Podcast Episodes

The Life of a Canine Ranger

This episode was written by Lindsey Taylor, whose blog “The Curiosity Chronicles” follows her adventures around the world.

Every fall in one of the largest national parks in America, visitation slows to a near halt by the end of September. The ground is already covered with golden aspen leaves and the mountaintops are powdered with snow called “termination dust”. The skies lose up to 9 minutes of sunlight every day and the northern lights dance over the crisp landscape at night. While so much of the park and landscape slows into the winter, there is one group of individuals that eagerly await the snow.

On this episode of America’s National Parks: the sled dogs of Denali National Park.

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These official park employees—or as some call them, canine rangers—have an important role to play year-round. As the only kennel in the National Park System, the Denali Park Kennels already receive welcome attention from visitors, most of them traveling during the summer. But as the buses stop arriving with travelers in the fall, the dogs prepare for their true purpose in the park. Each winter, they will cumulatively run more than 1,500 miles as a team. They will haul scientific supplies or construction equipment into the far reaches of the wilderness, or bring construction debris back to the entrance of the park. Through blowing snow, below-freezing temperatures, or bright sunny skies, the dogs will lead the way.

Denali has had sled dogs woven into its history since its establishment. Harry Karstens traveled to the Yukon from Chicago during the Klondike gold rush of 1897. He was just 19 years old. Though he searched for gold along the Seventymile River, like many prospectors, he didn’t find much. But other reasons to stay in Alaska kept finding him.

Karstens built a telegraph line that linked distant Alaskan outposts and hauled supplies for the U.S. Army. He also gained a remarkable reputation as a dog musher, where he hauled mail across the landscape, helping create the route from Valdez to Fairbanks. When he transported mail, he had a handful of dogs attached to his sled, much unlike the twelve-dog teams we see in races today. The sled weighed hundreds of pounds, and there was no room on the back for a grown man. Instead, Harry Karstens was frequently breaking trail in front of his dogs, walking and running through deep snow and winter temperatures reaching 50 or 60 below.

When the naturalist Charles Sheldon set off in what is now Denali National Park and Preserve in 1907, ten years before the park’s creation, he hired Harry Karstens and his team of sled dogs to help him with his winter wildlife studies. His dogs would also prove invaluable during the Karstens-Stuck expedition in 1913, pulling supplies to the head of the Muldrow Glacier at 11,500 feet, leading Karstens, Hudson Stuck, and Walter Harper—a nineteen-year-old Alaska Native—to successfully summit Denali.

In 1921, Harry Karstens became the first park ranger for the then-named Mt. McKinley National Park. His first and most pressing task was to control illegal poaching. Miners and settlers were hunting caribou, moose, and Dall sheep to feed their camps. Harry Karstens founded the park kennels to provide a reliable and efficient source of transportation through the wintry landscape. As the years went on, sled dogs helped rangers record wildlife populations and patrol the park’s boundaries. The park hired more rangers so that they could each explore a different district with a team of seven dogs. The rangers even built cabins along the park boundaries for patrols, which could last months at a time. Many of the cabins are still in use and continue to break up long winter travel for the Denali sled dog teams.

In 1929, the park service built a kennel building near the dog yard that still stands today. Within seven years, the park was caring for more than 60 adult dogs and pups at the kennels, and more and more tourists were visiting them when they traveled to the park.

Sled dogs have even been known to save human lives. A Denali park ranger named John Rumohr was patrolling in January 1940 when his sled broke through the ice of the wide Toklat River. He shared his experience with the Fairbanks newspaper:

“I was in serious trouble. Breaking through the ice over a deep channel, where I could reach no bottom by sounding with my eight-foot geepole, the dogs had to swim to get the sled out. What really saved my life was Tige.

The dog had been sick and I was not using him in the team, but let him follow behind. While I was working with the sled he managed to get up ahead of the team and really coaxed them along . . . . It was quite a struggle for we had about 100 feet to go before we reached solid ice. The dogs would never have made it if Tige had not been ahead of them. Whenever he came to a place where the ice would carry him he would turn to the team, cry a little and wag his tail. That would put new spirit in them and they would struggle ahead even if the ice broke under them.

I hope Tige will get a long life. He earned it that day.”

