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Denali National Park is 100, and ageless

  • Author: Kim Heacox
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 18, 2017
  • Published March 18, 2017

A bull caribou feeds on the tundra at Denali National Park between Wonder Lake and the Eielson Visitors Center in August 2006. (Bob Hallinen / ADN archive 2006)

Three weeks ago on Feb. 26, Denali National Park and Preserve hosted a big party. For itself. It turned 100. The world's most accessible sub-Arctic sanctuary, and Alaska's most famous piece of federally owned public land, wanted to say thank you for all the generosity and support it has received.

Among those who attended – during the annual three-day local celebration called Winterfest – were Charlie Sheldon, grandson of Charles Sheldon, a Yale graduate and friend of Teddy Roosevelt's who in 1915-16 lobbied vigorously for the creation of the park.

And Ken Karstens, great-grandson of Harry Karstens, who in 1913 co-led the first successful climb of Mount McKinley. In 1921, Karstens became the park's first superintendent.

The park idea began in 1906 when Sheldon, a wealthy hunter/naturalist and member of the influential Boone and Crockett Club, then in his late 30s, visited the Denali region.

There he met Karstens from Chicago, who'd come north at age 19 during the Klondike Gold Rush and later earned the name the Seventymile Kid while delivering winter mail by dogsled at 40 below along the remote Seventymile River.

Ingrid Nixon, former chief of interpretation at Denali, now a professional storyteller, said during the centennial celebration that Sheldon and Karstens found each other good company back then because "Sheldon needed a guide, and Karstens needed a job." The two men overwintered in a cabin in 1907-08 (near the west end of today's Toklat River Bridge).

By the first decade of the last century, the national park idea was sweeping the country: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake and Mesa Verde. A student and casual hunter of wild mountain sheep, Sheldon feared aggressive market hunters, supplying meat for gold miners and railroad workers, would soon destroy the Dall sheep populations of Interior Alaska.

Could the sheep be saved? Could the whole place – the ocean of land, great braided rivers, Dall sheep, bears, caribou, moose, wolves and much more – one day gain the protection it deserved? All crowned by a mighty mountain that stirred the imagination and made its own weather?

A century ago most national parks were established through a sense of what historian Alfred Runte calls "monumentalism." Scenic grandeur.

With Mesa Verde, established in 1906 to protect Native American cultural sites, the game changed. Sheldon believed a national park could now be created to protect wildlife.

Working with artist/mountaineer Belmore Browne, the two men patiently lobbied Congress — Sheldon through the Boone and Crockett Club, Browne through the Camp Fire Club.

When Congress finally passed the bill to establish 2-million acre Mount McKinley National Park, Sheldon hand-delivered it to President Woodrow Wilson to be signed into law.

Passage of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act enlarged the park to 6 million acres and renamed it Denali National Park and Preserve, the name Sheldon had always preferred, to honor the Alaska Native name meaning "the high one."

And when his grandson Charlie Sheldon attended the park's 100th birthday last month, he presented to the park his grandfather's prized gun, a Jeffrey's-Mannlicher bolt action .256 caliber rifle, assembled in 1899.

"This (park) was his church," Charlie said. "This place is very, very precious to him and to us. This is where the gun belongs."

Ken Karstens said the entire three-day celebration felt like "a wonderful family gathering."

A representative from Gov. Walker's office attended, as did two men from the Boone and Crockett Club. All three thanked the National Park Service for taking care of a special place that's so important to Alaska and the world.

"My grandfather went through a lot of struggles to make this happen," Charlie Sheldon said. "It's interesting that a century later we have to go through those same struggles."

The pressures on the park today are immense: Melting permafrost and ponds drying up due to climate change; bird and wolf numbers decreasing, demands for more access.

Will Denali, like other parks down south, become a victim of its own success? Are wildlife sightings declining along the park's single road? When does access become excess? As the great naturalist John Muir said, "Nothing dollarable is safe."

Even at 6 million acres, Denali seems too small. Recently the Alaska Board of Game voted down proposals to re-establish wolf buffers along Denali's boundaries.

The park's East Fork pack, made famous by pioneering wildlife biologist Adolph Murie, has been decimated due to outside hunting and trapping. In 2010, visitors to the park had a 45 percent chance to see a wolf. In 2015, a 5 percent chance.

It begs the question: Do the desires of a handful of hunters and trappers to kill a wolf outweigh the annual dreams of hundreds of thousands of visitors to see a wolf?

Some things can be measured, others cannot. A few years back, a teenage Thai girl visited Alaska. Her host family showed her many places. She admired them all. When asked if she liked what she saw, she said yes.

The daughter of a wealthy businessman, she had already seen much of the world, all of it diminished by the heavy hand of man. Not Alaska. It gave her hope, she said. She'd been convinced the entire world was ruined.

But Alaska, with its wild beauty, made her believe in mankind again.

Did it change the trajectory of her life? Perhaps.

That's immeasurable. That's Denali.

Kim Heacox lives in Gustavus and is the author of the Denali memoir, "Rhythm of the Wild."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

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