Sled Dogs and Iron Dogs

January 14, 2011 Posted by: Jenn Raffaeli

The use of sled dogs as a means of transportation has been steadily replaced by snowmobiles in Alaska. The pros and cons of sled dogs versus snowmobiles (aka "iron dogs") is an ongoing discussion up here. The long and short of that discussion, as far as I am concerned, is that there is a place for both. However, in the National Park Service sled dogs play an essential role that just cannot be filled by iron dogs. Our mission statement calls for us to preserve and protect as well as to educate. By maintaining and continuing to use our sled dogs in the traditional ways, we are keeping an important part of our heritage alive and truly preserving and protecting all aspects of the wilderness character of Denali. Using dogs rather than mechanized forms of transport to travel here allows us to share the experience of dog team travel with our park visitors who might otherwise not have the opportunity to ponder the challenges and rewards of traveling with sled dogs in the cold subarctic winters.

Dog mushing is the state sport and it has been a key means of travel and way of life up here in the frozen north for a long time. However, in recent times snowmobiles have gained popularity for lots of good reasons. Snowmobiles don't have to be fed and cared for and trained and exercised regularly. You can store them all summer and forget about them until the snow flies again. Snowmobiles can go much faster than dog teams, and they don't get tired and have to rest or have a snack. Snowmobiles can haul impressive loads (dog teams can too, it just goes a lot slower). Sled dogs are a huge commitment and a lot of work, and it is easy to understand why many people have moved towards snowmobiles as the "workhorse" of choice. However, there are a few key things about sled dogs that snowmobiles will just never be able to replace. Our last patrol was a good reminder of that.

When we headed out, we were hoping to accomplish a lot of tasks along the north boundary. First off, the kennels staff needed to gain familiarity with the trails in the area before we go out again at the end of the month to support the installation of a sound monitoring station for our Resources Division.We wanted to haul a lot of the necessary human and dog food in to the park in advance so that we could carry large and heavy sound monitoring items on the next patrol into the area. A lot of replacement cabin supplies and new mattresses also needed to be delivered in to the northern patrol cabins, which are far easier to access overland in winter than in summer. We were very grateful to our Ranger and VIP who willingly volunteered to go with our patrol as a support crew hauling supplies in and backhauling outdated items out. They were loaded down with gear everywhere they rode as they, too, learned the trails and terrain on the north side. Yes, the dogs could have done it all, but it would have taken many more trips and much more kibble along the way, and the Rangers saw the benefit of learning some of the terrain as well. In the end it seemed like a great plan all around.

We left the trailhead with the two loaded snowmobiles in the lead and three loaded dogsleds following close behind. We were quickly reminded firsthand of the pros and cons of each means of travel. Dogs fit well with the character of wild lands. They are a lot quieter than snowmobiles, except when they are barking to be let out of the truck to go run and when they are barking on the trail to start running again. Dogs (and, some would argue, even dog poop) smell better than gasoline fumes. Dogs remind us to slow down and notice the details of the landscape around us. They teach us that life is not all about efficiency and speed. As always, it is the journey rather than the destination that matters.

The machines could have easily left us in their snow dust but they patiently waited along the way for our happily trotting dogs to catch up and keep the group together. About six miles in, one of the snowmobiles started to smell really bad, like burning rubber, and was making a grinding sound. We stopped and examined it and determined that it was not safe to drive any further in. This was the first glitch in the plan. One snowmobile had to tow the other safely back out to the truck and have a replacement machine brought in. The decision was made for the dogs to carry on without the snowmobiles for the night and they would meet us in the morning. We had packed the dogsleds to be self-sufficient just in case something like this was to go awry. This is the first lesson of winter backcountry travel – always be prepared with enough food and equipment to spend several extra nights out. We were. We headed on as the dogs showed us the trails. There were several offshoot trails and I had put in lead dogs that knew the area well. It is amazing to watch their memories at work. Darkness fell and we were getting close to our destination – a cabin I had never been to before.Jess was giving me advice that she could remember from her summer trips to the cabin and everything was pointing to the fact that we were getting close to "home" when Yakone and Gaiter jumped on a hard left turn off the river and into the woods. I would never have seen the tiny trail in the dark, but they remembered it and took us straight to the cabin. I was keenly aware of another advantage of dog teams over snowmobiles. Three mushers and 22 dogs means 25 brains at work to find the way. Two rangers and two snowmobiles is still only two brains to find the way. Snowmobiles are of no help whatsoever in showing you where to go, whereas dogs have repeatedly astounded me with their ability to find and remember trails.