In the 1940s, many of the sled dogs were given to the military during World War II. In Fairbanks, up to 200 sled dogs were maintained by the U.S. Army 10th Air Rescue Squadron into the early 50s. The dogs performed rescue missions in teams of ten and had to be on alert 24 hours a day. But one Army caretaker claims the dogs were fed exceptionally well, as the government purchased red meat, dry and canned commercial dog food, and locally dried salmon “by the ton”. The rest of the sled dogs in Mt. McKinley National Park were retired, as some believed machines to be more efficient for winter travel. John Ruhmohr had opinions on this idea, too.

“The distance traveled in a day over unbroken trail exceeds the best a dogteam could perform. But . . . dogs have less trouble with their carburetors. You can cuss the Snow Tractor and it just sits there. When you cussed your dogs, they would at least raise their ears.”

Rumohr later helped acquire dog teams for the park again in 1950. They were used for some patrols as well as visitor programs. Years later, two major federal laws reinforced the National Park Service’s commitment to keeping dog teams in the park. In 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act declared that “the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people.” Sled dogs are adaptable and reliable in the unpredictable landscape of the park, and they are a part of Alaskan culture.

The modern sled dog program in Denali was brought back in 1974 by Sandy Kogl, the first full-time kennel manager, who exercised, trained, bred, and cared for the sled dogs. She also taught other rangers to drive dog teams, managed the backcountry ranger program, and mentored seasonal rangers. Sandy helped the park return to its traditional use of dog teams in the backcountry by improving the breeding program, renovating facilities, and initiating more backcountry dog sled patrols.

The second law that provided more incentive to continue sled dog use in the park was the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, also known as ANILCA (ah-NIL-ka), which was passed in 1980. In this act, the name of the park was changed from Mt. McKinley to Denali National Park and Preserve, the park tripled in size, and the original 2 million-acres from Mt. McKinley National Park were designated as a federal wilderness. Mechanized equipment and motorized vehicles are prohibited in wilderness areas, but the Denali sled dogs allowed rangers to continue using winter patrols to carry out the park’s mission.

Henry P. Karstens Collection, 0630, Karstens Library

Today, sled dogs still have an active role in Denali National Park. They help freight supplies throughout the park, which means they are bred to be larger and stronger than dogs you would see in the famous Iditarod sled dog race. Sound researchers pass off their monitoring equipment to mushers and dogs in the fall, who will transport the gear to various backcountry locations. The dogs also transport construction equipment to restore historical cabins, conduct ground-based censuses of golden eagles at their nesting locations and collect snow sampling data. In November and December, temperatures can drop as low as 40 below and daylight only lasts 4 hours. Some patrols into the park take weeks and some last only one day.

The sled dogs that you’ll find in Denali National Park may look different than you’d expect. Called Alaskan Huskies, they are more of a type of dog than a breed. Mushers in Alaska bred dogs from Inuit villages with other breeds such as Siberian Huskies, Greyhounds, and German Shorthaired Pointers. Dogs were bred based on the qualities needed by the musher, whether they needed speed, strength, a certain type of coat, or stamina. Because they are a mix of many different dogs, all Alaskan Huskies can look very different. They can be different sizes, shapes, and have different colors and fur patterns.

So what does the everyday life of these National Park Service ranger pups look like?

Most puppies are born at the kennels in the park. For two months, the puppies sleep, nurse on milk, and gain a pound or more per week. There is never enough love for them while they grow, as children and adults hold and snuggle them often. When the puppies are grown, they will be surrounded by many visitors in the summer season, so this socialization, when they are young, is incredibly important.

Socialization with adult dogs is important, too. In the early winter season, adults begin training runs and the pups—now around 6 months old—will join the adults on training runs, often running beside the team while they scramble over glare ice and push through blowing snow. They learn about the natural winter conditions in Denali and observe the adult dogs harnessed as a team.

The seven-month-old pups will finally get their chance to be harnessed with the team, strategically placed next to the well-trained adults. It’s not unusual for them to try to play mid-run, get distracted, and chew on the lines. They are puppies, after all! Though training will continue throughout their lives, sled dog pups will have achieved hundreds of miles of experience running in harnesses after their first winter.

In Denali, sled dogs retire around 9 years of age. By that time, many dogs have completed more than 8,000 miles of winter travel. The sled dogs are adopted by families that live locally or in northern locales and can provide them with active, outdoorsy lifestyles in retirement. Though nine years may seem like an old dog, Denali’s canine rangers have unmatched energy at that age and need to keep up an active lifestyle to stay happy and healthy.

