Myths and Legends of Mushing

Posted By: Hannah Wagenaar     All Posts by Hannah Wagenaar  

January 26, 2016

As people around the United States gear up for the Super Bowl, Alaska is preparing for its own brand of competition, dog mushing. Every winter thousands of people take to their sled runners and harness up their dogs to enjoy the winter landscape. While Alaskans cannot claim to have invented dog mushing, the people of the 49th state have certainly embraced it whole-heartedly. Since 1972, Alaska has recognized dog mushing as its state sport, but well before mushing had any official recognition, it was shaping Alaska, one dog at a time.


Even before the first explorers came to North America, canines played a vital role within indigenous cultures. In 1732, when Russian trappers first set foot in what is now Alaska, they found Natives using dogs to move goods to hunting camps and between villages. These same trappers quickly adopted the same practice and began using dogs to hauling furs, supplies and people. As the years passed changes were made. The number of dogs in a team increased and the design of the sleds also began to change. What began as a utilitarian practice gradually started to resemble modern-day dog mushing.


In 1925, it was mushers and their furry companions that braved ground blizzards, deep snow, and unprecedented cold to deliver diphtheria serum to the isolated village of Nome. Setting a blistering pace, the 20 mushers and 150+ dogs were able to relay the medication; traversing the 651-mile route in just over five days. This amazing feat helped to transform mushers into myth and dogs into legend. Well before Balto became a household name, dog mushing was leaving its mark upon Alaska.  


Until the mid-to-late 1920s, when airplanes started to become safer and faster form of transportation, dogs were the main method of moving goods and people throughout Interior Alaska. The Alaska Railroad did not fully connect Anchorage to Fairbanks until 1923. Even today, as people drive between Anchorage and Fairbanks on the Parks Highway, they are driving where dogs once tread. It was mushers, delivering mail and goods for the US Postal Service, who pioneered the route that was destined to become the Parks Highway.


Over the years, Alaskan’s love affair with dog mushing has not been without trials. As snowmobiles, also known as “iron dogs”, increased in popularity, more and more people began to forego their dog teams for the easier-to-maintain Skidoos and Bearcats. Thanks to people like Dorothy Page and Joe Reddington Sr. mushing continues to have a foothold in Alaska to this day. While the names “Page” and “Reddington” might not warrant immediate recognition outside of Alaska, it was these two individuals who began to dream of revitalizing the sport. In 1973, their dream was realized when the first Iditarod was held. 


Perhaps the largest misconstrued belief about the Iditarod is that it was developed as a tribute to the 1925 serum run to Nome. While the routes of the two events do partially overlap and end in the same place, their influence on each other ends there. What has been termed, "The Last Great Race on Earth", was not created to re-enact the serum run, but rather to commemorate the freight route to Nome, known as the Iditarod Trail, and to pay homage to the role that dog mushing played in shaping Alaska. In the years since the Iditarod began, other dog races have taken hold in Alaska. The Yukon Quest, Kuskokwim 300 and Copper Basin 300 are run every year, just to name a few. Moreover, Alaska has become a “Mecca” for dog mushers and outdoor adventurers alike.


This winter mushers and dogs alike will brave the elements to take part in the sport that has become dog mushing. The mushers that take part in these races are attempting to carve out their own piece of Alaskan history, while the dogs are simply enjoying what they have been doing for thousands of years- running.  Each year, as people around the world watch races like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest unfold, We are reminded of where we have come from. These dog races are run to pay homage to the wilderness that they are run through, and in part to remember the people that pioneered the north long before it was named. But, perhaps we also love these races because they remind us that there is a little something wild in us all.

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The Season of Light

Posted By: Hannah Wagenaar     All Posts by Hannah Wagenaar  

December 16, 2015

I live in a place that often evokes many questions. Why do you live here? What do you do in the winter? Isn’t it dark?!!! And COLD!??!? When I hear these questions I completely understand the rationale behind them. I might have asked them myself before I moved here, but the reality of what I have found is far from what I expected. In a place know for darkness, my friends and community could not instill more light into my days.

Every year Alaska and Denali experience the waxing and waning of the seasons. In four short months Denali hosts over a half million visitors, over a billion migratory birds and an unknown number of blooming flowers. As fall faded this year many of the birds and people who called Denali home in the summer had already moved south for the winter. As snow began to blanket our landscape, hiking was replaced by skiing, and running shoes were set-aside as dog sled runners took their place. Our northern lives slowed to a pace more befitting the still winter landscape.

As December is here in earnest now, holiday music fills most homes and wreaths adorn the cabins tucked into our landscape. So begins that time of year when, around the world, people come together to celebrate family, friends, and community. At the entrance of Denali the same holiday bustle can be found, but like the voles scampering about in their snowy tunnels underfoot, one might have to look carefully to notice the flurry of activity and preparations.

