Denali: The Park and the Dogs

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7/18/19  Cleft in the Rock B&B, Tok, Alaska

Between the issues with the truck and the flurry of activities during our too-short stay at Denali, I didn’t get a chance to write about that park, one of America’s real gems.  I have a lot of pictures to share and stories to tell about Denali, so I’m going to try to catch up with some posts over the next few days.

Our Cabin at McKinley Park

Denali, at six million acres, is one of the bigger parks in the system, but, actually, is about the same size as several others in Alaska, including Katmai and Lake Clark, although it is dwarfed by Wrangell – St. Elias which is the next park on our itinerary.  The park is to preserve and protect the tallest mountain on the continent, its namesake, Denali, which rises more than 18,000 feet off the surrounding countryside to a staggering 20, 310 feet.  (Denali actually got shortened by 10 feet recently after more accurate laser measurements gave us a better reading.  Still, that is plenty tall enough to remain North America’s tallest mountain).  As I mentioned in a previous post, Denali is so tall, that it pretty much creates its own weather systems up there and is almost constantly enshrouded in cloud cover.  Locals say it is only visible on one out of five days, and then maybe for just brief time periods, so unless you plan a really long stay at Denali, you aren’t likely to actually see it.

That can be a little disappointing.  Pictures of the mountain reveal a staggering land mass that, unlike say the Grand Tetons, which have sharper faces to them, Denali seems to rise up everywhere.  It even has two peaks to it, the northern and southern, making it even bigger in scale.  From what I can gather, what makes the mountain so difficult to climb isn’t the walls of the mountain itself, but rather the intense cold and wind that envelops the top of the thing.  Standing where it does, it receives a complex set of weather patterns coming both from the warmer and wetter Gulf of Alaska as well as the cold air coming down from the Arctic.  Obviously, that’s a setup for lots of wind and snow.

Now about that name.  Yes, when the park was originally created a century or more ago, it was named after President McKinley.  However, local Alaskan native peoples, a branch of the Athabaskan, has, since times long before white man ‘discovered’ the mountain, referred to it as Denali, ‘the Great One’.  With an increasing appreciation for the cultures of native Americans throughout the country, the official name for the mountain has reverted back to its original and I believe that was encoded officially in the big legislative act (ANILCA), under President Carter which significantly expanded and rationalized the national park holdings in Alaska.  It included recognizing native rights to engage in traditional subsistence activities in parklands.

In expanding the National Park holdings around Denali, it also created a more complex but perhaps more effective way of managing the park.  Denali National Park and Preserve is actually three different parklands, each with different rules and missions in terms of resource protection.  The huge swath of land in the center of the park includes the mountain peaks and much of the surrounding mountain structure has been designated a ‘wilderness’ which offers the highest level of protection.  No roads or human structures of any kind can ever be built in that area.  Hiking into the wilderness, including climbing the summit, is allowed, but is regulated by permit and No Trace rules.

One of Denali’s Sled Dogs

North of the wilderness is a strip of land several miles wide that is the actual National Park.  On this strip of land is where all the normal ‘park’ development is allowed and is where some 650,000 visitors go every year.  The visitor center complex is smartly done and includes the book store, exhibits, the science center, and several other facilities of interest to visitors to the park.  It also contains a half-dozen campgrounds with different levels of amenities, and about a dozen different marked hiking trails.  (More about some of them in a later post.)

This one is taking a break

It also contains most of the Denali Park Road.  This is the only ‘road’ in the park and, starting at the Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3) junction, runs for 92.5 miles more or less due West.  Despite the long road, private vehicles can only drive the first 15 miles of the road as far out as Savage River.  At that point, the road turns to gravel and a ranger will politely turn you around and send you back.  Regulation of traffic beyond that point is how the park is trying to minimize damage to park resources.  If you want to go beyond mile 15, then you have to buy a tour ticket or a green bus pass that allows you to board special buses.  The park maintains a fleet of dozens of buses that bring people out for various tours or even just to hike or camp beyond the 15 mile point.  We took a bus tour all the way to the end and, if the weather is good, I highly recommend that tour because some of the most interesting and beautiful parts of the park are on the road beyond mile 15.  Between the various structured tours available and the completely unstructured ‘green bus’ which will drop you off pretty much anywhere you want to go, there are options for all kinds of tourist interest.  The bus system is a little complex and you need to study it to figure out what your best option is, but it seems to be a very good solution to the difficult park mission of allowing access to the public while protecting park resources.

The third part of the park extends as kind of a ring around both the ‘Wilderness’ part and the ‘Park’ part and is designated the ‘Preserve’.  I don’t know exactly what a ‘Preserve’ means, but I do know that hunting, for example, is allowed in a ‘Preserve’.  So the rules are a little bit looser than for a ‘wilderness’.

On our first day at Denali, we dutifully went to the visitor center, collected all of our information and then set down at the Morino grill with a glass of wine to plan our visit.  As usual, we also saw the park film which was beautifully done.  I usually classify the park films as either informative or ‘artsy’ – this one was on the ‘artsy’ side, but well worth it.  After going over all the stuff and starting to understand the bus system, we decided to take the free bus up to the dog show.

Getting Ready to Race around the track

Every couple of hours, during the summer, you can go up the road a mile or so by bus and enter the sled dog kennel area.  The park maintains, as part of their operating resources, a team of about 30 Alaskan Huskies which, in the winter, operate as their sled dogs.  My initial thought was this was an unnecessary gimmick to bring tourists into the park.  But it really isn’t.  These dogs are working dogs fulfilling an important function in the winter months.  Since most of the mountain area, a huge part of the park, is designated as ‘wilderness’, the Park Service isn’t allowed to build roads into that part of the park.  Nor can they use snowmobiles or any other mechanized means of transportation.  So, aside from hiking, their only alternative – one that evolved with the natives who lived in the area – is to use sleds pulled by teams of dogs to handle necessary maintenance chores inside the wilderness areas.  (Maintenance might include repairing damage caused by human activity, or hauling stuff between locations that involve crossing wilderness areas.). 

Lining Up

So they have for years now managed a team of some thirty dogs to accomplish these tasks.  During the summer, of course, they train the dogs, get them used to people, and put on shows for the tourists.  We spent a couple hours at the kennel and watched a small team of dogs pull a wheeled version of the sled around a track.  These dogs love what they do and are happy to show you.

One thing I did not know is that ‘Alaskan Husky’ is not an AKC registered breed.  The park service breeds their dogs for their working behavior and has no interest in whether the dog ‘conforms’ to some arbitrary standard.  So they do not care about official pedigrees.  That said, they are very careful in their breeding program and only bring in new dogs that meet very high physical and behavioral standards.

No, he’s Friendly

Although a small part of the Denali experience, viewing and petting the dogs are a definite option for any visitor.  If you don’t have much time, it is a very good way to get a unique perspective on the park – especially if you can’t see ‘The Mountain’.