Humans have had a close relationship with dogs for millennia. In archaeological digs in Siberia that date back 8,000 years, dogs have been found buried alongside people or with jewelry. It is not known exactly when dogs were first pulling sleds. In Alaska, some evidence suggests that coastal Alaska Native populations may have harnessed dogs for pulling sleds around 500 to 1,500 years ago. Alfred H. Brooks, the head of the U.S. Geological Survey, wrote in the early 1900s: “Countless generations of Alaskan natives have used the dog for transport, and he is to Alaska what the yak is to India or the llama to Peru.”

In the mid-to-late 1800s, hunters and explorers of European descent began to settle in what is now Alaska. They learned from natives that sled dogs were the most reliable transport in the frozen, unpredictable landscape, and the dogs soon became the primary mode of transportation between outposts for both goods and passengers. The discovery of gold in the Yukon River drainage in the 1890s brought a larger network of winter trails and trading sites and also meant that sled dogs were in high demand. Miners brought any dog that could pull a sled into the land, such as retrievers, hounds, Saint Bernards, and Newfoundlands.

In modern kennels, at first glance, the set-up may seem peculiar. Dogs are usually tethered to their own individual houses to give them their own private space whenever they need it. The tether is long enough for the dogs to interact and play with other dogs in the yard, but not so long that there is a hazard for their safety. The dog houses are made out of thick logs with a flat roof and a small entrance door so that dogs can be sheltered from the elements. Though whatever the season, the roof on top of the house is where the dogs prefer to be, watching birds and their neighbors.

In the summer, the Denali sled dogs take part in the sled dog demonstration, a 30-minute interpretive ranger program that happens three times a day in peak season. This is the most popular interpretive ranger program in the park with more than 50,000 people attending annually. The Denali Park Kennels also rely on an incredible volunteer support system to give dogs the extra exercise and attention they need in the summer. Locals living in the area can “adopt” a sled dog and walk them for at least an hour, three times per week. Each sled dog will have more than one walker to ensure they stay active every day. More than 50 volunteers cumulatively donate thousands of hours walking and snuggling the canine rangers each summer.

If you’re looking to visit the Denali Park Kennels in summer, you’ll find the kennels at Park Headquarters, or about 3 miles down the park road from the entrance. Sled dog demonstrations are offered three times a day between June 1st and September 1st. Visitors traveling outside of those dates can head to the Denali Visitor Center for demonstration times.

In winter, inquire at the seasonal visitor center if the dogs are around at the kennels. Rangers and dogs are often traveling deep in the park’s wilderness for days or even weeks at a time.

Whenever you find time to visit the kennels, keep these tips in mind. Let the dogs come to you, and let them sniff you before you pet them. If you see dogs that are barking, yawning, or panting, it means they’re nervous and you should move away to give them space. Always supervise children while interacting with dogs and don’t run or make fast movements around them, as it can startle them.

Every new litter of pups in Denali grows up with the same energy and passion to run as generations of Alaskan huskies before them. From traditional use in Alaska Native cultures to the team that assisted the first recorded summit of Denali, the sled dogs are an iconic symbol of Denali’s wilderness. In the late summer evenings, if you’re lucky enough to hear the dogs howling to mountains painted in alpenglow, you will feel in your heart how they have shaped the history of the park forever.


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Resources:

Sled Dogs of Denali National Park, by Karen Fortier, published 2002.
https://www.nps.gov/dena/blogs/what-to-expect-when-a-sled-dog-is-expecting.htm
https://www.yukonquest.com/news/sled-dogs-north
https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/kennels-winter.htm
https://www.nps.gov/dena/blogs/dog-yard-basics.htm
https://www.nps.gov/articles/dena-history-rumohr-tige.htm?utm_source=article&utm_medium=website&utm_campaign=experience_more&utm_content=small
https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/life-of-a-sled-dog.htm
https://www.nps.gov/subjects/wilderness/sled-dogs.htm
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/03/20160318-ancient-sled-dogs-archaeology-Iditarod-Arctic-Siberia/
https://www.seniorvoicealaska.com/story/2015/12/01/columns/sled-dogs-figure-into-alaska-history/941.html
https://www.nps.gov/dena/blogs/dog-yard-basics.htm

Podcast Episodes

The Voice of Wilderness in the Storm

This episode was written by Lindsey Taylor, whose blog “The Curiosity Chronicles” follows her adventures around the world.

