Happy Manatee Faces

One of my all time favorite things to do when I am in Crystal River is swim with the manatees.

These adorable creatures flock to warmer waters when the temperature in the Gulf of Mexico gets below 68°F. Despite the fact they can weigh in at over 1200 pounds, their stomach and intestines make up most of their mass. They actually have very little body fat for their size. Most of the time, they can be observed eating (10% of the body weight a day) or resting on the bottom. While resting, they only surface to breathe once every 15 minutes or so.

The first time I swam with the manatees was on a charter in King’s Bay. Setting out in the early morning hours, we were treated to a lovely sunrise…

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Before dipping into the waters, we were given reminders of manatee etiquette. No chasing, no feeding, you may only touch a manatee if it comes close to you and then, only with one hand. As we floated, it didn’t take long for a juvenile manatee to come investigate…

 

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I was amazed at it’s curiosity. It circled us and nudged in closer…

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I happily watched as it fed on the grasses…

Before swimming off into the darkness. Back on the boat, we were treated to a glimpse of the mother and calf…

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The next time I swam with them was in Three Sisters Springs. They didn’t seem quite as curious here and spent nearly all the time resting on the bottom…

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Manatees have no natural enemies, except man. Every year, hundreds of manatees are injured or killed when their slow moving paths cross boats. You can see the propeller scars on this manatee…

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While the manatees here weren’t as curious, some of the fish were…

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Now, I’ve swam with them, kayaked with them and watched them from above. I never get tired of happy manatee faces!

HMMH!

Have you every swam with the manatees? What is the most unique creature you have encountered while swimming?

Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge

Steve and I love visiting National Wildlife Refuges, there is something about the “possibility” of seeing wildlife that keeps us visiting every one we find.

While out for an afternoon drive, we stumbled on the Trempealeau NWR. We hadn’t planned to do any hiking, so we opted for the Prairies Edge Loop Tour. This self-guided, 4 mile drive takes you through sand prairies, backwater marshes and hardwood forests. This year, spring made a late appearance in Wisconsin and we’ve had copious amounts of rain, so our early June visit was filled with wildflowers high water.

We picked up a brochure at the entrance and began the drive. I was amazed by the riots of yellow and purple flowers…

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The brochure pointed out a number of invasive species which have found a home in the refuge. One of these plants is called Leafy Spurge and while it looks pretty, it is taking over large areas…

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Wild prairie roses and berry bushes compete for space…

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When we saw a gentleman with a very large lens on his camera, we stopped to see what he was looking at. High up in a dead tree was a red-headed woodpecker…

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The rains have flooded low lands and the calm winds that day ensured lovely reflections…

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We stopped at the visitor center and talked for quite a while with one of the rangers. She was incredibly knowledgeable and gave us ideas for other places to visit while we are here. Afterward, we walked to the observation deck and I knew, we would have to come back one day with our kayaks…

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It was neat to try and identify all of the turtles we saw, this plaque was a big help…

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I think we saw at least 4 of the varieties!

As we rounded a bend in the road, we were happily surprised to see a deer grazing in the field…

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And a thirteen stripe ground squirrel bid us adieu at the end of the loop drive…

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It was a peaceful way to spend the afternoon and thanks to the ranger, we now have lots of suggestions for places to explore!

Do you like visiting NWRs? What is the most exciting animal you’ve encountered?

A Visit to the Wegner Grotto

When Paul and Matilda Wegner emigrated from Germany in 1885, I doubt they envisioned their retirement years building what would later become the Wegner Grotto. It all started in 1929 after Paul retired from owning and operating a Ford garage. Neither Paul nor Matilda had any formal training in the arts, but they definitely had a vision. Their “grassroots art” started on their small farm outside of Cataract, Wisconsin. They were no longer living on the farm full-time, but spent summers there. They began by building a fence around the property. Concrete pillars decorated with thousands of shards of broken glass…

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Little by little, special pieces were added, a prayer garden…

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A birdhouse and other decorations…

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I was bummed the skies were threatening to drench us as we walked along marveling at the artistry. I can only imagine how brilliantly the shards must glint in the bright sunshine. Glass flowers adorn the top of a pillar…

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The grotto began to take on a life of its own. Perhaps the crowning achievement, is the glass church. Paul wanted to represent all “mainline denominations”. And did so in stunning fashion…
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And a peace monument…

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Later he built a replica of their 50th wedding anniversary cake…

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And the very symbol of the country he loved…

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Paul died in 1937 and is buried at a little cemetery just up the road from the grotto. His gravestone, as well as Matilda’s, are a tribute to the beauty he created…

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Other family members’ graves are also decorated with glass shards…

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I wondered where they were able to find so much broken glass. I doubt colored glass was an inexpensive item to own in the early 1930’s. Some of it appeared to be carnival glass, shiny and still lovely, though only a shard…

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Have you ever been moved by “grassroots art”?