We settled in to the cabin and rested for the next big day of exploring. We had some notes describing the trail we were looking for and again with the help of the dogs we found it no problem. We made it to the next cabin (with some help from a GPS) and back in time to meet our snowmobilers who had gotten a replacement machine and made it to the first cabin with our first load. We were grateful to see them and the kibble, firewood, and mattresses they had hauled.

The following day we set off exploring with the dog teams, maps, and GPS again to find another way to the next cabin. We were learning the trails and terrain one step at a time by experiencing them firsthand. I was grinning from ear to ear as we mushed into a golden sunrise illuminating the snow, while a herd of 20 caribou searched for lichen on the open tundra in front of us and the Alaska Range and Kantishna hills were brightly lit as the morning sun touched each peak. Wow! The dogs panted with steam rising from their bodies in the cold morning air as we drifted quietly across the tundra. Sled dogs truly fit this wilderness landscape.

We reached the East Fork of the Toklat River and were met with overflow. Dogs are more reliable in overflow than snowmobiles. A good dog team will travel across glare ice, through slushy overflow and deep snow without trouble. Even a not so good dog team can make it through all of these challenges with a musher willing to walk out front and lead them. A really good dog team will help a musher to find the best trail to avoid all of these things or will pull them out of trouble if they do get caught in deep overflow. The park dogs did a phenomenal job putting in trail up the river despite overflow and glare ice. Snowmobiles, especially when they are hauling a heavy load in a sled behind them, can get bogged down in overflow and be very hard to extract. They can sink in deep snow in no time- it's always good to have a shovel and a winch. Personally, I think dog teams are easier to work with and more reliable in these tough conditions, but if you ask a good snowmobiler they might have the opposite answer.

We spent another cozy night in a second cabin while our dedicated snowmachiners were stuck in the front country again. In the morning we got up to scout the next stretch of trail with skis. Again, the three of us were struck by how lucky we are that our day at the office began with skiing into a sunrise over the Alaska Range. We found the crossings we were looking for and headed back to the cabin to get the dogs and mush back to the first cabin for the night. Happy surprise!! Our snowmobilers were undefeatable and had made it to the cabin with another huge load. It will make our next trip so much smoother to already have the supplies we need in there. The intrepid drivers were covering a lot of ground and could only take a little break to warm up before they needed to return all the way to the trailhead that night. That would have been one very long day and night (or longer) of running dogs. Snowmobiles are a lot faster and more efficient when everything goes well. There is value in efficiency when it comes to getting work accomplished.

We sent our friends off and hooked up the dogs for an hour of running in the beautiful sunset light back to the first cabin for the night. Granted, we had to set up lines for all the dogs to sleep on, take off harnesses and booties. Granted, when we got to the cabin it was several hours of work to melt enough snow on the woodstove to make 20 gallons of water for dogs and humans to drink for the night and next morning. Meanwhile, our snowmobilers could just turn their machines off at the trailhead and call it a night. However, most mushers don't mind the extra work for the dogs. In fact, we enjoy it. It is time to pet their soft furry bodies and tell them what a good job they've done. We can let a few of them in to the cabin for extra love and attention and they snuggle up with us for the night. In the dark morning they greet us with tails wagging and eyes shining, ready for the next adventure.

Part of why the National Park Service keeps its sled dogs is to keep the history and tradition of dog mushing alive. Over the years various park mangers have questioned the viability of the dogs. As machines rapidly gained popularity in the 1950s, the park kennels almost became obsolete. I shudder to think of all that would have been lost if we had let our sled dog program go. These dogs have so much to teach us, not just on a daily basis on the trail, but they also remind us of those larger life lessons that are so easy to forget in our fast-paced world focused on efficiency. Don't get me wrong, I am really glad we have snowmobiles and airplanes and helicopters too, especially when it comes to search and rescue. They each are valuable tools and they have their applications. I am just glad that we also have the foresight to hold on to our sled dogs because they are truly invaluable.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

PO Box 9
Denali Park, AK 99755


907 683-9532
A ranger is available 9 am to 4 pm daily (except on major holidays). If you reach the voicemail, please leave a message and we'll call you back as soon as we finish with the previous caller.

Contact Us