Jennifer "Jen" Raffaeli was interviewed on April 27, 2015 by William Schneider and Karen Brewster at her home at Denali National Park, Alaska. Jayme Dittmar, a sled dog kennel staff member, was also present during the interview. In this first part of a two part interview, Jen talks about how she got involved with dog mushing and working for the sled dog kennel at Denali National Park. She talks about the role of the kennel manager, learning from the dogs, understanding the abilities and limits of the dogs, designing sleds, and use of sled dogs on park projects and for outreach and education. See the Denali National Park website for more information about the sled dog kennels and the role of sled dogs in cleaning up wilderness (including a short video clip of a clean up effort in Gates of the Arctic National Park). To keep up with the kennels' current activities, see their blog, "Runnin' With the Kennels."
Take a guided tour of Denali National Park's sled dog kennels with kennel manager, Jennifer Raffaeli (April 27, 2015; 19:41 min.).
Digital Asset Information
Project: Dog Mushing in Alaska
Date of Interview: Apr 27, 2015
Narrator(s): Jennifer "Jen" Raffaeli
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Karen Brewster
Videographer: Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
People Present: Jayme Dittmar
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Personal background and getting interested in sled dogs
Coming to Alaska and working in dog kennels
Early influences when growing up
Learning from other dog mushers
Learning from the dogs
Getting the job as sled dog kennels manager at Denali National Park
History of sled dogs and the kennels at Denali National Park
Finding park projects to do with sled dogs and using the park dogs for public outreach
Taking over the kennel and learning new conditions and how to get along with the dogs
Providing good quality of life for the sled dogs
Keeping up with best practices and learning from other Alaskan dog mushers
Learning what the dogs are capable of
Limits on snow depth and temperature for dog team travel
Amount of freight a dog team can haul
Size of dog teams used
Sled design and construction
Using the sled dogs to their full capacity and using them on external projects
Cleanup project in Gates of the Arctic National Park
Connecting to people in the villages via sled dogs
Types of winter projects that have used sled dogs
Cleaning up debris from Mount McKinley
Glacier stake and old Toklat bridge removal projects
Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.
After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I'm Bill Schneider. Karen Brewster's here and we have the pleasure today of doing an interview with Jen Raffaeli. And Jayme Dittmar's going to sit in on this.
And today is April 27, 2015. So Jen, thank you for taking the time to do this.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Thanks for coming down. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. JENNIFER RAFFAELI: It's exciting.
KAREN BREWSTER: And here we are at Denali National Park.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And here we are.
So let’s start by -- tell us a little bit about your personal background. Where you grew up and your parents and what got you interested in --
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: In sled dogs?
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, we won’t go there yet. JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Okay.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What -- what did they inspire in you? But start first with the basics.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: I was born in Plymouth, Minnesota in 1975. And was always a kid that loved animals. So from the time I was very little, I was all about animals.
Read all the James Herriot stories and was always playing outside. I was still that generation where our parents kicked us out until it got dark out and then you could come in for dinner.
My family moved around a lot when I was little so to say where I’m from I don’t have any one place that I call home. We went Minnesota to Massachusetts to New Jersey. And then my family moved to North Carolina, I went to college in California.
Throughout my childhood I -- we always had dogs and cats as pets, a couple rabbits and frogs and fish, and I had horses.
So I competed extensively all over the East Coast with horses and various hunter-jumper show classes.
Sold my horse when I went to college. I felt like I was done with extreme competition for a little while.
So I went to college in California, something totally new and different and I never really went back east after heading west. And started to head north.
When I finished my graduate degree I decided that I wanted to come up to Alaska. And came up for what I thought was one summer of work in 1998.
I was guiding for an ecotourism company based out of Cooper Landing. And we would do a trip that no longer exists. It was called the Tent Safari.
So we would raft the Kenai River and camp and then come up into Denali for the second half of the trip. And we would do tours with Jeff King’s Husky Homestead as part of our trip.
So I met sled dogs there and one of my co-guides had worked for Jeff for a winter, so she and I would take some free time and just go walk Jeff’s puppies out at McKinley Village.
And I was like I got to do -- got to do this dog mushing thing.
So the following winter, ’99, I got a job guiding for a company in northern Minnesota. A guy named Arleigh Jorgenson did sled dog adventures.
And I called him up and I said well I don’t have any experience with dog mushing, but I have a lot of experience with animals and camping.
And he said, well, we can’t teach you to camp at 20 below and take care of people, but we can teach you to run a dog team. So it started with him and found various places to run dogs ever since.
I spent a lot of winters guiding for Arleigh. And then I met my husband, Michael. And he wanted to know what this whole dog mushing thing was about.
And everyone else, the snow would fall and they wanted to go skiing and I wanted to go run dogs. So I took him to Minnesota with me and spent a week running Arleigh’s dogs with him.
And he fell head over heels in love with it.
So we said, well, let’s figure out where else we can run dogs.
So he found Ed Iten up in Kotzebue, Alaska. And we spent a winter training his young yearling teams out of Kotzebue.
Running them down to pull the under ice nets for sheefish to feed the dogs. Just taking the yearlings all over the place.
Then we spent a winter running dogs for a tour company in Squaw Valley, California before we were -- We were getting married in Yosemite that spring and wanted to find a way to keep running dogs, so we went down to California to plan the wedding and then kept running dogs that winter on a golf course tour that was pretty amazing.
And people always say there's no -- what do you mean you're a dog musher from California? It's like, well, we had 300 inches of snow that winter.
We used a snowblower to clear out the dog yard to make tunnels between the dogs' houses.
So there's plenty of snow in California up in the Sierra Nevada for running dogs.
But we quickly decided that a golf course was not nearly big enough for what we liked to do with running dogs.
So came back up to Alaska and started working seasonally in interpretation in Denali for the summer. And then ran dogs for Ken Anderson and Gwen out of Fox for a couple of winters.
Just started racing his yearling teams and then eventually ran the Quest with his two year olds, so --
BILL SCHNEIDER: What year was the Quest?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: 2010 is when I ran the Quest. That was in February. And I literally took this job three days before the Quest started and it was under wraps until Ken told a reporter, so I had everyone on the trail asking me about my new job. I was like I need to just focus on this race right now.
