Sled dogs carry on Alaska’s legacy at Denali National Park and Preserve

  • Denali is the only national park with a sled dog kennel.
  • Visitors may encounter the dogs, but they are not there for entertainment.
  • Working dogs are canine rangers with important duties in the park.

Long before there were visitors to Denali National Park and Preserve, there were sled dogs.

“We’ve had dogs almost continuously for the past 100 years here at the park,” Denali Kennel Manager David Tomeo said, noting that theirs is the only dog ​​sledding kennel in the entire federal government.

The very first park employee purchased the first sled dogs in 1922 to mark park boundaries, build patrol cabins and go out to tell gold diggers they could no longer harvest sheep and caribou in the park to feed their crews, according to Tomeo.

A century later, Denali’s sled dogs continue to do important work in the Alaskan wilderness, but they’ve also become a popular visitor attraction.

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What Breed Are Denali Sled Dogs?

Denali sled dogs are Alaskan huskies.

“It’s a mixed breed. It’s not a purebred or registered in a kennel club,” Tomeo said, noting that their genetic diversity dates back to the Gold Rush era, when all kinds dogs were brought to Alaska. “Some people might call them mutts, but the fact that we put so much intention into our breeding, they’re so carefully bred for health and genetics, … they’re bred more carefully than purebred dogs.”

The breeding aims for a new litter each year. Sometimes the mother and father are both from the kennel. Other times, like with this year’s puppies, Denali partners with outside kennels to help with the health and diversity of dog bloodlines.

“We only breed the best dogs and the healthiest dogs that would produce the best puppies,” he said. “Out of reach, you might or might not get one that has proven to be as good as their parents, but you can keep striving for it, and the training we do for them is always about building their confidence. so they can hopefully grow into one of those big lead dogs that we have.”

Sled dog puppies

Denali National Park and Preserve's newest sled dogs, Mike, Bos'n and Skipper, are only a few months old, but they already have a long heritage.

Denail’s first sled dogs were 14 months old when they were brought to the park a century ago. For years they were known as the Seven Brothers. In their honor, this year’s puppies each named one of the brothers and were nicknamed the Centennial Litter.

Mike, Bos’n and Skipper were born in June.

“It’s their training year,” Tomeo said. “All of this fall and all of this winter is just fun training and training for them. They won’t be pulling a sled. They’re still growing and developing, but what we’re going to do is have them walk around with it. We’ll take them skiing, and they’re going wild And once we go on patrol with our dogs, the puppies will be going wild behind the dog team… And the very idea of ​​them chasing the dog team of adult dogs is that we just want them to have free choice to follow.”

He said sometimes puppies can get scared when they encounter tough terrain like steep hills and small creeks, but they learn by seeing what adult dogs are doing and by the end of winter they will run alongside. adults pretending to pull the sled.

“They really love racing and they love seeing what’s around the next corner on the track, which is kind of fun,” he said. “They love getting out to explore the park as much as we do.”

Are dog sleds still used today?

For much of the year when there is snow on the ground, Denali sled dogs help rangers access 2 million acres of federally designated wilderness in the heart of Denali, where only hiking, skiing and dog sledding are allowed to keep the area as pristine as possible.

“The reason dog sledding is allowed is that it was practiced on this landscape by Alaskan Native people for thousands of years before it was a national park, so dog sledding is recognized as a traditional mode of travel,” said Tomeo.

He noted that in the 1930s a team of dogs could be found behind just about everyone’s house, but there aren’t many of them now.

“So when visitors come in and say, ‘Oh wow, there are 32 dogs here? They are canine rangers and they work for the government? they hear the story of this dog sledding tradition in this landscape,” said Tomeo. “And here we are, helping to preserve this cultural heritage.”

Steward, one of Denali National Park and Preserve's lead dogs, is the father of Mike, Bos'n and Skipper.

During the summer, which is kind of their downtime even though it’s the busy tourist season, the dogs take part in demonstrations pulling rangers in carts to illustrate what they do in the park most of the time. part of the year.

“(Visitors) may feel like they’re there to entertain them, so I try to break that belief,” Tomeo said. “We work here in the park. We dig trails here and in the wilderness through the deep snow that visitors can use. We carry supplies, we help park scientists. They are actually working dogs. “

Can you see sled dogs at Denali National Park and Preserve?

Denali Kennel is open to visitors year-round, but hours are limited outside of the summer, the only season the kennel hosts daily demonstrations.

Because the dogs are often in the park during the winter, visitors hoping to see them are encouraged to check with the park’s visitor center before visiting the kennel.

During the summer, Denali also operates a puppy camera so people can view puppies from anywhere in the world. The webcam has been disabled for the 2022 season, but the park plans to post “updates” on social media.

Denali kennel manager David Tomeo helps Mike greet viewers on the park's puppy webcam.

Are other dogs allowed in Denali?

While other dogs are allowed in other parts of Denali, they are not permitted at the kennel.

According to Denali’s website, “During ranger demonstrations in the summer, an unfamiliar pet in the area will trigger a pack reaction in our kennel that will cause all of the dogs to rush, bark and jump in an attempt to scare the unknown animal in their home.” It could be just as dangerous in the winter. “Kennel staff may harness dogs or lead teams in and out of kennels at any time and an unfamiliar pet in the area could pose a serious safety hazard to everyone.”

Besides the potential danger and disruption, Tomeo notes that there are also health concerns.

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“Our dogs are somewhat isolated from so many other dogs that their immune systems are probably not as strong as dogs that live in Anchorage or Fairbanks,” he said. “So we just have other dogs outside staying away.”

This includes service animals.

“We know your service animal is exceptionally well trained, but our dogs do not differentiate their response from any other outdoor pet, so the same safety concerns apply,” Denali’s website states, noting that arrangements can be made for people who wish to visit the kennel while leaving their service dogs “in good hands outside the kennel area”.

Can you do dog sledding in Denali?

Denali sled dogs are considered canine rangers and do not sled for visitors.

However, people living in Alaska can musher with their own dogs, with no daily permit required.

Visitors who wish to experience dog sledding can book an excursion with a licensed guide.

Denali National Park and Preserve's sled dogs assist rangers with patrols and projects in a vast expanse of protected wilderness, where snowmobiles and other vehicles are not permitted.

At what age do sled dogs retire? Can sled dogs be pets?

Denali sled dogs retire at age nine.

“After eight winters of working with us, we’re pulling them out and we have a long list of people who have applied to adopt our dogs,” Tomeo said, adding that the average lifespan of an Alaskan husky is about 15 or 16 years old.

“They make great companion dogs,” he added.

Although separation anxiety is common after years of growing up and living with a pack, he said dogs usually soften by the age of nine and can get used to their new home fairly quickly.

Bette C. Alvarado