The Alaskan huskies at Denali National Park are not only working dogs providing a valuable function, but they serve as a living link to the past.
Alaska’s Denali National Park, which is more than 6 million acres in size, has always been home to sled dogs. On a trip to Alaska last summer, my husband and I visited the sled dogs owned by the National Park Service and, although I did not include sled dog breeds when I was writing my book Farm Dogs, they are most definitely working dogs. The partnership between Alaskan huskies and park rangers is the same deep and fulfilling relationship all working dogs enjoy with their human partners, whether sheepdogs with their shepherd, or herders, or all-purpose helpers on a farm.
Even before Denali National Park was established, dogs provided people with access to the remotest corners of the territory and played a vital role in the dream of founding the park. During the winter of 1907-08, experienced dog musher Harry Karstens guided naturalist Charles Sheldon through the area. Sheldon went on to lead efforts to protect both the mountains and wildlife as a national park, and Karstens became the park’s first ranger, founding the Alaskan husky kennel that still operates there today.
In the park’s earliest days, huskies were the rangers’ only means of winter travel for patrolling and protecting the park against wildlife poachers. Rangers and their dogs patrolled for months at a time, staying in backcountry cabins that the rangers built. To this day, rangers and dogs patrol some 3000 miles of territory throughout the winter, including the over 2 million acres of dedicated wilderness within the park where motorized vehicles are prohibited. These teams 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. Genetically related to the Alaskan Malamute and the Siberian Husky — both standardized breeds — Alaskan huskies also possess contributions from other breeds including hounds. But their strongest foundations lie with the indigenous dogs of the native Alaskans — both the more robust coastal dogs and the rangier dogs of the interior. Although color and markings vary, Alaskan huskies tend to weigh anywhere from 35 to 60 pounds, with a strong body and long legs. Bred for function, there are variations in type that make them suited for different jobs, from racing to hauling freight to distance work. The NPS Denali dogs have a dense, self-cleaning coat that is short to medium in length, and bushy tails that provide warmth when the dogs are curled up. They are non-aggressive and very friendly to their visitors.
What is abundantly clear is a husky’s 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, enough to allow 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 their numbers.
During the day, the dogs may rotate between their doghouses, various outdoor pens, and work. 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 provides. (And they particularly enjoy hanging out on the flat doghouse roofs.)
Trained volunteers also help socialize the puppies and walk the adult dogs in the park. This walking, as well as practicing with wheeled carts, keeps the dogs in shape throughout the summer. When they reach the age of 9, the huskies are retired and placed in adoptive home, where the winters are cold and the dogs can continue their active outdoor lifestyle.
If you visit Denali National Park, a visit to the sled dog kennels is memorable, entertaining, and as an added bonus, the dogs love to be petted. Until you can make the trip yourself, this video by the National Park Service allows you to experience the park’s beauty and learn more about these awe-inspiring dogs and the people who work with them.