But we finished up the season with Ken and I started here April 5th of 2010, so --
This is my first full-time year around job. This is the longest we've ever stayed in any one place doing the same thing consistently, so --
That’s my life in a nutshell.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, what about early influences from your parents? You mentioned the fact they kept you outside and --
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: They did, yeah, that was just the '70's, you know, but my mom actually was not outdoorsy at all.
But she was an animal lover and so was her mom. They always had dogs by their side. So it makes sense to me that I need to have dogs in my life.
My dad was more the outdoorsy person. He and I did a lot of father-daughter. It was called Indian Princesses at the time and sort of the version of the Girl Scouts with dads involved.
So we would do a lot of camping trips and things like that on the weekends.
But I think I'm definitely the black sheep in the family. No one really knows where it came from.
That I would head to Alaska and stay here. But I think a lot of the early influences really were animals, too.
I just loved working with them, loved figuring out how to communicate with them. Like I said, working with horses was a huge part of my youth and then high school years.
So weekends, my sister and I were mucking out stables in exchange for getting to ride the horses and taking care of anybody’s horses.
And people always think of New Jersey as, you know, what exit on the interstate, but for us we were actually in horse country in New Jersey.
We had one stop light in our town and pretty quiet open -- open space, so --
I didn’t grow up really going to national parks or anything like that and it was of my own -- well, in high school I asked my mom to go on an Outward Bound course. And she said no.
And she will tell you now that she's convinced that's the reason that I became an Outward Bound instructor for many years.
I wasn’t allowed to do the course, so I went and worked for the organization for a number of years. And just fell in love with being outdoors, doing really long wilderness trips, and seeing the transformative power of wild spaces .
So I think by the time I hit college that was a huge part of what I knew I needed was just the ability to be in open places and to have adventures outside.
So I had a good friend in college and she and I spent a summer backpacking in a bunch of national parks and that was my first --
first introduction and attraction to places that I really wanted to go and spend more time exploring, so --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh-huh. With those early experiences handling for different people -- JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Uh-huh.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Who -- who were some of the people that you learned the most from? That you recall them.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Ah, that's a great question. I think we learn different things from each person.
And that's, I think, one of the things I feel luckiest about is having had the opportunity to work with lots of different mushers and see their different styles. Their different philosophies.
I think Ed taught us a lot just about dealing with arctic conditions and traveling.
Ed Iten. Traveling with dog teams in wide open spaces, you know.
The trail blows away one day and then blows back in the next, you know. We experienced ground blizzards up there.
That was a huge leap for us. When Michael found Kotzebue, we didn’t even know where it was. We had to pull out the map.
And say where are we going for the winter?
We flew up to Kotzebue at the end of the summer and met Ed’s son.
Well, Ed picked us up, boated us across the Hotham Inlet. His son met us on horseback on the other side.
We left most of our stuff on the beach at the inlet and carried what we could on our backs a few miles into their house.
So it was a good introduction to, yep, we are off the road system and out here.
And Ed was amazing in that, you know, fall training with his dogs was on sleds. You just mush across the tundra when there's no snow.
And he would always say run behind the team. I’m like, how? There's basketballs of tussocks out here.
I can’t get off and run. I’ll break an ankle.
So just seeing kind of more of the traditional ways of doing things and, yeah, using those yearling teams to run dogs down and pull the under ice nets.
I mean, we had never done that. So we asked Ed, "Well, how do you know when the ice is safe to go out on, you know? This is this big sound of the ocean."
He said, "When the little old ladies are walking out on the ice, you know it's safe."
He just -- he taught us a lot just about living off the grid and what it is to run a kennel and care for dogs entirely off the road system.
And still be competitive as a musher, yeah. He did really well in the Iditarod that winter, and that was neat to see.
From Ken, Ken’s really great with race strategy and so, you know, that -- I had never thought I was going to get into racing.
I remember reading books about the Quest and Iditarod when I guided for Arleigh in Minnesota and I was like that’s crazy, who would do that?
But starting to connect with that racing world working for Ken and Gwen and just seeing how much fun it was to see what the dogs were capable of and train them towards a goal and even right up to --
You know, my first race was the Gin Gin in 2008. And that was the year where everyone was getting blown off the Denali Highway and the crazy winds.
And I was getting blown off. All the women were out there helping each other pull the dogs up -- up onto the road, and I think a lot of what you learn is really the dogs are the great teachers.
The humans are good role models and examples and they can speak to you in English, but I think most of the most valuable lessons I've learned have been from the various dogs themselves.
So I had my little team of rehabbing injured dogs and my young yearling dogs and everyone was starting to curl up in balls in the wind and be like this is a bad idea, Jen.
And I had one little male that was young and he's just barking, barking, barking. And I was like, you've never been a lead dog, but you're about to be.
So I put him up front and he led us through the wind. So just listening to your dogs and tuning into them, I think that was something I got from Arleigh when I first started running dogs with him in Minnesota.
He was really good about following the old George Attla philosophy of the dog is never wrong.
When something's not working with your team, look at what you can be doing differently to set them up for success.
And I think that's something that I still really try and stress with all the staff here, that usually there's something that we can change to help that dog be successful if they're being challenged.
And then just to appreciate the silence of being out there. That the reward for dogs is silence.
And when things are going well, we’re quiet and we enjoy that space. If I'm talking a lot, it's 'cause I'm trying to fix something, so --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Why do you think the job here at Denali was appealing to you?
KAREN BREWSTER: Can you just say what the job is? Can you -- you’re -- What's your --
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: So I’m the kennels manager for the Park Service here in Denali and this is the only working sled dog kennel in the entire National Park Service.
We have 407 units across the country and one sled dog kennel.
And we are very careful to say sled dog kennel because there are other federal government kennels when you look at TSA Dogs and Canine Units and things like that.
But there are no other dog teams out there working that are taxpayer owned.
So it's a pretty unique opportunity. And when the job opened up, I thought I didn’t have a chance of getting that position.
I knew it was going to be really popular. I had done two summers of interpretation, so I had some connection to the dogs. I would come up and do the demonstration with them.
