At Denali, a Rush to Mush

Sled dogs in the snow

As the seasons turn, SCA is turning our spotlight on members working in winter conditions.

Sled dogs have always been part of Denali National Park and it seems like SCA interns have always helped care for the “canine rangers” that symbolize such a wide swath of Denali’s history and heritage. This winter, three SCA members are staffing the kennels, including 26-year old Caleb Miguel Awe.

Caleb got his start in dog mushing in 2018 with a tour operator. He bounced between Juneau, AK and Salida, CO, taking guests on runs and sharing the culture of sled dogs before scoring a job with a racing kennel. “I trained a team that ended up winning the Yukon Quest 1000!” he states, referring to the annual competition that runs from Fairbanks, AK to Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territories. Now, for the second straight winter, Caleb is stationed at Denali.

“If I were a permanent employee, this would be the pinnacle for me,” he notes, “but as an intern, I’m just looking forward to the places I’ll go, the things I’ll learn, and the coworkers – human and dog – that I’ll get to work with along the way.”

Sled dogs in the snow

Caleb begins his day long before sunrise, though that is not saying much at this time of year, as the sun doesn’t peek over the horizon until about 10:30 a.m. “At eight o’clock, we record the temperature and weather, feed the dogs, and then come together for a meeting. We lay out a plan for the day – how far we want to run, which dogs to take, etc. – and go through a GAR (Green-Amber-Red) check that allows us to assess the workload, the risk, and how comfortable we all are with the current plan. Then, we run our dogs!”

Teams consist of at least three mushers (a combination of experienced park rangers and SCA interns) and up to eight or more dogs per sled, plus safety gear, food and water, and a means of communication. Huskies are born and bred to mush, and team leaders rely on the dogs’ wisdom and instinct in the wild.

“I’ve worked mostly with race dogs in the past. They’re a little smaller, a little quicker, and we were doing a lot to make sure our trails were flat and well defined for them. Out here, the dogs are happiest when the snow is deep and the trail just feels so new. It’s incredible to watch these dogs breaking trails like it’s nothing!”

Following a series of early-season training runs in which everyone returned before sunset, Caleb says teams have recently begun multi-day backcountry patrols with overnight stays in historic cabins or winter tents. “We’re collecting mid-sized carnivore scat in the park and tracking locations with a GPS. We’re making sure nobody is out there who shouldn’t be.”

SCA member using drill

Typical workdays also include cleaning the kennels, making repairs, and shoveling snow. Caleb has his own cabin just a short walk from the kennels. As the days grow shorter – by the coming solstice, Denali will see less than five hours of daylight – Caleb expects to stay close to home. “I’m looking forward to spending time in one of the most serene and undisturbed places in the world.”

Yet he knows he will pay a price. “I’m dreading the extreme cold,” he confesses. “Nobody likes -40.”

For more on the park’s “canine rangers,” visit the Denali website.

Nightfall at Denali