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At Denali National Park, winter means paws on patrol

Jennifer Raffaeli manages the National Park Service’s only sled-dog team.

The National Park Service’s only team of sled dogs noses around Wonder Lake in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Party, one of the youngest dogs, sits atop the sled during last year’s trip. (Photo: Jennifer Raffaeli/National Park Service)
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In the winter, thick snow blankets Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve, one of our nation’s most incredible wild pla­ces. The wilderness stretches over 6 million acres (that’s bigger than the state of New Hampshire). It’s home to North America’s tallest peak, as well as wolves, moose, snowshoe hares and grizzly bears.

Denali is also home to a one-of-a-kind team of canine park rangers: 31 enthusiastic Alaskan huskies pull sleds, helping transport park rangers and loads of heavy equipment in the snow.

It’s an important job. With temperatures regularly as low as minus-40 degrees in Denali’s winter, “mushing” with sled dogs is a much more reliable form of transportation than motorized vehicles, or snowmobiles, that might not start in the cold. Plus, the dogs can keep their human rangers’ feet warm at night.

In February, kennel manager and park ranger Jennifer Raffaeli is out on the trail for a month-long trip in the park. The dogs will haul sleds packed with equipment. The rangers will patrol and collect data for scientists at hard-to-reach sites near the park’s ­glacier-fed Wonder Lake.

“I love spending my days with dogs who truly love every minute of what they do,” Raffaeli said in an email as she prepared to leave.

For the past eight years, Raf­faeli has cared for the dogs around the clock. Before that, she worked summers in Denali as a park ranger and was an experienced musher. She also trains them, including the litter of puppies bred each year to replace older dogs who are adopted when they retire.

“It is an amazing journey to share with them, and one I am always proud of as I watch the goofy pups transform into strong, confident adults leading teams throughout the wilderness of Denali,” she said.

In the summer, the human and canine rangers work as ambassadors, educating the public about sled dogs’ important role in Denali dating back to 1922.

Alaskan huskies are strong, “freight-style” dogs bred for pulling cargo. They have thick fur, tough feet, long legs and the stamina to run thousands of miles over a lifetime. When mushing, they wear custom, padded harnesses and sometimes bootees to prevent snowballs from forming between their toes.

On the trail to Wonder Lake, days will start early, with Raffaeli feeding dogs at 6 a.m., then scooping poop and packing sleds. All 31 dogs were scheduled to go on the trip, with the puppies born last summer to run loose next to the adult dogs in the team for practice. Evenings mean melting loads of snow for drinking water, unpacking sleds and setting up camp for the night.

“It is a lot of outside work in the dark and cold,” she says.

But no matter the challenges, Raffaeli enjoys the perks of her job, such as seeing the sun sparkle on Denali’s pristine snow, watching a herd of caribou pass, finding lynx tracks, and hearing wolves howl back and forth with the sled dogs at night.

And, of course, she loves all the dogs, from 9-year-old Aliqsi, an experienced sled dog who will soon retire, to youngsters Cupcake, Matrix and Topo.

“I have different favorite dogs each day and for different conditions,” she said. “There are the dogs that are brilliant lead dogs on ice or through windstorms, the dogs that love to break trail in deep snow, the dogs that are adorable snugglers in the cabins at night, the dogs that love to play with the little pups. There is something special that I love best about each and every one of them.”