I was a volunteer dog walker, so I had my dog that I would walk after -- after hours in the summer season.
But I hadn’t worked with the dogs here in winter. I was busy at other kennels in the winter.
So I applied just knowing that I would love the opportunity to work with dog teams in two million acres of designated wilderness in a six million acre park.
That was my kind of space.
And I had the teaching background. The wilderness travel background. And the dog background.
So I threw my application in just in case and was pretty surprised when I came back from the Copper Basin Race and needed to come down for my first round interview. And then I had a second round interview.
And was equally floored when they called me up and said they wanted to offer me the job. It's big shoes to fill.
The Park has only had a few different kennels managers over time.
The first official kennels manager was Sandy Kogl back in the '70’s. And she stayed in the job for about twenty years overseeing the kennels and the whole backcountry operations of the Park. There were a few folks before Sandy.
Roy Sanborn managed the kennels in the '50’s and '60’s when it was mainly Malamutes, but it wasn’t an official kennel manager position.
And I just learned that Linda Johnson of Will and Linda Forsberg was a volunteer kind of manager of the kennels for a few winters before Sandy took over.
So have to pester Will for some more stories about that, but Linda apparently did a lot of work with the dogs.
After Sandy moved on, Gary Koy, who had worked with her for a number of years took over as the kennels manager. And when he left Karen Fortier was in charge for about ten years. And then there's me.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what about the original founding of the kennels? That just wasn’t a kennel manager position?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Right. It was the superintendent and it was the whole Park.
So our first superintendent was Harry Karstens. And he was chosen first and foremost because he was a dog musher and an amazing wilderness traveler with a lot of knowledge of the land of Alaska.
He was hired by Charles Sheldon to travel by dog team and guide Charles Sheldon into the Park to do various surveys of the wildlife and particularly the Dall sheep.
Charles Sheldon was one of the main lobbyers for the formation of the Park. So Denali was established as a Park in 1917, but Harry Karstens wasn’t hired until 1921.
That's when they finally scraped together enough funding for the first position. And then he bought our first seven sled dogs from Nenana in February of 1922.
So we've had sled dogs pretty much from the beginning. Before Harry was the superintendent, he ran the mail trail by dog team from Valdez to Fairbanks.
So he had a long history of traveling this state by dog team.
And the legend has it that the first few rangers that he hired, he would hand them a dog team and say go out and travel with this team along the boundaries of the Park for two weeks, come back, and you’ve got a job.
If you don’t come back, I'll come looking for you, but you better have a new job in mind.
So he definitely expected that the first rangers were very capable dog mushers and wilderness travelers. And that lasted right on through the '30’s and '40’s.
At the peak, the Park kennels was over 50 dogs. And then by the time the '50’s rolled around, of course, the age of the machine was kicking in everywhere and the Park was no exception. Everybody was really excited to test out Snowcats and other motorized means of transport.
And see if those might be better and superior to dog teams.
We have a lot of interesting superintendents’ reports on the fact that -- what is it -- the Snowcats cover more miles in a day than a dog team, but dogs have -- sled dogs have less trouble with their carburetors.
Just that idea that, yeah, they were able to do more, but in the end the dogs were still maybe the better mode of transport for the conditions up here.
All the Park Service dogs went to the military to support the World War II effort. So we lost all of our working age dogs.
And then after the war, we were given different dogs back from the military and that's a piece of the genetics that I am still trying to piece together.
So most of our dogs that are in the kennel now trace back to a dog that Sandy Kogl and Dennis Kogl got from an ice flow outside of Barrow. Her name was Susie.
And she was a female pup that folks up there didn’t want and somehow Dennis picked up this pup, brought her back, and she was one of the greatest lead dogs he ever worked with.
And eventually he passed her on to Sandy and the Park kennels. So she's sort of the foundation breeding female for us.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What did you hope to do when you took the job? Was there --
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: I hoped to do a good job.
I think that the Park Service sled dogs are really amazing and really different from most of the other dogs in Alaska at this point. So I figured that I had a lot of learning to do in order to care for them and run them and train them the way that they deserve to be trained and used.
They’re not racing dogs. They're freight hauling dogs. And they're more of the traditional old style dogs, which I didn’t have a ton of experience with.
But that's where I started to be able to draw on what did we do in Kotzebue with the dogs, you know, running where there were no trails and we didn’t use snowmachines to groom our trails. We put them in by dog team.
So my vision was to ensure that the dogs were authentic working dogs.
The Park Service has always been really adamant that -- we started doing demonstrations for the public in ’36 or ’39. I’m terrible with dates.
And we’ve done those summer demonstrations ever since. And the Park Service has always recognized the value of the sled dogs in terms of summer visitors coming to meet them and understand what sled dogs do in Alaska.
What the Park Service has struggled more with is, what is the value of the dogs in winter.
You know, again as the age of the machines came thorough there were people who said, oh, we can use airplanes, we can use snowmachines, we can use Snowcats.
And so the use of the dogs has really changed in various times, but my vision was that I would ensure that we had authentic working dog teams. That if we had freight hauling dogs, we were going to haul freight.
So my personal goal has been to work with every division in the Park to ensure that we're reaching out to pick up projects that the dogs can do in winter. In order to reduce the Park’s use of administrative access by motorized transport.
So whether that’s -- airplanes or helicopters tends to be the common way so I'll sit down with people when they're proposing various projects and say is there any way to do that by dog team in winter instead?
Because I think that's what really inspires Park visitors. It's not just that sled dogs exist, but that these dogs do these incredible trips all winter in support of this higher goal of what is wilderness.
What does it mean to travel in wilderness. What does it mean to preserve the wilderness character of this place, the tradition, the history?
All of those things make a lot more sense when you can tell them a tangible story of we went out and we hauled out these old glacier monitoring stakes that were left on the glacier.
You know, all of a sudden you've got a million different subjects that you want to engage people in conversation about.
Why did the stakes melt out? Let’s talk about climate change. Why don’t you leave the stakes out there? Let’s talk about what the Wilderness Act is all about.
You know, why do you use dogs? Wouldn’t it be easier to just take a helicopter?
