(Above) Sylvie appreciates a belly rub from a visitor. NPS photo.
As the first bus arrives, it starts quietly enough. A single employee from Alaska Geographic, a non-profit organization that sells Alaska-related materials, walks down our driveway to set up shop in the dog yard. Perhaps there are a few people already wandering the yard, often those who have arrived early by hiking up from the Visitor Center on the Roadside Trail. Those who are here early get to enjoy a peaceful yard with little barking and few other visitors who are trying to capture the dogs attention. Now, the Ranger who will do the program has greeted the first bus of visitors from the Visitor Center and a group of between twenty and fifty people arrive.
What awaits them is always different; sometimes it’s Chinook’s antics as he barks a squirrel up a tree, or they get to have a close up view of a dog as it’s being moved from one house to another. Often it’s a discreet yard, with 32 dogs dozing lazily on their houses or in a nearby patch of shade. Pretty soon another bus has arrived, and another. Slowly the kennels area fills up with visitors. Although the experience is always different from group to group, this summer we have a few constants: Carpé dancing at the end of his chain for attention, Sylvie rolling over for a belly rub nearly the moment she is first patted, and almost always a small group admiring Cassin’s beautiful white coat and bright blue eyes.
The newest litter of Denali sled dogs, from left to right, Lucky, Polly and Annie. NPS photo.
And then there are the pups, what will they be up to today? Tuckered out and sleeping through everyone’s visit? Maybe they’ll be yapping and barking as they chase each other in circles and chew on their siblings tails. Often enough, they’ll be right up front, fulfilling their role as park ambassador greeting each visitor with an exploratory sniff, or a paw through the fence. They sure learn quick!
Of course there are others to see in the yard. Who knows which dog the kennels staff will have chosen for the coveted “pet-me dog”, which is rotated for every demo. Some visitors may get to embrace Tuya, our resident loving giant, as he hugs his way into everyone’s heart. Or maybe you get a close up look at Lava’s popular blue eyes. Whichever dog may wind up there has more stories to tell then the last, and all of them love to get the attention from visitors.
All too quickly, dog visiting time is over and it is time for the 30 minute presentation. Some people quickly walk to the stands to get a good seat, while others need to be pried away from the puppy pen (I promise, they won’t go anywhere! They’ll still be here after the demo). The kennels staff keeps busy prepping the sled, while each Interpretive Ranger gives their own, unique talk about our Alaskan Huskies. Meanwhile the kennels staff has its hands full trying to keep those excited dogs in the yard quiet as they slowly begin to bark in anticipation of the mid-show favorite, the sled run. However, if that squirrel shows up again, all bets are off - I guess our Ranger will have to shout.
Soon enough, it is time for the sled dog ride, and the kennels staff runs into the yard to fetch dogs. Suddenly, nearly every dog is on its house. It doesn’t take a dog guru to understand them at this point; you can almost hear them scream in plain English: “Pick me! Pick me! OpleaseOpleaseOpleasssseeeeeee PICK ME!” But only five lucky pooches get harnessed up for a quick spin on the track, and before you know it: 1) the track is checked for squirrels, rabbits, moose, and the occasional person-on-a-cellphone 2) the kennels staff gives a thumbs up to the musher 3) the anchor is pulled from the back of the sled - and everything changes.
Canine Rangers prepare to pull a Kennels Ranger around the track for a historical demonstration. NPS photo.
The dogs get quiet, and the sled lurches forward with over 350lbs of canine muscle at its front. The Ranger zips forward, sometimes as fast as 19mph. Without exception, the words “Wow!” are heard from several areas of the stands as the sled disappears behind the trees, only to reappear around the bend with five excited and eager dogs, tongues ﬂapping, charging straight towards the gravel landing pit and the visitors, who are safely in the stands. As quickly as it started it’s over, and the dogs are contained and rewarded, with bones and water. The Ranger goes on, introducing the fine sled team and answering questions, but most visitors minds still stay in that same place - where they first watched the dogs lunge forward with a sled in tow, barreling down the track as has been done for well over fifty years in the park. For some, it’s is what they came for. But guaranteed, it’s what they will all remember.
Special thanks to Bryan Marshall, SCA Kennels Intern and Jen Raffaeli, Kennels Manager,
Denali National Park & Preserve. Please visit the “Runnin’ with the Kennels” blog for more!