Although the sled dog breeds were not included in Farm Dogs, they are most definitely true working dogs. On a recent trip to Alaska, we were able visit the sled dogs owned by the National Park Service. More than 6 million acres in size, Denali National Park has always been home to sled dogs. Even before the park was established, experienced dog musher Harry Karstens guided the naturalist Charles Sheldon through this area during the winter of 1907-1908. Sheldon came to lead the efforts to protect both the mountains and its wildlife as a national park and Karstens became the park’s first ranger and the founder of the Alaskan husky kennel that continues today.
In the beginning, park rangers utilized huskies as their only means of winter travel and in their battles against wildlife poachers. Rangers and their dogs patrolled for months at a time, staying in backcountry cabins the rangers built. Rangers and dogs continue this work today – patrolling some 3000 miles throughout the winter, especially in the over 2 million acres of dedicated wilderness within the park where motorized vehicles are prohibited. They also carry wildlife researchers into the park for research purposes, ferry building supplies for backcountry trails, haul out refuse, and support winter visitors who may need assistance.
Alaskan huskies are a true landrace breed, not standardized or recognized by any kennel club. They are bred for function and their environment – their work as sled dogs. There are variations in type depending on specific needs from racing to hauling freight to distance work. Although color and markings vary they tend to weigh from 35 to 60 pounds with a strong body and long legs. The NPS Denali dogs have a dense, self-cleaning double coat, short to medium in length, and bushy tails for warmth when curled up in winter. They are also non-aggressive and very friendly to their visitors.
Genetically related to the standardized breeds the Alaskan Malamute and the Siberian Husky, Alaskan huskies also possess contributions from other breeds including hounds. But their foundations lie in the indigenous dogs of the native Alaskans, both the more robust coastal dogs and the rangier interior dogs. Most of us are familiar with the history of the Gold Rush and the European and mixed breeds brought up north, as told in Jack London’s Call of the Wild.
The Denali dogs are the old traditional type of freight hauling dogs, not the smaller, lean dogs you might see running in sled dog races. The NPS dogs are sturdy and tough enough for hard work.
Most visible is their strong desire to pull, work they clearly relish as they are harnessed for practice runs or demonstrations with park visitors. About 30 Alaskan huskies are kept at the NPS kennels, which provides for up to 3 sled teams to be out working in winter at the same time. The kennel also breeds a litter of pups each year and occasionally brings in selected outside dogs to add to the kennel.
During the day the dogs may rotate between their doghouses, various outdoor pens, and working time. The kennel also provides for the different needs of the individual dogs and where they are most comfortable. Around the world, sled dogs are usually tethered at their own houses, a practice the rangers follow at Denali. A sled dog yard is a busy and sometimes noisy place, and the dogs need the private time their own doghouse gives them. And they particularly enjoy hanging out on their flat roofs.
Trained volunteers also help socialize the puppies and walk the adult dogs out in the park. This walking, as well as practicing with wheeled carts, keeps the dogs in shape throughout the summer. When they reach age 9, the huskies are retired and placed in adoptive homes. They still need an active outdoor lifestyle and are placed in homes with cold winters where they will be more comfortable.
Denali National Park is stunning at any time of year, but winter reveals its true nature. The NPS video, True Heart of Winter, allows you to experience both this beauty and learn more about the dogs as they travel through the cold, snowy park. It also illustrates the working partnership of sled dogs and rangers, which is the same deep and fulfilling relationship all working dogs enjoy with their human partners – from sheepdogs with their shepherd to herders and all-purpose helpers on a farm. This is truly the oldest animal partnership, rewarding to both members. You can also track the sled dog patrols online throughout the winter or watch the adorable puppy cam in summer here.
The Alaskan huskies at Denali are not only working dogs providing a valuable function but they are also a direct link to the past. If you visit Denali National Park, a visit to the sled dog kennels is memorable, entertaining, and awe inspiring. And as a side benefit - the dogs love to be petted.
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