel office can provide details. This was Susan Butcher's kennel.
- Alaska Excursions in Skagway; 907-983-4444. Must be booked through cruise ship, $119 per person.
- Chena Dog Kennel, Chena Hot Springs Resort; 907-451-8104. Tours, adults, $25; children 6-13, $15, children 5 and under free with paying adult. Summer cart rides, winter sled rides, $60.
- Dream a Dream Premier Iditarod Kennel, in Willow; 866-425-6874. Summer tours, $45 ($65 with ride). Also offers winter tours, adventures and a bed-and-breakfast winter package.
- Sundog Kennel in Talkeetna; 800-318-2534. Tour and ride, $55.
Glacier sled dog rides in summer
- Alaska Flightseeing Tours, Juneau; 800-843-1947. Starts at $445 a person.
- Alpine Air Alaska, Girdwood (45 minutes from Anchorage); 907-783-2360. Adults, $429; children 12 and under $399.
- Godwin Glacier Dogsled Tours in Seward, 907-224-8239. Summer flightseeing trip and sled dog rides on a glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, adults, $430, children $390.