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Roadtrippin’: For Iditarod veterans Beals and Stokey, summertime tour business is turning heads

Updated: Jun. 3, 2021 at 4:52 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - On its face, Seward is already an amazing place – a popular destination for tourists and locals alike each year – set on the edge of Resurrection Bay and lined by natural features such as plentiful forests, salmon-filled streams and towering, snow-capped mountains.

Hidden across the bay, however, is a glacial hideaway dedicated to the kennel and tour business run by Iditarod veterans Travis Beals and Sarah Stokey, both of whom are finishers of the Last Great Race on Earth.

Together in Seward, the pair have made a summer home for themselves and part of their dog kennel, Turning Heads Kennel, which is plopped at around 2,750 feet of elevation atop Godwin Glacier.

“It’s a very unique, awesome camp,” said Beals, who is the lead sled dog tour operator and also co-owner of Turning Heads Kennel. “I mean, in June, July, you can’t really go mushing on snow anywhere except for up here. It’s a place of winter all season.”

Between the mushers and their dogs, who now range in age from puppies to veterans, the crew boasts several top-10 Iditarod finishes, including a career-best fifth-place for Beals in 2019. Beals also ran the altered trail, the Gold Trail Loop, in 2021; Stokey initially registered but withdrew before the start.

“It was tough,” Stokey reflected. “We really thrive on teamwork and having a team, and we didn’t have that. We didn’t really have the people who help fulfill everything.”

As challenging as the pandemic proved to be to Iditarod racers and organizers, it was that way for everyone, and adding in trying to keep a business afloat only made matters more complicated.

“It’s what we do; it’s what we count on,” Beals said. “You know, like a fisherman out in the water. This is how we make ends meet and keep the kennel going.”

While Beals and Stokey have brought the magic of the Iditarod to patrons in Seward annually since taking over the tourism business on the glacier in 2013, COVID-19 put a freeze on almost all of the team’s kennel operations. The group was still able to run some of its flightseeing tours and ground operations, and to assist other businesses who needed helicopter services.

This season, however, is already proving to be a much better one than the last, with high hopes for continued success. Turning Heads Kennel, which operates jointly with Seward Helicopter Tours, primarily runs from May through September.

Stokey said this week that flightseeing and sled dog tours have sold out every day since the season opening.

“Coming back and having this amazing start to the season,” she said, “it’s been amazing.

“I love what we do; I think we make a lot of people very happy,” she continued. “One of the things I always look for and love is at the end of the year, the amount of actual Christmas cards we get from our guests. It’s really, really cool to see how important our tour was a part of their overall Alaskan experience.”

Beals agreed and said that it’s awesome to be back in any capacity.

“I just love sharing my experiences with families,” Beals said. “To get up here, being able to take them around the track, maybe be able to give them their once and only opportunity to go dog mushing, is pretty darn cool.”

Don’t let the appeal of bucket-list helicopter tours and precious, snow-covered sled dogs fool you, though: running such an operation while also raising race dogs is a tough task, designed only for the few who are fully committed. For Turning Heads Kennel, operating on top of a glacier, keeping things neat and tidy isn’t just for the team and their guests, but also for environmental preservation and sustainability.

“That is the only way to and from our camp, is to and from via helicopter,” Stokey said. “So everything that we take up to our camp at the start of our season, it comes in via helicopter, and everything leaves via helicopter.”

That means Beals, Stokey and their crew are frequent fliers, as well as their dogs, but so is every single piece of equipment, waste and anything else that ends up on the glacier. The kennel team even gathers any dog hair that’s been shed to make sure the glacier location stays pristine, which makes the experience that much better for guests.

“We have had so many, just, memorable moments,” Stokey said. “Every year, we’re blessed with a crew that becomes kind of like family. But I think what keeps us coming back to it again and again is not only our love of dogs and sharing what we love to do, but just again seeing that reaction from all our guests; it’s really fulfilling providing an experience that people love so much.”

Turning Heads Kennel and Seward Helicopter Tours generally offer seven takeoff times daily, depending on weather conditions. Tours are available during different parts of the year in Seward as well as in Willow. Those interested can learn more about all the options available by visiting the group’s main website.

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