Everyone in Juneau is so nice – we’ve been lucky enough to have travelled extensively and folks are lovely most places, but in Juneau, the locals welcome you like you’re coming home. I want to open this post with that warm endorsement because even though Juneau is cold and wet most of the year, its people are absolutely remarkable and I am so glad to have met the folks I met.
Our day in Juneau started a bit late – the best way to do it when you’re on vacation. We slept in, watched the early birds get off the ship, and noted a pair of bald eagles just hanging out on the cell tower like they owned the entire dockyard.
It’s funny, how excited we get about animal sightings. The driver – Zach – who took us up to our excursion noted that bald eagles are extremely common in Juneau and they like to hang out at the dump on the other side of the island. In fact, there’s so many of them that they have to shoot off fireworks sometimes to scare them away because they get to be a nuisance.
If I’ve just ruined your mental image of bald eagles as majesty, prideful, noble birds… then well? At least it’s a good story.
Seriously though, that is what Juneau is like. Folks welcome you like you’re a lost cousin and they have so much to catch you up on. During the fifteen minute ride to the Gold Rush Sled Dog Summer Camp, Zach filled us in on the mining history of Juneau, which plants to absolutely avoid in the surrounding woods, and local salmon run. All in such a way that it felt like chatting with a good friend.
Heading to the Gold Rosh Sled Dog Summer Camp was a gamble for me because even though I think (most) dogs are beautiful, I’m also very allergic to them. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about the mask mandates is that they block the dander and make me able to do fun things like go outside during season changes and pet friendly sled dogs without melting into a pile of snot green misery and despair. I am so glad we took the chance because sledding was so much fun and the dogs and their mushers were so sweet – definitely a trip highlight.
I learned so much about sled dogs and racing – enough that I think every sledding movie is forever ruined for me. From the appropriate gear to the way dogs train in the off-season to the importance of bloodlines, I know I’m not an expert, but it was awesome to pull in so much knowledge on a topic I never throught to explore before. For example, did you know that the regal Siberian huskies you see in most films are not desired in real live for sled racing? A purebred Siberian husky is too slow to handle that sort of long-term endurance race at a reasonable pace. Instead, mushers breed Alaskan huskies.
Alaskan huskies are defined on their breeding – these dogs are bred specifically for their skills and strengths, not for looks. Although that isn’t to say most of them aren’t incredibly beautiful, just that ability is much more important than appearance for these dogs. While yes, there is some Siberian husky mixed in, there’s also Labrador, Retriever, and so many other breeds specifically designed to create a dog that is strong, hardy, good-tempered, and obedient with excellent endurance.
My first concern when we arrived at the camp was that the dogs were tied to small dog houses and barking – I immediately was concerned for the well-being of the dogs. After speaking with Elke – our guide and a musher herself – I learned a few things about this. The most difficult thing to remember when visiting a sled dog kennel is that these are not our normal pet dogs – Alaskan huskies are working dogs. They’ve been bred to be comfortable in cold northern temperatures and in fact, they get too warm and uncomfortable if they’re brought inside. They’re chained so they don’t run away but they’re given a lot of lead so they can easily run around and exercise to their heart content. Finally, just because they setup looks alarming, it doesn’t mean these dogs are mistreated.
We visited the “summer camp” in Juneau, where the dogs come to practice and train in the off-season. In fact, they day we were there was the very last day of tours and they dogs were headed home the next day to get ready for race season. A home, which we learned, is forty acres of land where the dogs are taken on walks to play and explore.
As soon as we got up close to the dogs, it was immediately clear that each and every one of the dogs loves Elke and she loves them right back. Some mushers may be terrible to their dogs, but not Smokin’ Aces Kennels. These dogs loved to run, excited to get on the trail. Any time Elke stopped them to rest or get a drink, they’d be ready to start going before she was, anxiously staring back at her like “Geez mom, can we go already?”. All the dogs who were not on the run got excited every time a cart left or came back, like a cheering squad.
These dogs love to go and they are given so much love.
After my initial concern at the dog’s living conditions and subsequent learning that these are loved dogs and their living conditions are actual better for their breed than the cushy lives our own canine companions receive… I really, really enjoyed our time at Gold Rush Sled Dog Summer Camp. I’m actually following the mushers on Instagram now because I may have a little bit fallen in love with their dogs. And how could you not? They’re so sweet.
After our sled ride, Elke and her husband Matt (who has his own team – they were two of the three mushers in residence at the camp) allowed us to visit their puppies! Which was very exciting, even though they were big puppies. We were told about how one of them, Journey, managed to climb up and behind the kennel enclosure when she was just a couple months old. Another one of the girls, Java, delighted in being held and cozied right into peoples’ arms.
Even the puppies were so well-behaved, limited jumping and no kisses (for me this is a big deal – my skin gets irritated from dog saliva so their good behavior allowed me to interact with them more). I cannot emphasize enough that these dogs were the friendliest, happiest dogs I’ve ever met. Absolutely so sweet and I adore them.
We did a little wandering in Juneau and a little shopping, but the real highlight of the day was these sled dogs. As a city, Juneau was my absolute favorite and it’s a city I would visit again. Ideally, we’d visit again earlier in the summer – we were there at the end of the tourist season and many establishments were closed until next summer. What we were able to see of the city, we liked. Juneau felt a bit like home. I know we go on vacations for adventure and a change, but my favorite places are ones like Juneau and London that feel home-ish. Like I could live there and be happy.
If I find myself in Juneau in the summertime again, I would love to visit the summer camp and the sled dogs again. It’s clear that this establishment takes good care of the Alaskan huskies and the mushers they invite are good people who treat their dogs well. It was a unique experience for us and so much fun. And I certainly hope we find our way to Alaska again because we really loved it.