One first notices the influx of packages at the post office, both coming and going. In a state where indoor plumbing and running water are often optional, Amazon Prime with its free shipping has an appeal that is hard to ignore. Friends depart on trips ‘outside’, a term referring to any place other than the state of Alaska. These trips often carry people to warmer place and familiar faces. Weeks can go by without seeing a particular friend and neighbor. No matter how many weeks elapse in their absence one thing is true; they come back. They come back with stories of families visited but also of how much they missed their Denali home while they were away.

This year Chanukah has already come to an end. I celebrated the Festival of Lights, not because I am Jewish, but because in the North we celebrate light in all forms. On Sunday I stood in a room full of friends, very few of whom were Jewish. Attempts were made to pronounce the Chanukah blessings correctly. Few succeeded. “Asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav” does not roll easily off of the tongue for everyone. In the end, almost nothing was recited accurately or in the proper cadence. Some words were abandoned entirely- sorry “v’tzivanu”- but our recitation was done with vigor and with an appreciation for those people with whom Chanukah and the Jewish faith resonates.

As Christmas approaches I know that these same friends will come together to celebrate a different holiday. We will watch ‘A Christmas Story’, drink eggnog, and stay in pajamas for way longer than is traditionally acceptable. We will think about our family members far away but hold close the community that surrounds us. I live in a cold and dark place. I live far away from movie theatres and shopping centers. My life is not always logistically the simple, but this holiday season I am trying to stop and appreciate the simple things in every day, like Chanukah candles, community and light. 

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Simplicity, and Thankfulness

Posted By: Jan     All Posts by Jan  

November 18, 2015

Living along the border of one of the worlds most famous and stunning National Parks, it’s relatively easy to be occasionally touched (or even blown away) by moments of wonder and awe.  In the summer at the lodges we have the great fortune to hike across pristine tundra meadows and watch while caribou prance along in front of us.  We gawk at the long-tailed jaegers flight and ponder the long migrations of nearly 150 bird species that breed in Denali, but fly south for the winter.  We light a fire in our woodstove or firepace and savor fine meals and warm conversations with fellow travelers. And we get to share those experiences with you, our guests.

Winter in Denali holds no less of a thrill, though a very different one. The way the high winds blow snow off the tall peaks, the tracks of a lynx, the aurora dancing overhead in a star-filled night sky.  These moments still catch our breath and hold us captive to the wonders of the earth, if not for just a moment.  Our nose stings, our fingers are white and numb, and the reality of a winter in the continental climate of northern interior Alaska comes back to you.  This last week our thermometer has been hovering around zero Fahrenheit (-18C), and we’ve been losing five minutes of sunlight per day. The Christmas lights have been strung up, and walking the dogs before and after work means using a headlamp and mukluks, or skis.  Yesterday morning was a chilly -25F when our office crew came in for work.  It was so cold my knees absolutely ached from being outside for 30 minutes.

In temperatures like these, as the dark and cold of winter takes hold, it’s easy to forget the zest and wonder you have for a place, or a particular passion in your life.  We want you to bring those awestruck and thankful moments back into your life, even with challenging weather, stressful holidays, or getting too far settled into a routine. We are lucky to be able to live in a place that ignites that spark in people.  We love nothing more than to show you the grace of the natural world. The explosive flavors of a pesto made from our greenhouse basil.  The calm that comes from being a place with no internet or cell service.  The majority of our guests, now our friends, hold these few days close to their hearts and bring that sense of wonder back to their normal lives.

Forget not how blessed you are to have friends, family, a safe and warm home, and the small wonders around you.  Try not to wear your busy schedule as a badge of honor, rather try to slow down a moment to thank a friendly neighbor, savor a warm cup of tea, and pet the cat or dog for a nice, long while.  Look up at the waning morning moon as you shuffle though the busy streets, go for a walk with a friend, read a beautiful poem as you ride the bus, and delight in the laughter of a child.  It doesn’t take the highest mountain in North America to bring a sense of thankfulness and awe in your life, though it can help you to recall those things more easily, we acknowledge!  Take those moments to heart, and hold them daily in your beautiful, simple, and kind life.

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Denali Dispatch

It is our pleasure to present Dispatches, a journal of the goings on at Camp Denali & North Face Lodge. Written by members of our staff, Dispatches is an opportunity to peek into the special sightings notebook, brush up on Denali National Park issues, read about our ongoing projects in sustainability, and maybe get a whiff of what’s cooking in the kitchens. Dispatches will carry on through the winter, when we hope to share stories of snowy ski adventures, deep cold, and the events of a small Alaskan community.