nps photo / jacob w frank
Not only has the purpose of Denali’s sled-dog patrols remained relatively unchanged since the park’s founding in 1917, but the entire experience of traveling by dog team through Denali National Park has remained the same. Rangers patrolling in Denali can encounter bitter cold, short days, and wind that can pick up in an instant and sweep across the mostly treeless landscape. Rangers still face age-old dangers: sleds plunging through the river ice, encountering an angry moose on the trail, or getting caught in a storm.
So why, in this modern age, do we continue to use such an archaic means of transportation?
One of the purposes of a national park is to preserve historic resources for the benefit of future generations. The use of sled dogs to access the wilderness not only preserves an important cultural resource, but also provides a reliable means of transportation and allows rangers at Denali to be the eyes and ears of the park during the long winter months. Similar to summer’s back-country rangers, dog-team travel allows rangers to contact winter recreationists and provide information on trail conditions, offer assistance, and monitor use in a low-impact style that preserves the wilderness spirit essential to Denali. The presence of the rangers in the backcountry also helps deter illegal activities in the park, such as snowmachining and poaching. The sled-dog trails made during winter patrols are used by winter recreationists who want to explore Denali on skis, snowshoes, or with their own dog team. Denali’s dogs also provide transportation for some of the researchers who collect data on wildlife populations during the winter months. Over the years, the dogs have hauled thousands of pounds of materials, supplies for cabin building or restoration projects or trail construction efforts. They are very much a key element of park operations.
Apart from functional reasons, there are many other practical reasons why Denali continues to use dogs. The dogs have the uncanny ability to find a patrol cabin during a whiteout, and to feel a snow- or wind-obscured trail beneath their paws. They run through overflow without getting bogged down, they don’t run out of gas or have mechanical parts that freeze up, and they help preserve the natural quiet in a world where silence is an increasingly scarce resource.
Denali’s sled-dog patrols last anywhere from a single day to up to six weeks. Patrol length increases throughout the winter as the dogs build endurance and teams break the trail further into the park. The trail through the park’s wilderness core roughly follows the park road corridor to Wonder Lake and Kantishna. The historic patrol cabins that serve as quarters for seasonal rangers in the summer provide shelter for the rangers out on winter patrol.