Last updated: September 26, 2017
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 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.
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.
Backcountry Ranger and Geocorps intern celebrate the completion of their hauling efforts last summer
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!
Sunset on the East Fork
Alaska Geographic Youth Stewardship crew piling old bridge debris on the Toklat last summer