ANCHORAGE, Alaska — One hundred years ago, poachers were decimating wildlife populations of caribou, moose and Dall sheep in Denali National Park and Preserve.
As a way to head off the poaching, the park began using sled dogs to patrol its boundaries. That program began in 1922 — shortly after the establishment of Denali as a national park — and is the only one of its kind within the National Park Service.
Now, Denali’s sled dogs haul materials and researchers in and out of remote areas of the park, assist with scientific studies and break trails for winter visitors. In the summer, they’re used in demonstrations to teach park visitors about the culture and history of dog sledding in Alaska.
Although the sled dogs’ duties have shifted since the program’s inception, the work they do has continued to preserve the wildness of the park for a century.
Park patrols in wilderness
Denali’s kennel, home to 31 freight-hauling Alaskan huskies, features upgrades you might not find at other rural kennels around the state. Nameplates are bolted to each dog’s log house and poop is scooped on the regular. Names of retired sled dogs, alongside historic mushing equipment and photographs, decorate the walls of a small building near the front of the kennel. During the summer, bright flowers spill out of pots dotting the fencing.
There’s also a live puppy cam that’s turned on every year. Last September, an online link to the puppy cam, which showcased Denali’s newest litter of dogs, was shared by thousands of people.
The sled dogs of Denali National Park had another moment in the spotlight during the ceremonial start of this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Denali kennels manager David Tomeo and his team of dogs — led by Cupcake and Jewel — were invited to be the first team out of the start chute in downtown Anchorage.
If the Denali dog team were to actually compete in the Iditarod, it would take them around one month to finish the 1,000-mile trip to Nome, Tomeo said. By comparison, Brent Sass and his team won this year’s race in about 8 1/2 days.
Denali’s sled dogs aren’t built for speed, but their work is important, Tomeo said.
In addition to hauling loads, breaking trail and running patrols, the dogs help Denali staff fulfill an educational mission reaching tourists, residents and schoolchildren alike.
The future of the program wasn’t always certain, however, as innovations around mechanized snow travel began to take root shortly after the sled dogs were introduced into the park.
Adding further complications for the kennel, Denali’s sled dogs — excluding their older, retired dogs — were taken into service at the start of World War II in the late 1930s. By the end of the war, a dog named Buck was the only remaining canine at the kennel, Tomeo said.
But then Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, securing a future for the sled dogs of Denali National Park.
The act designated 9.1 million acres across the country as federally protected wilderness and banned motorized travel within those acres, among other conservation guidelines. Included in the designated lands were 2 million acres in Denali National Park and Preserve.
With the new federal guidelines in place, the use of dogs in the park became instrumental in continuing patrols in the park during the winter.
“The history of sled dogs in Denali is part of Alaska’s history,” said Jon Nierenberg, co-owner of EarthSong Lodge and Denali Dog Sled Expeditions. “Dogs have been used to support the first climb of Denali from the north side. You can definitely, at least partially, thank the sled dog operation now, its history, for why Denali had such a good healthy wildlife population, too.”
Retracing a historic trip
On Feb. 23, 2022, two teams of Denali sled dogs and kennel staff traveled north to visit the island where the park’s first sled dogs were purchased exactly 100 years earlier.
Hadley Island is about 2 miles long and rests on the bank of the Tanana River, roughly 18 miles southwest of Fairbanks. Henry Peter “Harry” Karstens, Denali’s first ranger and superintendent, purchased the park’s first seven sled dogs there from homesteader Norman Hadley, who lived on the remote island.
At 19, Karstens came to Alaska during the Klondike gold rush in 1897. Among many things, he mushed dogs and helped pioneer the mail route from Valdez to Fairbanks. A seasoned frontiersman, Karstens knew the importance and reliability of dogs in the Alaska wilderness, as did the Alaska Natives who lived on the lands for thousands of years.
Tomeo described Hadley, the person Karstens bought the park’s first dogs from, as a Nova Scotian bachelor who made moonshine and ran a fish camp and trap line. Karstens spent $45 per dog, which amounts to nearly $5,300 for the team in today’s dollars.
To retrace Karstens’ 1922 trip, Tomeo and his team started in downtown Nenana, a small Interior village that was the location of the park’s first headquarters, situated at the confluence of the Nenana and Tanana rivers.
From there, the teams headed upriver on a 55-mile trip to Fairbanks. For about two days, Tomeo and his staff battled ground blizzard conditions, which made the trail difficult, but temperatures remained mild — at least by Interior Alaska standards.
“I was watching the map, watching the GPS, and came around and was like, ‘OK, Hadley’s over here,’ “ Tomeo said. “And then all of a sudden this hole opened up in the clouds, and I could see blue sky and light shined down on Hadley Island.”
The niche world of big sled dogs
The Denali dog teams stopped overnight at Jenna and David Jonas’ homestead near Hadley Island and talked about their dogs over homemade pie. The Jonases keep about 10 to 12 dogs in their kennel and have worked with Denali staff for about five years to help maintain the park dogs’ genetic diversity.
Both kennels have larger sled dogs that range from about 70 to 100 pounds, compared to racing sled dogs that weigh about 25 to 40 pounds less. Jenna Jonas said the last three puppies that she and her family have taken in came from the park’s kennel, and they’re also looking into breeding one of their female dogs with a male Denali dog this summer.
“They have the same breeding goals and … they’re using their dogs for similar things, so we can kind of report back and be like, ‘OK, you know, this dog is doing really good at breaking trail but it’s still really immature,’ “ Jonas said. “It’s really fun to compare the different litters.”
The big sled dog community is a niche one in Alaska, and fewer people are interested in larger dogs, Tomeo and Jonas said.
But looking at the next hundred years, Tomeo feels confident that the Denali kennel and their dogs will continue the work they’ve been doing for the last century.
“I think, you know, the buses will probably run on different fuel,” he said. “But I think as long as the American public can still value wild places … we’re gonna have these areas where we’re keeping mechanized travel out of there as best as we can.”
Last week, he and six of Denali’s newest puppies — accompanied by seven adult dogs — traveled 7 1/2 miles within the national park to Sanctuary River.
Tomeo gave the pups directions using the commands “gee” and “haw,” but often, the lines would get tangled. “It’s like trying to get a bunch of kindergartners to do something in sync,” he said.
On their latest overnight trip, the 7-month-old puppies slept through the night and improved considerably.
“By next fall,” Tomeo said, “they’ll be running with all of the adults.”