In the majestic, snow-covered backcountry of Denali National Park in Alaska, not all of the animal residents are wild. About 30 to 35 of them are part of the park’s staff.
Denali is the only national park in the U.S. to use canine rangers on its millions of acres — and the sled dog program is a long-standing tradition started by the park’s first superintendent in 1922. Perhaps not surprisingly, these working dogs are one of Denali’s most popular attractions.
We checked in with Denali kennels manager Jennifer Raffaeli to find out more about the Huskies, how they help maintain the park’s unique environment — and the close bond they develop with their human co-workers. Click through the gallery below to learn more and to see some gorgeous photos of them.
There's a New Litter Each Year
A litter of adorable puppies is born at the park each spring or
summer, and each litter gets a special theme that helps determine their names. This year, for example, the puppies
above were given names that the public suggested based on their experiences in
the nation’s parks. Names include Wilder, Venture, Solace, Disco (for discovery), Summit, S’more (a nod to camping in the park), Vista and Honor. Puppy cams are focused on the little ones for the first
few months until they start getting out and training, although they won’t be
working as sled dogs until next winter. The dogs are Alaskan Huskies who are
bred for the work they do.
The Dogs Run Thousands of Miles a Year
The dogs travel the backcountry, helping
human rangers patrol Denali's wilderness areas, where no motorized
vehicles are allowed. They establish recreational trails for park
visitors to ski, skijor or mush along; they help rangers maintain a presence in
the backcountry during the winter; and they haul equipment to remote areas for
research and restoration projects. The project and kennels managers work together to determine which projects can use dog teams
rather than motorized means of travel. The dogs work in teams, and each canine runs an
average of 1,500 miles a year.
They Start Training Slowly
They don’t start wearing a harness when they’re as little as Zahnie is here — but it
sounds like they wish they could! During their first year, the puppies do a lot
of loose walks and runs with the big dogs, so they can learn by watching,
start to remember the routes and gain some confidence. Once they are ready to
go to work, the dogs seem to have an “uncanny ability” to find a patrol cabin during a
whiteout or identify a snow-covered trail even when the human rangers can’t,
Denali Dogs Are Handled With Care
These dogs are athletes, and they are carefully
and regularly evaluated. Every day, their caretakers check each dog's weight and
range of motion in all four legs, as well as their teeth, eyes and feet, among
other things. In addition to carrying first-aid equipment on their runs, the
handlers bring booties for the dogs to protect their feet in certain
situations. “The most important rule we follow is to take care of our team
(human and canine) when we are way out in the park,” Raffaeli says. “We don't
want anyone sick or injured and needing to leave the field, so prevention is
always our focus.”
They Love to Work
During the summer season (from mid-May to mid-September), the
dogs get a chance to meet their adoring public. About 50,000 people visit the
kennels during that time, and they have a tendency to fall in love with the dogs and
the rich tradition of the sled dog program, Raffaeli says. Once the campgrounds
are closed, the rangers and kennels managers can start them running; their
busy season runs from December to April. During that time, the dogs work on projects
that can last up to five weeks, but they have built-in rest days, and their
condition is continually evaluated. Of course, they’re still dogs, too! They
love to goof around and can be spotted curling up next to the human rangers
they work with at the end of the day.
Retiring Dogs Can Be Adopted
Because the staff at Denali love their canine colleagues so much, they make sure the dogs retire to the right homes when it’s time for
them to kick up their paws and take it easy. The public can apply to adopt them
when they turn 9 — but any family interested in giving one of these guys a
retirement home needs to live in a cold climate and show in detail how they’d
continue to give the dog exercise. "These
guys are not wanting to retire to a couch in Florida — they’re still wanting to
run and hike,” Raffaeli says. "We can be very particular — the only
problem is we don’t have enough dogs for all the people who want them!” But the staff isn’t concerned with only exercise for the dogs. They also want to be sure their buddies will be showered with love and attention, have owners who are going to spend lots of time with them and might have dog siblings to share their days.
They Bond With Their Humans
The kennels managers and rangers get to
know the individual
personalities of the dogs, and they work together so much that they form close relationships. Above, canine ranger Aliqsi gives kennels ranger Jamie Dittmar a loving — if slobbery — kiss. “Most inspiring is really how they greet each person and
each day with pure joy and enthusiasm,” Raffaeli says. “They are an inspiration
and our best friends.”
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