Kayaking the Black River

I had big plans for Thursday and was pretty exited when I awoke to beautiful, sunny skies. This was the day I would take the 14.5 mile solo kayak trip from Black River Falls back to Lost Falls Campground. 

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Lost Falls Campground rents canoes, kayaks, SUP (Stand Up Paddleboards) and tubes (doubles, singles and cooler). We shuttle guests to one of 3 different landings and everyone arrives back at the campground, hopefully, having enjoyed their day on the Black River.

Steve outfitted my kayak with a phone mount, now I can take pictures and videos, hands free…

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We’ve had A LOT of rain this spring and the river was moving pretty briskly as I set off. It didn’t take long before all I could hear was the sounds of nature, the river churning and a chorus of birds. The evidence of high water was all around me. Some of the smaller trees were barely above the waterline…

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You can see the wet line on the trees, overnight, the river had gone down at least 18″. Usually there are lots of sandbars to stop at…

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But most were still underwater. It was a lazy paddle for me. I let the river current do most of the work while I steered occasionally and just enjoyed being on the river. I hadn’t seen another sole in hours and was surprised as I came around the bend to see these 2 “people” watching from the bank…

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I chuckled to myself as I floated by, a good reminder, someone is always watching.

The Black River State Forest borders a large stretch of river and offers campsites for paddlers…

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After passing Mason’s landing I came across a tall limestone bluff…

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I could hear the sounds of rushing water so I set off to investigate. I had heard there was a gorge with a waterfall near here so I was hoping I had found it. I was a bit disappointed with the “waterfall”…

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But decided to get out and stretch. As I walked along the banks of the creek, I found lots of white trillium thriving in the shadows…

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The cool water felt good on my feet as I walked along as sun dappled tree stood sentinel over me…

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Back on the river, I saw a slough and decided to check it out. There were lots of turtles sunning themselves on the fallen logs…

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When I reached Hansen’s Landing, I knew I only had 2.5 miles to go…

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I had spent the first 12 miles being lazy, but wanted to make a time lapse video of the trip from Hansen’s Landing, so now it was time to paddle! It took me 28 minutes to reach the shore of Lost Falls Campgound, so the video is only 28 seconds, whew, what a workout…

It was a peaceful, relaxing way to spend the day. I can’t wait to do it again!

Where is your favorite place to kayak?

The Devil Is In The Details

Finally, a day off with no chores. No groceries to shop for, no laundry to do. Just a day to go out and have some fun. The weather could have been better, the forecast called for on and off showers and cloudy skies, but that wasn’t going to deter us! After visiting one of our favorite websites, Atlas Obscura, we knew we had to take the 30 minute drive to Sparta, Wisconsin and visit FAST Corporation. FAST stands for Fiberglass Animals, Shapes and Trademarks.

We’ve all seen larger than life advertising or roadside attractions, you know, that 20′ tall strawberry at the fruit stand or the giant cow standing in front of the farm. If you are like me, you’ve probably never given a second thought to where did it come from or who made it? But, chances are, it came from FAST Corp.

When we pulled into the parking lot, I didn’t know where to look first. Acres of fiberglass molds and finished products beckoned me. As we walked around, familiar characters stared back at us under dreary skies…

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Some items where purely decorative, while others were more functional.  It’s easy to picture this hippo water fountain at the zoo, just across from the lion bench where tired parents watch as the kiddos get a drink…

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In my mind, I can hear the squeals of delight as the kiddies come down the water slide…

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As we walked passed the cows…

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The familiar shape Hard Rock Cafe guitars caught our attention…

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FAST Corporation has kept every fiberglass mold they have ever created. After being used, they are taken out back and put in the “graveyard”. Acres and acres of molds await the day they may be called for again. Who knows when someone might need a giant bear…Fast Corporation-2410

Or an elephant…

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How about an ice cream cone…

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What if Chevy needs another boulder?

