No trip to Alaska would be complete for any of us without a stop to Denny and Mark’s. Mark has known JR since he was young and the rest of us all got to know each other during Stage Stop and instantly took a liking to each other. Denny and Mark live just outside Denali National Park. They were fortunate to land some property, once previously owned by Jeff King before he made it into a private little subdivision. This is not a subdivision as we know them back east by any means. The property is covered with a boatload of 10-15’ pine trees and the houses are all nestled amongst them out of the view of each other. There are several mushers and sled dog trails cutting through the properties with the snow covered mountains in the background. Denny and Mark have an absolutely beautiful log cabin, which I neglectfully didn’t take a photo of, overlooking their property with the mountains in the front yard. It is breathtaking and you can feel the peace and solitude they get from this awesome location. The only downfall is the cold. Denny explained they are in a very cold part of the state and often see temperatures at 60 below, which can be frightening at times. She explained that when it gets that cold they all go in to survival mode. You spend the day making sure everything stays working, the dogs are taken care of and that you don’t make any mistakes outside.
Denny made a great spaghetti dinner with bread, salad and appetizers and we spent the evening talking about the Stage Stop, Alaska and mushing. These two also have very enviable positions when it comes to dog mushing. Denny travels all over the country providing her services and religiously does vet work at the Iditarod and Stage Stop; she is a wealth of information and is fascinating to learn from. She shared her experiences as head vet for the Alaskan Sweepstakes and how overjoyed everyone was with the success of the race. It was very cool to hear an inside perspective of the race. She made national news this year when got the opportunity to rescue a wolf that had a snare dangerously wrapped around its neck in Denali Park. It was a fascinating story. Mark, lives and breathes the Iditarod as it is his job. He has a home office, much like Arleigh’s near his dog yard, and travels back and forth between Anchorage and work to help make this race so successful. He knows everyone and has seen everything and we just loved hearing the Iditarod stories.
Denny and Mark called their neighbor, Jeff King, and arranged for us to tour his facility. We arrived just as the tour buses were leaving, one being driven by Jeff himself. He has this long twisting drive that travels up hill to his beautiful home overlooking a gorgeous lake with the mountains in the background. It is quite a spot. On the way up, Mark pointed out what appeared to be a musher and dog team formed out of the rocks on the top of the mountains – it was very fitting. I wondered if Jeff made that happen. He has quite the set-up for tourists and it is quite an outfit. You immediately see the organization, the professionalism and the cleanliness of the kennel. This is a business. Apparently, they get 10,000 visitors a year at $50.00 a pop; you do the math! We got to meet Jeff when he returned and he is a very focused and serious guy. He took some time to show us his swimming video and talk about the pros and cons of some of his training. He discussed his thoughts on the success of teams that had run the Quest and Iditarod back to back and what that possibly meant to the future of the sport and how he may or may not alter his training. We got to take a look at the sled he had designed for this year’s Iditarod and it’s darn near a sprint sled with a trailer. Then we got to see his puppies use the puppy wheel. He has a large metal wheel just like you would see in a gerbil cage and the puppies willingly jump on this thing and tear around yipping. It is the cutest thing ever and I immediately wanted one!
We left Jeff’s and headed to Denali Park. Within 15 minutes of being in the park we got the rare pleasure of seeing a wolf. What was even more rare was that we got to watch it travel for 20 minutes as it ran along side the road criss crossing back and forth hunting. This enormous animal was so light on it’s feet and trotted effortlessly. You can see how they travel so far daily in their pursuit of food. It was amazing. Not long after bidding the wolf farewell, we got to see a mother grizzly with her two cubs feeding at the bottom of a mountain. We would have loved to get closer, but it was still really neat to see one even from afar.
After Denali we spent the day sight seeing. We drove through Talkeetna, which was an adorable little town where hundreds of climbers congregate in their pursuit to scale Mt. McKinley. Me and Anna drooled out the window at all the touristy shops hoping for a little shopping reprieve, but it would not be so. We headed straight to Wasilla; which is definitely a musher community. There are signs all along the highway directing you to various touring kennels. The other thing I noticed all through out Alaska is that many homes put old sleds out at the front of their driveway much like we’d put a boulder. It’s very cool seeing all these sleds. We passed one long row of cabins that all had a sled on the roof. They were very neat to look at, but apparently the strip of cabins attracts some seedy characters.
That evening we spent the night at the local Best Western. Anna and I stayed at the motel and got caught up on e-mails and work while Bruce and JR went to visit Shane Goosen and Ray Redington.