Park Service program pairs volunteers with Denali sled dogs

Emily LaPorte and Pika. (Courtesy of Emily LaPorte)

As a seasonal worker spending the summer at Denali National Park, Emily LaPorte says she’s found it difficult to have a pet. But after answering an advertisement to be a part-time companion to a sled dog, Emily says she’s found a new friend.

Denali National Park and Preserve is home to the only working sled dog kennel in the entire National Park Service. Dogs have played a key role in Denali since 1922, when the park’s kennel was first established.

Dogs are used in the winter to help haul supplies for building projects. They’re also used to help scientists with research projects. They help monitor wildlife and patrol for poachers.

But in the summer, when there’s no snow, the dogs still need training and exercise.

“I am a volunteer dog walker,” LaPorte says. “We have 26 Alaskan huskies, and in the summertime, because they’re not running the sleds, the Park Service has paired either NPS employees or people who live around the community with a particular dog.”

Emily’s dog is a two-year-old female named Pika. Emily describes how she takes Pika for walks along the road.

“It’s kind of like a skijor setup,” she says. “So it’s a padded, thick waistband that has a clip. And then the leash comes out from that, so it’s kind of a hands-free system. I don’t know what she’s like in action on the sled, but when we’re walking, she’s really well behaved, and she doesn’t pull.”

Emily explains that it’s not just exercise that she’s giving Pika.

“One of the big things is to bond with the dog,” she says. “They want one person to be paired up with a particular dog so that you get a relationship with that dog, and the dog gets to know you and is comfortable with you. Of course they would switch things out if it wasn’t a good match.”

Denali National Park has its own breeding program, and puppies are born right there at the kennel. According to the Park Service, the puppies run free beside the dog teams their first year, learning the routes and the terrain. They then learn to pull by skijoring.

When the dogs turn two, they begin to pull light loads until they are ready to take their place on one of the teams.

Next year the dog program will celebrate its centennial, marking 100 years of using dogs in the park.

Emily explains why the dogs are used for projects instead of more modern machinery.

“This stuff can be done with helicopters or airplanes or snow machines,” she says. “The park really has put a lot of effort into preserving and maintaining the wilderness culture of the park and wanting it to be done in a traditional way, in a way that is the least impactful on the environment.”

But dogs are also often more reliable than machines, when confronted with overflow or in temperatures of forty degrees below zero.

“That intuitiveness, that intelligence the dogs have, isn’t something that can be replaced by a snow machine,” LaPorte said. “Also to keep them out of danger, to let them know if there was a dangerous animal around, if there were cliffs and crevasses. I mean, all the things the dogs could sense that helped protect the mushers.”

Emily looks forward to her walks with Pika, and she’s pretty sure the feeling is mutual.

“I also brush my dog, so I think that she recognizes me. I’d like to think that she’s excited I’m coming,” she said.

Emily doesn’t know if she’ll be in Denali next summer. But if she is, she’s planning to participate in the dog program again.

“I would definitely do it again, and I would of course request Pika,” she said.

Although it’s easy to believe that technology is always the better way, Denali National Park is demonstrating that sometimes, what we did 100 years ago is still worth doing.

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