In the early days of Denali National Park and Preserve (formerly known as Mt. McKinley National Park), one park scientist stood out among the rest. He was known for his tough, adventurous spirit, ground-breaking biological research, and inspiring communication. His name was Adolph Murie.

Ade (as he was known to his friends) wasn’t the only person in his family to become a famous conservationist. His half-brother was Olaus Murie, also a biologist. The two half-brothers married two half-sisters: Olaus to Margaret, and Adolph to Louise. Margaret became known by some as the “grandmother of the conservation movement” for fighting to create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She moved to Alaska when she was a small child, and in 1924 she was the first female graduate from the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (which is the University of Alaska-Fairbanks today).

We could do whole episodes on the Muries, but it was Adolph who would change the face of ecology forever.

On this episode of America’s National Parks Podcast, Adolph Murie and Denali National Park and Preserve.

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Olaus and Adolph Murie grew up in Moorhead, Minnesota. The town had around 5,000 people at the time with a private university founded in 1891: Concordia College. Olaus began his studies at Concordia and finished his bachelor’s degree at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon in 1912. A few years later, he was recruited to America’s last frontier: Alaska. The chief of the US Biological Survey (what we know today as the US Fish and Wildlife Service) was interested in studying caribou migration across the Brooks Range. In his time at Mt. McKinley National Park , he also classified much of the park’s flora and fauna, creating the first record of what plants and animals the park was actually protecting.

Adolph, while in the middle of his undergraduate degree back at Concordia – joined Olaus in Alaska for two summers capturing caribou bulls for mating with reindeer, to enhance the reindeer population.

Two years later Adolph graduated from Concordia with an undergraduate degree in biology. He got a job as a seasonal ranger in Glacier National Park where he spent two summers before heading to the University of Michigan to get his master’s degree. By that time, Olaus, his wife Margaret and their son, one-year-old Martin, were also in Michigan. Olaus was turning his field notes from caribou research into a master’s degree as well.

Adolph stood out early in his graduate program. One of his professors and mentors was Lee R. Dice, a leading figure in the relatively young scientific field of ecology.

Before the study of ecology, which is based on the interrelationships of living organisms and their environment, biologists had a straight-forward approach to nature based on collecting and cataloging. Little attention was paid to if or how species may influence each other. Murie’s mentor, Lee Dice, was one of the first ecologists to advocate that predators in our natural ecosystems are important and worth protecting. Throughout the country, predator control (the killing of carnivores such as wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions to protect prey and livestock) was a common and accepted management tactic. Ecology began to show biologists that every living thing had an important role in the environment, and Dice wrote an article explaining his thoughts, titled “The Scientific Value of Predatory Mammals.”

In 1929, Ade Murie received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He completed his first post-doctoral study on Isle Royale, observing the ecology of the moose that lived there. It was Murie’s report that convinced the director of the National Park Service to approve the creation of a new national park on Isle Royale.

In 1934, Adolph Murie was hired to work as a biologist with the Park Service in the new Wildlife Division, hired by George Wright, the division chief. His first assignment was in the Olympic Peninsula, where he recommended that the eradicated wolves be reintroduced into the area.

Three years later, Murie began a two-year coyote study in Yellowstone that culminated in a book: Ecology of the Coyote in Yellowstone. Never before had a wildlife biologist in the National Park Service completed a similar study about predators, and it was one of the first true studies of ecology in a national park. After this project, Murie was assigned to study the wolves of Mt. McKinley, where there was another predator controversy. After his summers spent in the park more than 13 years prior, he was thrilled to be heading back to Alaska.

Much of Adolph Murie’s work time in the park was spent out in the backcountry, collecting scat samples, skulls, and antlers, and taking photographs of tracks, wildlife, and habitats. Scat samples can tell biologists a great deal about what animals are eating, and bones can tell us an animal’s age, sex, and health.