And again talking about wilderness, talking about what the dogs are good at.
What winter conditions are in Alaska and why, to me at least, it'd be far scarier to take a snowmachine into half these conditions.
You know, our dogs are incredible at traveling through overflow, on glare ice.
One of the things we often talk about is dogs have brains and snowmachines don’t.
And I couldn’t have been more grateful for that my first winter here in the kennels.
I think one of the things that's really unique about the Park kennels is there are very few other places where you have someone from Outside just stepping in and taking over an entire kennel of dogs.
And so for me the dogs needed to transition to a totally new kennels manager after ten years of working with Karen and knowing her style and who she was. All of a sudden it was me.
And I didn’t have anyone showing me where the trails were. I had never seen them before so it was the dogs teaching me. Hey lady, this is where the cabin is. Trust us, you know.
We're going to turn left here and we're going to show you.
And that was pretty incredible, but also for me to really tune into the dogs and learn who are my reliable lead dogs. Who are my great leaders on ice. Who's going to show me where the bad ice and the good ice is?
So it was a lot of really listening to the dogs that first winter and trying to figure out their strengths and weaknesses and then work with them. So that was -- that was a huge challenge.
But again, you know, my goal is to make sure that we're a demonstration kennel. With fifty to seventy thousand visitors coming through, I want to make sure that we're showing people the highest possible standard of care for sled dogs.
So maintaining a really immaculate kennel with good quality of life for our dogs, so that visitors who do come up and have questions or concerns about well what is -- what is life as a sled dog?
You know, we're really lucky again to be part of this whole national park system where we have a hundred volunteer dog walkers who adopt their personal dog for the summer and come to take them out for walks or runs multiple times a day. You know, the average kennel doesn’t get to do that.
On the flip side, most of them do get to run their dogs loose and to have that free time.
For us inside a national park, I’m not going to be able to set 30 dogs loose to go run around where we have bears and moose and visitors and all of that. So there's tradeoffs.
But making sure that I'm always staying open to what are people doing across this state to train their dogs, to breed their dogs, to ensure that their dogs are living the best life possible as sled dogs, and seeing what can we incorporate into our kennel.
I think that's been an amazing learning opportunity for me to be able to reach out to any musher like hey, how do you do this? Come teach our staff. You know, can we bring you in for a training.
So I try and really make sure that we're maximizing that.
That the Park kennels, while we're a historic kennel, we need to keep up with modern times. You know, we still use sled dogs. They are active, working dogs, so we can’t remain in what was best practice in 1927 or in 1957.
We need to know what's best practice today. So that's been a huge goal of mine is to make sure that we stay in touch with other freighting kennels across the state, but also other racing kennels so that we know what are the innovations.
I mean that's where the innovation is happening. In racing. And you want to learn how to best feed your dogs.
You talk to racers about it, because they're pushing the limits of what the dogs can do. And they're finding out what the dogs need to be able to perform at that level.
And certainly our dogs don’t need that same level though we can look at the science behind what they've learned and figure out the best diet for our dogs based off of that. You know, best harnesses, whatever it is.
And then some things we keep doing in a pretty traditional way. The Park kennels still builds all of our own sleds and maintains them.
And that's a huge commitment, but again part of the goal is passing on those traditional skills that might otherwise be lost.
So, you know, for me to be able to call up Bernie Willis and be like, "Hey, will you come teach us the physics and math of how do you design a sled based on the engineering?"
How do you calculate what the arc of the runner should be? How long should it be?
It's really amazing to have those opportunities to bring those resources in and make sure that it's documented for our staff or for anybody else who wants to learn that.
So it's been a goal of mine to also share all of this knowledge in whatever capacity we can.
And some of it is just the era that I am working in. You know, I'm at the Park in the era where the Park Service as a whole is excited about social media and the internet and reaching out to the public to connect them.
Even people who may never set foot in our kennels are huge fans of the dogs and following along what they do. So that's been a focus of mine just by the nature of what is the focus of the Park Service.
Of how do we -- how do we connect with people? And I'm still trying to learn -- the next step for me is how do we share real time from the trail what we’re doing?
I don’t know the technology there.
KAREN BREWSTER: GoPro.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Yes. We do have a GoPro. Well, we have a GoAmateur we call it.
So we're looking into all those different ways of capturing and sharing. You know, we keep a blog. We have a Facebook page, all those things that people really connect with real time.
So that's become something that Sandy Kogl never even had to think about. And that takes up a fair part of my day.
So some of the nature of my work is just dictated by where our world is these days and how we want to reach people.
BILL SCHNEIDER: You were talking about that first winter learning from the dogs. Could you say more about that -- those first couple trips and what you learned from them?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Oh, gosh. That's a good question.
The Park dogs, in comparison to other dogs that I have worked with, part of what I needed to learn was just how to communicate with them.
When you say open country leader, these guys are the true definition of it.
You know, most of it with the racing dogs and other dogs I've worked with there's choices between trails. You call Gee or Haw and they're working with a choice.
With the Park dogs, you call Gee and they're going to jump and you say Gee again and they'll keep jumping until you say that's it. And then they'll continue for you.
So learning how to maximize their performance in that way was really incredible.
And just seeing what they are capable of. Learning how much snow can they break trail through, what kind of loads can they carry, and what's the point where I need to put snowshoes or skis on in front and start breaking the trail in front of them.
You know, the Park has always prided itself on these are working dogs, they're not racing dogs. They have thick fluffy coats. They have really tough feet.
So what is the point when we have to put booties on them? And do they ever need coats?
You know, these guys camp without straw.
When we were just mushing on the Old Mail Trail past the Iditarod routes and everybody's got their straw beds where they stopped. And our dogs didn’t even look twice at them. They don’t know.
They have straw in their houses here, but they have no concept of straw on the trail. Which makes sense in a national park.
You don’t want straw and the potential for invasive species being transported in.
But just learning -- learning what their limits are. How many miles a day can a freight hauling dog cover? What kind of loads? I think that was the biggest thing for me is I reached out to everybody in the Park and I said give me your projects, and we'll see if we can do this.
I don’t know. And so it was a leap of faith for a lot of our co-workers, too, to say okay, you know, here's what I need hauled.
