How Denali National Park’s sled dogs prepare for winter | Travel
David Tomeo has arguably the best colleagues. They are enthusiastic about their work and never respond.
That’s because they are sled dogs, some of the approximately 30 Alaskan huskies employed by Denali National Park and Preserve and the only ones in all of the 419 national park sites in the United States.
This fall, Tomeo became Denali’s new Kennel Manager, responsible for educating the public about this 98-year tradition, training the team, and now that winter is approaching, mushing for weeks at the times in the remote corners of a park that spans 6 million acres. The Denali sled dog team patrols to keep public lands safe and collects important data for scientists.
Although new to the role, Tomeo is not new to the park – this is his 22nd year at Denali. Previously, he was director of educational programs at the Murie Science and Learning Center near the park entrance, 12 miles south of Healy, Alaska. He has also spent previous winters visiting the 18 patrol cabins (where he and other teams can warm up and refuel before going to patrol deeper in the park), some of which have existed since the construction of the road from the park in 1923, with his own team. sled dogs. Spending all day with a pack of dogs may seem like a dream, but the job comes with a number of important prerequisites, including prodigious knowledge of dog sledding, dog care and expedition travel in the wilderness, and the ability to convey to visitors the importance of dog sledding to conservation.
Historically, Denali sled dogs were used to patrol for people engaged in illegal activities in the park. When President Woodrow Wilson established the park in 1921, there was only one employee: Superintendent Henry Peter “Harry” Karstens. One of Karstens’ first tasks was to set up dog sled markers to let people know this was protected land. The area was designated as a park to protect against over-hunting of Dall’s sheep which are native to the area, so being alert for poachers was an important job function. Nowadays, illegal hunting is quite unusual; no hunting is permitted in Denali National Park. Now, during the low frigid season, generally considered mid-September to mid-May, the seven rangers who work in the park’s kennel mostly cut trails and make check-ins with the hardy explorers who decide to venture out. in the vast desert that makes the third largest national park (after Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic, both also in Alaska).
“The more trails we can walk and open, the more they can get out,” says Tomeo. “We can help them find the best places to go, because finding a route is certainly a challenge.”
Besides helping visitors enjoy the national park, another task for the crew – three full-time staff, three interns from the Student Conservation Association and a backcountry ranger from another program – is to help with science projects. One of their biggest projects this winter is helping NPS biologists and University of Washington researcher Laura Prugh collect data on mesocarnivore populations in the park. For this project, rangers collect scat samples and record where each was found in the park and the depth of snow there, all to be sent to Prugh for DNA analysis needed to create a database of carnivore populations and their range. the park. The team also measures snow depth for a long-term study of vegetation, operates a traditional weather station, and records sightings of Canada jays, a winter resident bird of interest to the park’s avian ecologist, around the kennel. Scientists train rangers to collect the data they need. Occasionally, dog teams transport scientists to field sites in the park, along with their equipment.
Following the Wilderness Act of 1964, which set aside lands across the country where no permanent roads could be built, nor any motorized or mechanized means of transport for visiting, dog teams became all the more important. They allow rangers to move around the park without leaving a mark on the territory. Not all of Denali carries the “wilderness” designation, just the original two million acres – the remaining four million acres are still managed as such.
“The intention is to keep the area intact – a natural ecosystem without the kind of high impact of human inventions, like helicopters and vehicles,” says Tomeo.
Dog sledding has long been considered a traditional mode of travel in the 49th state. And by allowing the dogs to serve as ambassadors, the Tomeo crew is able to teach visitors the importance of the wild lands.
Due to Covid-19, the kennel has been closed to the public since March. Generally, visitors to Denali can drop by the kennel, located three miles into the park on its only road, year-round. During the summer months, which have seen up to 70,000 visitors in recent years, rangers hold three events a day, educating the public about the history and importance of dog sledding in Alaska and how dogs are uniquely adapted to work.
“People should know that dogs have played an important role in human life,” says Tomeo. “Whether it’s helping with hunting or helping with travel or helping protect their camps.”
During the summer, guests can use a free bus to get to the kennel from various points in the park, but it is also possible to get there by car or on foot throughout the year. On the kennel grounds, each of the dogs has their own log cabin-like home named after them. A long leash attached to a post near the doors of the dogs allows them to move without getting too close to their congeners. The dogs are friendly, but by keeping them just far enough apart they can’t determine who the alpha is (meaning they stay on the same social level), they don’t sneak up on each other and no accidental pregnancies. happen. Puppies have their own enclosure to play and socialize.
New litters have plenty of time with people, so the dogs aren’t bothered by the flocks of travelers that weave between their homes all day. This year, the kennel did not have a new litter, the female they had chosen to mate with a female dog from another kennel was not in heat. It could have been lucky for the kennel; now rangers have more time to assess current dogs to decide who will breed next (ideally in the spring or late winter, so they are old enough to run alongside the team at the ‘fall). The breeding program is informed by genetic testing, much like 23andMe, which is able to tell a lot about their dogs. This helps them choose valuable traits to pursue.
Denali dogs, although genetic cousins, are very different from most other sled dogs in the state. Dogs that participate in races, such as the Iditarod, are bred for long-distance racing. National park dogs were bred for carrying cargo – they are larger and have thicker coats. Tomeo maintains that they are also a bit tougher.
“It’s like the difference between a sports car and a Mack truck,” says Tomeo.
In late October, Tomeo and his team were listing desirable traits to consider when deciding which animals to breed next. The most important are size, moderate temperament, motivation and traction.
The Denali program removes dogs that are quite young compared to other kennels. Part of that, says Tomeo, is the benefit of having so many people (largely former park employees or locals) who love dogs and who applied to adopt various dogs years before they are not ready to retire.
“We have this big advantage over other kennels in that we can take the dogs out and know they’ll go to a big house at about nine years old,” says Tomeo, adding that if the dogs show signs of not enjoying work, they will withdraw them even earlier.
Tomeo and his team of six human assistants prepare the dogs for a busy winter season. In early fall, the dogs pull metal carts that look a bit like the chassis of lawn mowers between idle campgrounds and down the park road, before switching to idle four-wheel ATVs when the snow begins to accumulate. Meanwhile, they’re only doing five to nine miles a day, and this year’s puppies are running alongside to get a feel for the work.
Usually around late November or early December there is enough snow for teams to begin conducting one to five night patrols. In March, when the snow begins to dissipate across much of the Lower 48, Alaska experiences peak snow and physical conditions for dog sledding, allowing the team to spend up to three weeks consecutively patrolling the most remote areas of protected public lands. Tomeo and his teams will explore the entire park, an area larger than the state of New Hampshire.
“This is where the fun really begins for everyone,” he says. “Dogs live for this time.”