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DENALI NATIONAL PARK - Karen Fortier may be a slender, petite brunette but to the 30 working dogs at the Denali National Park kennels, she's a giant.
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Their eyes follow her, their bellies lower and tails wag when she approaches. Now in her sixth season as manager, Fortier is the kennel's top dog.
Although the Denali kennels began in 1922, the first manager wasn't hired until the early 1970s. Following the tradition of the park's first superintendent, Harry Karstens, rangers did a little bit of everything, including running the dogs. As the park and number of its visitors grew, the kennels became too important to leave in the hands of amateurs.
The dogs are the only legal means of transportation within the park's designated wilderness boundaries. Backcountry rangers, led by Fortier, patrol 3,000 miles each winter.
It's a situation unique to Denali. Fortier is the only government-paid kennels manager in the U.S. It's a position that requires characteristics beyond being a sled dog expert.
She's a novice veterinarian technician, a breeder and a caretaker but above all, a survivor.
"The kennel manager leads multiple sled dog trips into the park in the winter in Alaska weather conditions," said Denali chief ranger Pete Armington. "That requires somebody who knows how to travel and survive in those conditions in the winter, not just personally survive, but be able to take care of multiple dog teams at the same time."
Although she'd been a seasonal wildlife technician in Denali for several years and run a team of racing dogs with her husband before being hired as manager in 2000, Fortier knew she had a lot to learn her first day on the job.
It was January and her winter duties included putting in trails for winter users, contacting winter visitors, hauling firewood and supplies to backcountry cabins, and transporting anyone who needed to go through the park.
This meant a lot of time spent on the sled behind the team. Fortier quickly discovered running a team through virgin snow was a lot different than racing.
"The type of mushing I'd done to that point was primarily on trails with racing dogs," said the Connecticut native. "I'd never done a lot of trailless mushing and it required a lot of trail breaking on snowshoes. It was a lot more challenging than just tearing down the trail."