Q&A With Sarah Stokey of Turning Heads Kennel
It’s often said that people make the place, and we couldn’t agree more. Our new spotlight series introduces you to Seward Chamber of Commerce members who make our community an incredible place to live, work and play. This week we’re proud to profile Turning Heads Kennel, a tour operator and Iditarod training facility located on the road to Exit Glacier.
Sarah Stokey and Travis Beals, mushers and owners of Turning Heads Kennel, train an elite team of canine athletes. Not only do they race the 1,000 mile Iditarod, they also introduce Seward visitors to their “dog-centric” lifestyle with tours that offer a glimpse into the sled dog experience. Offering an interactive dog sled ride at their kennel, Travis and Sarah regale guests with stories from the Iditarod, training tips and a passion for their dogs that is apparent in everything they do. They also offer snow sledding tours; they fly guests to Godwin Glacier for a true mushing experience on snow all summer long.
We recently sat down with Sarah to learn more about the journey she and Travis have taken as small business owners in Seward.
What makes your business special or unique? In other words, what are you known for?
We offer two different dog sled tours during the summer both of which are great introductions to dog mushing. Our glacier dog sledding tour allows visitors to mush on snow, even in the summer, and includes a 15 minute helicopter ride. It’s a breath-taking tour, even for local Sewardites — it’s incredible how you can be enjoying summer one minute and then be whisked away via helicopter to a winter wonderland. We offer this tour in conjunction with our helicopter business, Seward Helicopter Tours. We also offer a one-of-a-kind wheeled dog sled ride and kennel tour out of our home. What’s unique about this experience is that the trail we mush on is a series of interconnected loops. We make each tour a training exercise for our dogs and take our guests behind the scenes and show them firsthand how we train our lead dogs. It’s exciting for our guests and our dogs because the dogs are actively learning, not just running a set course. This keeps it fun for our dogs and really educates our guests on what it takes to train a dog team!
What would people be surprised to learn about your business or your journey as a business owner?
Travis and I never intended to own our own business. We found ourselves both unexpectedly unemployed and house-sitting at what is now our home. Just when we feared we wouldn’t be able to put dog food on the table (so to speak) visitors kept pulling into our yard asking to go dog sledding. Taking a chance, we wrote a business plan and started doing cart tours in 2012. We both wore many hats and had several side jobs, but we stuck it out and were determined to make it work. The following year, we took over Seward Helicopter Tours on a complete whim. The owner was going through a divorce and offered to sell us the business because we shared similar values and we had been kind to him the previous summer. Never underestimate the value of kindness!
Describe a risk that you’ve taken in your business that paid off.
Taking over Seward Helicopters was a big risk; at the time it wasn’t a profitable business. It’s taken a few years and and a lot of hard work, but we’ve managed to build Seward into a premiere destination for glacier dog sledding and scenic flights. In turn, our success has allowed other businesses to grow.
What is the best compliment your business has ever received?
We’ve been blessed with many reviews that say our tours are the most memorable part of our guests’ trip to Alaska. We’ve also had guests return to Alaska specifically to do our excursions again, which always makes us smile. I think perhaps the thing that sticks with me most, however, are the Christmas cards we receive each year from people who have done our tour. Many of our clients are visiting Alaska for the first time and have no experience dog sledding and some clients have never seen snow. It’s really heartwarming knowing that our excursion was so special that it was “Christmas Card Worthy”!
We are also passionate about what we do and have had our hard work rewarded through improved race records, awards for “best dog care,” and great reviews about our tours from our many visitors. We are proud of all of this recognition.
How long have you lived in Seward? What first brought you here?
Travis grew up in Seward and I moved here in 2010. I always wanted to live in Alaska because it is the center of dog mushing in the US.
What do you like most about living and working in Seward?
Everyone here is always willing to lend a hand if you ask. I love how selfless our community is. Living nestled between the mountains and the sea is magical. There’s always something to do outside and always a new nook to explore.
How do you spend your free time?
Mushing dogs isn’t just a business for us, it’s a lifestyle. We spend a lot of time hanging out in our dog yard with our pack. We enjoy exploring trails with our dogs, boating, and flying drones.
Where’s your favorite spot in Seward to unwind?
There are so many wonderful places in Seward that it’s hard to pick just one. Hiking Tonsina is always a good way to unwind — especially if accompanied by one or two furry friends.
What advice would you give to a new business owner who is working to build a business like yours?
Always be kind.
There are so many great wilderness areas to explore around Seward and Kenai Fjords. If you had a free weekend, where would you go?
Mushing to Exit Glacier in the winter is a special treat. We’ve had to move our base north to train for the Iditarod over the last few winters due to weather. This has made us unable to do that trip in a number of years. If the weather allowed, that would be our first pick.
Is there anything exciting on the horizon that you’d like to share?
Travis recently finished 9th in the Iditarod! This was a career best for him and we are really happy with that performance. We are still on cloud nine! We also just expanded our trail system for our kennel tour and dog sled ride through a lease with the Kenai Peninsula Borough. We’ve been able to open up more trails through some old growth forest which is exciting.
Feature Image: Sled dogs and mushers live on Godwin Glacier during the summers to delight guests with a true sled dog experience. Photo Courtesy of Turning Heads Kennel