Alaska 2016: The Visitors’ Center & Sled Dogs of Denali

August 31, 2016

We didn’t have anything scheduled today until an interpretive hike at 5:30 pm.  We went to Karstens – a restaurant at the McKinley Chalet Resort – for breakfast and I ordered the continental buffet for $13.00 (Full buffet, which Dale got, was $18.00).  I was in the mood for oatmeal, which I covered with brown sugar and dried cranberries.  I wanted a pastry but all they had were hard scones with raisins and mini lemon poppy seed muffins, that common type you find in supermarkets.  I asked one of the attendants to look into it, thinking they had just run out of pastries, but she didn’t do anything – anyway, nothing more was put out so I had to be content with oatmeal and mini muffins.  For $13, that was a total rip-off!

We decided to take a free shuttle to Denali National Park and go to the Visitors Center. Then at 2:00 we could go see the sled dog demonstration.  We had to be at the shuttle stop for that at 1:20.

The Visitors’ Center is quite extensive and one can spend quite awhile there. There was a display of works by previous years’ artists-in-residence.

I couldn’t get a great picture of this artwork. However, the artist used found objects to represent various parts of the scene, with the brown hump (a cooper’s tool) representing Denali.
2015 Artist-in-residence David Rosenthal, 2 views of Denali: Denali and Wonder Lake (top) and Denali on a Blue Day (bottom). The artist made detailed sketches first, then did the paintings based on his drawings.
2015 Artist-in-residence Brooks Salzwedel, “Untitled #1”, materials: graphite, colored pencils, charcoal, mylat & resin. She was inspired by seeing Denali uncovered by clouds one day.
2002 Artist-in-residence Kesler Woodward, “Drifting Clouds, Denali”, oil on canvas
2014 artist-in-residence Beau Carey, “Denali Down the Park Road, March 26”, oil on paper
2014 artist-in-residence Lorraine Bubar, "Denali", papercut
2014 artist-in-residence Lorraine Bubar, “Denali”, papercut
2011 artist-in-residence Gina Holloman, “Toklat Wolf”, textiles, fabric art. Inspired by a black wolf with yellow eyes that she saw early in the morning outside her cabin, the only wolf she saw during her residency at Denali.

There were exhibits on the flora and fauna of the park, with life sized statues of animals such as a Dall sheep and a moose.

In the middle of the room on the main floor was a 3D topographical map,

surrounded by native artwork and artwork depicting the park’s landforms.

I had gone through the display on the history of the park and had started reading about the native peoples of the area when Dale persuaded me to leave so we could have lunch. Afterward, we took a short walk before going to the shuttle stop for the sled dog demonstration.

KODAK Digital Still Camera
Animal footprints on the road lead you from the Visitors’ Center to the shuttle stop.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

KODAK Digital Still Camera
KODAK Digital Still Camera

KODAK Digital Still CameraThe dog kennel and training center was only a few miles from the entrance to the park.  The kennels were open yards with dog “houses”, each labeled with its owner’s name, most of whom were either sleeping on top of it or alongside it.  They were all leashed.  We also walked along an area with a chain-link fence, where there were a few other dogs. One who was lying next to the fence Dale bent down and petted his fur.


The dogs like to sleep on top of their houses. A sled dog’s diet in the summer consists of dry kibble high in protein and fat. In the winter, their calorie needs increase so their kibble consumption may double, in addition to receiving supplements of tri-fat blend, protein powder and glucosamine.
Sled dogs are bred for particular traits to enable them to perform their work. They have sturdy bodies that weigh 60-80 lbs. and, pound for pound, they are the strongest draft animals on earth.
Sled dogs’ circulatory system, like wolves, has counter-current circulation in their legs, so that the dog’s core stays warm while its paws may be close to freezing. Their large compact feet distribute the weight of the dog evenly as it runs through the snow, keeping the snow from accumulating between their toes. They have long, strong legs allowing them to run up to 60 miles a day when needed.
Display of a typical sled used at Denali.  While the mushers dress in layers of heavy clothing, sled dogs have a double layer of fur which insulates their bodies to withstand temperatures as low as -40 degrees and colder! When they curl up to sleep, the dogs cover their sensitive noses with their fluffy tails for protection.
In the office, past sled dogs are remembered affectionately by displaying their names that had been attached to their houses in the kennel.