One special mammal he studied was the Dall sheep: the only wild white mountain sheep on earth. The Dall sheep was, in fact, the reason that Mt. McKinley National Park was created in the first place. In the early 1900s, market hunters were harvesting mammals like moose, caribou, and Dall sheep to sell the meat to prospectors and local pioneers. But they were not harvesting animals from populations sustainably, and the Dall sheep population began to dwindle. In 1906, a visiting naturalist and game hunter named Charles Sheldon noticed the decline and worried about the possibility of extinction. So, when he returned to the east coast, he began lobbying for the creation of a game reserve to offer some protection for wildlife. Eleven years later, Mt. McKinley National Park was created, and it was the first national park to be created to protect wildlife as opposed to natural scenery or beauty.

A few years before Adolph Murie arrived, the park Dall sheep population began to wane again. But this time, the cause was unknown. A series of winters with more snowfall and colder temperatures lasting longer than average coincided with this decline, but wolves were blamed as the leading cause.

The park service went along with the theory and began culling the predator population to allow the prey population to rebound. This management philosophy had already succeeded at completely eradicating wolves from parks like Yellowstone and Olympic. But it raised some big questions for Mt. McKinley National Park. Should the park service favor one species over another? Or should it take an ecosystem approach, where all species are treated equally?

Predator control management continued, but in the late 1930s, Adolph Murie was assigned to the task of figuring out what was really happening to the Dall sheep population. His research revolved around the question: “What is the effect of wolves preying on big game species in the park?” While he was focusing on Dall sheep, he also studied the wolves’ relationship with caribou.

In April of 1939, he set out into the park and performed field research until October. He estimated that he walked more than 1700 miles in the park that summer alone. It’s likely that Murie was not using the road much: he was climbing mountains off-trail, crossing rivers, and bushwhacking through willow and alder shrubs, some taller than he was.

In April 1940, he returned to the park, this time completing field research for another 15 months. Spending more than a year observing the wildlife was critical to understanding how animal behaviors change through the seasons.

So what did Murie discover? His conclusion was that, though wolves did hunt the Dall sheep, the main reason for the population decline was the harsh winters. More snow means less food availability, so Dall sheep would have trouble finding enough to eat and could starve or succumb to disease more easily.

He also concluded that predators have an important role in our ecosystem. At this time, in the early 1940s, this was a very radical idea.
Adolph Murie concluded that the wolves were actually helping the Dall sheep population. He noticed that when wolves hunted Dall sheep, they only targeted individuals that were sick, injured, or elderly. By doing so, wolves were keeping the genetic population of the sheep healthy and robust. Out of this research came his book The Wolves of Mt. McKinley. Half research findings, half field journal, Murie takes his readers through the alpine tundra and boreal forests of the park to rediscover wolves alongside him. It was the first study to analyze wolves and their interactions with other species, and it was aiding in the beginning of a new scientific discipline: ecology. It was published in 1944 and is still being reprinted and sold in parks today. Other books Adolph Murie would later write include The Mammals of Denali, The Grizzlies of Mt. McKinley, and A Naturalist in Alaska.

Ade Murie describes one of his favorite wolf experiences in this last book:

“In the morning it was a crisp thirty-five degrees below zero. At a cabin on the lower Toklat River in Mount McKinley National Park, my companion and I started out at daybreak, he on snowshoes, and I on skis, each of us carrying a pack containing bedroll and food, en route to Wonder Lake along the north boundary of McKinley Park. We were making a two-hundred-mile winter trip to carry out general wildlife observations. Heavy frost covered the spruce trees. At intervals, we encountered overflow water on top of the ice, which necessitated detours to avoid getting wet.Enroute, we noted tracks of many kinds—fox, wolverine, wolf, caribou, moose, squirrel, and weasel—and gained general impressions on wildlife presence and abundance. It became dusk, and by the time we left the river and turned in on a trail it was dark and stormy. … Then we stopped, transfixed, for out of the storm came music, the long-drawn, mournful call of a wolf. … It started low, moved slowly up the scale with increased volume—at the high point a slight break in the voice, then a deepening of the tone as it became a little more throaty and gradually descended the scale and the soft voice trailed off to blend with the storm. We waited to hear again the voice of wilderness in the storm. But the performer, with artistic restraint, was silent.”

In 1945, Adolph Murie again checked on the sheep populations in the park. They were at an all-time low after another severe winter, and sportsmen’s organizations pressured the Park Service for action: the extermination of all wolves in Mt. McKinley National Park.

