I was 26 when I came to Alaska. For just one summer I wanted to be part of something noble that would help preserve one of the wildest places on earth. Though I carried only a backpack and a duffle bag, my confidence was buoyed by a set of life skills I’d acquired in suburban Philadelphia, the academic skills I’d honed at an upscale university in Virginia, and my shiny new graduate degree in Environmental Studies. A couple years dabbling in environmental non-profit organizations fueled the fire in me to crusade for a better world.
As the plane to Fairbanks, Alaska, took off, I rifled through my spiral bound notebook to review the page where I’d scribbled my approach to living:
- Follow your dreams.
- Don’t let society tell you what to do.
- Be skeptical of technology. It creates more stress than it relieves.
- Television: evil, obviously.
- Dresses and high heels are dumb (you can’t hike in them).
- Big houses in suburbia: bad.
- Living in a cabin: good.
I wasn’t shy about espousing these tenets to my friends and family. They either agreed with me or tolerated me, and every one of them, bless their kind souls, supported my quest to find my own true north. They bid me farewell as I headed to Alaska, where I didn’t know a single person.
The run-down hostel where I spent my first night fit perfectly into the way I thought my world should be ordered. If only my friends could see me now, I thought. This was a real cabin in Alaska, with log construction, creaky wooden floorboards, and old metal traps and mining equipment tacked to the walls. I was assigned to a room and found my way to an empty bunk. The room was cluttered with backpacks, shower sandals, and drying laundry. They must be true travelers, I thought.
I told the other travelers I was on my way to Denali, which got a nod of approval, but I had nothing else to contribute, so I sat quietly on my bed and listened to tales of where they’d been and where they were headed. They spoke of towns and mountains and rivers I’d never heard of.
As I climbed into bed, I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag to stay warm. I waited for darkness to set in but it never did, so I put a shirt over my eyes to block the midnight sun. The shirt helped, but my mind raced with thoughts about what the summer would be like.
The next day I took the shuttle down the Parks Highway to Denali National Park, where I’d gotten a non-paying job as a backcountry ranger through the Student Conservation Association. After spending six months thru-hiking the 2,159-mile Appalachian Trail and spending the majority of my post-college free time exploring the Rocky Mountains, I thought I had a fair amount of backcountry experience. So did the rest of the 20-somethings who had come from around the country to spend a summer in Alaska’s premier national park, where Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, rises ghostly white to over 20,000 feet and enchants the sea of green tundra that surrounds it.
Most visitors to Denali National Park ride the bus into the park in hopes of glimpsing the great mountain and seeing grizzly bears, wolves, caribou, Dall’s sheep, and moose. There is only one road in six million acres and virtually nothing else to interrupt the vast expanse of wilderness: no settlements, developments, or infrastructure that make it easy for people to get there and be there. One of the things I hadn’t considered when I applied for the backcountry ranger position was the fact that I’d never traveled through country with no trails, no bridges, no signs, no campgrounds. I’d also never traveled through country with grizzly bears and wolves.
When my supervisor paired us up and assigned us our first backcountry patrol, I found myself matched with the only member of the backcountry ranger staff who actually lived permanently in the area. The other rangers sat with their partners and excitedly pulled out maps, speculating what they might encounter. They decided what gear they would share and how many days of food to plan for. Hoping to make eye contact, I glanced across the room at Jeff, but he seemed to roll his eyes as he looked over the group of rangers that were about half his age. As I walked toward him, he turned his back to put on his jacket. I paused beside the large wall-map of the park and searched for the drainage we’d been assigned to. When Jeff scooped up his belongings and headed for the door, I sheepishly intercepted him. “So, you know where we’re going?”
“Been going there for decades,” he said with a look that added “how about you?”
“Anything in particular I should bring?” I asked.
“Standard stuff.” he said. “We’ll take the camper bus tomorrow 10am, see you there.”
Part of me could understand his resentment at being an equal member on a team of overly excited kids from the Lower 48, but still, he had no right to treat me like that. How could my supervisor have paired me with him? I returned to my cabin wondering if I’d made the right decision to come here. I threw my bag across the bed and sat down with a sick feeling in my stomach.
Our patrol began on a trail that went for only ¼ mile before fading into alders and willows along the river bar. Feeling like I needed to prove my strength, I hiked faster than he could on the trail section, but as soon as we hit the brush, I came to a near halt. I’d never hiked off trail before. Jeff sensed this and blazed ahead, thrashing through the alders and willows, wisely choosing a route through the thinnest branches and keeping us on course. I could barely keep up and had no idea how he knew where to go. I tried to look up out of the brush to get my bearings, but when I looked up, I stumbled over branches and rocks. I powered through as fast as I could and tried not to lose sight of Jeff’s back.
