Everybody say, “Awww.” Even the sled-dog puppies are birthday-themed this year as Denali National Park and Preserve marks 100 years since it was established.
Cupcake, Happy, Pinata and Party will greet guests this year at one of the park’s most popular activities, the ranger-led sled dog demonstrations. These “bark rangers” are scampering to join the ranks of Denali’s 30 adult huskies, the only working sled dogs in the National Park Service.
Of course, the pups only set the stage for the abundant animal life visitors expect to see in Denali.
Alaskan author Sherry Simpson pretty much nailed it when she wrote that the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the park each year do so “hoping for a wildlife encounter that doesn’t involve bloodshed.”
That wildlife draws eager visitors to the massive park in south-central Alaska. Most tourists sign up for a bus tour, since Denali doesn’t allow private vehicles past Mile 15 of the Denali Park Road, the park’s only thoroughfare.
In September 2016, my husband and I took one of the 13-hour narrated tours that wound around for 92 miles to Kantishna, the farthest spot you can drive into the park. We piled into a school bus early in the morning and often felt like kids on a field trip as we stopped regularly for snacks and potty breaks along the way.
We saw grizzlies, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, eagles, ptarmigans and what we thought was a wolf from the safe confines of the bus.
Park Superintendent Don Striker says he sometimes feels guilty because the animals people see from the buses are “habituated, so you don’t get the true wilderness experience.”
And we saw Denali, North America’s tallest peak at 20,310 feet. About two-thirds of park visitors never even see the mountain Alaska’s first people called “The High One,” because it’s often obscured by weather, some of which is of its own making.
The Eielson Visitor Center tries to take the edge off guests’ disappointment with what Striker terms a “consolation prize,” a view of the peak etched on a window, showing what the mountain would look like on a clear day.
Striker offers this upbeat reassurance: “When the mountain isn’t out, the bears are.”
He suggests people wanting to make sure they see the mountain come to the park in winter. That would be March, April and May. “There may not be as many amenities,” he says. “But the light is awesome, and the mountain is out a lot.”
As the park moves into its next century, Striker says Rangers are working to provide more winter activities, including perhaps letting people ski from camp to camp, with sled dogs hauling gear for them.
In February, Striker and his team marked the official anniversary of the park’s creation in 1917.
Charles Sheldon II, grandson of Charles Sheldon, a passionate conservationist and one of the forces behind the park’s founding, presented his grandfather’s rifle — the only gun Sheldon ever used to hunt in the northland — to the park for safekeeping and display.
In the early 1900s, Charles Sheldon studied the Dall sheep found on Alaskan slopes and pushed Congress to designate the park to protect the animals and their habitat from hunters who would be coming with the development of the Alaska Railroad .
Striker says Sheldon’s efforts, which were joined by territorial delegate James Wickersham, the conservation-minded Boone and Crockett Club and others, show the power of community.
“It shows what it took to make the park. Public and private partners came together,” he says, adding that he hopes for Denali’s next century the same kind of partners can “come together on common ground and focus on what we can do now to make sure Denali is in as good a shape 100 years from now as it was 100 years ago.”
Denali kicked off its Centennial Summer on June 10 with music, birthday cake, children’s activities and more. During peak season, rangers will lead on- and off-trail hikes and programs at the park’s six campgrounds, plus the sled dog demonstrations. All are free and don’t require reservations.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker says visiting Denali is an experience like none other.
“It’s hard not to be in awe of the vast wilderness around you,” Walker says via email.
Henry David Thoreau of Walden Pond fame wrote that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
Denali may be one sure sign of America’s prosperity as the park begins its next century.
About the park
Size:4,704,911 acres in the park; 1,334,117 acres in the preserve.
Visitors: 599,822 in 2016.