Turning Heads Kennel Lets Guests Experience Snow And Wonder.
Mushing In The Alaskan Snow: Turning Heads Kennel
Operator Speaks On The Joy Of Touring The Frozen Godwin Glacier With Their Intrepid & Personable Packs Of Canines
Every Christmas Sarah Stokey gets cards from all over the world. They show kids making snow angels…families building snowmen. Sarah knows exactly where and when the pictures were taken because she was there. It was during summer high up on Alaska’s Godwin Glacier. Sarah, as a partner in Seward Helicopters and Turning Heads Dog Sled Tours on the Kenai Peninsula, just south of Anchorage, knows the feeling.
“A lot of people who take our tours have never seen snow before,” she explains. “For many kids, this is their first experience in snow. So we always try to allow time up on the glacier for playing and taking pictures.”
A lot of the pictures feature happy sled dogs being hugged by families. Turning Heads Kennel, the operation that is run by Stokey and her partner Travis Beals, has nearly 60 dogs, most bred and trained at the facility about 2 miles from downtown Seward. Half the dogs spend the summer months high on Godwin Glacier, pulling sleds of tourists through the snow. The others stay at the kennel where visitors can enjoy a mushing experience aboard a cart pulled by dogs in training.
Between the helicopter dog sledding trip and the less expensive mushing on dry ground, visitors can find a classic Alaska experience to suit any budget. An important part of every visit is interaction with the dogs of Turning Heads. Although they are working dogs, and in training for winter races, each dog is socialized to welcome attention from humans.
“We touch their feet a lot, and get them used to people, from the time they are puppies,” Sarah said. “We don’t have to teach them to pull, because that’s what they do. They just go! It’s like throwing a ball for a Labrador pup. He’ll instinctively go after it. What we do have to teach them is the ins and outs of mushing.”
According to Stokey, the tourist experiences play an important part in this process. “We involve many of the younger dogs in our tours, pairing them with veterans so they can learn skills like staying untangled. The rides at the kennel are focused on up and coming lead dogs, teaching them the mushing commands. It’s very interactive for visitors, and really fun to watch the dogs get it right.”
Sarah and Travis took over the Seward Helicopters operation in 2013, adding a whole new dimension to their tours. From mid-May to early September, the ‘copters lift people onto Godwin Glacier where they meet the dogs and the guides before commencing on a sled trip through the snow. The entire experience takes about an hour a half. About 1,500 to 2,000 people take the tour each year.
Visitors arrive at the helicopter base on site and are outfitted with snow boots, before the 15-minute flight up to the dog camp on the glacier. “It’s a beautiful flight,” Sarah told The Buzz. “We loop over Resurrection Bay, then go up to the top of the glacier to see the blue ice. A lot of times there are mountain goats along the sides of the valley that we can point out.
“As we approach the dog camp, there is just this endless field of white snow, with a little pin-prick in the middle. As you get closer, you realize that the pin-prick is the camp. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Once the helicopter lands, guests are introduced to the dogs and learn how to ride in a dog sled. The sled ride itself lasts 30 to 40 minutes and covers about two miles. Afterward, Sarah and her staff allow plenty of time for guests to enjoy the view, interact with the dogs, play in the snow - and take pictures.
The dogs on the glacier are a mix of veterans and younger dogs, developing muscles and stamina by pulling the sleds through summer’s wet sticky snow. They will need both when the winter racing season begins. Both Sarah and Travis compete regularly in the 1,000-mile Iditarod, as well as numerous other less-famous sled races. Travis, born in Alaska, started as a champion junior competitor and finished 11th, his best Iditarod performance so far, in 2015 when his team received the “Most Improved” award.
Sarah’s journey to the Iditarod was more complex. A native of Falmouth, Massachusetts, she developed an early - and to her parents, inexplicable - love of sled racing. “As soon as I found out there was such a thing as mushing, I wanted to do it,” she said. As an adult, she pursued her dream, making her way to Alaska in 2010, where she met Travis, a kindred soul equally obsessed with dog sledding. The two became engaged following the 2013 Iditarod.
The people who come from around the world to sample this uniquely Alaskan experience are what make pursuing their Iditarod dreams possible, Sarah said. “Combining something you love with something people want to learn about is really special,” she told The Buzz. “The tourism funds our racing, and we love sharing our experiences with our guests.”
A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked
as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel
guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.