Park Service program matches volunteers with Denali sled dogs

Emily LaPorte and Pika. (Courtesy of Emily LaPorte)

As a seasonal worker summering at Denali National Park, Emily LaPorte says she struggles to have a pet. But after answering an ad to be a part-time sled dog companion, Emily says she’s found a new friend.

Denali National Park and Preserve is home to the only operating sled dog kennel in the entire National Park Service. Dogs have played a key role in Denali since 1922, when the park kennel was first established.

Dogs are used in the winter to help transport supplies for construction projects. They are also used to help scientists with their research projects. They help monitor wildlife and patrol for poachers.

But in summer, when there is no snow, dogs still need training and exercise.

“I’m a volunteer dog walker,” says LaPorte. “We have 26 Alaskan huskies, and in the summer, because they don’t drive the sleds, the Park Service paired NPS employees or people who live in the community with a particular dog.”

Emily’s dog is a two-year-old female named Pika. Emily describes how she takes Pika for a walk along the road.

“It’s a bit like a skijor setup,” she says. “So it’s a thick, padded belt that has a clip. And then the leash comes out of there, so it’s sort of a hands-free system. I don’t know how it’s in action on the sled, but when we let’s walk, she behaves really well and she doesn’t pull.

Emily explains that it’s not just exercise she gives Pika.

“One of the most important things is bonding with the dog,” she says. “They want a person to be paired with a particular dog so that you enter into a relationship with that dog, and the dog gets to know you and is comfortable with you. Of course, they would change things if it wasn’t a good game.

Denali National Park has its own breeding program and puppies are born in the kennel. According to the Park Service, puppies run free alongside dog teams their first year, learning the routes and terrain. They then learn to shoot in ski joëring.

When the dogs are two years old, they start pulling light loads until they are ready to take their place on one of the teams.

Next year, the canine program will celebrate its centennial, marking 100 years of using dogs in the park.

Emily explains why dogs are used for projects instead of more modern machines.

“This stuff can be done with helicopters or airplanes or snowmobiles,” she says. “The park has really put a lot of effort into preserving and maintaining the wild culture of the park and wanting it to be done in the traditional way, in a way that has the least impact on the environment.”

But dogs are also often more reliable than machines, when faced with overflows or temperatures of forty degrees below zero.

“That intuition, that intelligence that dogs have, is not something that can be replaced by a snow machine,” LaPorte said. “Also to get them out of danger, to let them know if there was a dangerous animal around, if there were cliffs and crevices. I mean, all the things dogs could smell that helped protect mushers.

Emily looks forward to her walks with Pika, and she’s pretty sure the feeling is mutual.

“I also brush my dog, so I think he recognizes me. I’d like to think she’s thrilled that I’m coming,” she said.

Emily doesn’t know if she’ll be in Denali next summer. But if so, she plans to participate in the canine program again.

“I would definitely do it again, and of course I would ask for Pika,” she said.

While it’s easy to believe that technology is always the best solution, Denali National Park demonstrates that sometimes what we did 100 years ago is still worth doing.

Bette C. Alvarado