I’m cold. Really cold. And I’m standing in my underwear in a wooden shack deep in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest. This is not the scene of some erotic horror movie though. I’m about to plunge into the piping-hot waters of the swimming pool at Granite Hot Springs. It is fed by a 40ºC natural spring streaming down the snow-covered hillside. The heat has melted the surrounding snow and the 10-second shuffle across icy stairs and a slippery, humility-stealing boardwalk seems to take an eternity. By the time I reach the pool’s edge I cannot feel my extremities. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for the hot springs to toast me and, as I float like a cooked lobster, I think about the best part of this scenario – the adventure to get here.
Earlier that morning I’d left the famous slopes of Jackson Hole for a snow experience of a different kind. What I knew about dog sledding I’d learned from the big screen, where huskies mushed their way to rescue a freezing damsel in distress. Soon after arriving at Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours though, I realised I actually knew nothing at all. The movies, would you believe, are fictitious. First, Alaskan racing sled dogs are nothing like the huskies in the movies. They are lean, surprisingly small and look a bit like red kelpies. They are also very excitable and their barking becomes frenzied as we arrive.
A brief orientation sets us up with basic commands and notes about where to stand on the sled. The handlers are at pains to explain the dogs are our partners and the most important members of the team. Plus, they are all related to dogs that have done the Iditarod, a 1600-kilometre race across Alaska that’s often referred to as the Last Great Race on Earth.
With the foot brake (a deep hook in the snow) kicked up we are off. This is no Disney ride. The dogs are fast and I need to control them or we’ll slide off the track. It is a balance of riding the brake to keep control, yelling mush and pedalling to help with uphill speed.
The only sounds are the patter of paws on the snow, the panting of our team, me included, and the wind, some of which smells dog generated. A distant moose stares at us, nonplussed. The dogs take gulps of fresh powder to hydrate without breaking step as we wind through pine trees and into open fields. The views of mountains framed by forest are as breathtaking as the sledding. I can only imagine the stamina of the Iditarod champions and wonder if they ever get the chance to relax in a hot spring post race.
United Airlines flies to Jackson Hole via either San Francisco or Los Angeles and Denver. Return flights from Sydney start at about US$955.