Though he believed in allowing nature to unfold on its own, Murie recommended that 10-15 wolves be killed to allow the sheep population to regrow, and satisfy the growing pressure from outside groups. Even with Adolph Murie’s research, predator control on wolves in the park continued into the 1950s. It is thought by some that Adolph Murie agreed to lead the predator control management in order to limit its harm on the wolf population. The last year of predator control in the park was in 1952.
Development in Mt. McKinley increased as more visitors made the trek to Alaska each year. In the mid-1950s, there was a movement to improve infrastructure throughout the nation’s national parks called “Mission 66”, a ten-year plan to create more visitor centers, roads, hotels, and gas stations, headed by Conrad Wirth, the director of the National Park Service. In Mt. McKinley, there were plans to widen and pave the park road out to Mile 66, where a new visitor center was being built, as well as building a hotel and gas stations out near the end of the park road at Wonder Lake, 85 miles in.
Adolph and Olaus Murie were very opposed to these developments. In 1958, as road construction had started, Adolph Murie argued that it damaged the “purity of wilderness atmosphere.” Construction of the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 began two years later, which Murie called a “monstrosity” and “Dairy Queen” because of how it stood out on the tundra landscape. Olaus warned, “the national park will not serve its purpose if we encourage the visitor to hurry as fast as possible for a mere glimpse of scenery from a car, and a few snapshots.”

The Park Service responded by saying, “the road must be widened to minimum safety standards” due to increased visitation. In the spring of 1963, Murie and a group of other conservationists retaliated. They published an entire issue of National Parks Magazine dedicated to Mount McKinley, arguing through multiple essays and articles that the new road would not allow visitors to receive full enjoyment and that it was a detriment to the park.

Construction continued in the park, and in July 1965, Adolph Murie wrote another article for the National Parks Magazine, calling on conservationists to write to officials expressing their concerns about the park road. Replies flooded in, which triggered intra-agency correspondence. Two months later, construction slowed and finally stopped. The park service had constructed 15 miles of pavement and 30 miles of road widening.

It was through these efforts to protect the character of the park’s wilderness that Ade Murie became known as “Denali’s Wilderness Conscience.” He retired from the Park Service in early 1965 and received the highest honor in the Department of the Interior: the Distinguished Service Award, recognizing his cutting-edge ecological studies, passion for proper park management, and dedication to conservation values in Denali and other national parks across the country.

Margaret and Olaus had moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1927. Olaus was studying the elk populations in the Teton Mountains. In 1937 Murie became a member of the Wilderness Society council, and only eight years later became the director of the Wilderness Society. He lobbied against the construction of dams in Glacier National Park and helped drive the movement to create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a 9-million-acre ecosystem bordering the Arctic Ocean. Adolph and Louise, along with Olaus and Margaret, purchased a ranch in Moose, Wyoming in 1945. Today, it is home to the Teton Science Schools, whose mission is to inspire curiosity, engagement, and leadership through transformative place-based education.

In Denali, the Murie Science and Learning Center was dedicated to Adolph Murie in 2004. It’s the hub for science communication and education in the park. In the summer, the center hosts a park scientist weekly to share their research conclusions with local employees and visitors. Together the center and the scientists carry on Murie’s legacy of communicating scientific findings directly with the public.

Today, the park road in Denali is still 92 miles long, and the first 15 miles of paved road are the only areas visitors are allowed to take a personal vehicle. The rest of the road is still gravel. Today it is traveled by bus via a shuttle system that was put in place in 1972 to keep the park as wild as possible.

Podcast Episodes

Legends of Denali

In 1896, the highest summit in America was named by a gold prospector in support of then-presidential candidate William McKinley, who became president the following year. Of course, for centuries before, it had gone by a different name.

On this week’s episode of America’s National Parks, Denali, the 20,310 Alaskan summit, and the six million acres of land that surround it in Denali National Park.


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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Denali – National Park Service Website


Transcript

In 1896, the highest summit in America was named by a gold prospector in support of then-presidential candidate William McKinley, who became president the following year. Of course, for centuries before, it had gone by a different name.

On this week’s episode of America’s National Parks, Denali, the 20,310 Alaskan summit, and the six million acres of land that surround it in Denali National Park.

Up first is the late Chief Mitch Demientieff of Nenana, and the legend of Denali.

