Denali Dog Teams

February 04, 2015 Posted by: Andrea Schneider

The dogs stirred with anticipation on that sunny January morning.  They watched us put the last of the food and gear in the sleds, lay out the gangline and dog harnesses, double-check our packing list, and make sure everyone’s radios worked.  The kennels crew was headed out on a two-week backcountry operation, and we (and the dogs) were finally ready. 

dog team on tek
Dog team traveling on the Teklanika River ice

We had two main objectives—both hauling projects—far out in Denali National Park’s wilderness.  But conditions this January (or “June-uary” as we jokingly called it) were less than ideal.  With abnormally warm temperatures, thin snow cover, and open water, we weren’t sure if our dog teams could even make it to the project sites.  But after scouting the access routes each day from our base camps and hoping for the best possible weather, we were able to safely move forward each day.     

running in water

Dog team traveling through water

Our first project was on the East Fork Glacier, at the base of Mt. Pendleton.  In 1997 park staff installed 18 ablation stakes on the glacier with a helicopter to study patterns of snow accumulation and ice loss.  The stakes are 9-meter long steel or aluminum poles that were placed into the ice using a steam drill. Funding for the study ran out and the stakes eventually melted out of the ice, becoming trash in wilderness rather than important research tools. Last summer, four different crews including a glaciology course for park visitors, SCA and GeoCorps interns, and backcountry rangers, hiked in and gathered dozens of the old stakes off the glacier. By the end of summer there was a large pile of old stakes at the toe of the glacier, ready for removal back to the park road.  It was time for Denali’s dog teams to do what they do best. 

summer stake pile

Backcountry Ranger and Geocorps intern celebrate the completion of their hauling efforts last summer

sarah and team at east fork glacier

Dog team traveling on ice past wind sculpted snow to the stake pile

The dogs pulled our sleds along ribbons of river ice as much as possible.  Otherwise, we rumbled (and once or twice tumbled) over rocky gravel bars, bare tundra, and through willow thickets with the occasional patch of actual snow.  At last the teams arrived at the glacier’s icy terminus.  We located the pile of stakes, and began loading them into the empty sleds.  All but one stake came out easily—and that one needed a little bit of hot strawberry pomegranate tea and a few whacks from an axe to free it from the frozen ground.  In the end we counted 70 steel stakes, secured in sleds and ready for transport.  The dog teams covered the ten miles quickly, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the East Fork as we pulled back into the cabin for the night.  The monitoring stakes now await pickup by vehicle when the Park Road opens in the spring.  First project success!    

pink sunset on efk ice         

Sunset on the East Fork
Our second project site was farther west into the park near the Toklat Road Camp.  This time the kennels team cleaned up debris from an old bridge washout.  Originally built in 1931, this single-lane bridge over the Toklat River was constructed with wooden pilings and trestles.   Unfortunately, in 1953 the bridge collapsed in a flood and tons of debris were scattered miles downstream.  Until a new bridge was completed in 1956, bulldozers towed vehicles and equipment across the Toklat River. 
youth stewardship work
Alaska Geographic Youth Stewardship crew piling old bridge debris on the Toklat last summer

andrea and timbers
Kennels staff locate the debris pile in winter
When we arrived at the Toklat River a couple weeks ago, we needed neither bridge nor bulldozer, since the dog teams could get us safely across the frozen river.  But we did need to navigate to the bridge debris piles, located about seven miles north of the road camp.  Over the summer, a youth program led by one of our backcountry rangers, collected timbers and stacked them on higher ground in hopes of an ice-free, easy retrieval for us in the winter.  When we arrived by dog team, we sawed the creosote-treated timbers down to sled-size, and piled them in all three sleds--plus filled another small plastic ski pulk sled with more debris.  We estimated we hauled out about 800 pounds of debris from the wilderness.  Since the 1970’s, park staff have slowly been cleaning up hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of bridge debris using dog teams.  With time and teamwork, each load is getting a little less, and the Toklat River is getting a lot cleaner.  The dogs were happy to be out pulling a sled, and we were all proud to be protecting and preserving the park’s wilderness.  Both the Toklat River Haul and the East Fork Glacier Haul were counted as successes!  It was time to pack up and head back to Headquarters.  The Denali dog teams and the kennels crew await their next assignment in February…stay tuned!    
bridge debris 
Hauling bridge debris off the Toklat River 

Last updated: September 26, 2017

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