Is This the Most Unique Job in the National Park Service?

Dog team at Denali.

NPS dog team on patrol at Denali. NPS photo.

The National Park Service employs men and women in some unusual and challenging positions, but one that's a good contender for the title of "most unique job in the national parks" is currently open at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

The "knowledge, skills, and abilities" necessary to get it done in this job should narrow the field of applicants pretty quickly. For starters, how about "Experience in travel by dog team in subarctic winter environments" and "Experience in managing a kennel operation consisting of multiple sled-dogs, including feeding, training, conditioning, breeding, basic health care, and maintenance of related equipment"... and that's only part of the list.

Although the official job title "Park Ranger (Kennels Manager)" is unusual enough, the combination of location and responsibility makes the position even more demanding than it may appear at first glance. In addition to those all-encompassing responsibilities for between 25 and 35 NPS huskies, this ranger needs a formidable set of skills in the field.

He or she will

use dog teams to patrol the park wilderness to break and maintain winter trails, monitor wildlife activity and assist visitors; lead and mentor other employees in patrolling by dog-sled; plan and coordinate freight hauling trips by dog-sled in the park wilderness; and perform as a lead member of the district team to maintain year-round emergency management and response capability.

Denali National Park and Preserve includes over six million acres; nearly two million of those acres are designated wilderness, and sled dogs are the ideal means of transportation in this terrain during the long winter season. A park publication notes,

The use of sled dogs to access the wilderness not only preserves an important cultural resource, but also provides a reliable means of transportation and allows rangers at Denali to be the eyes and ears of the park during the long winter months.

Similar to summer’s back-country rangers, dog-team travel allows rangers to contact winter recreationists and provide information on trail conditions, offer assistance, and monitor use in a low-impact style that preserves the wilderness spirit essential to Denali. The presence of the rangers in the backcountry also helps deter illegal activities in the park, such as snowmachining and poaching.

The sled-dog trails made during winter patrols are used by winter recreationists who want to explore Denali on skis, snowshoes, or with their own dog team. Denali’s dogs also provide transportation for some of the researchers who collect data on wildlife populations during the winter months.

Over the years, the dogs have hauled thousands of pounds of materials, supplies for cabin building or restoration projects or trail construction efforts. They are very much a key element of park operations.

The vacancy announcement for this job notes that travel is "frequently required," and that's an understatement.

Each year, an average of 3,000 patrol miles are logged throughout the park's interior, all on the back of sleds pulled by NPS huskies.

Denali’s sled-dog patrols last anywhere from a single day to up to six weeks. Patrol length increases throughout the winter as the dogs build endurance and teams break the trail further into the park.

All of those trips aren't performed by the kennels manager, of course. As many as three dog teams may be in the field at one time, and because this is Denali, those trips can be demanding in the extreme:

Rangers patrolling in Denali can encounter bitter cold, short days, and wind that can pick up in an instant and sweep across the mostly treeless landscape. Rangers still face age-old dangers: sleds plunging through the river ice, encountering an angry moose on the trail, or getting caught in a storm.

In addition to restrictions on the use of motorized vehicles in wilderness areas, there are many practical reasons why Denali continues to use dogs for these patrols.

The dogs have the uncanny ability to find a patrol cabin during a whiteout, and to feel a snow- or wind-obscured trail beneath their paws. They run through overflow without getting bogged down, they don’t run out of gas or have mechanical parts that freeze up, and they help preserve the natural quiet in a world where silence is an increasingly scarce resource.

The use of sled dogs at Denali predates establishment of the park itself, and huskies are an integral part of the area's story:

When naturalist Charles Sheldon needed a guide to assist with his studies of Dall sheep in Denali country during the winter of 1907-1908, he hired veteran Alaskan dog musher Harry Karstens. Sheldon was so enchanted with the mountains and wildlife that when he returned to the East Coast, he lobbied Congress to set this area aside as a national park, a long campaign that came to successful resolution with the establishment of Mount McKinley National Park in 1917.

It was 1921 before the first ranger was hired, and that ranger was none other than Harry Karstens…. Karstens, who knew that the best way to travel in this frozen country was on a sled behind a team of enthusiastic huskies, founded the park kennel to ensure a reliable supply of healthy, well-trained, working dogs.

