Denali only has sled dogs in the National Park Service

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In winter, a thick blanket of snow covers Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve, one of our country’s most incredible wilderness places. The wilderness spans 6 million acres (that’s bigger than the state of New Hampshire). It is home to the highest peak in North America, as well as wolves, moose, snowshoe hares and grizzly bears.

Denali is also home to a one-of-a-kind team of canine rangers: 31 enthusiastic Alaskan huskies pull sleds, helping haul rangers and loads of heavy equipment through the snow.

It is important work. With winter temperatures regularly as low as minus 40 degrees in Denali, “mushing” with sled dogs is a much more reliable mode of transportation than motorized vehicles or snowmobiles, which may not start in cold weather. Plus, dogs can keep their human rangers’ feet warm at night.

In February, Jennifer Raffaeli, kennel manager and park ranger, goes hiking for a month-long trip to the park. The dogs will pull sleds loaded with equipment. Rangers will patrol and collect data for scientists at hard-to-reach sites near the park’s glacier-fed Wonder Lake.

“I love spending my days with dogs who really love every minute of what they do,” Raffaeli said in an email as she prepared to leave.

For the past eight years, Raffaeli has cared for the dogs around the clock. Prior to that, she worked summers in Denali as a ranger and was an experienced musher. She also trains them, including the litter of puppies bred each year to replace the older dogs that are adopted when they retire.

“It’s an incredible journey to share with them, and one that I’m always proud of as I watch the clumsy pups grow into strong, confident adults who lead teams in the Denali wilderness,” she said.

In the summer, human and canine rangers act as ambassadors, educating the public about the important role of sled dogs in Denali since 1922.

Alaskan huskies are strong, cargo-type dogs bred to pull cargo. They have thick fur, hard feet, long legs, and the stamina to run thousands of miles in their lifetime. When mushing, they wear custom padded harnesses and sometimes booties to prevent snowballs from forming between their toes.

On the trail to Wonder Lake, the days will start early, with Raffaeli feeding the dogs at 6 a.m., then picking up the poop and packing the sleds. The 31 dogs were due to go on a trip, with the puppies born last summer to run alongside the team’s adult dogs for training. Evenings mean melting loads of snow for drinking water, unpacking sleds and setting up camp for the night.

“It’s a lot of work outside in the dark and the cold,” she says.

But no matter the challenges, Raffaeli relishes the perks of his job, like seeing the sun shine on pristine Denali snow, watching a herd of caribou pass by, finding lynx tracks, and hearing wolves howl with sled dogs at night. .

And, of course, she loves all dogs, from 9-year-old Aliqsi, an experienced sled dog who will soon be retiring, to young Cupcake, Matrix and Topo.

“I have different favorite dogs every day and for different conditions,” she said. “There are the dogs who are brilliant lead dogs on ice or through windstorms, the dogs who like to make their way through deep snow, the dogs who are adorable cuddlers in cabins at night. , dogs who like to play with little puppies. There is something special that I love the most about each of them.

Bette C. Alvarado