Two Denali National Park sled dog teams made history Monday with a winter trip commemorating the 100th anniversary of the park’s sled dog kennel.
They left Nenana for Hadley Island, more than 20 miles up the Tanana River. It was there that, on February 23, 1922, Harry Karstens purchased seven sled dogs from a farmer to start the sled dog kennel in what was then Mount McKinley National Park. Karstens served as the park’s first superintendent from 1921 to 1928.
But first, Ranger David Tomeo, Ranger Matt Anfinson, and Canine Ranger Cupcake visited the students at Nenana City School. Nenana has strong ties to Denali National Park, Tomeo told students
“The very first national park headquarters was right here in Nenana,” he said.
The park’s first sled dogs came from up the Tanana River to a farm on Hadley Island.
“We are going to visit this island where these dogs were first purchased,” said Tomeo, Denali National Park Kennel Manager.
Referring often to Howard Luke’s book “My Own Trail”, he posted a colorful and detailed map of the area, which is included with the book.
“If you look at maps like this, there are stories on this map,” he said. “There are little snippets of stories to tell and discover there. We follow the history, the origin of our kennel and where we had our first dogs.
Norman Hadley lived on Hadley Island. Athabascan Elder Howard Luke described him as a bachelor from Nova Scotia who used a fish wheel to catch and then sell fish. Hadley also did moonlight. He was so poor that others often provided food to keep him alive.
In 1922, park superintendent Harry Karstens was looking for sled dogs. Without a team of dogs, he could not patrol the park he was responsible for protecting. Then he found Norman Hadley. He ended up paying $45 each for the seven dogs on Feb. 23, 1922, Tomeo said. They called them “the seven brothers”.
Dogs were Karstens’ main mode of travel in winter. They helped patrol Denali National Park and carried supplies to build remote cabins. Each spring, the dogs returned to Hadley Island where they stayed all summer. Hadley had a fish wheel so she could catch fish to feed the dogs.
“There was nothing like buying dog food back then,” Tomeo said.
A few years later, visitors to the park began asking questions about the dogs and wondering where they were during the summer months. That’s when the park realized dogs could be a big draw for visitors, Tomeo said. Summer sled dog demonstrations began in 1939 and became one of the park’s most popular public programs.
However, interest waned and in the 1950s and 1960s the park considered getting rid of the kennels. In the 1970s, public interest grew in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, reviving interest in the park dogs as well. There is also a growing interest in winter recreational activities.
Currently, 31 sled dogs live at the park’s kennel. This includes seven puppies. Two veterans are due to retire next spring.
Canine Ranger Cupcake, who visited with students, is from a birthday litter and named in honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. He will soon be 6 years old. On Monday, he was the leader of one of the teams that headed up the Tanana River, looking for a trail covered in windblown snow.
In the coming weeks, many Denali sled dogs will support scientific research at Wonder Lake, another vital role dogs play at the park.
To celebrate its centennial, a team of eight dogs from the Denali Sled Dog Kennel will be the first team off the starting grid at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race on March 5 in downtown from Anchorage. Park dogs and rangers will meet with several community groups before the race starts.
Covid-19 closed the park’s kennels for an extended period for the past two years, but the kennels are open again, now with longer hours.
In early August, the kennel will host a reunion of former kennel staff and volunteers.
A litter of puppies is planned for the summer to celebrate the centenary.