(Transcript not available)

Denali may not be the highest summit on earth, that, of course, belongs to Everest in the Himalayas. But Denali is actually a taller mountain from base to peak, rising 18,000 feet. That’s about the equivalent of 14 empire state buildings. Everest rises only 12,000 feet.

The climb up Denali is nowhere near as technical as Everest, but its sheer elevation change and its location still make it one of the most challenging climbs.

Mountain climbing tales in history tend to read like fish stories, so it’s not a surprise that there has long been controversy around the first person to reach the top of Denali.

The first claim was laid in 1906 by an explorer, Dr. Frederick A. Cook. In fact, he took a camera and had pictures to prove it. The photo was published in 1908 along with Cook’s account of how he had braved avalanches and ice cliffs to make the first ascent of the then titled Mount McKinley. ”At last!” Cook wrote. ”The soul-stirring task was crowned with victory. The top of the continent was under our feet.”

A couple years later, Cook also claimed that he was the first to reach the North Pole, But a guy named Robert Peary really did reach the North Pole, and challenged Cook’s claim to have gotten there first, putting the Denali claim in doubt as well.

Not many believed Cook’s story, save for a few historians and family members over the years that tried to prove it. Many of his photos seemed like they were taken elsewhere, and finally, in 1998, the negative of the summit photo was discovered. It showed that the published photo had been heavily cropped, and in fact showed Cook at a spot only 5000 feet up the mountain.

Meanwhile, back in 1910, four Alaskan gold miners were sitting in a bar debating Cook’s claim to have reached the top of McKinley. They were unconvinced, and bragged, that they, as Alaskans, would fare far better on the mountain. The bar owner bet them $500 that they couldn’t do it.

Now, these guys were not climbers. They were middle-aged, overweight, and had no real climbing experience. Yet in mid-February, 1910, these four miners set out to climb Mt McKinley. And on April 3, they made it to the top where they planted a flag.

Or so they said.

Their claims were a little far-fetched. Honestly, who could believe they really did it? For example, they said they climbed the last 8,000 feet in one day. Hikers today take 10 to 15 hours to do the last 3-4000 feet, which they save for the last day. And even though they brought a camera, none of the photos they took were at the summit. But they were so adamant that they did.

A couple weeks later, the New York Times Magazine published expedition leader Thomas Lloyd’s story of their climb. It filled three pages, including notes from his journal, and it convinced a lot of people, but for others, the claim was still very much in doubt.

So, another expedition set out in 1913 to reach the summit, and to verify Lloyd’s story. And, in fact, they reached the North summit and found the flag that Lloyd’s party had planted. Four overweight miners with no hiking experience actually did it!

Not so fast.

It’s important to note here that Denali has two peaks. The South, which is the tallest, and the North is about 300′ shorter. It would appear that Lloyd and the miners only made it to the North. Now, the story changes a bit. The miners claim that they only put the flag on the North peak because it would be visible from below (which it wasn’t), and they actually reached both peaks. Many years later, a couple of the miners admitted that they only reached the North peak, but claimed that it was the more challenging climb of the two.

The story would have been incredible enough without the lie, but now it taints their claim forever. That said, the climbers that set out to verify Lloyd’s story actually did reach both peaks, and are credited with the first summit of Denali in 1913.

On the 100th anniversary, in 2013, Jay Elhard of the National Park Service described the first summit and explored the reasons why climbers climb.

(Transcript unavailable)

Denali national park didn’t actually include the mountain when it was set aside to protect Dall Sheep in 1917. It was expended over time, and is now a massive wilderness, with very few trails, intentionally, to preserve hiking and backpacking in a trail-less landscape. The marked trails that do exist are centered mainly around the two visitor centers.

There’s one road through the park, it’s 92 miles long, but only the first 15 miles of it are paved. That portion, leading from the park entrance to Savage River, is open during the summer for vehicles. Travel beyond mile 15 is limited to bikes and hikers, and park buses. It can snow heavily almost any month of the year, so the road in spring or fall may be open or closed depending on conditions.

You can see a lot from the park road, including the namesake mountain and incredible wildlife. One of the best ways to see the vastness of the park is a “flightseeing tour,” where a small private plane or helicopter soars you over gentle foothills, along meandering glaciers, up to the rugged peaks of the Alaska Range.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

 

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