Winter sport becomes major summer tourist attraction

Posted: Friday, October 03, 2003

DENALI PARK Jeff King is one of the Iditarod's toughest competitors. Like other elite mushers, the three-time champion of the 1,100-mile sled dog race can be brutally sharp-edged when racing.

But King oozes charm as a host to tourists at his home and kennel, eight miles south of Denali National Park and Preserve, just off the Parks Highway.

''This is home to me and my family, and we're glad to share it with you tonight,'' said King, standing atop a boulder outside his log house on a recent evening.

Crisp air and fading sunlight sent a chill though the crowd, most of them customers of Princess, the Los Angeles-based cruise line.

More than 15,000 tourists took in a Husky Homestead Tour this season, according to King, up from roughly 200 when the California native started selling tours a decade ago.

Business is booming, so much that King quit his job as a contractor long ago and is expanding his fleet of shuttle buses. He now makes his living primarily from tourism. Corporate sponsorships and his wife's art business round out the family income.

King said he has contracts with all the major cruise lines operating in Alaska as well as a slew of other tour companies.

He isn't alone. Other Iditarod mushers cashing in on their fame and lifestyle include Susan Butcher, Mitch Seavey, Linwood Fiedler, Libby Riddles and Lynda Plettner.

All work with tour companies or market their own businesses. The mushers showcase their kennels while teaching tourists about racing techniques, the history of the Iditarod and dog racing culture. Guests get to cuddle puppies and, in some cases, take dog sled rides.

Fiedler, a Willow musher who has run the Iditarod 15 times and placed second in 2001, expanded his Alaska Heli-Mush business this summer in response to demand.

For several years he has been taking 150 dogs to Juneau, where he sets up camp on Norris Glacier and gives rides. Over the summer, he and his family ran 60 dogs on a glacier above Seward for the first time, said Kathy Fiedler, his wife.

''We feel we've introduced the sport to a lot of people over the last five years. It's real exciting for us,'' she said.

With King's operation, visitors get picked up by one of his three shuttle buses that make the rounds at least three times a day to hotels and other lodging near the entrance to Denali park. After a quick ride down the Parks Highway, the buses pull onto a dirt road and climb a mile-long driveway to the King property, perched on a hill overlooking Goose Lake, with the Alaska Range providing a backdrop.

On a recent visit, dog handlers greeted the guests with armfuls of Iditarod hopefuls. The guests uniformly responded with ''oohs and ahhs'' as they cuddled the 4-week-old Alaskan Husky puppies.

''We wanted to pet the puppies,'' cooed Joan Booth, of Albany, N.Y., when asked why she purchased the $39 tour.

''We love dogs,'' said Gerry Tucker of Miami, Fla. ''We've had as many as five dogs all at once.''

After a brief welcome, King took off to get some of his adult dogs ready for a demonstration, attaching them to an all-terrain vehicle as they howled in excitement.

Tessa, 17, the second-oldest of King's three daughters, instructed the visitors to walk down a gravel path to the nearby dog lot, where about 70 tethered canines barked a loud chorus.

As the tourists stood next to a puppy running on an exercise wheel, Tessa spoke about the dogs' training, their diet, the type of fur they have and how they instinctively know how to drag a sled.

''We put the dogs in harness at 6 months of age. Just like you don't have to teach a retriever to retrieve, these dogs don't need to be taught to pull,'' she said, her voice carried through a microphone headset.

''Only 10 percent of the puppies end up staying with my father,'' Tessa said. ''It's like trying to place with the L.A. Lakers.''

Soon, King pulled into the lot from a quick training run, half a dozen dogs or so pulling an ATV. Virtually all the tourists beamed, and some applauded.

Next, the group piled into a lecture hall King built next to his house. One of his Iditarod sleds and some gear, like a cook stove and a dog food sack, were strewn about the center of the room. After everyone got settled, King launched into a talk about his childhood in California, his move to Alaska in 1975 and meeting his wife, Donna Gates, after running into her, literally, in Denali park. Her dog team got tangled with his, and the rest is history.

''She's in total control now,'' King joked.

He also talked about his racing career. ''Some of the best moments and worst moments of my life have been spent on the back of a dog sled,'' said King, who figures he has logged more than 150,000 miles in his mushing career.

Seavey, of Seward, a veteran Iditarod musher who placed fourth in 1998, just finished his 11th season giving summer mushing tours and is considered a pioneer in the world of sled dog tourism. His eldest son, Danny, 21, managed the family business this summer while his wife and three other sons helped out.

''Not many others were doing this 10 years ago,'' Seavey said.

But as tourism has grown and become more important in the state's economy, more mushers are following Seavey's lead, he said. The sled dog tour business, called IdidaRide, fits the Seavey's lifestyle.

''I wanted a business that my family could do together. I feel extremely blessed that we can all work together and be reasonably successful and do it with the dogs,'' Seavey said.

Paula Dobbyn is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.

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