There was also a pen with 5-week old puppies, who were lying in a heap, asleep.

Training begins a few weeks after birth. Once their eyes are open, the puppies are held and socialized to visitors as much as possible.

Not all the dogs were sleeping, however. When we arrived, the dogs knew there was going to be some action.  Huskies who are used as sled dogs are bred to love to run.  They enjoy nothing more than being hooked up to a sleigh and taking off.  During the summer, of, course, they cannot use sleds, but they have training vehicles with wheels.  Six dogs were selected to train that day, for us to watch.

20160831_140535When the dogs were selected, the other dogs in the kennel went ballistic – barking, jumping, pacing. They all wanted to get into the action!  There was one that we could see from where we were sitting in some blocked off bleacher seating (we were told to keep our hands feet and all objects behind the barrier) who barked and leaped as high into the air as his leash would allow. We saw him shoot upward into the air, then down again, then up again, then down again. He was like a kid waving his arm and jumping up and down, saying, “Pick me! Please! Pick me!!”

Here they come! The trainer guides the harnessed dogs around a loop. We could hear them barking even when we couldn’t see them!


In the fall, the growing puppies are taken on walks so that they are exposed to new terrain and challenges they could face on the trail. This is a good time to get a sense of their personalities. While they are still pups, they are observed by their handlers who notice particular personality traits. Leaders, followers, pullers – each require certain characteristics, and like all animals, each dog is unique. When the dogs are half grown, they are sometimes allowed to run alongside the training vehicle to see where they naturally feel comfortable: are they hanging around the dogs in the back? Do they run to the front to be first in line? These behaviors also help determine which position a dog will fit into best.

Resting at the end of the run

Each position in line is made for certain dogs.  All of the dogs are highly intelligent, but they have different personalities. Who loves to explore and lead the way? Who gets tired first? Who has a lot of energy and just wants to keep going and going? These are traits that are observed during the pups’ training in order to select the best position for each dog. The lead dogs must be able to calculate danger and avoid it in a split second, able to make the decisions those in the front of the line need to make.

The lead dogs

The dogs in the rear are those with the most physical strength. They are the ones who bear the most weight of the sleigh and all its contents.

KODAK Digital Still Camera
Statue of the famous Balto, in the lobby of the McKinley Chalet Resort lodge.

Traditionally, the native Alaskans used sled dogs to pull their sleds from place to place to hunt, fish, gather food, or go from one settlement to another.  The famous race, the Iditarod, immortalized in children’s literature by Balto, requires tremendous stamina to run for hours across the cold, snowy landscape for many days. The Iditarod takes place every year and covers hundreds of miles over a period of a few weeks. It is a test of physical strength and endurance.  In Denali National Park, however, sled dogs are used by the rangers to accomplish tasks deep inside the park that need to take place during the winter.

Examples of the tasks that the Denali sled dogs accomplish are written on an informational sign at the entrance to the sled dog kennels. Sled dogs hauled more than 10,000 lbs. of building materials, such as lumber and steel cables, for a suspension bridge completed in 2010, . When the project was completed, they helped haul out the crew’s summer camps.  Sled dogs assisted the installation and maintenance of remote sound monitoring stations, which were placed in various areas of the park. When a researcher wanted to begin a project to learn about the wolverine population in Denali, the sled dogs hauled remote camera stations necessary to learn the size and habit of the wolverine population.

As you leave the kennels, you are encouraged to “Feed Buck”, a carved wooden dog with its mouth open to accept monetary donations.


Next: Late afternoon interpretive hike

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