19 November 2013

History Lesson: The Dogs of Denali

Denali

 
While visiting Alaska's Denali National Park, we were able to visit a kennel for working dogs.  Racing dogs are working dogs as well, but the dogs in Denali National Park perform a vital role within the park.

The sled dogs of Denali are seen as a cultural tradition, and are protected as such.  They represent both the Native Alaskan and the pioneer experience in Alaska; and have a role in the history of the park, which continues to this day.  Since the park opened in 1917, dogs have been employed to patrol and help manage the park.  Something the park is very proud of.
 
The dogs employed by the park are a different breed of husky than you would most likely be familiar with.   They are a larger, stockier, thick legged dog. A freighting dog, not at all similar to a show/pet husky or a racing husky.    They are sled dogs through and through.   They are the product of hundreds of years of breeding dogs that can run and pull sleds.  
 
 
The kennel breeds their own dogs, and retires the older dogs out to pet homes.  All of the dogs are bred for their working ability.  
 
I was pleased to note that part of the training to becoming a sled dog included free runs for the pups, as well as skijoring to teach them basic commands once they are older. 
 
During the summer months, the dogs are walked by volunteers and staff members.  Only two people are assigned to each dog, to ensure that consistency is maintained for the dogs. 
 
What really surprised me was just how large these dogs were, and what thick legs!  Even the puppies that were in the kennel had huge thick legs.  These dogs have been bred for centuries to be hauling freight and sleds in Alaska, not for winning races or for their looks.  
 
During the winter, the dogs of Denali  patrol the inner two-million acres of wilderness where mechanized vehicles are not allowed. The rangers use the dogs to contact winter visitors, haul supplies, transport wildlife researchers, and patrol the park for illegal activities, like poaching or snowmobiling.
 
 

During the summer, the dogs are kept in a super clean kennel area, and help educate visitors to the park during daily kennel tours and interpretative talks.

We were a little shocked to see them take out a big old freighting sled, and begin to harness dogs to it.   We kept thinking it was just for show, until the gave the command and the dogs took off, dragging the wooden sled across the gravel.  Wondering if we would ever see the guide again, we were happy to see her loop back again, still intact.  We were happy to learn after the sled had been modified and ran on wheels.   No sparks were flying, and no sleds were damaged in the process! 

 
Denali is a beautiful park, and the kennel tours are free.  So get there early so reserve a seat on the shuttle bus.   Have your camera ready, and enjoy learning about these happy dogs, and their role in protecting such a beautiful piece of the planet.