This is clearly a job for a person with the right stuff in the field, but one of the intriguing aspects of this assignment is the additional requirement for excellent people and communication skills. Once the snow melts, the kennel manager shifts into interpretation and supervision mode. Three times a day during the summer season, park visitors arrive at the park kennels for the popular sled dog demonstrations, which feature a talk and a short demonstration of a five-dog team pulling a wheeled sled around a short gravel track.

These demonstrations are presented by a staff of volunteers, student interns and seasonal rangers, and are attended by about 50,000 visitors each year, making them the most popular interpretive program in the park. Those activities are all under the supervision of the kennels manager, who is responsible for researching, developing and writing interpretive programs, and then training the staff that helps present them.

Despite all the demanding responsibilities for the kennels manager, those who land this job tend to stay—only three people have held the position since 1974. Like many other jobs in the National Park Service, this one is clearly a labor of love, and one reason is summed up by the park:

Denali's sled dogs prove, with each day of eager service, that they are the heart of a tradition and the true symbol of the Denali wilderness.

If you're interested in more information about the park kennels and dog team activities, you'll find it on the park website. http://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/kennels.htm

Applications from qualified individuals for the kennels manager job are being accepted via the USA Jobs website until November 24. The position is being advertised as both a GS-7 and GS-9, which have base salaries of $33,477 and $51,186 respectively.

Comments

Well...I like dogs...and...um...I like to travel and...and...that's about it. Somehow, at 60 with thyroid disease and arthritis, I don't think they'll put me at the top of the list. Especially since I spent five years in North Idaho and like to froze to death.

"they don’t run out of gas or have mechanical parts that freeze up,"

Nice to know someone in the HR department has a sense of humor...

Sandy Kogel held this job for many years. She is an amazingly accomplished outdoors person and dog musher. The person who is qualified and lucky enough to get this job will have big snowshoes to fill.

I think that this might be the most unique "extreme, hardship conditions" job, but when I was with Harpers Ferry Center, I was the only scientist in the NPS who ran a research and analytical support laboratory for NPS cultural resources. When I left, they didn't fill my position, but had they recruited, they would have had the choice of only 80 people globally truly qualified to do the work. The musher position is without question unique, but I bet you'd find other postions in the NPS with equal uniqueness. Interesting article and definitely interesting KSA's.

There are definately some NPS jobs with unique qualifications and job duties. How many folks get paid to decorate the Vanderbilt Mansion for Christmas or to scuba dive in Crater Lake? Oh yes, it furthers the visitor experience or increases our scientific knowledge of a unique resource, but it can also be fun.

Many older NPS employees look back on the early days of their careers as some of their best years in the Park Service when they were field rangers, interpreters, maintenance helpers, naturalists, etc.. In my case, the most unique job I had was when I first went to work for the Park Service as an Environmental Planner assisting a park planner named John Kauffmann in the planning for the then proposed Gates of the Arctic National Park. My job, in part, was to travel through the proposed area by light aircraft, boat, hiking and dog team while evaluating natural and cultural resources. The summer months were spent backpacking and doing float trips through areas rarely visited by non-Natives. Once winter set in I would explore via dog team, sometimes flying my dogs and equipment to distant sites to begin a trip. Occasionally, John or another Park Service person would accompany me. Sometimes my wife went along to assist. Actually, I wrote my own job description.

Ray, your definitely a man of all seasons...weather beaten and enjoying every minute of it. A life worth writing about.

Why did Sandy leave the job? It is my dream job and I was just wondering why anyone would leave it.

According to a story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Sandy Kogl held the job from 1974 until 1989, Gary Koy ran the kennels 1989-1999, and Karen Fortier has held the position for the past 10 years. That news story says she is leaving the job after the birth of her second child to devote time to her family.

As the story noted, although this is a very rewarding job for the right person, it's also extremely demanding, even by NPS standards.

Karen Fortier was quoted in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner story: "“What an incredible job for someone,” she said. “To be one of the only paid people in the world to mush dogs for the federal government. And what an incredible group of dogs. They don’t get any better than those guys as far as personalities go. I admire the person going in there,” she said. “They are going to have an incredible time.”