Updated September 6, 2018
An Alaska dog sledding excursion is likely to be the highlight of your cruise. Dog sled tours are offered in Juneau and Skagway. We chose Norwegian Cruise Line's 'Dogsledding & Glacier Flightseeing Helicopter' tour in Skagway, where the helipad is conveniently next to the cruise ship dock.
What It Is
A 10-minute helicopter flight takes passengers to Denver Glacier to enjoy a ride in a sled pulled along the snow by a team of Alaska Huskies. Professional dog handlers ('mushers') accompany, guide and drive all sled rides. After almost an hour on the icefield, the helicopter brings you back to the ship.
Tickets cost from US$559 to US$599 (A$738 to US$791). Passengers who weigh more than 250 lb (113 kg) are charged extra for the use of two seats in the helicopter.
The meeting point is on the pier near the end of the ship's gangway. When our group is assembled, a tour guide walks us to the helipad terminal, less than a minute away, to watch a safety video and put on the provided lifejacket and ice boots. We board the helicopter and enjoy a short but thrilling ride above the aptly named Paradise Valley. This scenic flight over the river, mountains and waterfalls is a highlight in itself. The aerial view of the camp, which houses 240 dogs in 240 kennels, is also a sight to behold upon arrival.
After landing, another guide welcomes us and explains what it is like to live on the camp for both dogs and mushers. Divided into groups of four, we meet our team of 12 Huskies with time to pat them and take photos. All of the dogs are friendly and enjoy the attention, although some are shyer than others.
The ride is on a non-motorised double-sled: one sled is directly behind the dogs and carries two seated passengers plus our guide Ryne standing on the back; the second sled carries one seated passenger and one standing behind them near the brakes. Over the four sections of the course, passengers rotate so that everyone gets a turn in each position.
I volunteer to be the first person standing, which means I get to help stop the sled by stamping my foot on the brake when instructed by Ryne. She also controls the steering and the main brakes so there is no chance of crashing or veering off course. Ryne yells out to the dogs who immediately start running on her command. And whoosh, we're off!
With a foot on each side of the sled, while holding onto the railing, it feels like skiing but without having to worry about balancing. It's easy, requiring no fitness or coordination. The first section is the slowest, climbing slightly uphill. Ryne calls out for me to step on the brake and the sled smoothly comes to a halt.
Switching spots with the other passengers, I take a seat in the other sled. The best sitting position is in the front for an unobstructed view of the running dogs. The next three sections are a little faster, with the last leg downhill. Total ride time is around 20 minutes.
We hug our dogs goodbye before they relax for the rest of the day and go to visit the puppy enclosure. We're lucky that several Husky puppies were born a few weeks ago so we are allowed to hold them and take more photos. So cute!
The helicopter takes us back to the ship, providing a second chance to absorb the magnificent Alaskan landscape from the air and add more lasting memories of this (probably) once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Worth a Try?
Yes, especially if you are adventurous or have kids who love dogs. It's expensive but an activity not found in many other places in the world, let alone on the doorstep of your cruise ship. As an introduction to dogsledding, this excursion is 'soft adventure' rather than 'extreme sports'. There are three stops along the way (to switch seats and take photos) so the adrenaline rush is on the mild side but it is definitely fun and a spectacular setting. The tour is well-run, guides are friendly and professional, and the Skagway pick-up point could not be more convenient.
Things to Note
We booked the 8 a.m. excursion on a clear, blue-sky day but due to another passenger's booking error (they purchased only one ticket for two people), the tour company asked us to move to the 3 p.m. departure. As the rain came in and the wind howled after lunch, we worried that our good deed had backfired but as we learned, the weather on the ground is not indicative of conditions on the glacier. The tour went ahead despite the drizzle. However, it did raise a good point: if a morning tour gets cancelled for any reason, there may still be a chance to go in the afternoon -- but not the other way around. Therefore, it would be wise to book the earliest tour to hedge your bets with the unpredictable Alaskan weather. Rescheduling will only be possible if later tours have space available and the flying conditions are safe.
Dress in warm layers and wear sturdy footwear (ice boots are provided to wear over your shoes). Bring gloves, sunglasses and a rain jacket as it may be wet, cold, sunny, snowing or a combination of all four. Bags, tablets (such as iPads), selfie sticks, walkers, canes and wheelchairs are not permitted on the helicopter.
Both the Denver Glacier in Skagway and the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau offer similar flight and mushing times and are accessible by helicopter only.