The snow hook is a scary-looking contraption. It is basically a durable metal claw the size of a dog's head that sinks into the snow and grabs at it with all its might. When kicked into packed snow correctly (and correctly attached to a dogsled) the snow hook provides a very important service to a musher: the ability to stop.
With approximately four inches of snow on the ground here in Denali, stopping is something that just won't happen for a musher on a dogsled. So how do we get the dogs ready for our big season of winter patrols? The answer lies not only in dogpower, but in horsepower.
Denali's dog mushers use ATVs, or all-terrain vehicles, to get the dogs in great shape for the thousands of miles they will run through the deep snows of an uncompromising and vast wilderness. Because the area the dogs patrol is in fact a Wilderness with a capital W, that means no motorized vehicles are allowed within its boundaries. Therefore, Denali's mushers head north of the park to the Stampede Road area and south of the park to the Denali Highway to gear up for winter. In these areas, the park dogs and mushers get the opportunity to meet other mushers in the area training their dogs for anything from recreational mushing to running the Iditarod or Yukon Quest.
The setup for running dogs with an ATV is exactly the same as if the dogs were hooked up to a dogsled. The same ganglines, tuglines, necklines and harnesses are used, only the gangline is clipped into the front of the ATV instead of into the bridle of a dogsled. Denali's mushers will put the machines into 3rd or 4th gear and let the dogs pull away, downshifting when heading up and down hills or over bumpier terrain. Because of ATV training, the dogs will be up to running 20 miles a day by the time the snow falls deep enough to mush. This gives Denali's mushers a considerable advantage and allows them to break trail farther into the park right away, providing other mushers a chance to run their own dog teams on a pre-packed trail.
We will post photos of ATV training with dogs on this site very soon! Until then, photos of the dogs can be seen at twitter.com/DenaliNPS. Thanks for checking in with the Denali Kennels! We hope you enjoy this sneak peek of life on patrol with a dogsled team.