Wintry weather reminiscent of Denali, working dogs

I’ve wanted to do a working dog series for a while now and finally found the impetus to do my first episode. I may have missed the chance to talk about horticulture or insects this week, but since it’s cold and dreary and not much happening in the landscape, I thought I’d share some really cool material on a type of working dog.

One of the greatest things I’ve ever done in my life was spend a summer working in Denali National Park. If you want to experience a prime example of the word vast, take a trip to Denali. This national park is located 235 miles north of Anchorage and 125 miles south of Fairbanks and covers 6 million acres, roughly the size of Massachusetts.

There is only one road that enters the park and it is 90 miles long. This road takes you about halfway through the park and to access the rest you are on your own. It is also home to the tallest mountain in North America, aptly named Denali.

As you may have heard, winter weather in Alaska tends to be a bit harsh. In Denali, average winter temperatures range between 11 and -7 degrees. Negative 50 degrees are common. And I was cold, walking to my car this morning in 45 degrees.

During the winter, park rangers must patrol the park, watch for poachers, monitor road conditions, and supply the few staff who live in the park at this time of year. When the snow arrives, the park road is practically impassable. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are inefficient and snowmobiles can freeze and leave you stranded, literally, in the middle of nowhere, so alternative methods of transportation must be used in Denali during the winter.

I was sent an article the other day that featured one of these unique ways to travel in Denali. Posted by Red Bull, it was about JJ Neville, a close friend of mine from when I lived near the Arctic Circle. JJ’s first summer was also my first summer in Denali. But instead of returning home to Utah where he is from, he stayed and never left. JJ drives park tour buses during the summer and is a dog musher during the winter.

JJ has a cabin, raises sled dogs, and works with a company to transport supplies around the park. In the story that features my friend, JJ and his workmate Brian carry 1,200 pounds of food, gear, and fuel 100 miles through Denali National Park to supply mountain climbers. The reason JJ and Brian are hired is because dog sleds are the only way to get gear to base camp. The trip can last from 30 to 60 days depending on the weather. Winds can reach 70 mph. And if you know a little about winter sunlight in the north, there are only a few hours of light a day.

JJ’s huskies are built for this type of work. With a double layer of fur to keep warm, thick, padded paws to travel miles over tough terrain, and a fluffy tail to help cover its face when at rest, a sled dog can handle brutal conditions. Since Labradors like to fetch, these dogs want to run. Add a harness, a sled, JJ’s ride and you have an Alaskan-style UPS truck. During sledding season, these dogs eat about five times as many calories as a domestic dog of the same size would consume. When there is no snow on the ground, sled dogs keep fit by pulling wheeled sleds or a type of cart.

Mushing is not easy and requires a special person to handle the rigors of running a team. Running those tough routes could earn JJ enough money to put new strings on his guitar after paying vet bills and buying gear and several tanker trucks of food a year.

JJ is that special kind of guy. He does it because he likes it. I think it’s a bit off – did you read the negative 50 degree part?

Contact Campbell Vaughn, UGA Agriculture and Natural Resources Officer for Richmond County, by emailing augusta@uga.edu.

Bette C. Alvarado