Or here's what I need brought back. Or here's the data I need collected. Let’s see how this works.
So the whole Park is really part of that experiment of learning what the dogs are capable of. In a lot of ways, it's certainly easier to use a helicopter.
We know what are the limits of a helicopter. This is the load. This is how it has to be packaged.
With the dog team, the conditions are constantly changing. The dogs are changing. The drivers are changing, so it was like, I think we can haul these giant timbers. Let’s find out, you know.
So a lot of it was just working with the dogs on hauling systems. You know, what we use now -- very often when we have really big awkward loads we'll have our regular sled and then we'll rig in a Siglin or a Northern Sled Works big plastic sled. And then we'll have our dog team.
And so that sled -- it actually is great 'cause it breaks up a really heavy load. Keeps it low to the ground and allows us to have two separate pivot points so we can corner and steer and control things a lot better.
But that certainly took some refining of how do you rig a gang line over those loads? How do you make sure that when your dogs are turning -- you know, the further back the sled is the less influence the dogs’ turning has on the load.
But it's been really fun to see -- What they’re capable of hauling is impressive.
We've done huge hauls for our trail crew, for our special projects crew, for historic cabin restorations, for various cleanups.
So it works. But it's always -- every time I still go out with the attitude of like well this is an experiment and we'll see, you know. We knew a lot of places that dog teams had gone over the years, but I hadn’t been there. Conditions have changed.
When you talk to the Forsbergs about freight hauling onto the Muldrow and what we are seeing of the glacier now is, I think, very different than what they were seeing. And I would love to get Will back out there with us.
And stand on top of McGonagall and say is this what it looked like when you guys were dropping down? 'Cause it's a lot of exposed rock and the glacier has really receded, so it's a pretty steep drop down onto the Muldrow now.
So I think, yeah, what the dogs taught me was just the capacity -- a lot of creativity for problem solving. But a lot of faith in them, too.
And one of the things we were just reflecting on after taking them on the packed trail of the Mail Trail, was they're not that into packed trails.
You know, I think people always worry like, "Oh, it's really hard for the dogs. We're constantly going through this deep snow with these big loads."
They get kind of bored, you know. They're like, oh, we just go follow the trail. They love it when we're out there and there's no trail.
They think that's really fun and it's been --
We rotate all the dogs through all the different positions in the team, because my philosophy is the only way I'm going to find the next great lead dogs is by putting everybody up in lead and seeing --
And I think there's different lead dogs for different situations. So our great lead dogs on glare ice are different than our great lead dogs in deep snow or different from our great lead dogs in the middle of a wind storm.
And knowing the dog’s capacity in each of those situations, I think, takes just tuning into them.
And again going back to the early lessons I got from Arleigh of learn from your dogs and ask what you can do differently to help them be successful.
So I'm constantly like okay, the problem isn’t that the wind is blowing, the problem is that I haven’t found the right dog to be up front in the wind.
And how do I go about finding that dog. Getting them up there, so --
KAREN BREWSTER: I have a couple questions about -- You said, well, how much snow can they go through and what's their weight -- So how much snow?
How deep a snow can these dogs go through? And how much weight can they carry? And what is the temperature when you have to put booties on?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Yeah, good questions.
I think in terms of how much snow, it depends on how efficiently we want to travel.
So my rule is usually by the time I see the dogs dolphin diving and kind of struggling to make a whole lot of forward progress, I'll go up front and --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Here's some juice.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Oh, thanks. And either put on skis. We've had a lot of luck if it's deep snow just putting on some wide fat skis and setting a basic trail. And then we will put all of our dogs single file and let them break trail that way.
Breaking trail double file doesn’t work at all.
Side by side they're like siblings in the back seat of a car shoving each other off the trail.
So I think they can go deeper, but it depends, you know, when we walk around the dog yard a dog like Tuya, who's all leg, can certainly handle very deep snow, but then we've got some smaller dogs.
So it's a matter of just like with any team you got -- you got to work with your least common denominator so I'd say --
KAREN BREWSTER: So what -- is that like three feet of snow or --
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Chest deep I’d say. By the time you get to chest deep they’re -- they’re struggling. This winter out at Wonder the snow was over their backs.
I mean, when we were putting the trail in it was taller than them. So then that’s me on snowshoes up front.
As far as temperature, my rule is once it’s colder than 30 below, when you get down to 40 or 50, you need to move slower both for humans and dogs.
And that was something we learned up in Kotzebue. Is everything's just more fragile. Everything's more likely to break.
And people just don’t work as well. And I really think we’re the limiting factor far before the dogs.
You know, our fingers get too cold.
The dogs do fine and it -- but it's just a matter of giving them the time to warm up.
Making sure that you’re not tweaking any muscles too soon.
So making sure that we’re traveling really slow when it's that cold out.
But we'll still move because a lot of times we’re weeks into a trip in the Park and you know when a cold front sets in, it can be a couple weeks of cold.
And so it's like well, we're either going to mush towards home in the cold or we're going to keep doing what we’re doing in the cold and so long as I feel like we can safely manage the humans and the dogs we'll keep going forward.
KAREN BREWSTER: So do you booty them up at that point?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: What’s that?
KAREN BREWSTER: Do you put booties on them at that point?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: You know, the booties it really depends on the snow conditions more than the temperature.
So what I'm looking at -- there's certain snow conditions. And it does happen in the cold usually around ten below they'll get these long ice needles in the snow.
So if we're seeing that cut their feet up or if we're traveling a lot -- across a lot of ice that's really cutting their feet up.
But strictly with ice because I would much rather they're all bare pawed going across the ice where they've got the traction of their pads and their nails than booties.
So the booties will -- we don’t usually booty. The main racers do preemptively protect all the dogs’ feet. What we're looking at is individually checking the dogs feet, watching for snow balling. Some of our dogs have finer fur than others, so we'll trim the fur between their toes.
And then we'll just be watching. They'll often need booties first. You know, some of our dogs are more prone to getting splits.
We do daily health checks on all of them, so we know who's got splits and who needs a booty with pink ointment or anything like that so -- And you asked one other.