When we got to a point where we had to cross the river, Jeff simply trudged through it. Accustomed to dry Rocky Mountain hiking with few creek crossings, my instinct told me to sit down and take off my boots before wading across in order to keep my feet dry. But after seeing Jeff cross, I wasn’t sure if this was a test to see if I was dumb enough to get my feet wet, or if it was a test to see how well I could ford a river. Jeff looked at me and then looked impatiently at his feet and sighed. Forget wet feet, I thought, I can’t let him leave me. I stepped into the coldest water I’d ever felt, restrained a grimace as the icy water seeped through my hiking boots and socks, and felt my way across. I pretended it didn’t hurt that much as I stepped out of the river with feet that were burning from cold.
Fortunately, I had enough sense after the first day to realize that I didn’t know much about this country and that Jeff did. As much as I didn’t want to admit it (I’d worked hard to cultivate my confidence and independence), I could probably learn something from him. So I began asking questions. And he began, slowly, in his characteristically gruff style, to let me in. By the last day of our patrol we sat side by side on a grassy hillside above a wide river bar.
“You need to pay attention,” he said.
He noticed my confusion. I knew I had to look out for wildlife and make sure no animal surprised me and got any of my food. Our week-long training had established this as the Golden Rule of Denali. It was the only way wild animals will stay wild and safe. I knew this already. I told him I was scanning the river bar for bears.
“You might be looking at the river,” he said, “but you gotta look behind you, too, so you can see the wolf coming down the hill. You gotta be alert and look in all directions. All the time.”
He wouldn’t let me lounge back and take a nap in the sun. “This isn’t the Rockies,” he sniggered. “There are animals all over the place that want your lunch. And I have to shoot ‘em when some goddamn hiker lets ‘em get food,” he said shaking his head.
“And besides,” Jeff told me, “these here are critters people come from all over the world to see. Why you’d want to waste a nap over that…”
“Is that why all these people come then? To see the animals?” I asked.
“No…” he started, “I mean, yeah they do, but…. Look, you could go to a zoo and see every animal out here, right?”
“There are big mountains that are a lot easier to get to. These people are paying huge bucks, spending 15 hours on an airplane, and then cram into a shitty school bus for eight hours into the park.” He paused, and said, “No, it ain’t just the animals.”
I returned from that patrol hungry for more, hungry to understand exactly what Jeff was talking about, and I anxiously awaited my next assignment. It would be a little while. We earned our patrols only after a week or two working in the visitor center, talking to tourists and helping them plan their trips. It didn’t take long to confirm my suspicion: people came long distances at great expense because they believed it was unlike any other place on earth.
One evening an elderly couple with a southern accent returned from a trip into the park. The woman smiled at me and said, “It wasn’t just seeing the bear. It was seeing that bear leading her cubs through the tussocks, rooting up ground squirrels, and those snowy mountains behind her. The light, it was early in the morning and the sun was low so her fur was glowing and the yellow light reflected off the side of the mountain.” She turned to her husband, “Was that something or what?”
Her husband leaned in and said thoughtfully, “You can imagine that bear doing that for the last thousand years. It’s like getting to see where life came from, where we all came from.”
“Where are you all from?” I asked.
“You came a long way,” I said.
“There’s not much left in the world like this,” she said, contemplating. “We wanted to come for a long time.”
We backcountry rangers were proud of our jobs as protectors of one of America’s largest, wildest, most special places. We were thrilled to work there and contribute to something we saw as good and noble. We worked hard. We worked long hours. We were polite to every visitor, even when they were impolite to us. We answered all their questions the best we could. We lived together in small, cold cabins with no running water. After dinner, we drank cheap, cold beer and played cards. During the night we peed in milk jugs. Over the course of that summer, those big wild spaces did something to my psyche that I hadn’t expected. I had planned to stay just four months. Twelve years later I’m still here.
I now manage the wilderness program for all the national parks in Alaska, and it’s still an honor, though I spend more time behind a desk than I’d prefer. Every time I leave the state, I meet people who tell me that Alaska is on their bucket list. They light up and I wonder what images are filtering through their brains. Perhaps an igloo, a wolf, or snowy mountains. Maybe they’re thinking of the American frontier, of independence and freedom, of bigness and greatness, of the world before we messed it up.
Sometimes I think of the wilderness as being comprised of two different things. There’s an outward appearance that we can point to and quantify (wildlife, clean air, clean water, rivers and coastlines, cliffs and canyons). These are the things on the glossy brochures and television ads. Secondly, there is what all those things add up to. It’s what the tangible things collectively represent. The way a place makes us feel, the mystery, the connection to something larger than ourselves, the inspiration, peace and awe – this is the soul of the wilderness. Like the human soul, it is hard to define and impossible to quantify; and also like the human soul, perhaps what is most compelling is that it has the power to shape a person.
Over the course of a dozen years, just as the rain and wind and ice have continued to shape topography and sustain dynamic ecological systems, this place has filtered into my psyche and sculpted my inner landscape. I get it now, and I believe it is these things, not just the big mountains and bears, that made Ranger Jeff speak with passion. And it is because of these things that places like Denali continue to appear on bucket lists the world over.