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Here are some of the other neat molds we saw…

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The mold for the lion bench

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Behind one of the shops, there was a sculpture of 2 boys rough housing, I think this will be used to create the mold. It looked like it was carved out of some type of dense foam…

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There were also finished products, waiting to be shipped…

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If you are ever in Sparta, Wisconsin and find yourself on County Road Q, stop in and visit FAST Corporation! It’s a pretty neat place!

Up next, my first kayak trip on the Black River…

Kayaking with Aligators

We only had 2 days to explore the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, not nearly enough time considering it covers 630 sq miles. The swamp is only part of the Okefenokee experience, there are also vast wet prairies, pine uplands and cypress forests. This mosaic of habitats makes the Okefenokee a “Wetland of International Importance.” The swamp itself is 38 miles long and 25 miles wide and remains one of the most well preserved and intact freshwater ecosystems in the world.

Day One

We stopped at the visitors center and asked about the 120 miles of water trails. Like hiking trails, they range from easy to difficult. We wanted to plan an easy paddle, maybe 4 or 5 hours in total. A trip to the Cedar Hammock canoe shelter sounded just right.

With the next day’s kayaking plan in place, we had the rest of the afternoon to explore. We took the 7.5 mile Swamp Island Drive. The ranger told us to be on the lookout for several species of carnivorous plants and orchids blooming along the borrow ditch. She explained the ditch was created when workers “borrowed” the material to build the road.

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Rose Pogonia
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Butterwort
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Pitcher plant

 

We crossed onto Chesser Island, which was named after the family who settled there in 1858. A short path led us to the homestead…

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It’s hard to imagine what life was like in 1927 when Tom and Iva Chesser built the homestead. The yard was kept free of vegetation to reduce the fire hazard and  to increase the chance of seeing any snakes that might wander by. There are many remnants of family’s life on the island…

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Cane syrup hearth

Our final stop on the Swamp Island Drive was the Chesser Island Boardwalk…

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We kept our eyes open for wildlife. The ranger told us a bobcat had been hanging around the boardwalk, but alas, I had to settle for lizards…

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We climbed the 40-foot Owl’s Roost Tower for a view of Seagrove Lake…

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Day Two

Our first plan was to be at the refuge early, but when I woke up, it was a chilly 63 degrees. I decided I wasn’t in a hurry! It was almost 10am when we arrived warming up quickly. We signed the paddlers’ log, we began our adventure.

We followed the Suwanee Canal for about a mile and a half before finding the entrance to the Cedar Hammock trail. Along the way, I marveled at the reflections in the tannin rich waters…

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We saw a few alligators in the canal. Despite being in a kayak, I did not feel threatened by their presence.  Okefenokee NWR-1990

Although, one surfaced so close to the front of my kayak, I could see it’s eyes but not it’s snoot. A little too close.

We left the motorboats behind when we entered the trail. They had all been courteous, slowing down to no wake speed when they passed, but I was happy to head deeper into the swamp…

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The trail was peaceful, with scores of water lilies blooming along the way…

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At the end of the trail there is an overnight shelter and outhouse.

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I got out to stretch and watch the alligator swimming by…

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As we were leaving, I noticed a baby alligator among the lily pads…

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Steve took the lead on the way back to the canal. I wonder if he saw this guy…

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I loved every minute of our paddle! From the anhinga…

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To the turtle…

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It was amazing!

Would you kayak with the alligators? Do  you think we’re nuts?

A Trip to Canaveral National Seashore

Nature in harmony with science make Florida’s Space Coast an adventure not to be missed. I have been to the Space Coast twice, the first time in 2012 and again last week with Steve. There are several components making up the coast, you have the Canaveral National Seashore, consisting of 57,662 acres, the Merritt Island NWR, consisting of 140,000 acres which includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

On both occasions, my main objective was to visit Merritt Island NWR, specifically the Black Point Wildlife Drive. Both of my visits were in late March and I was surprised by the differences. The water levels were much higher in 2012 and my visit coincided with a prescribed burn.

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It’s natural for the water levels to fluctuate and we haven’t had a lot of rain this winter.

Merritt Island NWR is home to over 1500 species of plants and animals, including 15 federally listed species. It is also an important stop on the Atlantic Flyway. You never know what you might come across during a visit.

