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In ‘Historic Denali National Park,’ the storied history of an Alaska icon

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: December 9, 2017
  • Published December 9, 2017

Denali National Park road permit winners enjoyed the view of Denali recently from an overlook near Stony Dome, one of the great views of the mountain on a crystal-clear day, Sept. 14, 2003. (Marc Lester/ADN archive 2003)

Historic Denali National Park and Preserve: the Stories Behind one of America's Great Treasures

Tracy Salcedo; Lyons Press; 264 pages; 2017; $16.95

Denali National Park turned 100 years old this year. The most heavily visited park in Alaska and site of the highest peak in North America, the mountain and its environs have been a source of fascination since well before the federal government set it aside for protection.

There is no shortage of books about Denali, but the centenary marks a good point to reflect on how the park came into being and what it means to have it. This job is nicely carried out by Tracy Salcedo in "Historic Denali National Park and Preserve," a book that wanders over the park's landscape, bringing back stories of the people who explored it and captured in their words and the essence of what draws thousands of visitors to Denali every year.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is not a chronological history of Denali. This is a wise move by Salcedo, as that job was already expertly carried out by Tom Walker in his two-volume account, "Kantishna" and "McKinley Station." What Salcedo instead offers is a collection of thematic essays exploring different aspects of the park, moving back and forth over the past century and more. In this way, we learn about how key figures in the park's history impacted its development. It also helps Salcedo avoid what would otherwise have been inevitable comparisons to Walker's work and instead deliver a book that stands on its own.

Salcedo begins with the Athabascan people who first came through the area as part of their seasonal subsistence migrations. Little is known owing to a lack of written records, but by drawing from oral histories, the observations of early white visitors, and what's been unearthed by archaeologists examining ancient camp sites, Salcedo offers readers a sense of life before the arrival of Europeans.

Next she jumps to the first wave of climbs that commenced shortly after the dawn of the 20th century. The summit of Denali — then called Mount McKinley –was a prize sought by Alaskans and Outsiders alike. Salcedo's retellings of the early ascents are briefer than those found elsewhere, but her abilities as a writer shine here. She clearly engaged in extensive and close reading of old accounts and other writings in preparation for this book, and she manages to vividly summarize these oft-told tales by including a few quotes from those involved that perfectly capture their personalities and their sense of what they accomplished. This is a skill she demonstrates throughout the book.

Owing to her thematic approach, too, Salcedo returns again and again to the pivotal players. East Coast naturalist Charles Sheldon was primarily responsible for convincing Congress to create what was originally called Mount McKinley National Park in 1917. He was motivated by a desire to protect the area's Dall sheep, which were in danger of extermination by market hunters supplying meat to Fairbanks. Thus he appears in the chapter on the park's establishment, as well as a later chapter exploring the work of important naturalists.

Other figures are similarly treated. Harry Karstens, the park's first superintendent, initially surfaces as part of the first successful summiting of Denali's south peak (the higher of the two) in 1913. We meet him again in the chapter about the Gold Rush to Kantishna as a mail carrier traversing the Interior by dog sled. Later still he warrants part of a chapter to himself for a brief account of how he set the park's early course.

This approach by Salcedo allows her to show the multiple facets of those she writes about in a manner that might have been missed if they had passed through the book in the order they passed through Denali. Legendary mountaineer Bradford Washburn naturally appears in the chapter discussing the second wave of climbing. His scientific work, which often takes a backseat to his epic ascents even though it had greater impact on our understanding of the park, is brought into focus in a later chapter on the geology and glaciology of Denali. Similarly, Grant Pearson is celebrated for both his climbing exploits and his lengthy midcentury tenure as superintendent.

Plenty of other good stories are included. A chapter on women in Denali naturally includes tales of the beloved Kantishna resident Fannie Quigley, but also honors Barbara Washburn (Bradford's wife), the first woman to the top of Denali and still the only woman to reach both north and south peaks on consecutive days. Also mentioned are Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter, who pioneered ecotourism when they established Camp Denali on a park inholding, and Florence Rucker Collins, mother of Trapline Twins Julie and Miki Collins, a geologist who studied sand dunes near Lake Minchumina.

Salcedo introduces those who have impacted Denali through chapters exploring natural history, science, transportation wildlife and more. And while she doesn't hide her biases when discussing controversies surrounding the park and its sometimes conflicting problems with Alaska — especially the 1980 expansion and the wolf issue — she approaches these things respectfully and thoughtfully, a rarity in a time when shrillness seems to be the only form of political discourse.

This is quite a good book written in a conversational manner that makes Salcedo a pleasant companion for readers. And while not specifically written for young adults, her style makes this a good choice for high school libraries.

Even more impressive is that Salcedo is not an Alaskan and has only visited the park, not lived there. Despite this, her enthusiasm for Denali drives the entire book and keeps it lively. And she's done her homework. As a one-time resident of the region who has read quite a bit of its history, I still learned things about the place from her that I didn't know. She's captured the spirit of Denali, which she properly describes as "an extraordinary park," it's a wilderness where, on her final drive in, "I could just make out the bulk of Denali, far distant, unmistakable, awesome."