KAREN BREWSTER: How much freight can they haul? JENNIFER RAFFAELI: So --
KAREN BREWSTER: Weight wise?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: We try -- for just our basic loads we try to keep it at 50 to 75 pounds per dog for like multi-day trips.
In an individual haul, they can haul much more than that, but we've never done the test of like, you know, entering a freight hauling competition and seeing how much can Carpe pull. Or -- But shorter distances they --
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, it depends on the distance you're going.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Exactly. And the surface.
You know, this winter with some of our bigger hauls we got lucky because it was all glare ice on the rivers.
It was really easy.
It didn’t take many dogs at all. And I'd say that's been one of our most surprising lessons. Because we're dealing with pretty tricky terrain, we often will have to drop down to one or two dogs hauling a load.
And the humans just kind of maneuvering that plastic sled with the load on it behind them because any more dog power than that and we can’t control it on the steep ups and downs or around corners.
KAREN BREWSTER: Is there a typical number of dogs you do on these trips?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: It depends on the capabilities of the mushers and the conditions.
So usually between eight and ten dogs, but this past couple of years where we've had really low snow we have done as few as five and six dogs.
And, you know, hauling all of our camping equipment, Arctic Oven tents and everything, for a few weeks with six dog teams breaking trail on the north boundary of the Park, so --
And pound for pound these guys are impressively strong.
And we were laughing with our trip with -- ten dogs was the biggest dog teams we ran all winter. On our Mail Trail trip, probably each had between four and six hundred pounds in our sleds starting off.
We hauled all of our dog food and everything like that.
So part of it becomes also again what the musher can maneuver in the sled and handle. The dogs are pretty able.
I’ve never -- I’ve never loaded a sled to the point that the dogs can’t move it. They can do that part just fine. It's usually us.
Like we'll flip our sleds intentionally on the side a lot, because we don’t have a lot of trees to tie off to.
So we'll chop our hooks into the ice or kick them into snow and then flip a sled down on top of the snow hooks to just create that much more weight and resistance while we go and work with anything in the team.
The challenge is when you come back, trying to turn your sled back upright.
And especially to get it fully upright before the dogs take off.
BILL SCHNEIDER: You had mentioned Bernie Williams and sled building? JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Uh-huh.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Can you tell us about him?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Bernie Willis?
BILL SCHNEIDER: Willis, I’m sorry.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: I met him at the Willow Dog Mushing Conference a few years back. I was presenting and he's done a lot of -- a lot of sled building for various folks around the state.
He and Cody Strathe were doing a presentation together.
And we do have one sled from Cody that I bought kind of as our example sled to help us look again at how do we want to modernize and refine our sled building. What have people learned about improving the steering, the lamination, things like that.
So in talking with Bernie and Cody, it became really apparent that Bernie just -- he's good at the engineering of how to design a sled from scratch.
So it was just a matter of calling him up. He -- he's done a lot of horse travel in the state and a lot of -- He's down in Willow.
A lot of dog team travel over the years. I don’t even know the name of -- Arctic Arrow is his company.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I imagine the sleds that you would want him to engineer for you are very different from most of the sleds he's working on.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: We didn’t ask Bernie to design a particular sled. We asked him to come up and look at our sleds and tell us what we were we doing right and wrong and as we were -- because I would say okay I want a 10 foot bed.
How long do my runners need to be? You know, we have so many different models of sleds that have been built over the years with not a whole lot of documentation of why did this person choose to build sleds with this kind of arc?
What are the conditions where that's ideal or where would that be a hindrance? What’s the point where you've got too much arc in the front?
So what we asked Bernie to come in and do was just help us develop the math and answer some of the questions of what we need to take into consideration.
The rocker and the camber of runners, the amount of toe-in. How do you determine --
You know, runners aren’t attached straight to a sled. They're attached at a slightly toed-in angle. Well, how do we calculate that?
You know, what do we need to be considering for the fact that we're carrying these big loads? What's the upper capacity of how long of a sled we should really look at designing?
So he was there to answer more of the big picture questions rather than to say here's the next generation of sled you want to build.
Our sleds are definitely a hybrid. We still do laminated wood runners and wood stanchions. We use toboggan-style sleds more than basket sleds.
Bill Nancarrow was the main sled builder, dog musher, naturalist in the Park for a long time.
In our sled room, we still have one of Bill’s sleds on display. And back in the day, they used a lot of basket sleds.
But over time, they started to realize that especially in the conditions that we travel in there are some great advantages to a toboggan-style sled. So that's mainly what we use.
And that was certainly a transition for me from racing.
A nice small, light racing sled. It meant coming to these big heavy toboggan-style sleds.
But they really do work well and they're pretty bomb proof.
They're heavy. Our sleds weigh about a hundred and fifty pounds empty.
So they’re -- they're not light and fast by any means, but they are durable and we do go mushing across gravel bars and crashing into rocks and banging through trees in the forest. And they seem to come out mostly fine.
We have special runner plastic that we get that's extra thick QCR plastic. So we actually have just started experimenting in the last few years with QCR plastic.
And everyone was very worried, of like, that's going to get ripped right off as soon as you put that on a sled in the Park.
But ours is much thicker and much wider than typical racing sled runner plastic. And it's endured several winter seasons now of pretty hard abuse.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I want to get some pictures of the sleds. JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Yeah, sure.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How -- you've answered some of this, do you want to add anything more to how your management differs from those that came before?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: I, you know, it's interesting 'cause I never got the chance to talk to Sandy, but just reading her log book entries, hearing stories about her, I think she was a kindred spirit, for sure.
I think we have pretty similar philosophies of ensuring that the dogs are used to their fullest potential. And I think Sandy definitely passed that on to Gary.
He's been a great resource for me.
And I think each manager kind of has their own style. Again, that's in tune with the era and the philosophy of upper Park management.
You know, I still have a lot of people who work above me that influence what I do and how I do it with the dogs. I'm pretty low in the food chain in the Park Service.
So I think what's different in what I've done is really looking for creative ways to keep the Park dogs sharing the story of dog mushing to a much broader audience as we become more globalized and again more connected through social media and the internet.