The wildlife drive is a 7 mile, one-way road through various habitats, from shallow marsh impoundments to pine flatwoods…

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With spring in the air, wildflowers are blooming, attracting lots of butterflies…

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In 2012, I was lucky enough to be visiting when a large flock of white pelicans were resting in the marsh…

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This year, we saw quite a few northern shovelers which are in the spoonbill family…

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While we were photographing them, a grackle made his presence known. He was finding a meal in the fallen palm fronds. When I got too close, he retreated to my spare tire.

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We saw flocks of blue billed ducks. I haven’t quite identified them yet…

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And tons of coots…

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The one animal you are almost guaranteed to see is alligators…

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After we finished the drive, we decided to head over to Canaveral National Seashore. On the way, we were lucky enough to see a sandhill crane with its chick…

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Using our America the Beautiful Pass, we entered our first national park of the year. I don’t think we will visit as many parks this year as last (15 in total), but we love not having to pay the entrance fees.

Our first wildlife encounter was with an armadillo. I’m fairly sure this little guy was completely blind. He was unfazed by my presence and at one point nearly walked into me…

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We also saw what I think was a box turtle on the side of the road…

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Only one of our encounters came with its own warning sign…

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I have to admit, we were a bit surprised. The seashore has 5 areas with beach access and apparently clothing is optional at beach 5. Who knew?!?!?

The one area we haven’t visited yet is the Kennedy Space Center. I’ve heard you can spend the better part of a day there, so it will have to wait until next time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

The Denali Hwy and an Abandon Igloo

When driving the 135 mile Denali Highway, you should not take the word highway literally.  Only 24 miles are paved and the rest is a “2 lane” gravel road. That being said – DRIVE IT! Many rental companies don’t allow you to drive the Denali highway, but some do. If yours doesn’t, there are several companies that rent Jeeps so you can get the full affect. Luckily, we have a Jeep so none of that was a concern to us. We started in Cantwell. I hadn’t really planned on driving the entire 135 miles to Paxson, but with such scenery, who could resist. There are some interesting fact about the highway here.

Almost as soon as the road turned to gravel, we came across an open field and we were treated to a view of Mt Denali in the distance…

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The scenery only got better with every mile…Denali Hwy-9471

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Breathtaking!

Most of the beautiful reds were courtesy of blueberry and cranberry bushes taking on their fall hues…

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They were SO tasty!
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Ready for picking!

It took us nearly 6 hours to drive 135 mile because I had to stop so often. I think my favorite view was the cabin on the hill…

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Doesn’t it just scream Alaska?

But the rivers and lakes come in a close second…

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Hard to contain my excitement!

What a road…

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The only bad thing was now, we had to drive back to Healy. We decided not to go back via the Denali Highway, but to go through Fairbanks instead. On the way, we saw glaciers and parts of the Alaska Pipeline…

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I was surprised how accessible the pipeline was.

Steve had planned a surprise for me on our last day in Healy. As always, he had checked Atlas Obscura when we arrived. He found the perfect place for me to get my abandon building fix, Igloo City. You know that little voice you have that says, “Don’t go in there, it isn’t safe”? Ya, I don’t have one…

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It’s only 4 stories tall, what bad could happen with no safety rails?

Apparently, Steve’s little voice was missing too…

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What a view this room would have had

 

 

Hey, look, I can see the Jeep from here…

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I was surprised how little trash and graffiti there was since it was so easy to get inside. Perhaps its remote location, half way between Anchorage and Fairbanks, keeps it off the radar for the local teenagers. But, you will always have some “art”…

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The other buildings were interesting as well…

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On the way back to Waldo, we had our final magnificant views of Mt Denali. Of course, I couldn’t resist a couple more shots…

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And so ends our Alaska adventure. It’s been great having you along to enjoy it with us. Up next, wildlife in the Yukon and British Columbia.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

Drifting into Happiness

Despite the fact the weather hasn’t been all that great this summer, we’ve been very lucky to have mostly warm sunny days when we’ve scheduled an excursion. Our rafting trip through the Upper Kenai River was no exception. Our trip began at the office of Alaska River Adventures in Cooper Landing, where we donned rain pants, rubber boots and a life vest. (The rain pants were for “just in case” we get splashed by the rapids) We walked down to the launch area and were given a quick but thorough safety speech. Our guide, Austin, promised us he hadn’t had anyone fall overboard, at least not accidentally. This was good news to me!

