What a Team!
~Monday, August 22, 2022~
Day 63 of Alaska Trip
Who loves dogs? Well, we do (obviously) and do we have quite the story from today………..(grab a cup of coffee and get ready for a lengthy post).
Most of you know what The Iditarod is, right? For those that don’t, it is an annual 938-mile sled dog race in Alaska, held in March. It travels from Anchorage to Nome, even in blizzards causing whiteout conditions, and gale force winds that can drive temperatures down to a windchill of -100 below zero. Human drivers in this case are called “mushers' ' and drive a team of 12 to 14 dogs. But these are not just any dogs. Their strength and stamina is like a well-conditioned athlete. In Alaska, they are rock stars or celebrities to fans of the sport. But there is another group that are the rockstars of Denali……the Denali Sled Dog Team. These are not racing dogs, but along with park rangers, are protectors of the Denali wilderness where the intent is to keep the area intact-a natural ecosystem without the high impact of modern machinery. Yes, there are modern means to get from point A to point B, but the rangers of Denali have decided that carrying on this legacy of dog sledding is too important to become a distant memory. They harness the spirit of sled dogs to forge lasting bonds between people and wild places. We had no idea prior to coming to Denali that we would have the opportunity to meet these canine celebrities.
With our campground in close proximity to everything, you can hop on a free shuttle for the 3-1/2 mile ride to the kennels, or you can walk a trail from the campground or bike the road. We opted for the hilly bike ride to the top. Had we known we’d be riding on a 10% grade road much of the way, we would have likely taken the shuttle. It was a tough one with a few occasional stops on the way up. But there’s something about riding the roads vs. driving them that is more satisfying, not just for the cardio benefit, but also for the scenery; nice to be able to pause and glance as much or as little as we wanted. We made it just in time for the introduction.
From the moment we arrived, we could hear the excitement of the dogs. They must have known it was showtime and were ready to show an audience just what they do. It only takes one dog to trigger all the other dogs'
eagerness whether it be for playtime, mealtime, or sled time. They can be in a deep sleep on top of their “house”, and jump up ready and alert in about a second.
We were all gathered at an outdoor demonstration area next to the kennels where we were told the history of dog sledding and what these 30 dogs do for the park today. All of the dogs are bred at the facility, carefully paired to carry on certain blood lines. Some of the dames will have somewhere up to 3 litters of pups in their lifetime with most born in the Spring. They will watch and learn from the older dogs, usually running alongside the sled but not pulling until they are 3 years old. During the summer months, the adult dogs are practicing with a sled on wheels, which was demonstrated for us today (see video). Believe me, that’s all they want to do is pull that sled so they must be eager when the intense training comes back around in the Fall. The position of the team is based on the skill, disposition, size/strength and motivation of the dog. Sometimes there will only be 1 lead dog, but mostly 2 and has the skills of remembering where the trail is and leads all the other dogs. I guess you could say he/she is the smartest “quarterback” of the pack. Next come the swing dogs which are the best at turning the whole group. The team dogs (where you can have more than 2) are inserted into the middle. They are solidly skilled but not the strongest nor the smartest in the bunch. The dogs closest to the sled are called wheel dogs and are the strongest of the group. They’re the ones that really get the sled going.
Their job during the winter months, even with the park closed, is a busy one as they endure brutal temperatures and weather conditions getting rangers deep into the park to collect data for scientists, to haul equipment and supplies, and assist in the patrol of the park. With their thick, fluffy coat, they’re able to withstand -40 degree temperatures or even colder. They actually prefer curling up and laying in the snow as it forms a layer of insulation, warming their bodies. Their blood system is actually quite fascinating. Sled dogs, like wolves and some other animals, have countercurrent circulation in their legs. The arteries and veins are intertwined, so the warm blood traveling away from the heart loses heat to the cooler blood returning from the paw. This allows the dog’s core to stay warm while the paws can be close to freezing. Known as the strongest draft animal on earth, their large feet distribute their weight evenly as it runs through the snow. The ability to break trail and run in deep snow, sometimes up to 60 miles a day, is a must in Alaska. When it’s rest time, the rangers and dogs seek shelter either from dangerous conditions or as havens for the night in small cabins spread out about every 15 miles on their winter route. The dogs know the landscape well and can provide invaluable wisdom that machines cannot. Together, they work as a team, carrying on the legacy of sledding in Denali. It’s about work, compassion and passion for what they do. And you can tell these dogs mean everything to their trainers. What a relationship they must have. And today was our lucky day to hear what that’s all about.
