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The Sled Dogs of Denali National Park

By Linda Cole

Photo by NPS
Sled dogs have always had a place in the wilds of Alaska. Snowmobiles may have replaced dogs in Alaska for the most part, but mushing is still a good way to get around in winter, and it's the only mode of transportation allowed in Denali National Park’s inner two million acres of designated wilderness. The National Park Service maintains their own kennel and still uses sled dogs to patrol the wilds of one of the most awe inspiring national parks we have. And this year, the Park Service has installed a puppy cam so we can watch their newest pups as they grow!

The word Denali means “the high one” and comes from the Athabascan Indian vocabulary, Alaska's largest native inhabitants. Mt. McKinley, located in the park and known as Denali by Alaskan residents, is 20,320 feet above sea level and is the highest mountain peak in North America. Denali National Park, which includes a preserve, was set aside as a national park in 1917 in an effort to protect wildlife. The park covers 9,492 square miles – six million acres of awesome and stunning wild lands that draw visitors from all over the world.

Dog sleds have always been the most reliable way to travel the wilderness of Alaska. Charles Sheldon was a naturalist who studied Dall sheep around Denali during the 1907-1908 winter, and he hired a dog musher by the name of Harry Karstens as a guide. Sheldon was so impressed with the beauty of the land and wildlife, that when he returned to his home on the east coast he began lobbying Congress to establish the land as a national park and preserve. Because of his efforts, Mount McKinley National Park was established in 1917. In 1921, Harry Karstens was named the first park ranger and was tasked with the job of getting pouching under control. Karstens understood the important role dogs played in the wilds of Alaska, and he was the person who built the first kennel to make sure he had healthy and well-trained dogs he could depend on to effectively do his job.

In 1980, the park was expanded to its present size and the name was changed to Denali National Park and Preserve. The Wilderness Act had been passed in 1964 and under it, wilderness was defined as an area where man is essentially a visitor to the area and we don't remain. The 1964 act prohibits snowmobiles or any motorized vehicles access to the wilderness and dog sleds are the only mode of efficient and reliable transportation in those areas.

The Denali National Park kennels breed for one new litter each year. New puppies are given names that reflect life inside the park. One litter was named after different species of salmon, another litter was named after rivers in the park and another litter was named after the Northern Lights. There isn't a shortage of ideas when it comes to naming each year's new arrivals.

The 2011 litter was born on July 27th and 28th. Their names come from three small peaks that stand above Muldrow Glacier. Tatum is a black and white female, Koven is a tawny colored male and Carpe is darker brown than his brother. Their mom is named Pingo and this is her first litter. She was born June 15, 2002; her name comes from a land formation in the park.

Photo by NPS/Jared Withers
When you think about sled dogs, most people think of the Siberian Husky or the Alaskan Malamute. However, the sled dogs of Denali are Alaskan huskies, true sled dogs of the North. They have been bred for centuries to do a job they love and can withstand the harsh Alaskan wilderness. These dogs are intelligent, hard working and affectionate. They love to run and are long legged with the power to plow through snow and survive the wicked Alaskan winters. In the rugged country of the wilderness, appearance isn't a priority, but performance is. The rangers depend on the dogs to get them where they need to go and their lives are literally in the paws of these extraordinary dogs. The kennel maintains around 30 dogs which gives them three teams of sled dogs.

Denali is the only National Park in America with a working sled dog team, and their puppy cam is only temporary. It's not a streaming video, but the picture refreshes about every minute. You may have to watch for a bit before you see any of the puppies. I've been able to see Pingo and one of the pups wandering around outside their house. On east coast time, you're four hours behind Alaska's time. Central time is three hours behind and so forth. As the light begins to fade in Alaska, all you can see is blackness, so be sure to check the puppy cam out during daylight hours.

Read more articles by Linda Cole
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