We had an hour or so to kill before catching our bus into Denali National Park, so we headed over to the park’s kennels to check out the dogs. Denali is the only park in the US National Park Service to employ sled dogs.
Before Harry Karstens became the first superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park in 1921, he was a mail musher—delivering mail via dog sled as far north as Fairbanks, south to Valdez, and west to Kantishna, now the terminus of the 92-mile road that traverses the park. Harry was chosen for the job because he knew the terrain and how to deal with the elements. And he recognized that he couldn’t protect over two million acres in winter without sled dogs. He hired rangers and assigned each an area of the park to patrol for poachers who were killing off the wildlife. Each ranger was given a sled and seven dogs from the park’s kennels, developed by Karstens himself.
The Denali National Park kennels are still going strong. Today poaching is not such a problem, but the park was tripled in size in 1980 and dogs are a necessity to cover all that acreage in winter. Currently there are 35 Bark Rangers, all Alaskan huskies. Each year a new litter is added to the crew and the most senior dogs are retired and put up for adoption.
These dogs love to run and live to work. They were marvelous to watch as they pulled a wheeled sled around a gravel track for our enjoyment—and theirs! The dogs get so excited about being put to work that their human handlers have to “put them in two-wheel drive” to hitch them to the sled. They say that if they let the dogs approach on all fours, their enthusiasm could cause injury. The dogs are strong, especially around the neck and shoulders, and they have been trained from their puppy days to “hop to it” on their back legs. It’s the most natural thing in the world to them.