The Magnificent Sled Dogs of Denali

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

A sled dog presentation? I had to be there.

Denali National Park employs Alaskan huskies to patrol the Park in the winter. Unlike snow mobiles, airplanes, and other heavy equipment, dogs don’t break down, or freeze up, or need hard-to-find parts. Just feed ‘em well, treat ‘em right, and they’ll get you where you need to go.

Indeed, the dogs – with their keen sense of smell, sharp eyes, knowledge of the terrain, wisdom, and amazing intuition – actively help the rangers by avoiding treacherous ice buried beneath the snow, finding remote cabins in impossible white-out conditions, and alerting them to all manner of danger.

Machines can’t do any of that.

Holly, always ready to lead us to safety

It reminded me of a hike that Martin and I once took with our golden retriever Holly. In the mountains of Arizona, we had hiked a four-mile loop trail through an open forest. Returning a month or so later, we decided to hike in the opposite direction. Halfway along the trail, it began to snow, heavily enough that the trail became obscured, completely covered in snow. The forest was open enough that we couldn’t easily discern the path through the trees. There were blazes on the trees, but they were far enough apart that we couldn’t see from one to the next.

We found ourselves casting about, wandering through the snow, looking for the blazes – and always Holly was waaaay over there, waiting for us. We’d call her; she wouldn’t budge. We’d tromp over to grab her – and a blaze would be above her. She was squarely on the trail. That happened several times – we’d lose our way, wander around looking for blazes, become frustrated that Holly was so far from us, then discover she was on the trail – and finally we just followed the dog. She led us unerringly back to the trailhead, in the snow, down a trail she had been on only once before a month prior, in the opposite direction.

I love dogs.

Entering the Denali kennels, we saw that each dog had a pretty log cabin with their name prominently displayed. I immediately fell in love with the gorgeous Alaskan huskies. These dogs, I have to say, looked better than the Seavey ones. For one thing, they weren’t so skinny. Granted, these dogs
weren’t racers or marathon runners. They’re patrol dogs, pulling sleds in winter to check on campsites or deliver supplies or… whatever, patrol. They were fluffier, heftier. And (we found out), each dog was walked every day! So they’re not just chained to their kennel or pulling a sled. We saw dogs all the time out on the road, happy dogs trotting along, sniffing stuff, walking with their people.

Saying hi to every single dog

I went around to every dog before the presentation and said hello, hey there, come say hi. Some dogs were sleeping in their kennels and not inclined to visit, which made me a little indignant. Hello, it’s me! I’m right here! I called them by name and told them, in no uncertain terms, to get out here right now and say hi – and mostly, they did. They came out, streeeeetched, and trotted over, sniffing my hand, maybe giving it a little lick.

I could barely reach some of them (I might have had to edge into their enclosures just a bit, shhhh, don’t tell anyone) but I got to them all.

One dog, tied right out in the open, stood patiently, surrounded by people. An older woman was cautiously patting his head.

Ohmigosh, let me show you how it’s done!

I waded in there (possibly elbowing the older lady aside) and started with a couple of pats on the rump, quickly intensifying to a big ole vigorous butt scratch. I imagined the dog’s eyes lighting up: This lady knows what she’s doing! Moving forward, I imparted a robust whole-body massage, dragging my fingers energetically through his fur, up and down, back and forth, flank, belly, haunches. The dog is feeling it now! I followed with a spirited rubdown around neck and ruff, eventually getting his ears flopping wildly back and forth, his entire head rocking side to side. I finished with some big ole bear hugs and sloppy wet kisses. He was happily riled up and prancing around as I turned to go; the crowd stared, open-mouthed.

Yeah baby, I don’t know much, but I know how to pet a dog.

Or rile him up, anyway. It’s my specialty.

It was time for the demonstration to begin. Ranger Dan called us over to the open bleachers and tried to put on a little show with dog-related history, poetry, and trivia. But his microphone wasn’t working properly. And… I don’t know… he seemed pompous, strutting around in front of us, reciting his stupid poetry (who wants to hear poetry anyway? – says me, the poet!), and telling his stories with drama and theatrics. He was either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that we could barely hear him. I got annoyed. I’m sorry, Ranger Dan, I know you think you’re awesome, but I came here for the dogs, not you. Stand aside!

Finally he said, “Are you ready to see the dogs?” and everyone roared, “Yes!” The dogs – just like the Seaveys ones – knew it was their turn, and started barking, whining and whirly-gigging.

They all wanted to pull a sled. PICK ME, they howled.

Five lucky dogs were selected and harnessed in. The musher climbed aboard and then they were off, racing around the short track. We didn’t get to be pulled ourselves, like at the Seaveys’, but it was wonderful to watch the dogs displaying speed, power and teamwork while emanating great joy. The circle complete, they lay down in front of us and were rewarded with a bone.

They were the picture of contentment.

Do what brings you joy, give it your all, and then have a well-deserved rest. Words to live by, brought to you by the magnificent sled dogs of Denali.

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