Monday, November 21, 2011

Dog mushing is essential at Denali National Park and Preserve

Denali National Park and Preserve Dog Feed Cache

Dog mushing has been an important activity in the Denali region since before the establishment of Mount McKinley National Park (now Denali National Park and Preserve). Natives in the area traditionally used dog teams for transport, and when Charles Alexander Sheldon (the father of Denali National Park) spent the winter of 1907-08 studying wildlife near the headwaters of the Toklat River, he and his packer, Harry Karstens, used dog teams extensively.

Karstens, an 1897 Klondike veteran, was an experienced sourdough. (He was the guide for the first successful ascent of Mount McKinley in 1913.) Although the park was established in 1917, it languished for several years because Congress failed to provide funding. However, in 1921 funds were finally appropriated (partly because of the imminent completion of the Alaska Railroad through the area) and Harry Karstens was appointed the new park’s superintendent (and only employee). It was Karstens who chose the park’s entrance at Riley Creek and began work on a headquarters area just west of the nearly completed Alaska Railroad.

One of Karsten’s first priorities was to bring the rampant poaching along the park’s northern boundary under control. Mount McKinley National Park had been established in part to protect the region’s wildlife, but commercial hunters routinely ignored the park boundaries to obtain meat for Fairbanks and other Interior communities. Karstens established the park’s first kennel to provide reliable sled dogs for patrolling the park’s wilderness.

A dog feed cache that combined workshop, food storage and food preparation areas, was constructed in about 1929. It was built in the “Rustic Style,” which attempted to harmonize with the surrounding environment and used local building traditions and materials. Constructed with a peeled log frame, and reverse board and batten siding (wide boards on the outside, thin boards inside covering gaps between wide boards), it was one and a half stories high, and originally consisted of just the central room with storage above, and a smaller food prep room adjacent (to the left in the drawing). Karsten’s grandson, Ken, told me that preparing food in the new building was a vast improvement over the old method—cooking the food in a huge copper kettle inside a surplus railroad construction tent (and stirring the pot with an oar).

The structure was moved by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938 to its present location at the top of a steep slope above Hines Creek.  In 1976 a sled storage room was added (to the right in the drawing). Over the years there have been other minor changes or additions. (For instance, the upper storage room was originally accessed by climbing a ladder.) The building is now part of the park’s Headquarters Historic District.

Dog mushing, and consequently the park’s dog kennels, have continued to be important assets in managing the park. They provide a link with Denali National Park’s history and allow winter access into the park’s original 2-million acre parcel, which is now designated as wilderness.

The Park Service maintains about 30 huskies at the kennels. During the winter the dogs provide transportation for rangers, collectively logging about 3,000 miles. In the summer the huskies are the center of the park’s most popular interpretive program, daily sled dog demonstrations that attract over 50,000 people annually.

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