For centuries sled dogs have been used to transport people and goods across frozen landscapes. This method of transport is still used in Alaska, though today dog sledding is as much a sport as it is a means of getting around.
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One of the best ways to experience the thrill of dog sledding (known as “mushing”) is to see the pros in action during the annual Iditarod race, which takes place every March. The race starts in Anchorage and ends roughly 1,600 kilometers away in Nome on Alaska’s west coast near the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Racers and their dog teams travel across Alaska’s icy frontier with the hopes of bringing home the gold.
But mushing isn’t only for professional racers. You can experience dog sledding for yourself all around the state, including in Denali National Park and Preserve. This park, less than 400 kilometers north of Anchorage, is the only U.S. National Park home to its own sled dogs.
Visitors to Denali learn quickly that dogsleds are an optimal means of travel in the wintertime, as huge rivers freeze and essentially turn into highways of ice for the teams to ride across. To try your hand at mushing, book a room or cabin at the EarthSong Lodge, which is home to its own dogsled team and offers guided tours of the park. The lodge’s expert guides will provide training so you can drive your own dogsled teams.
Denali’s most-beloved workers
The EarthSong Lodge dogs aren’t the only pack in the park — Denali’s park rangers rely on their own team to help care for the spectacular landscape during the colder months. Even though the Denali dogs aren’t used for guided tours, the park’s pack of more than 30 Alaskan Huskies “have more visitor fans than most human rangers,” said Jennifer Raffaeli, kennels manager of Denali National Park.
But these dogs work hard to earn their rock star status. These aren’t your average pampered pooches: Alaskan huskies are bred for their thick fur coats, tough feet for traveling on snow and ice and, most importantly, their desire to run and pull a sled.
“The origin of this breed has been in northern regions across the entire circumpolar North for thousands of years,”
Raffaeli explained. The park’s first sled dogs patrolled Denali’s boundaries in the early 1920s. According to Raffaeli, their role hasn’t changed much over the years.
More than 809,000 hectares of this roughly 2.5 million hectare park is designated as wilderness. Because no motorized transport is allowed in this area, it’s up to Denali’s dogs and their handlers to assist with various tasks, from hauling heavy equipment to helping with scientific research to giving park staff a lift to a remote location.
The teams also help to maintain and repair the park’s trails. You might catch a glimpse of them along the trail if you use the sled routes for hiking or cross-country skiing. Just be sure to check the Denali National Park website for information on trail conditions before heading out.
Meet the dogs of Denali National Park
Although you can’t go mushing with Denali’s canines, you can spend time with them. The dogs love visiting with new people when they aren’t working, but Raffaeli recommends planning ahead of time. The teams are often on patrol during the winter months, so it’s a good idea to call the winter visitor’s center to check their schedule — otherwise, you could show up to the kennel building and find no dogs.
Visit this winter and you may get a chance to see the kennel’s newest addition. Zahnie was named after Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which just celebrated its 50th year.
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