ANCHORAGE - In the world of dog mushing, there aren't many jobs with a steady paycheck. Professional mushers live off the bounty of their race earnings, dog breeding skills and marketing savvy.
And within a federal government that employs 19.7 million people, there is one - exactly one - dog mushing job.
And it's open.
The National Park Service is looking for a new kennels manager at Denali National Park and Preserve, a job that in addition to running Denali's 31-animal dog kennel includes mushing into one of America's great swaths of wilderness.
And the pay range of $33,477 to $66,542 - plus a healthy 25 percent cost of living adjustment - is more than what many mushers earn in a race season.
As part of the federal bureaucracy, though, there's more to it than mushing and caring for dogs.
"Our candidate must be a strong leader with supervisory skills and will be relied upon to provide all manner of services as a park ranger - from rescuing visitors and patrolling the park wilderness to presenting educational programs and community outreach," noted Philip Hooge, Denali's deputy superintendent, in a press release.
Karen Fortier, a Connecticut native who had the job for nearly 10 years, calls it "a great job."
It's one that changes markedly depending on the season. As much as 70 percent of the winter is spent mushing thousands of miles in the Denali backcountry -- ferrying supplies, bringing researchers to various parts of the park, hauling firewood and patrolling. Those trips can last weeks.
"There's really nothing that quite compares to being out on the trail in the middle of winter," Fortier said. "It's beautiful, it's completely silent, and by March you have the long daylight, too.
"But it's physically demanding. We're breaking our own trail, and we end up doing a lot of snowshoeing in front of the team at times."
Summer is tourist season. That means three daily hour-long interpretive programs for the hundreds of tourists who visit the kennel each day. This summer more than 50,000 visitors stopped by.
In every season, the kennel must be managed. Dogs must be fed, bred and trained, poop must be scooped, vaccinations must be administered.
"And just like with any federal or government job, there's that whole level of paperwork," Fortier recounted. "You think it's going to be this glory job, but so much is managing the operation behind the scenes."
That's something at least one local musher said Fortier did well.
"Karen Fortier was one of the best kennel managers that Denali has ever employed," said musher Will Forsberg, who for 32 years lived on the Old Stampede Trail near the park's north boundary. "She strengthened the park's line of strong, disciplined and very intelligent sled dogs with a very good breeding and training program."
Denali dog mushing dates back to the park's inception.
When naturalist Charles Sheldon needed a guide to assist in his studies of Dall sheep during the winter of 1907-08, he hired veteran Alaska dog musher Harry Karstens, the man who was part of the first ascent of Mount McKinley in 1913 along with Hudson Stuck and Walter Harper.
Sheldon was later part of the long effort to establish Mount McKinley National Park in 1917.
Four years later, McKinley's first ranger was hired. Karstens got the job. At the time, poaching was rampant, and Karstens traveled the park backcountry behind his team of working dogs in an effort to stem it.
Over the next few years, more rangers were hired and each ranger was assigned a team of seven dogs and a district of the park to patrol for months at a time.
By 1936, 50 adult dogs and 14 pups were housed at the McKinley kennels, and they soon became one of the most popular summertime attractions for tourists.
"You're part of the history dating back to the early 1900s," Fortier said. "There's a whole line of dogs we've held on to, and that's special."
Denali dogs are much different from the sleek racing breeds used by sprint and Iditarod mushers.
These are freight-hauling animals averaging 70-80 pounds, with the biggest topping 90 pounds. They're built for strength and stamina, not speed.
"As the world of dog sledding moves more and more to small, lightly furred race dogs, the Denali Park kennel is becoming one of the last bastions of traditional mushing," said Forsberg, who along with his wife, Linda, ran the Yukon Quest eight times. "These are the dogs that opened up Alaska to settlement, carried the mail and supported the first climbs on Mount McKinley. The Denali kennel is a great example of the living history that the Park Service seeks to preserve."
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