Kennels History

Graphic of a musher standing on a sled being pulled by three dogs past a wooden building, in front of Denali (the mountain). Text below reads "Denali National Park Sled Dog Kennels Est. 1922".

For over one hundred years, the Denali Sled Dog Kennels, located within Denali National Park and Preserve, has been the only sled dog kennel in the National Park Service and one of the oldest sled dog kennels in the country. While sled dogs have been relied upon as a traditional method of transportation in Alaska for many hundreds of years, human and canine rangers have worked together since 1922 to uphold the tradition of preserving the park’s vast wilderness by dog team. The role of the Kennels has evolved over time. While dog teams once focused on patrolling boundaries to prevent poaching, today they assist scientists and park staff by providing reliable transportation in extreme winter conditions, monitor conditions and establish routes for winter recreation, and transport heavy supplies for maintenance projects in wilderness areas where motorized tools are not allowed.

Sled Dogs & the Establishment of the Park

When naturalist Charles Sheldon needed a guide to assist with his studies of Dall sheep in Denali country during the winter of 1907-1908, he hired veteran Alaskan dog musher Harry Karstens. Sheldon was so enchanted with the mountains and wildlife that when he returned to the East Coast, he lobbied Congress to set this area aside as a national park, a long campaign that came to successful resolution with the establishment of Mount McKinley National Park in 1917.

It was 1921 before the first ranger was hired, and that ranger was none other than Harry Karstens. Among his first duties was to bring poaching of the park's wildlife under control. Caribou, moose, and Dall sheep were being hunted throughout the northern drainages of the park to feed settlers in Fairbanks and other gold camps, as well as the thirty or more dog teams in the Denali area; the levels of poaching were devastating the wildlife population. Karstens, who knew that the best way to travel in this frozen country was on a sled behind a team of enthusiastic huskies, founded the park kennel to ensure a reliable supply of healthy, well-trained, working dogs.

Over the next few years, more rangers were hired and the park kennels were expanded. Each ranger was assigned a team of seven dogs and a district of the park that they had to patrol in the winter. Ranger Grant Pearson, who was hired by Karstens in 1926, recalls being told that he was lacking in experience but considered capable of learning. To test him, Karstens said, "I'll send you on a patrol trip alone. You will be gone a week. If you don't get back by then I'll come looking for you, and you had better have plans made for a new job."

Patrols lasted months at a time; in between, rangers would return to Headquarters, restock provisions, and head out once again. With the assistance of the dogs, who pulled the supply-loaded sleds and hauled logs, these pioneer rangers also constructed cabins along the boundaries to provide shelter for them and their dogs while they were out on patrol. By the late 1920s, the kennels were thriving, and in 1929, the present kennel building was constructed. By 1936, fifty dogs and fourteen pups were housed and cared for at the National Park Service (NPS) kennels, and they soon became one of the most popular summertime attractions for the increasing numbers of tourists who were finding their way to the park. Over the course of the next three decades, a series of legislative acts led to a renaissance of interest in the sled dogs and strengthened NPS commitment to their presence in the park.

 

Denali's Kennels in the ANILCA Era

In 1980, another incentive for using sled dogs at the park was provided with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). This legislation tripled the size of Mount McKinley National Park, changed its name to Denali National Park and Preserve, and designated the original two-million acre park parcel as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. According to this act, wilderness is "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." This new legal designation of wilderness prohibited certain activities, such as the use of motorized equipment and mechanized transport. Travel by sled dogs provided the perfect alternative; the dogs allowed the rangers to continue carrying out the park's mission during the winter months.

Today, Denali's dogs continue to provide transportation for rangers during the winter months and aid the park's most popular interpretive program during the summer. Each year, an average of 3,000 patrol miles are logged throughout the park's interior, all on the back of sleds pulled by NPS huskies. During the summer, attendance at the daily sled demonstrations totals over 50,000 annually. The highlight for visitors comes when five dogs are hitched to a wheeled sled and a naturalist takes the dogs for short runs on a gravel track around the kennels. However, it is in the wintertime that Denali's sled dogs prove, with each day of eager service, that they are the heart of a tradition and the true symbol of the Denali wilderness.

 

2022 Kennels Centennial

In 2022, we celebrated 100 years of dogs and rangers working together in Denali. These dogs are authentic working dogs; they continue to haul materials in Denali’s two million acres of federally designated wilderness area. In fact, one observing Denali’s human and canine rangers out on patrol might think little time has passed since the days when Harry Karstens patrolled the park by dog team. The Kennels continue to embrace what works best for this land and share the region’s rich mushing history with visitors. By upholding tradition, the Kennels are informed and empowered—not restricted—by the past. In a time when the majority of Alaskan Huskies are racing dogs and our wilderness areas are increasingly fragile, the Denali Kennels exist to preserve a unique tradition in a special place—and that’s worth celebrating.

The Kennels Centennial was recognized in a variety of ways. A few highlights included:

  • Late February 2022 – Rangers mushed down the Tanana River to visit the site where the first dogs were purchased on February 23, 1922.
  • February 26, 2022 – Visitors celebrated our 100th birthday by visiting the dogs and kennel for Denali's annual Winterfest event.
  • March 5, 2022 – The Iditarod Trail Committee honored the Denali Kennels Centennial milestone by having a patrol dog team be the first across the starting line at the Anchorage ceremonial start.
  • Summer 2022 – Throughout the summer, many special interpretive programs and products shared the story of the Kennels history with the visiting public.
  • August 2022 – A Kennels Reunion brought together past and present volunteers and staff for a celebration that included storytelling and puppy snuggling.
 
A team of 10 dogs and a musher travel down a wide, flat, snowy path along a frozen river. At the edge of the riverbank is a small, forested hill. A second dog team follows behind them.
Traveling along the Tanana River (February 23, 2022).

NPS Photo

Last updated: January 20, 2023

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Mailing Address:

PO Box 9
Denali Park , AK 99755

Phone:

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.

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