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The Bark Rangers

August 5, 2013

Alaska – Wednesday, July 24

It was a beautiful morning, and after I got packed up, Tula and I took a long walk around the campground area in the woods again. As with many of the bigger national parks which are also a preserve for the wildlife, dogs are not allowed on any trails – only sidewalk areas by the visitor center complex and in the campground. But, I wasn’t planning on any backcountry hikes by myself, and since it was a cool and cloudy day, Tula could wait for me in the car while I did the walking I wanted to do. There is only one road in Denali National Park, and it’s a roughly 80 mile road toward the center of the park – only the first 15 miles or so are accessible by private vehicle; otherwise only the park buses can travel on it – either the wilderness sightseeing buses, or the buses used to transport campers and hikers into the interior. My plan was to drive the first 15 miles that I was allowed, and then continue on foot – using the dirt road as my safe path into the park. I double checked with the rangers to make sure that was okay, and they said they encourage people to do that – it gets them into the park where they can enjoy the peace and quiet and beauty of it all without doing a major backcountry hike. So that’s precisely what I did – I parked the car at the end of the paved road in, and walked 3 more miles into the park on foot. And except for the occasional bus, I was the only person for miles around. It was wonderfully peaceful, and so very quiet – only a shrill cry from a hawk or something now and then. I wasn’t worried about wild animals, because it’s actually pretty open land in that area – no woods on the hills and mountains around me. Mt. McKinley is hidden by clouds and fog 70% of the time (2 days out of 3) and it was very hidden today since it was a cloudy day. It’s such an enormous, massive mountain that it creates its own weather systems, and she did not want to be seen today! Even when it’s sunny in the surrounding areas, the mountain can still be hidden in clouds. The last time we were up here, we had a beautiful cloud-free day, and one doesn’t forget that memory! So I wasn’t too upset to not see it. I was only going to walk a couple miles into the park, but it was so pretty and peaceful, I decided to do 2 1/2 miles, and then 3. So with the 3 miles on the return trip, I covered 6 miles and was gone a couple hours. I’m glad it was a cool day. Tula and I walked around the parking area and down by the river, and then headed back toward the visitor center.

On the way, I saw a sign pointing toward the sled dog kennels, and thought I would go look at them. Apparently they have demonstrations 3 times a day, and I was about 10 minutes late for the one that I could hear (lots of excited barking!) but I couldn’t go any farther down the path since the demonstration was in progress. But there was another one later, and Tula and I headed back to the visitor center complex for another walk in the woods, and a little computer time.

Then I made my way back into the kennel area, overshooting the entrance and nearly missing the start again! It was a really interesting talk and demonstration. The ranger who did the lecture was named Cinnamon (her real name she said – her mother was a hippie!) and she told us there have been working sled dogs at Denali since the park was formed in the 1920s. In fact, it was a musher who was instrumental in setting aside the lands that became Denali National Park. There have been sled dog demonstrations since 1939, except during WWII, when the military put the dogs to work. They currently have several dozen dogs, and do some selective breeding, so there are also have 3 puppies. Last winter the sled dog teams put on 3200 miles – hauling refuse in the winter, hauling freight, and going out on winter patrols and rounds with the rangers, out with clients, and in general earning their keep. They are better suited to the winter climate than many vehicles, which freeze up and break down, and even after a special jeep was introduced in the park after WWII, they reverted back to mostly sled dog use after 4 years of breaking-down jeeps. They eat kibble produced just for them, and enjoy extra “fat balls” in the winter. The dogs (which are not all huskies) each have their own dog house, and they often sit on top of them – they stay out there in summer and winter. The original kennel barn that was built in the ’20s is still in use today to store all the harnesses and equipment – a very well-built structure serving the same purpose it was built for 90 years ago. The kennel staff trains the puppies and are the ones who go out on rounds together – the Bark Rangers go out with the Park Rangers! They harnessed up a team of dogs, and Ranger Cinnamon said the dogs don’t just love their job, they LOOOVE their job! There was a great deal of excited howling and barking and these dogs couldn’t wait to run. The ones left behind (they take turns) seemed to be barking with envy. They only did a short run around about 1/2 mile loop, but they go fast even on the gravel. After the demonstration, I saw Buck, the donation dog, and I knew this had to be my donation of the day. Helping a working sled dog team seemed to be a very appropriate Alaskan thing to do! I hung around the kennel a little bit afterward (we were allowed to pet the dogs, and a dog named Nuna was my favorite) and since I had my own vehicle and didn’t have to jump on the park bus, a small group of us got to watch the dinner time process, which is also an exciting time for the dogs. In fact, the kennel manager put earplugs on since it got so noisy! The puppies go out for run around the same 1/2 mile with one of the volunteers before they eat, and they were so cute – the guy has to run fast to keep ahead of them, but they want to encourage their love of running, and running before mealtimes makes it extra exciting!

