Last updated: May 12, 2017
Another winter season has come to a close at the kennels as our favorite star resumes its reign over the land of midnight sun and the spongey ground soaks up what’s left of the trails.
The season ended with a palette coated in northern lights nights, endless crisp, bluebird days, evening alpenglow on Denali that would make fireweed blush, and deep, white powder in areas of the park that hadn’t seen this much precipitation since the 80’s.
By the end of March, the dogs and human staff were well-oiled and full of energy, cruising swiftly along the hard-packed trails and frozen rivers to finish up remaining projects. As we settle in back at the kennels, we reflect on the various projects we set out to accomplish.
We got off to a slow start this winter because the snow didn’t fall until the end of December.
In October, November, and December we ran the dogs with the dry land carts and ATV’s in the frontcountry training areas, but we could not travel further west into the park until we had snow.
We were finally able to head into the park in early January. (Right: NPS Photo. Kennels staff about to head out the Denali Highway).
The first backcountry trip involved two separate teams of rangers and dogs heading into the park from the north boundary and the road corridor, meeting head on at the Toklat Narrows. Three kennels rangers and fifteen dogs hit the trail from the Stampede corridor, crossed the Savage and Teklanika rivers, waded and pushed sleds through knee deep overflow up the Sushana river, headed west past the Wyoming Hills and connected back to the Toklat Ranger Station via the Toklat river.
New staff and our yearling puppies got a great introduction in navigating difficult terrain and using GPS (or in the case of our dogs, noses) to find old routes. Traveling along routes consistently year after year allows us to notice changes in the landscape and ecology of the park and its surrounding areas.
NPS Photo / Sunset on the north boundary of the park
Later in the trip, after passing through the Toklat Narrows (which was in solid condition this with great ice and good snow on top of that!), we met up with the road corridor team of two kennels rangers and fourteen dogs.
Whereas the north boundary route was generally low snow with lots of exposed tussocks, the road corridor was some of the deepest snow conditions we’ve seen here in years. To help the dogs get through some of the deepest areas, one ranger snowshoed in front while the other followed with two dog teams connected together.
Later in January three rangers geared up with twenty-three dogs to haul action packers filled with supplies to support the mesocarnivore research crew to Savage, Sanctuary, and Igloo cabins.
Right: NPS Photo. A park ranger assesses overflow conditions.
We’ve worked with the meso-carnivore crew for the past several years to collect wolf, fox, and lynx scat and data at carcass sites along trails and the surrounding areas that we travel through. When the timing works out, we also give them rides to their survey sites by having them ski-tow behind the dog teams.
NPS Photo / A double team of sled dogs
In February, we took three small teams of dogs to haul two truckloads of wood to Upper Windy cabin within designated Wilderness.
Remember, motorized transport is not allowed within Wilderness so dog teams are the best tool available for hauling large, heavy loads into these areas.
We hauled a total of 9 loads of firewood in to restock the cabin’s supply.
The hard-packed trail and straightforward terrain along Windy Creek gave us a great opportunity to put yearling puppies in lead to gain confidence and have fun.
Four rangers and thirty-three dogs, including our newest birthday litter puppies, re-broke trail out to Wonder Lake and beyond in March.
Our west-end trail system ended up extending out to Friday Creek where we checked on a yurt, along Jumbo Creek to the Parker cabin where we hauled out an obsolete 55 gallon drum, and south towards the Alaska Range to camp in Cache Creek and McGonagall Pass. The conditions on the pass this year were phenomenal.
Local mushers claimed to have not seen this much snow here since the 1980’s. Soft, deep powder made way for a safe and fun trip up and back down the pass.
Along the way, our teams ran into mountaineers Lonnie Dupre and Pascale Marceau on their way back from climbing Mt. Carpe.
We talked with them about the conditions they encountered and the research currently being done on the surging Traleika glacier.
This is a relatively rare phenomenon and the kennels have been helping scientists gather data on this glacier for the last several winters. Read more about glacier research. We also made sure they got in some snuggles with dog Carpe before they continued on their way.
NPS Photo. The Kennels crew at McGonagall Pass.
NPS Photo. Mountaineer Lonnie Dupre meeting the sled dogs.
Over the course of the past few winters, Denali Kennels has been expanding into outreach and education opportunities connecting local Alaskans and youth sled dogs and mushing.
This winter Denali hosted a Native Place Names Workshop and hosted Alaska Native elders and youth from several different communities. A highlight for the kennels was the opportunity to have everyone meet the dogs and to take two elders out on dogsled rides. When elders are around big, fluffy freight hauling dogs like ours the memories and stories come flooding back. We all learn a ton from what the elders share about their experiences growing up and trapping, hauling, and transporting with dog teams.
For the second year, students from Effie Kokrine Charter School in Fairbanks traveled down to the park to camp out with the Denali Kennels at the Savage campground in April.
We hooked up a couple teams of dogs to haul the student’s tents, gear, and supplies to their campsite to show them what freighting dogs are capable of. The students also learned how hard they had to work to snowshoe and break trail in front of the dogs hauling their gear.
Rangers gave everyone lessons in how to pack up sleds, harness teams, feed and keep healthy dogs on the trail, and the importance of leave no trace in the backcountry.
The kids loved learning about “invisible fire” as a byproduct of burning denatured alcohol in our dogfood cooker.
NPS Photo. Students from Effie Kokrine exploring Savage River.
We waved goodbye to winter as we waved goodbye to the smiling faces of Effie Kokrine students. Spring’s arrival is bittersweet as it marks the end of winter’s peaceful serenity.
We remind ourselves that summer offers its own beauty of meadows filled with alpine flowers, rising and awakening of new and dormant life, and a time for our staff and dogs to recuperate and reflect on the amazing opportunities that Denali National Park provides year round.