January 29, 2017
The puppies at the Denali National Park and Preserve Kennels are almost 6 months old, and getting big! Cupcake, the largest, clocks in at a whopping 59 pounds. That makes him larger than most dogs that run long distance races in Alaska, like the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest. But of course Cupcake, and his brothers and sisters, are still just pups, with a plump layer of baby fat, wiggly tails, and lots of growing left to do! But their role in the kennels is already taking shape, and they are begging to learn the ropes of what it will take for them to become full fledged Rangers!
The adult dogs are now pulling sleds over the snowy landscape, slowly adding miles to their training program, testing out local trails, and beginning the winter projects the kennels humans have been working hard planning for them. Every morning the pups spend some time running around the dogyard, getting to play with the older dogs and wake everyone up for breakfast They also get a long daily puppy walk, exploring the frozen landscape, sliding over ice and one another as they race to get to down the trail as fast as they can.
In early December and January rangers took all the dogs, including the puppies, and five sleds out to the Savage River and Toklat Rivers. For most visitors in summer, the Savage River is seemingly close to the park entrance and Headquarters. It is as far as you can drive a private vehicle, and where the buses-only transportation begins. The Toklat River is a major destiantion for many bus tours, about 50 miles into the Park. But in winter, they are both remote places, indeed! The park road is not plowed beyond the Park Headquarters at mile 3.2 of the Park Road, and few people travel here in winter. It is a quiet and beautiful winter world, full of the tracks of wolves, caribou, moose and snowshoe hares. A wild place filled with opportunities for solitude, adventure and discovery.
The adult dogs all hooked up into teams of 5 - 9 dogs, ready for the Savage River trip. They were SO EXCITED to be getting out. Barking and jumping, the big dogs got all the puppies excited, too. After the last sled and dogteam left the kennels yard area, the puppies were released to follow behind! The quickly caught up to the team in front of them, running excitedly and as fast as they could! Soon they were alongside Opus, Tephra, S’more, Munter, and Nuna, and they wanted to play with the big dogs. But the big dogs were working, pulling the sled, happily focused. They only wanted to be playing with the puppies when the team stopped to take a break.
At the first break, Happy, one of the female puppies, cocked her head looking at the big red sled. She put her front two feet up on the bow (front) of the sled, and then jumped up. She looked at the musher, who looked back at her. The ranger had never seen a puppy on a sled before. Happy explored her new domain happily, and then snuggled down. But it was was time to go again, and she was gently shoo-ed off the sled. Her sister, Party, and brother, Pinata, saw how much fun she was having and played King-of-the-Mountain (er…Sled) and joined in.
When Denali, the 20,310’ tall mountain, came into view after a few miles, the biggest little puppy, Cupcake, seemed to look off in the direction. It was as if he was musing pensively on his growing role in this landscape and as a dog working as part of this one of a kind dog team protecting Denali’s vast Wilderness.
It won’t be until next winter when these four puppies actually pull the sleds with the big dogs. Their bodies need time to grow and develop and get stronger, and their minds need the time and experiences of camping out with the big dogs and learning the trails this winter. But they will continue to come along with the big dogs on lots of training and camping trips into the park, helping to continue the tradition of using dogs in Denali National Park in winter, and doing the work as Bark Rangers to preserve and protect this great landscape.
Last updated: January 29, 2017