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A life entwined with Alaska's National Parks

  • Author: Kim Heacox
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published May 23, 2016

Richard came from the Everglades.

I came from Death Valley.

Two rookie GS-4 park rangers in Alaska, we sat in a duct-taped double kayak off the tidewater face of Reid Glacier in Glacier Bay National Monument and stared like starving men at the icy, misty wilderness around us. Nameless mountains climbed into dour clouds. A cold, steady rain seeped through our gear and into our bones. Pieces of floating ice drifted by. Birds called in dialects of kittiwake and tern.

Guyot glacier, Icy Bay, and Mount St. Elias, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. July 2015. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

It was May 1979, 100 years since John Muir first arrived in Alaska. If this had any special significance for us, we didn't know it. Richard began to paddle toward the glacier, taking me with him. The glacial face was a window into the ice age, and he wanted a better look.

Deep-chested and broad-shouldered, Richard when he paddled didn't so much move himself forward as he pushed the ocean behind. He spoke fluent French, laughed robustly (at himself), loved 20th-century expat American literature, and often quoted Charles Bukowski: "We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us."

Four-hundred yards from the ice wall … 300 … 200 … Did he intend to ram the glacier? "Uh, Richard," I said. "You think we're close enough?"

I'd met him only two days before, in a Juneau supermarket, when he invited me on this adventure: five days of sea kayaking the upper West Arm of Glacier Bay before our ranger season began. We'd get dropped off by a park service boat and paddle 50 miles back to monument headquarters in Bartlett Cove; see if we could kill ourselves. And if not, then live like rascals, vagabonds, kings.

Find enlightenment, or at least a bear or two.

He'd stood there in the supermarket looking at me, wild-eyed, grinning. The Mad Hatter. The invitation of a lifetime. I hesitated. But wait. Had I come to Alaska to be cautious?

"OK," I said.

"Great," Richard said. "How much peanut butter should we get?"

Small tarn in a hidden valley in the Itkillik Preserve, sometimes called the Yosemite of the Arctic. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. July 2014. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

Never been more alive

We didn't die.

In fact, I've never been more alive. We forgot our tent and laughed it off, figuring we'd sleep in the kayak like Tlingit seal hunters. Or paddle ashore, roll the kayak over, climb inside, and pretend to be comfortable.

Hours later, when the two backcountry rangers who'd dropped us off returned with our tent (we'd left it in their patrol boat), they asked, "You guys going to be OK?"

Yep, we said. Absolutely. No problem.

That night we slept amid booming icefalls and strange liquid sounds. Whales swam through our dreams. Bears walked up our spines. "Richard," I said the next day as we sat in the rain, "you ever been more alive than you are right now?"

Rough-legged hawk chicks nesting on a granite tor in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, July 2012. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

"No … well, maybe once … with a French girl in Paris."

Swift and fierce

The year before, President Jimmy Carter had recolored the maps of Alaska — and the imaginations of Alaskans — by establishing 17 new national monuments totaling 56 million acres. He did this by authority given to him in the 1906 American Antiquities Act (as Teddy Roosevelt had in 1906-08, mostly in the American West); by executive order with the stroke of a pen, no congressional approval necessary.

Reaction was swift — and fierce. In Glennallen, an arsonist torched a Cessna 185 on contract to the National Park Service. In Tok, protesters flew state flags at half-staff. In Fairbanks, people burned straw effigies of Carter and Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus, the former governor of Idaho. In Bettles, a petition signed by nearly every resident asked the park service to stay away. When Ray Bane, an anthropologist and the only park service employee north of Denali, showed up to conduct a town meeting, former friends scowled at him. One man said, "I hate your guts."

There were rumors in Anchorage that any park service employee who set foot in Eagle would be shot. John Cook, the first National Park Service Alaska regional director, didn't buy it. He flew in, got a cabin, set out maps and a bottle of Jim Beam, and invited anybody to drop by. It worked. In the years ahead, Cook would tell his rangers to always be honest and fair.

Looking downriver from Ukak Falls, Katmai National Park, August 2010. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

Wildlands conservation has never been easy in a nation flush with the spirit of Manifest Destiny, what some called "Moneyfest Destiny." Few national parks and monuments have been established without intense objection from local and regional interests.

But we are a nation of contradictions.

A breathing place

When President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill that established Yellowstone National Park in 1872, America rejoiced in something new, as original as baseball and soon, jazz. One congressman called it "a breathing place for the American lungs." Quickly our young nation resumed the business of building cities and railroads, stringing barbed wire and falling forests.

But Yellowstone had appeal. Soon other parks were born: Yosemite in 1890; Mount Rainier in 1899; Crater Lake, 1903; Mesa Verde, 1906; Glacier, 1910; Rocky Mountain, 1915. How to properly promote, share and safeguard them? On Aug. 25, 1916, 100 years ago this year, the National Park Service was established.

Today we have 59 national parks, and 411 "units" — national seashores, monuments, preserves, historical sites, etc. — administered by the park service. As part of this centennial year, the park service has initiated "Find Your Park," a nationwide engagement campaign to make the parks relevant; to get people out there. President Obama signed a White House youth initiative, "Every Kid in a Park," to get all fourth-graders and their families into the parks — for free.

