Alaska – Days Eleven and Twelve – Short Hikes and The Denali Dog Sled Demonstration

Sunday, June 26, 2022 was a day of mostly rest for us after the long Saturday on the Denali Wilderness Tundra Tour, even if it was by bus, lol. We did a small amount of walking/hiking around the Riley Greek Campground where we were staying, but not much.

Monday, June 27, 2022 was our morning to attend the Denali Dog Sled Demonstration at the Dog Sled Center and Kennels just past the Visitor Center in Denali National Park. They offer these demonstrations at 10am, 2pm and 4pm each and every day, but we had read advice from others to try to attend the first demonstration in the morning as the dogs were much more lively at that time of day than later. We can’t speak personally to their energy levels later in the day, but we could see they WERE quite energetic for the first demonstration of the morning.

I should also mention that we saw a moose cow on the short drive to the demonstration, calmly munching on brush and berries about 25 yards from the road. It is pretty astounding to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. We sat in the car on the road and took photos for a couple of minutes and then left because as much as you might want to get out and walk closer to them, it’s disturbing to the moose and could be dangerous for you if the moose feels threatened.

Dog sleds have been used in Denali National Park since its inception in 1917 when it was originally christened McKinley National Park. The dogs have been bred since before that time specifically for their abilities as sled dogs, not by breed. This has kept their genetics in the range of about 4% variance between successive generations, which is much lower than typical dog breeds, and has helped them maintain a type of dog that experiences far fewer health issues than other dogs.

Sled dogs generally begin their training at 9 months of age, which is usually their first winter, and typically retire at 9 years of age. There is a standing list of people, commonly who live in Alaska, waiting to adopt these wonderful dogs once their time for a rest from their work has arrived. A majority of these people are those who have already “adopted” a sled dog, in a manner of speaking, by coming to the park during the summer days and exercising a specific dog on park roads to keep them in shape for working in the harsh winter. Once that dog has reached retirement age, they are already bonded to their volunteer and ready to become a part of that family or household.

Sled dogs occupy different positions within the group pulling a sled and musher, but they are not trained to take a specific position. Instead they are placed in the various positions and then serve in the groups according to their specific abilities. The Lead Dog, for instance, is a dog that can fearlessly go into the unknown (because they do not travel over marked roads or even paths) and keep the remainder of the group in line and in sync with the musher’s orders. They do not do this by dominance, but by leading and training their fellow group members to follow their lead. Other group members, such as the Swing Dogs and the Wheel Dogs, also perform duties they are specifically able to excel at during sled runs.

One of the most amazing things to see is that these dogs WANT to run and WANT to pull a sled. They get visibly excited, jumping and barking and dancing around, as dogs are chosen for the demonstration. They bark and howl in exuberance as they pull the summer training sled on wheels around the track, but also run quietly when out in the wilderness so that the musher can hear any sound out of the ordinary.

They typically cover about 20 miles a day in the winter, pulling sleds and mushers (Park Rangers) through the snow and ice, checking on poachers, scientists in the park performing research, and re-stocking their distant park cabins where they sleep for the night with provisions, among other duties. (By the way, when they stop for the night the rule is “Dogs eat first”, which I appreciated and I’m sure the dogs do too). Some of these duties COULD be performed using snowmobiles or aircraft in some conditions, but much of Denali’s 6 million acres is designated as wilderness, meaning there is to be little to no disturbance by man and mechanical means.

We greatly enjoyed the Denali Dog Sled Demonstration and getting to “meet” some of the dogs that Monday morning and would recommend to anyone visiting Denali National Park that they take in this special event.

Next up: Hiking Horseshow Lake.

Thanks for following the Wandering Wetheringtons.

This is an excellent book I picked up at the Denali Park Store about the history of the Sled Dogs in Denali.

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