A hundred years ago, poachers decimated wildlife populations of caribou, moose and Dall’s sheep in Denali National Park and Preserve.
In order to prevent poaching, the park began using sled dogs to patrol its boundaries. This program began in 1922 – shortly after Denali was established as a national park – and is the only one of its kind within the National Park Service.
Now Denali’s sled dogs haul supplies and researchers in and out of remote areas of the park, assist with scientific studies, and open trails for winter visitors. In the summer, they are used in demonstrations to teach park visitors about the culture and history of dog sledding in Alaska.
Although the duties of the sled dogs have changed since the program’s inception, the work they do has continued to preserve the wilderness character of the park for a century.
Wilderness park patrols
Denali Kennel, home to 31 cargo-hauling Alaskan huskies, offers upgrades you may not find at other rural kennels in the state. Nameplates are bolted to each dog’s log house, and poop is picked up regularly. Names of retired sled dogs, along with historic mushing gear and photographs, decorate the walls of a small building near the front of the kennel. During the summer, bright flowers bloom from the pots that dot the fence.
There is also a live puppy cam that is activated every year. Last September, an online link to Puppy Cam, which featured Denali’s latest litter of dogs, was shared by thousands of people.
The Denali National Park sled dogs had another moment in the spotlight during the ceremonial start of this year’s Iditarod Trail sled dog race. Denali kennel manager David Tomeo and his team of dogs — led by Cupcake and Jewel — have been asked to be the first team out of the starting chute in downtown Anchorage.
If the Denali dog team were to actually compete in the Iditarod, it would take them about a month to complete the 1,000-mile journey to Nome, Tomeo said. By comparison, Brent Sass and his team won this year’s race in about 8.5 days.
Denali sled dogs aren’t made for speed, but their work is important, Tomeo said.
In addition to carrying loads, clearing trails and conducting patrols, the dogs help Denali staff fulfill an educational mission with tourists, residents and school children.
The future of the program was not always certain, however, as innovations in mechanized travel on snow began to take hold soon after sled dogs were introduced to the park.
Adding further complications to the kennel, Denali’s sled dogs – excluding their older and retired dogs – were put into service at the start of World War II in the late 1930s. When the war ended, a dog named Buck was the only dog left at the kennel, Tomeo said.
But then Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, securing a future for sled dogs in Denali National Park.
The act designated 9.1 million acres across the country as federally protected wilderness and prohibited motorized travel within those acres, among other conservation guidelines. The designated lands included 2 million acres in Denali National Park and Preserve.
With new federal guidelines in place, the use of dogs in the park has become essential to continue patrols in the park during the winter.
“The history of sled dogs in Denali is part of Alaskan history,” said Jon Nierenberg, co-owner of EarthSong Lodge and Denali Dog Sled Expeditions. “Dogs were used to support the first ascent of Denali from the north side. You can certainly, at least in part, thank the sled dog operation now, its history, for which Denali also had such a good population of healthy wildlife.
[How a mail carrier mushed from Nome to Washington D.C. to settle a bet]
Trace a historic journey
On February 23, 2022, two Denali sled dog teams and kennel staff traveled north to visit the island where the park’s first sled dogs were purchased exactly 100 years earlier.
Hadley Island is about 2 miles long and sits on the bank of the Tanana River, about 18 miles southwest of Fairbanks. Denali’s first ranger and superintendent, Henry Peter “Harry” Karstens, purchased the park’s first seven sled dogs there from farmer Norman Hadley, who lived on the remote island.
At age 19, Karstens came to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. Among other things, he drove dogs and helped start the mail route from Valdez to Fairbanks. A seasoned frontier, Karstens knew the importance and reliability of dogs in the Alaskan wilderness, much like the Alaska Natives who have lived on the land for thousands of years.
Tomeo described Hadley, the person Karstens bought the park’s first dogs from, as a bachelor Nova Scotian who moonlighted and ran a fishing camp and trapline. Karstens spent $45 per dog, which equates to nearly $5,300 for the team in today’s dollars.
To trace Karstens’ journey back to 1922, Tomeo and his team started in downtown Nenana, a small inland village where the park’s first headquarters was located, located at the confluence of the Nenana and Tanana rivers.
From there, the teams headed upriver for a 55-mile trip to Fairbanks. For about two days, Tomeo and his team battled blizzard conditions on the ground, which made the trail difficult, but temperatures remained mild, at least by interior Alaska standards.
“I was looking at the map, I was looking at the GPS, and I was like, ‘OK, Hadley is here,'” Tomeo said. “And then all of a sudden this hole opened up in the clouds, and I could see the blue sky and the light shining on Hadley Island.”
The niche world of big sled dogs
The Denali dog teams stopped overnight at Jenna and David Jonas’ property near Hadley Island and talked about their dogs over homemade pie. The Jonases keep about 10-12 dogs in their kennel and have worked with Denali staff for about five years to help maintain the genetic diversity of the park’s dogs.
Both kennels have larger sled dogs that weigh around 70-100 pounds, compared to racing sled dogs that weigh around 25-40 pounds less. Jenna Jonas said the last three puppies she and her family have taken in were from the park kennel and they are also planning to breed one of their female dogs with a Denali male this summer.
“They have the same breeding goals and…they use their dogs for similar things, so we can kind of report back and say, ‘OK, you know, this dog is doing really well at blazing the trail, but it’s is still really immature,” Jonas said. “It’s really fun to compare the different litters.”
The large sled dog community is niche in Alaska, and fewer people are interested in big dogs, Tomeo and Jonas said.
But looking to the next hundred years, Tomeo is confident that the Denali Kennel and its dogs will continue the work they have done over the past century.
“I think, you know, the buses will probably run on a different fuel,” he said. “But I think as long as the American public can still appreciate wild places…we’ll have those areas where we prevent mechanized travel as best we can.”
Last week, he and six of Denali’s newest puppies — along with seven adult dogs — hiked 7 1/2 miles through the state park to Sanctuary River.
Tomeo gave the puppies directions using the commands “gee” and “haw,” but often the lines got tangled. “It’s like trying to get a group of kindergartners to do something in sync,” he said.
On their last overnight trip, the 7-month-old puppies slept through the night and improved dramatically.
“By next fall,” Tomeo said, “they’ll be running with all the adults.”