Dogsleds of Denali National Park

Denali, AK

August 13th 2002

On of the interesting things we did while visiting Denali National Park was to hop on the free bus to the kennels to see the sled dog show. The park maintains some 30 sled dogs year round and uses them to police the park in the winter, as well as taking supplies to the various scientific studies, which are going on. They keep 3, 10-dog teams working, staying out on the trail for several weeks at a time. For several months, it is the only legal transportation in the Park, as motorized vehicles are not allowed during the winter. In the summer they hang around the kennels and put on shows for the tourists. Contrary to old rumors, these animals for the most part are very friendly and love children. They seemed to be big puppies at heart. The first 15 minutes of time at the kennels was taken up with an only slightly restricted walk through the open air dog compound. Here the dogs that were a mind to do so, could reach the end of their tethers at a point that the crowd could reach out and pet them. Most of them seemed to do that. A few selected animals were not restricted behind a rope and anyone could walk up and get cozy with them. This provided several delightful photo ops with the kids. At one point I had to stop and check out a white dog named Hogan. He was playing with Elethia, a park ranger, and having a grand time of it. Although all "Alaskan Huskies" these dogs came in every color and varying size. Up here, "Alaskan Husky" takes a more general description of a dog, than that of the AKC (American Kennel Club). They are identified more by characteristic than by bloodline. Long legs, a bushy tail, an inner and outer coat, big feet with fur between the toes, plus the inherited desire to pull, could be sufficient to qualify a dog as an "Alaskan Husky". The only other distinction I could find was that they are sometimes broken down into either racing dogs or pack dogs, with the racing dogs being smaller and lighter. Generally it takes 8 to 10 dogs to pull a good pack sled. There didn't seem to be much to training them. The park gets their replacements from breeding. The puppies are allowed to run alongside a sled team until they begin getting tangled in the lines at which time they are harnessed up and off they go. Amy, our guide and presenter for the day, called us to the small amphitheater for a short 15 minute presentation during which time she explained some of the fascinating facts about dogs and sleds. The dogs are arranged two abreast with the lead dogs being the smarter or more in tune to the handlerís calls. There are no whips and no reins. The lead dogs are controlled by voice command only. "Gee" and "Haw" for right and left and "whoa" to stop. The rest of the dogs just follow the lead. During the winter, they consume between 5000 and 6000 calories a day to keep warm and full of energy. With the presentation completed, it was time for the demonstration. Amy explained that 5 dogs would be brought from the kennels and hooked up to an old- time wooden sled. With the release of the first dog, the kennel erupted in resounding barks as the dogs were alerted to what was happening. It was obvious that each and every one of them wanted to be on that team. As the first girl came forward with a dog, she kept it lifted up off its front paws. This, we were told was to prevent the dog from running away with the handler. These dogs can pull up to 100 lbs by themselves and are difficult to handle with all feet on the ground. The hook-up was fairly simple and quick; in no time Amy was on the back of the sled with the dogs being controlled by a girl holding the lead dogs, and a strong tether attached to a pole at the rear of the sled. Once the girl in front stepped away the dogs were free to pull and pull they did. Carefully Amy squatted on the rear runners and with her right hand reached back and released the tether. The sled shot forward as if it were out of a slingshot and the dogs were off and running around a short track that brought them back in front of the bleachers we were sitting in. I was amazed at the speed the dogs reached considering they were pulling a 100 lb wood runner sled over gravel as well as our young ranger. It really was quite impressive. For the time and money invested this was a great show. I would put it on the "should see" list.

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