I think we have more opportunities to look at the Denali sled dogs as a resource for all the parks in Alaska.
So our Park management has been really supportive of that.
So last winter, you know, working with Yukon-Charley, Gates of the Arctic staff to take the dogs up to do a cleanup up in Gates of the Arctic.
You know, that's pretty different. The Park dogs have gone outside the Park in the past, but not as high profile and partnered with other -- other Park staff. So we had other rangers who usually patrol that area that were out there in advance working with us to do that project.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us about some of those projects.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: So the Gates of the Arctic cleanup was in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act last year.
So the superintendent for Yukon-Charley/Gates of the Arctic had put in a request for our Park dogs to travel with Yukon-Charley/Gates of the Arctic park rangers to clean up seven barrels that were out at the May Lake Wilderness site which is a pretty remote location.
And it's a project -- a cleanup that they had attempted to do with motorized transport in the past and that hadn’t worked out.
And they had said, you know, this is a great time to highlight the importance of the Wilderness Act and the importance of non-motorized transport to access these really remote locations.
So we hauled out seven old abandoned oil drums that are all over the Arctic.
Again from a different era when airplanes were flying in and out and fuel was stashed all over the place.
And from a resource standpoint or economic standpoint, it didn’t make sense once those barrels were empty to get them back out of this vast open area.
And it's only in more modern times that I think we've started to recognize that people want to go and experience those places without more modern human trash around.
I think there's a difference in the wilderness experience finding really historic resources up in Gates, you know, things left behind from traditional hunting practices way back in the day versus an old fuel barrel.
But we did laugh coming into Anaktuvuk 'cause they said well some of those they use for their navigation.
Their description of like, well, you want to take a left at that oil drum as you head out of town, so --
But the residents themselves, you know, that's a much larger cleanup effort that's going on with some of the lakes up there where they have traditional fishing sites and things like that.
So the residents have worked with the Parks to clean out the drums, to clean out any potential contaminants in their fishing and water sources and things like that, so --
We were just one small part of a much bigger multi-year cleanup effort up there.
But again our capacity to share that story --
I mean we have this amazing outreach tool in the form of these adorable fluffy Huskies that people want to listen to them more than they want to listen to any human ranger talking.
And so if we can help translate the stories of the dogs for our visitors we have -- we have a really amazing fan base of sled dog fans.
They want to know what the Park’s -- Park's dogs do and why.
So we did that project. This winter we followed the Old Mail Trail project. And again, originally the plan was to go on the Serum Run all the way from Nenana to Nome. And we had to scale that trip back a little bit this year just based on a multitude of factors.
But we were hoping to get as far as Tanana and work on interviewing elders and youth along the way talking to them about the role of sled dogs in their lives.
So again for me, you know, the hope is that we can put together some short video pieces that will be played here and other visitor centers around the state just sharing what was and what is and what will be the connection to sled dogs for Native Alaskans.
What's the importance of sled dogs to them and do they see a continued role or is this an era of change?
So I think I've been really lucky to have Park management that's open to really creative interpretation of what is our responsibility as the National Park Service kennels.
And a huge part of what we do is preserve cultural history. And the history of sled dogs extends far beyond Harry Karstens and the first dog teams here.
So, you know, I always try and find new ways to share that story beyond the dog demonstration, beyond our interpreters.
And having those authentic voices of people who've lived and worked with dogs much longer than I have, much longer than any of our staff have, I think is really important.
So taking the dogs out, you know, we've talked about the fact that arriving any place by dog team versus plunking in by airplane or ATV or driving up in a car, it’s different.
People want to talk to you and it becomes much more of a back and forth about the dogs. And it really does instigate a sharing of stories that might not ever come out as they're sitting there petting our dogs and talking about how our dogs compare to their dogs and things like that.
So it's been -- it's been just a really great tool for getting those stories flowing when we can arrive by dog team.
KAREN BREWSTER: And that -- excuse me, that Mail Trail is from Nenana to --
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: We went from Nenana to Manley. And then we backtracked to Old Minto and then headed due north up to Minto.
And the true Mail Trail that Charlie was telling us is -- it really continues more towards Charlie Boulding’s house.
What we traveled on from that point to Manley is kind of a different variation.
But you can probably speak better to that than me, Bill.
KAREN BREWSTER: I just wanted the general sense. When you say Mail Trail, not everybody knows what you're talking about.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Yeah, yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So are you -- are you at liberty to talk about projects for next year?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Oh, it's not like they're top secret, but I haven’t planned them yet.
Yeah, so what I do -- how I spend my summer is, you know, tapping into what are -- what are people looking at doing.
The Park has a bunch of different review processes for proposed projects, whether that's compliance and things like that. So I'm always keeping my finger on the pulse of what's up for compliance.
Where are people asking for exceptions for administrative access via helicopter and what projects might make sense to do by dog team. So my hope --
You know we always love working with trail crew, if they have remote locations that they need to deliver supplies or haul things out.
That's a really easy run for us to partner with them on and get some big awkward items on site.
Resources is always great, you know, they're the ones who are coordinating all the different research projects in the Park. So whether we're going out and collecting data for our researchers -- because we are out in the Park so frequently, very often we can partner and help support a project.
So actually UAF has an on-going study of mesocarnivores in the Park where they've had UAF students gathering scat and following tracks of all the mesocarnivores to figure out how coyotes, lynx, foxes are changing in population numbers in relation to our changing wolf population numbers.
So how the kennels support -- has supported that for the last few years is every time we go out we're carrying special scat collection sample bags. And any time we find any scat then we'll pick it up, bag it, take a GPS location, and turn all of that into them.
Then that becomes a much larger sample size than they would otherwise be able to obtain just on skis or on snowmachines outside the Park boundary.
So we've kind of covered the wilderness section of their study area for them.
We have a Park glaciologist who wanted to get out and get more spring snow data information on how -- how are the -- how's the snow depth on the glaciers changing based on snow fall year round.
Well, most of our research happens in the summertime when there's people around, but he was like, well, I want that winter and spring information.
So we took him out to McGonagall Pass this winter and then he and one of our kennel staff skied up onto the Traleika Glacier.
