Training Trip

February 04, 2015 Posted by: Kelly Bell

Every year before the winter backcountry operations really start; time is set aside for a training trip. This training trip is especially important for new kennels staff members to learn the demands of their job, traveling with a team of human and canine rangers throughout Denali National Park

The first day of training started off like any normal day running the dogs; creating teams, loading equipment, and making sure we were wearing the proper layers for the weather - except this time we weren’t coming back for another two days. Three days isn’t a very long time to be gone, but the amount I learned about our upcoming winter projects, day to day tasks on the trail, and myself was incredible.

 Once we arrived at the Savage Cabin we went over all of the routine tasks we will be responsible for in order to make sure everyone had the skills and equipment necessary for the job whether it be starting a fire in a wood stove in the cabin, setting up tents, or how to tie the drop line for the dogs to sleep on at night. Before we head out on our long trips into the park in winter, we want to make sure our gear works, that we know what gear we need to carry, and that the new employees know how to work with all the equipment.

  tent set up

The team learns about the tents and how to set them up.

 A good portion of this trip was spent scouting dog trail options. In Denali, the landscape and snow and ice conditions in winter are always changing. To prevent seeing something for the first time while on a sled with 5-12 excited, energetic dogs with you, someone scouts the trail the day before to look for the easiest route, which could include river travel. In order to safely travel on the many rivers in Denali we needed to learn how to assess river ice. We look for at least 6 inches of good ice to support the weight of a dog team and sled traveling on it. We looked at the Savage River and discussed different types of ice we found and what is ideal for travelling. During this trip, we also scouted potential routes over land for various skill levels of mushers and skiers to use throughout the winter.

team discussing ice 

The team meets to discuss ice conditions on the Savage River

When we are out in the backcountry with the dogs this winter we will be working on several projects simultaneously. One of our ongoing projects this winter is assisting researchers working on a mesocarnivore study. For this study, we will collect scat samples we find in the snow between Park Headquarters and Toklat. Scat specimen the study is focused on include wolf, coyote, and fox. Other than the scat itself, we collect data including a GPS waypoint of where we found the scat, our educated guess of what kind of scat it is, and an estimation of how old the scat is. Actually collecting the scat may be the hardest part- without contaminating the scat, you need use an inverted plastic bag over your hand to pull the frozen scat out of the frozen snow into a small plastic bag. (It’s harder than it sounds!) Since we work with sled dogs all the time it is easy for us to accidentally contaminate the samples with sled dog DNA so we have to be extra careful.

VIPs collecting scat

Volunteers learn how to properly collect scat.

The best thing about this kennels staff training adventure was learning about the team and myself. As part of the training we talked about how each individual person learns, how to deal with stressful situations, and how to suggest new ideas to one another. Out in the field, you are relying on yourself and other team members for safety. Learning how to communicate with each other in a positive way will help the season go smoothly.

For myself, I learned about creativity, flexibility, and passion. Things don’t always work out the way you planned, especially when working with Alaska winter weather and sled dogs. So when a situation gets stressful, stop and think. Get creative on how to solve the problem, be flexible, and be passionate about the task. I look at my four legged coworkers who are so passionate about their job and I can’t wait to embrace that passion and use it to remind myself and my co-workers why we do the work we do. This winter I will be working with some of the most incredible dogs I know in one of the most incredible places I have been. This winter I will be pushing myself to the extremes; physically, mentally, and emotionally. And I can’t wait.

 team walking

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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