When people share their Alaska wish lists with me, it often begins like this:
“I’ve always dreamed of seeing a sled dog race,” or “It’s been my lifelong dream to meet a musher.”
Dreams are often perceived as pie-in-the-sky desires that rarely come true, but at the home of Vern Halter, longtime musher and co-owner of Dream A Dream Sled Dog Tours in Alaska’s Matanuska Susitna Valley, the word becomes action.
When our family welcomed a young lady to our home for a quick weekend visit last month, the activity she wanted most of all was to go a’ sled-doggin’ her way around Alaska’s brushy summer trails. Vern Halter – who also happens to be mayor of the Mat-Su Borough – and his wife, veterinarian Susan Whiton have developed a spacious and beautiful homestead in the trees of Willow, Alaska, and love to show off their garden, log home, and most precious canine companions.
Located about 90 minutes from Anchorage, Dream A Dream Sled Dog Tours is within easy reach for a day trip, and just about perfect if you’re on your way to Talkeetna or Denali National Park. Halter and fellow musher Cindy Abbott, 2017 Red Lantern winner in last year’s Iditarod Sled Dog Race tag team an hourlong presentation about the Iditarod, sled dogs, and Alaska’s state sport. Watch a video, see how Cindy stacks her sled with all the necessary (and in the case of the Iditarod, required) tools and supplies to make it from Anchorage to Nome.
From the presentation, guests wind their way out to the dog yard, where the pack of pups know exactly what comes next. Abbott swung wide the gates housing two litters of puppies and off we went, following their baby growls and excited yips for a mile-long walk in the forest. The walks are important, Abbott told us, because the pups need to learn to listen to the “grownup” (musher/handler) and follow the leader in this most desirable way. It’s also a chance for mushers to see who the natural leaders are, and who is not. Who is bold? Who runs from danger? Who is the first to return when called? It’s a fascinating social experiment, and we enjoyed every second.
When the puppies came racing back to the dog yard, Halter was there with an ATV all hitched up to a harness, adult dogs howling and jumping all around us. It was time, he said, to hop in and take a ride.
Abbott and Halter spent a few minutes playing a game of “who goes – who stays” with the team, and every dog, it seemed wanted to be chosen. After all ten were harnessed and in some semblance of order, Abbott instructed the kids in our tour to “Hang on, guys!” and shouted the command to move out.
The ATV ride is a wild 30 minutes of swerving, ducking, and watching the team perform at the task they love most – pulling hard. Trotting down the dirt road from Dream A Dream farm, we heard Abbott shout encouragement, give instructions, and talk about her team partners, because, after all, she would be nothing without them.
Abbott called the dogs to a halt halfway through our ride to offer a rest and water to every dog, the kids all helping distribute the metal bowls. Some dogs rolled on the wet grass, some nosed us for pats on the head, and others strained at their harness to get the heck going, already.
So we did, listening to Abbott sing the song of mushers everywhere and glorying in the fact that this day was certainly special, in a very special spot.
If you go:
Dream A Dream Sled Dog Tours is located along the Parks Highway at Mile 64.5 (follow the directional sign to the property). Vern and Susan live in the big log cabin and offer tours of the beautiful home and surrounding gardens. Don’t miss out.
Summer Tours will operate until September 15 at a rate of $119/pp for up to five people (the price drops with more folks along). For the three hours of total sled dog immersion, it is an excellent investment. And, friends, there are more opportunities to snuggle puppies than you could possibly imagine.
What you’ll get: An hour or so of presentation time (with plenty of time to ask questions) that includes a very nice, age-appropriate video for kids; a chance to walk the puppies (our favorite part), and a ride through the forest with the team. The total tour time comes to just over three hours, and coffee, doughnuts, and other snacks can be arranged. Lunch is included if you take the all-day tour.
Who should go? Kids of any age will enjoy the opportunities to meet and touch these friendly sled dogs and pups, and younger school-agers will like the video. If you have infants or toddlers, the ride may be too rough, but Halter and Abbott can answer your questions about secure seating.
Bring clothing for any kind of weather, and clothing that is resistant to mud and, er, other things that you or your kids may experience. This is a dog’s life, after all. We brought rain pants to go over our jeans since the puppies jumped all over us. Rain coats are a must.
Don’t forget the camera, either.
Contact Vern Halter at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 907-495-1197. Transportation to and from Anchorage is available.