“You want to make sure with a race in which you'll be flying home with other drivers that you don't crash into them. It's happened before, and it can make for a little bit of a tense situation.”
Hop Aboard an Alaskan Dogsled in Yellowstone
To witness world-class dogsled racing, you don’t have to fly all the way to frigid Fairbanks to watch the Alaska Open North American Championship or stand at the crowded finish of the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous. And you don’t have to commit to living in a Jack London novel for days or weeks in the frozen north to experience the pristine winter wilderness behind a team of Alaskan huskies.
During the last 20 years, the traditional circumpolar sport of dogsledding has taken hold in and around Yellowstone, America’s oldest national park, in easily reached Wyoming and Montana. You can be an enthusiastic sideline spectator, catching all the excitement of a big-time amateur dogsled race through the spectacular winter scenery of the northern Rockies (see sidebar), while staying in cozy bed-and-breakfasts and luxury resorts. Or you can jump right in and become an active participant, climbing into your very own sled for the day with an experienced musher at the reins.
One of the best outfitters in the region is 43-year-old Jason Matthews, the professional wilderness guide and naturalist whose tour company is called Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures. Last year, he and his team of seven drivers (most summertime national park rangers, so you’re in good hands in the woods) took 2,283 guests dogsledding. They came from all over the U.S. and as far away as Nepal. Most went on Matthews’s half-day trips in Montana on trails leading into the piney woods from Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, Chico Hot Springs in Paradise Valley or the Gallatin Valley near Bozeman. He also organizes trips into the rugged, stunningly beautiful Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Guests arrive at trailheads each morning not quite knowing what to expect. There are family groups and adventure-seekers of all ages. There are no preconceptions. The scene is one of organized chaos, with up to 50 Alaskan huskies in their leather harnesses barking, howling, lunging, leaping and going crazy with excitement. They are animals of boundless energies that the Alaskan Natives and old-timers affectionately call “villagey.” Bred for toughness and endurance rather than fluffy looks, they descended from pre-Columbian dogs that crossed over from Siberia in waves of human migration stretching back tens of thousands of years.
“As soon as they start running,” Matthews tells me, “the dogs are silent.”
The only sounds are the wind, the swooshing noise under the sled runners and the breathing of the dogs. Soon they are miles into the back country with commanding views of a winter wonderland.
“People are blown away,” Matthews says. “They can’t believe how far the dog teams take them in such a short time and how incredible the scenery and solitude is. I’ve run raft trips all summer for years and we rarely hear back from anyone when it’s over. With dogsledding, people are emailing us that night, thanking us and sharing their photos. It’s amazing.”
Thomas R. Pero (firstname.lastname@example.org) is publisher of Wild River Press, the former editor and publisher of Fish & Fly and the author of two books about fly fishing.