Waterways in Kotzebue Sound, Kobuk Valley National Park. July 2012. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

National parks are more than scenery. They're history, heritage, ecology, culture and diversity. They're islands of altruism in a restless sea of business and selfishness — islands that belong to everyone and no one, a commons to be shared, not seized. They give us stories and hope, deep time and intimate glimpses into the universe and ourselves. Some moralists have implied that national parks are holy places, made so by our reverence, the same deep regard we practice in the finest cathedrals and universities.

Questions, more questions

It was in this spirit that Richard and I, having survived our kayak trip, spent our first memorable summer giving interpretive programs on cruise ships. Telling stories. Answering questions.

"Hey ranger, what's the difference between Alaska glaciers and Antarctic glaciers?"

"Does the water go all the way around that island?"

"Is global warming real?"

"You married? What do you do in the winter?"

"Tell me more about the Milankovitch cycles and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum."

"What elevation are we at?"

"You must be one of those back-to-nature types. I'll bet you eat biodegradable food."

"These mountains you got around here," a big man asked, "they good for anything?"

"Absolutely," I said. "This is the Fairweather Range, among the tallest and snowiest coastal mountains in the world. They gather snow that hardens into ice that feeds the glaciers that shape the bay that attracts hundreds of thousand of visitors every year who find themselves deeply inspired by the natural world."

He grinned. "I'm talking minerals, son. Gold, copper, silver. I'm talking about progress."

"So am I."

A vast compromise

Jimmy Carter lost his bid for a second term in November 1980. Soon Ronald Reagan would dismantle Carter's solar panels on the White House roof and triple our national debt, all with his avuncular charm. But Carter had a final gesture. In early December, he signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that created more than 100 million acres of new national parks, preserves, monuments and wildlife refuges. Two-million-acre Mount McKinley National Park became 6-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve. Katmai and Glacier Bay, national monuments since 1918 and 1925 respectively, were enlarged and became national parks and preserves. At 13.2 million acres, Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve became the largest unit in the country. Suddenly two-thirds of the acreage in the National Park Service system was in Alaska. Even the names had magic: Noatak, Lake Clark, Gates of the Arctic, Yukon-Charley Rivers, Cape Krusenstern, Bering Land Bridge, Aniakchak, Kobuk Valley, Kenai Fjords.

A boat rests on the waters of the Noatak River, Noatak National Preserve. July 2012. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

In effect, ANILCA was a vast compromise, the kind of brilliant legislation that would be impossible in today's intractable Congress.

"We had to get it right," said Park Service historian William E. (Bill) Brown, who served on a task force that selected new parklands and helped draft ANILCA. "This was our chance to save America. Many of us had been born too late to fight in World War II. We were too young, and that rankled us. Now was our time. This was our chance to do things right, and — by God — we did. We saved Alaska. We saved America."

Saved it from what, exactly? From what author/explorer Craig Childs calls "the mad quest to cover the Earth with our countless enterprises." Consider the Lower 48: Ninety-nine percent of the tall grass prairie, gone. Ninety percent of the ancient redwoods, gone. Hundreds of indigenous tribes, gone.

Alaska's national parks and preserves protect entire ecosystems and watersheds — for the sake of nature, yes, but also for Native ways of life, perhaps even the survival of our species. They are a shining example for the rest of the world on how to get things right. Not perfect. But pretty damn good.

If indeed America learned environmental stewardship from the conquistadors, it's no easy habit to break. "Alaska," complained author (and former park ranger) Edward Abbey, "is where a man feels free to destroy an entire valley by placer mining, as I could see from the air over Fairbanks, in order to extract one peanut-butter jar full of gold dust."

Ohio and New Mexico were frontiers once. "Man always kills the things he loves," said author Aldo Leopold, "and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness."

Kentucky poet Wendell Berry added, "There are no sacred and unsacred places, only sacred and desecrated places."

The trick is to learn from our own history, to exercise restraint.

The phantom ranger

In 1985, my final year with the National Park Service, I flew on bear-poaching patrols with pilot Ray Bane, who by then was a legend. We'd zip over hunting camps near park boundaries, and Ray would throttle back as he crested a ridge to make it sound as if we were landing. "We're dropping off our phantom ranger," Ray would say with a grin. "He's the best ranger we've got. He's everywhere and he's nowhere. National parks can't be all things to all people, but they can be many things to most people. They aren't locked up. They're locked open. Just follow the rules and come on in."

I like to think the phantom ranger is still out there. So are real rangers, protecting the best of what we have, balancing courtesy with authority, handling tricky law enforcement matters in cooperation with Alaska State Troopers, often in the remotest corners of our state. Some of the best scientists and educators I know work in Alaska's national parks. They regard animals not as game, but as wildlife. They don't practice good gardening, they practice good guardianship. They don't shoot wolves, they defend them, fully aware that wolves bring vitality to everything else.

"By many measures, Alaska's conservation system works," Eagle River resident Brad Meiklejohn of The Conservation Fund wrote in 1996, words that still apply. "Alaska has fewer endangered or threatened species than any other state, and no endangered ecosystems."

