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At Denali National Park, sled dogs are truly rangers' best friends

The sled dogs of Denali National Park and Preserve are beyond cute. They're also a hot ticket at the park, which offers free demonstrations and meet-the-dogs tours at the park's kennels.

It's a one-of-a-kind show because only Denali — out of 400 national parks — has sled dogs. More than 50,000 people hop on a park shuttle annually for a ride to the kennels to learn more about Alaskan sled dogs, which are bred for their skills, not for kennel club membership.

You can catch a look at sled dogs in training on the park's puppy webcam (www.lat.ms/1JRAmB0), where you'll more than likely see them napping or playing.

Adult dogs don't have it so easy, at least not in the winter. Things heat up for them when the weather cools, and they begin pulling sleds full of supplies to rangers in isolated parts of the park. It's a tradition nearly as old as the park itself: Denali has used sled dogs since the first ranger was hired in 1921.

PHOTOS: Alaska's Denali National Park

"Each winter Denali patrol teams log an average of 3,000 miles collecting weather and wildlife data and hauling firewood and supplies to the backcountry," ranger Cassie Anderson told us during a meet-the-huskies tour at the kennels. "Pound for pound, they're the strongest draft animals on Earth."

While Anderson talked, the dogs rested in their kennels. But as soon as she began rounding them up for a demonstration, they went into overdrive, barking, howling, wagging their long tails and jumping atop their doghouses in a canine version of "Pick me! Pick me!"

Before long the choice was made, the huskies were hooked up to a sled and they took off, flying around a makeshift dirt track as we watched. Their top speed is 40 to 50 mph, Anderson said later.

It was obvious they love to run and love to work with the rangers.

The same is true of the rangers. "This pack has completely won over my heart," Anderson said.

travel@latimes.com

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