I finally left Denali, after walking 9 1/2 miles today, and drove through the touristy area to get a sub for dinner, and then started to make my way south a bit. I was planning to go about 150-200 miles toward Palmer, and I really enjoy driving in the extended evening light. I saw some cars pulled over after a ways, and there were 2 moose in a pond, munching on the grasses in the bottom. One of them put its head so far under water that it was up to it was up to its shoulders and belly, and looked like it was going to go all the way under!

It got quieter the farther away from Denali I got, but there were still road crews out doing construction and road repair since it was light so late. There was one particularly bad stretch of rocky road, and we had to wait for a pilot car to lead us through the rubble. It was very rocky, and it made me think of the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay where we got a flat tire the last time. Shortly after I got through the construction area, I turned into a pull-off for a pretty mountain view, and took a picture. When I got back in the car, there was a warning light on about one of my tires, so I turned the engine off and looked – HISSSSSSSSSS – the tire was deflating before my very eyes. I must have run over a sharp rock. No one was around at this point, and I was a good 8-10 miles or so from the construction zone. To my surprise, I had phone service, and Triple A was (as always) very nice, but they said they would have to look into my situation and figure out how to help, since I was basically in the middle of nowhere. They promised to not leave me stranded! I knew how to change the tire on my old van, and was purposely avoiding gravel highways with this one to avoid problems, but this van had some extra locking hubcaps or something, and I was going to start reading up on it while I waited. I got the jack out, and the various tools – my spare is up between the front seats, and there was something to assemble (I’m not good at assembling!) to get the spare tire down. I decided to simply wait – I was in a really nice spot on a pulloff and could spend the night if necessary. I was worried if I got partway through the procedure and got stuck that I wouldn’t be able to stay in the van. Triple A called me back in an hour and said help would be on its way in a couple hours – this wasn’t their first call in the area due to the construction. I said I was fine, and that I could wait til morning if necessary. Then they called back again in another 45 minutes or so, and suggested I call 911, just to let them know an older lady (!) was “stranded” by the highway and maybe they could check on me once or twice. I felt kind of bad calling 911 since it wasn’t an emergency, but the dispatcher was really nice, and said there was a trooper near the construction zone and she would send him my way. He arrived pretty soon, and figured as long as he was there that he would change the tire, which he did in short order, but even he had to look at the instructions because he had never seen a spare tire put up the way mine was. After picking everything up, and finding a place to put the muddy flat (Tula’s space), I headed on my way, going kind of slow on my donut spare. By now it was too late to get to the campground I had originally been heading for, so I was lucky to come across one of the Denali State Parks after about 50 miles – a little roadside park where I could “camp” for $10. So although I felt kind of grubby from moving the flat tire around, I was happy to have a good place to stay for the night, and would deal with repairs in the morning. It was midnight by the time I got set up, and it was still daylight – and I took a picture of the van at midnight with no flash. But I’m getting used to sleeping in daylight!

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2 Comments
  1. Leif Nygaard permalink

    Wow, what an adventurous day!!!

  2. Mary Marszalek permalink

    That shot of the pups out for their pre-dinner run was cute overload!

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