During our time in Juneau, there was one phrase we kept hearing from the locals: the Disney Wonder brings with it the sunshine. Apparently, May was unusually wet and dreary this year. We kept hearing that there had been only two days of sunshine and the Disney Wonder just so happened to be docked in Juneau on both of those days. Coincidence or Disney magic at work–you be the judge.
Either way, I’m not complaining. The clouds parted that morning and left in their wake the sunniest of skies and the clearest of days. It was precisely the weather we hoped for, considering our Juneau excursion was a helicopter ride to a dog mushing camp. We needed those clear skies not only for take-off, but in order to enjoy the gorgeous views from the sky.
All six of us disembarked the ship early in the morning–right around 7:30. There was a short wait for the shuttle which delivered us from the dock to the base of the Mt. Roberts tramway where we waited for and then boarded a second bus to the ERA (pronounced air-a, not E.R.A.) headquarters. Unlike our previous excursion in Haines/Skagway, this one did require a safety briefing as well as a fair amount of paperwork. We were also given a pair of waterproof boots to wear over our shoes and pant legs as well as a rather uncomfortable life preserver. In all, we probably waited close to an hour before our helicopter pilot was ready to depart. To make for a more pleasant experience, I might suggest sending the paperwork along ahead of time as an email attachment, that way guests would have the option of filling it out prior to arrival. I would also consider the addition of some magazines, or maybe some puzzles and toys to help keep guests occupied while they wait.
With the exception of Jeff–who has ridden in military helicopters during his time in the Army–none of us had experienced a helicopter ride before. As you might imagine, then, we were incredibly excited when finally our names were called and we were escorted to the helipad. Seating was arranged based on weight and preference and we were quickly loaded into the aircraft. Our pilot gave us some quick reminders about what not to touch and how to use the in-flight headsets to converse with him and each other during the flight. And then just like that, we lifted off and away we flew.
Flying time was about twenty minutes from the ERA headquarters to the camp. The particular camp we visited was located on the snow capped middle branch of the Norris glacier, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. En route there, we flew over the Juneau Icefield and were treated to some of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience.
Once we touched down at camp, we were pleased to find that besides us, there was just one other group (4-6 people, I can’t remember exactly) present. In all honesty, though, we never so much as crossed paths with them during our experience; it was as if we had the whole place to ourselves.
Before getting started, we were asked to split into two groups. They suggested that maybe Jeff and I go together, with the kids right behind. In the end, though, we opted for two groups of three, with one parent in each group. Each group was then taken to a different sled and introduced to our respective mushers. We were given a very quick briefing on how to operate the brake before taking our positions and setting off.
We followed a mile-long trail that circled around the camp. Some parts of the journey were a might bit odorous, with dirty snow of the brown and yellow variety; many of the huskies did their, ahem, business as the sled was in motion. For that reason, I preferred standing on (driving) the rear sled over sitting on the low-level sled just behind the dogs. During our approximately thirty minutes on the sled, we paused a handful of times to let the dogs rest. During those brief breaks, we were given the opportunity to change positions on the sled.
One thing we were surprised to see was that the dogs were all different colors; we had expected them to all be the gray/white wolf-looking dogs with icey blue eyes. In reality, they ranged in color from sandy straw to dark gray with just about every variation in between. Another interesting thing we learned was that the dogs are accustomed to running in temperatures that dip into the negative teens. The forty degree weather during our visit was like a sauna to the dogs. During the brief sledding breaks, they’d roll around in the snow to cool down.
When we returned to camp after our sledding tour, we had the chance to greet and pet some of the dogs. The musher went down the line of them with us and introduced each dog by name. He also told us which dogs were and were not okay to pet; some of them are a little skittish around children. Cassidy really enjoyed this part.
After petting the dogs, we were escorted back to the front of the camp to await the arrival of our helicopters for the return trip. As we waited, we took some pictures of everyone “driving” the practice sled.
All in all, our helicopter tour/dog sledding adventure was definitely a highlight of the trip–another bucket list item crossed off. We booked this excursion on our own (not through Disney), though ERA is the same company Disney uses for their tours. Booking independently and taking advantage of ERA’s early booking discount saved us approximately $100 per person. When you consider the fact that there are six of us, a $100 per person savings isn’t chump change. Even the ERA shuttle driver (who we discovered was also from Tucson – small world!) commented on the fact that we’d booked “the smart way”. That’s how we roll ;)
In spite of the lengthy wait and cumbersome paperwork/safety briefings, I would highly recommend ERA flightseeing for Alaskan travelers looking to add some adventure to their vacations. We were treated to friendly service, an engaging and knowledgeable pilot and an unforgettable experience at the dog mushing camp. The excursion definitely earned an A in our book.