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Our float would take us nearly 7 hours covering the entire Upper Kenai River. This portion of the river is closed to all motorized craft. Drifting (and paddling) is the name of the game. A family at the launch waved as we headed off…

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There were only 2 other couples on our trip, both on their honeymoon. That made Steve and I “the old married couple.” Austin pointed out landmarks and mountains of interest as he seemingly effortlessly paddled our way. The flow of the river is very calm here and he mostly just used the paddle for steering…

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As we rounded a bend in the river, Austin gave a shout, “There’s a bear!” Of course we all turned trying to get the best view…

 

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He told us another rafting company had put it there to fulfill the promise of seeing a bear in the wild. We all had a good laugh, but I was hoping for one just a little livelier. This time of year, the river is full of fisherman, hoping to land the big one…

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The current began to pick up a bit as we neared the confluence of the Russian River and the Kenai River…

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The Russian River Ferry brings fisherman to the far bank. This is an extremely popular fishing spot and where you can witness combat fishing. I, for one, was happy there weren’t too many anglers out on this day. It would be neat to see fisherman shoulder to shoulder on the river, but I imagine tempers can flare…

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If you’ve never heard of combat fishing, you should Google it! It’s nuts! Anyhow, back to our adventure. We lucked out and got to see several eagles as we drifted…

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We were coming up on the only Class III rapids on our trip and I decided to video going through the Kenai River Canyon…

Austin noticed a couple up on the bluff, they were pointing and looking at something across the river. And guess what – finally – a bear…

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See the couple on the bluff

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We were getting closer and closer to Skilak Lake, which would mark the end of our float. Austin knew of a small side channel where he frequently sees moose. Since we had plenty of time, we left the main part of the river and found ourselves in the most beautiful, peaceful area I’ve been in for ages…

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The detour was a wonderful addition to an already exciting day. When we finally got to Skilak Lake, Austin broke out the makings for our lunch…

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After we had eaten, Austin packed up everything and prepared to lead us on a mile and a half hike to where the van was waiting…

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It was a beautiful hike to the van. I’m hoping Steve and I can go back and hike the trail again.

You won’t believe it, but I am almost caught up! It’s a good thing too because we only have another 3 weeks in Moose Pass before we head to Denali!

Thanks for coming along with us on our adventures.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

A Bit of Winter in July

It’s not every day you can combine two amazing adventures in one. Well, not completely true. In 2013, the owners of Turning Heads Kennel bought Seward Helicopter Tours and began flying folks like Steve and me up to Godwin Glacier for a bit of dog sledding. These aren’t just any old sled dogs. They are canine athletes! They’ve competed in races like the Tustumena 200, the Willow 300 and the Iditarod. Like all athletes, training is important. But how do you train sled dogs when there isn’t any snow? Well, you set up a base camp on a glacier! Then you fly people up there to share the experience.

We began our trip at the Seward Airport. Where we donned over-boots to keep our feet dry and warm parkas which were provided for us because, well, we were flying up to a glacier! Then we waited for our turn to board the helicopter…

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It takes about 15 minutes to reach the basecamp on Godwin Glacier and the scenery was incredible…

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After landing on the glacier, the mushers introduced us to the future stars of sledding – the puppies!

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After getting our fill of puppy kisses, our musher talked with us about what life is like for a sled dog. He said educating people about dog sledding is an important part of the experience. Someone in our group asked, “What makes a sled dog want to pull and run?” And I loved the answer – “What makes a retriever chase a tennis ball or jump in the lake? It’s what they do, what makes them happy.” And the chorus of barking dogs told me these were some happy pups!

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Our team was already hitched up and we got settled onto the sleds to begin our ride…

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The dogs’ excitement was contagious as we started across the glacier. There were two sleds hitched together, our musher stood on the back of the first sled and we all got a turn at standing on the back of the second sled…

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Blue skies and breathtaking scenery helped complete the picture perfect day…

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While Steve was taking his turn on the back, I took a video from the front seat…

And soon, we pulling back into basecamp…

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When our ride was over, we had plenty of time to meet our team and the other dogs who call Godwin Glacier home. I noticed several of the lighter colored dogs had dark circles around their eyes. Our musher explained it is eye makeup and it helps them not get snow-blinded…

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We also got to witness the obvious love the mushers have for their dogs…

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All too soon, our return helicopter landed to whisk us back to the airport…

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It doesn’t get any more exciting than this! Helicopters, glaciers, dog sledding and puppies!