And the reason we don’t take dogs at that point is, it's just not worth it to mush on the Traleika in low snow conditions.
There's so many sharp rocks up there.
And you just get into a diminishing returns of if you're going to take dogs high up onto a glacier where there's pretty harsh conditions. Melting snow to make water for dog teams. Everything that goes into caring for dogs.
We are always weighing does the benefit of having the dogs hauling things versus the work of taking care of a dog team make a difference.
You know, where does it flip of maybe we should just go on skis. So in that case it was like, oh, yeah, at most you would need to skijor with the dogs for the equipment that they were going in.
So we said, okay, we're going to haul you by dog team all the way up to the point that it doesn’t make sense anymore and then you guys can go on your own.
So there's a lot of just those logistics that's very project specific.
But I love working with resources and we're always hoping that they can come up with some more great research projects. Because again that's what visitors want to hear about. They're fascinated with what are you studying in the Park right now? And why?
And our researchers don’t necessarily have that huge captive audience again that we do. So, you know, again what I try and engage the Park managers on is that idea of what stories do you want the public to know about because we can help you tell them.
But in order for us to tell those stories, we have to participate in them. It has to be a real part of what the dogs have done.
So it gets people thinking differently about it, so --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh-huh. That’s great.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: So I don’t know what we're doing next winter, Bill.
I'll tell you like in August or September. It's usually an ongoing --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Sure.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: -- ongoing endeavor.
KAREN BREWSTER: Is there something that you use the dogs to clean up some of the debris left on the mountain?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: So that cleanup effort actually mainly happened in the summertime. And that was spearheaded by Roger Robinson, who is one of our mountaineer rangers out of Talkeetna.
They observed that there was incredibly low snow that summer and a lot of stuff was actually melting out of the ice that hadn’t been exposed for years.
So they were able to pick up some trash. We had a lot of different divisions out there. Everyone from visitor and resource protection to archeology to cultural.
You know, we had cultural resource experts out there with us to say that's historic, that stays.
You know, that can be trash. And then Roger and other mountaineering rangers who know the history of what all those different expeditions accessing from the north side were.
So that was really mainly a summer effort and I was part of that and then there were two big -- we call them dirt bags is how trail crew hauls their dirt. They're huge white poly bags that can be sling loaded below a helicopter.
Two dirt bags, one that we left and GPS’d and put huge wands on up on a high island of rock on the glacier. And then one up at the top of McGonagall Pass.
And a mountaineering ranger and I went back - skijored in and the dogs got us there just fine and those bags were nowhere to be found.
So that was one of those great examples. This is one of the few projects that we couldn’t complete it, but it wasn’t the dogs fault. They got us right where we needed to be.
Joe and I probed up and down the glacier for hours. We called our Park glaciologist and said how far might this glacier have moved between July and now, in terms of our GPS point being accurate?
And the answer was 50 to 70 meters.
And so we probed and probed and probed and dug and dug and dug and the dogs sat there.
We're ready to haul whenever you find the thing you'd like to haul. But we couldn’t find it. They found it the next summer.
The other one up at the top of McGonagall Pass was buried under rock solid debris from a slide that had come down and then just frozen into ice. And we chopped at that with our axes for hours and no, buried.
But the next summer we were able to hike it out so --
So that's an interesting question of like a project that really was more -- more focused on the south side and it's a great story. And Roger would be able to tell you a lot more about it.
And one of the few examples of where we weren’t able to do the project by dog team, but again to remember that the dogs were totally capable of it.
It was the conditions and our own lack of like what else could we have done. I guess I could have put even taller wands. . I don't know.
KAREN BREWSTER: And then you mentioned the glacier stakes. That's another one?
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Yeah, so this winter we did do two cleanup projects that are part of a multi-year ongoing effort.
Mount Pendleton, which is up the East Fork of the Toklat, has had glacier monitoring stakes.
So very often how they measure the movement of glaciers over time is to take a steam drill and install these long, multi-meter long aluminum or steel rods into the glacier at certain intervals and then track how those moved down glacier over time.
Well, eventually the glacier melts out enough that so those old stakes or rods just melt out onto the surface of the glacier.
They're no longer gathering valuable data at that point, so it just becomes trash that we need to clean up.
So last summer our Park glaciologist and wilderness coordinator and a bunch of different backcountry staff and even volunteer youth groups went in and --
Oh, actually the youth groups did it a different one. There was a citizen’s science project out on the Pendleton Glacier.
But they piled up all the stakes and then I went out with our backcountry staff to make sure that the final piles where in a location we could access by dog team in winter.
And then we took the dogs out and it was great. It was a place that we hadn’t taken them for a long time.
And so it's always fun to say, okay, let’s see if we can get dogs up to the toe of this glacier and see if we can haul this stuff out.
And it was actually really easy. Jayme was filming it for us to see if we can use it in a remake. We have a little winter patrol movie that kind of tells the story that visitors can buy of what the dogs do in winter.
The last time that was made was in 1995, so it's time for some new footage.
So Jayme was helping us with that, but she was disappointed 'cause it just didn’t look that impressive when we hauled it out.
KAREN BREWSTER: It was too easy.
JENNIFER RAFFAELI: Yeah. And then we continued on during that same trip up to the main branch of the Toklat River.
And there have been several bridges across the Toklat over the years that have washed out in various flood events and left tons of debris downriver that become again a safety hazard and a detriment to wilderness character.
So Sandy Kogl did a bunch of cleanups there with the Park dogs in the 70’s.
Other folks have continued that up in the 90’s. There were several efforts in the early 2000’s.
And it's getting to a point now where there's just a few final pieces pretty far downriver. So again, we're not -- no longer hauling the huge loads like you see in the old pictures.
But I think that speaks to how much work has been done on that. So we hauled out a few loads that -- again backcountry staff go through during the summertime and they find all those pieces and GPS mark them for us.
Move them out of the floodplain of the river, because by the time we get on the Toklat in winter it's one huge sheet of ice.
It looks like a massive river.
And so if they leave the debris in that river channel, we can’t get it out. It's frozen solid in ice.
So they make sure that it's all positioned in a location that we can actually get to it in winter and then haul it back to the road for removal this summer.