Thanks in large part to ANILCA.

A flock of shorebirds explodes into the sky near Ikpek Lagoon in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. The mudflats near the entrances to these coastal lagoons are important feeding grounds for many species of shorebirds. August 2013. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

Put me in, coach

In 2005, Jimmy Carter returned to Alaska for the 25th anniversary of ANILCA, and was warmly welcomed. Seeing him and former Gov. Jay Hammond greet each other brought tears to many eyes. When Carter said Alaska will always need defenders of its wild beauty and ecological richness, singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris, in Anchorage that night for a concert, stood up and said, "Put me in, coach."

Recently Forbes magazine warned that our current hyper-consumptive, burn-it-all brand of capitalism cannot continue without dire consequences. Each successive year seems to be the warmest on record. If we wait until climate change is a runaway train that sinks our global economy, it'll be too late. Burning hydrocarbons, the very thing that created our modern civilization, now imperils us.

The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050 a steadily rising sea level will flood millions of Americans out of their livelihoods and homes. Furthermore, unless we act decisively, the oceans will be more acidic (with carbonic acid, the carbon absorbed from the air), and will contain more plastic than fish. The oceans will die. Australia's Great Barrier Reef is already dying. What's next? The five species of Pacific salmon? Because of rising sea level, the Pentagon predicts that moving one Navy base in Virginia — just one base — will cost taxpayers $800 billion to $1 trillion.

The Marble Islands, with rainy weather and gorgeous views. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

Add to this a growing anti-federal lands sentiment — most virulent among ranchers, businessmen and state legislators in the American West (prompted by the lightning rod Bundy militia standoffs in Nevada and Oregon), and hardly absent in Alaska — that goes like this: The federal government is a poor landlord. Lands presently controlled by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service should be under state control. Why? To better serve the people and grow our local economies. More roads. More mines. More clearcuts. More development of all kinds. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, thinks this is a great idea. And while we're at it, let's abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act.

Planet or profit?

So what's it to be, planet or profit? Green or greed?

The odds might seem daunting, but remember Bukowski: We are here to laugh at the odds. Great opportunities mask themselves as insurmountable problems. First, we break our fossil fuel addiction and embrace clean energy. And then? Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson says that to safeguard our planet, and our own long-term well-being, we humans must re-wild half of the earth, and keep it so.

Where then to go for inspiration?

The national parks of Alaska — famous around the world — where we got things right. By God. Where science reveals the answers to questions we've not yet learned to ask. Every year visitors here find more than "their park." They find peace, illumination, reflection and compassion. They find much more than they were looking for.

"We can't afford the national parks," critics say.

Not true. According to the National Park Service, last year 2.66 million visitors spent nearly $1.2 billion in Alaska, which supported 17,000 jobs and provided a total benefit to the state of about $1.7 billion. NPS Regional Director Bert Frost says "… national park tourism is a significant driver to the national economy — returning $10 for every $1 invested in the National Park Service."

Lynx, Denali National Park. June 2009 (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

But it's not just the money. Would the citizens of New York City sell off a one-block slice of Central Park to stimulate their economy? No. Why? Because nature is the best therapy. Central Park is holy ground. Sacred space.

Money, like the sun, offers great warmth and light. It also burns and blinds.

So what is the purpose of the mighty mountain? To collect the tender snowflake. And the purpose of the snowflake? To build a glacier. And the purpose of the glacier? To carve the mountain and melt into the river that rounds the stone that sharpens the mind of the hand that holds it. Mountains, like revolutions and freshly baked bread, rise up from the bottom.

Forever amazed

My park service friends became professors and university chancellors; doctors, teachers and diplomats; career rangers, superintendents and ecologists; lawyers, mayors and councilwomen. They raised bright-faced children who grew into the promise of a better future. Others started businesses; some became freelance artists.

While camping high atop a tundra ridge in Denali many years ago, I wrote, "We could spend the rest of our lives studying nature, forever amazed."

I still believe it.

Did we rangers and other park enthusiasts help, in some small way, to make Alaska a better place?  Hopefully, yes. If so, was it due in part to the national parks and how they nurtured us? That's for others to say. I know only this: Few of us went after the money; we went after lives of purpose and meaning. We sought to give, teach, heal and share.

All those years ago with Richard in that funky old kayak, I remember how we laughed from our toes and flew in our dreams. How we sang the high notes, and found that true wealth wasn't a matter of adding to our possessions but of subtracting from the sum of our desires. We understood what was enough and what was too much, and why the prophets went into the desert alone. We accepted impermanence, or at least we thought about it. We navigated without numbers. We regarded the powerful and the large, but also the small and unheralded. We thought about relationships more than names; stories more than statistics. We realized that gifts are not taken, they're received and, best of all, given. We made a new friend, and learned an economy of motion in each synchronous stroke, watching the paddles rise and fall, the blades up and down, the droplets dripping away with perfect grace.

All in all, a pretty good deal.
Kim Heacox lives in Gustavus. Portions of this article are excerpted from his Alaska memoirs "The Only Kayak" and "Rhythm of the Wild."

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