One of the trainers who’s been with the park for close to 10 years was asked to come up and share her story about 9-year old Clove who was
retiring today after 6 years of sledding service. Denali Park is where their story began. It was an emotional moment as she eagerly told us what a special place she has in her heart for this dog and the other dogs as well. During Clove’s career, she was a part of 800 missions and pulled over 11,000 miles. She was also dam to 2 litters of pups (7 dogs in each litter), many of whom were there today. Initially when this trainer came to Denali NP as a volunteer at the kennels, she didn’t want Clove, instead wanting Clove’s brother (I guess Clove was too strong willed….. a real pain in the ass, as she put it). But in a very short time, their bond grew through working together in Denali NP. They’ve been inseparable ever since so it’s only fitting that Clove move to Fairbanks to be with her after retirement. The park service is very diligent about making sure these retired “employees” go to wonderful homes, homes with cold climates of course.
The highlight was getting to meet the dogs up close and personal inside their kennel area. Each of the dogs has its own house resembling a log cabin,
bearing its name in keeping with tradition. A long leash attached to a pole near the dog’s doors gives them room to roam around, without getting too close to their peers. The dogs are friendly, but keeping them at just enough distance from each other means they 1) can’t sort out the alpha (meaning they stay at the same social level), 2) they don’t sneak each other's food and 3) can’t have accidental pregnancies.
The puppies get their own pen to play and socialize. Today, we were able to see 3 puppies. We were so glad that we weren’t pressured to get back on a shuttle bus and that we could visit the kennel and ask questions at our leisure, that is until the next wave of people came through. The dog kennel offers demonstrations 3 times per day during the summer months. They also have a volunteer dog walking program in the off-season. I would sign up for that in a heartbeat if we were here long enough.
On our way out, there was no resisting the “tip jar” by the name of Buck
which is more like a wooden life-size dog sitting on top of his wooden dog house. Buck was quite full, so it’s nice to see so many generous people donating to this amazing program.
The scenery on the way down the hill on our bikes was absolutely gorgeous. The distraction must have made me stop at least 5 times to take a photo. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, before our campground, we took a wrong turn, which turned out to be a right turn allowing us to see the Alaska Railroad train arriving from Anchorage. What a beautiful train it is (highly maintained) and what a fun mode of transportation from the interior of Alaska to The South.
After that, we went back to get a snack and pick up Sadie thinking she’d enjoy a little time out of the trailer (she hates it when we go to national parks since she’s so limited on EVERYTHING). Though we’d taken the Denali Park Road the other day to Mile Marker 43, we promised ourselves that we would also do it to the furthest point you can take your personal vehicle…..Mile Marker 15, to see things at our own pace.
The scenery was gorgeous, with the Fall display already beginning. I think we’re in for a lengthy Fall as we continue a bit more north before heading into Canada then the Lower 48, which is fine by us since it’s our favorite season.
We were about 5 miles into the drive when we spotted a couple filming something on the side of the road. Beavers! The husband was spotting things through his binoculars as she remotely took photos with her fancy tripod setup. They were generous enough to show us the photos they’d taken so far. And are these beavers HUGE. As we spotted them busily at work (you needed binoculars to see them), you could see their dam being constructed. I would have taken some of my own photos, but we were just too far away to get a clear shot.
When we got to the end (before the road becomes unpaved), we decided to park and walk down to the Savage River. This area also includes 2 trails……the Savage River Loop Trail and the Savage Alpine Trail. Both were closed indefinitely due to dangerous bear activity. We had learned at the visitor center yesterday that the alpine section was closed due to a caribou kill by a grizzly bear but hoped the Loop Trail would at least be open as it was yesterday. Obviously, the “kill” must have attracted more bears leading to that closure as well.
Next was a drive to Healy and boy did we score……gas at $4.99/gallon, groceries, firewood for $6/bundle instead of the campground’s $10/bundle and propane……all at Three Bears. But, what we saved in gas was apparently spent on a container of cream cheese. Never in a million years would I think my husband would justify the expense of that, but he did. If he would have called me to double check on whether to get it or not, I would have given him a flat out NO!!!! We’ve also learned that the reason beer, wine and spirits are so insanely priced up here, isn’t so much because of the shipping. It’s because of the alcohol tax. In Alaska, liquor vendors are responsible for paying a state excise tax of $12.80 per gallon, plus Federal excise taxes for all liquor sold. Sparkling water it is!
Quite the full day, not arriving back to our campsite until about 8:30 and a night worthy of leftovers……French Onion Soup and a spinach salad. Oh and sunset is now at a more reasonable hour…….9:30 with complete darkness by 10:30. We were certainly ready for a change.