“When you walk into any natural National Park, you’re walking into somebody’s homeland. You’re walking into somebody’s house. You’re walking into somebody’s church. You’re walking into somebody’s place where they’ve lived since the time the Creator made it for them.”

– Gerard Baker, U.S. National Park Service, Retired

You may hear the word “home” and think of the house you live in. Or maybe the house you grew up in. Still others might think of a specific town or city. Perhaps you are lucky enough to have more than one home, or feel at home whenever you are with friends and family.

Let me backtrack and give a bit of context to the quote above. Gerard Baker is a Mandan-Hidatsa Indian who grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. He just recently retired from the National Park Service, after spending years living, studying and interpreting native cultures. So the quote above bears special meaning to him. His words spoke volumes to me; they resonated with a message I struggle to verbalize.

The word ‘home’ has different connotations to different people. Some objective and other subjective. Objectively, you might consider St. Louis, Missouri, to be my home; I was born and raised there. Or you might consider Denali Park, Alaska, my home, as that is where the U.S. Postal Service currently sends my mail.

But perhaps I can offer a bit more insight into my home: carpeted with flowers in the summertime, and snow in the wintertime, my spirit is at home – at peace – out in our great parks. It is in great valleys surrounded by towering peaks that I understand the significance of cathedrals and the interconnectedness of the world around me. These places of beauty nourish the body, mind and soul.

The cabin that started it all.
The Holzworth Homestead
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Rangers often get asked “How do get to be a ranger?” or “Why did you become a ranger?”

My answers usually mention visiting our magnificent parks as a kid with my family, studying the natural sciences, loving the great outdoors, etc. etc. etc.

But the simple truth is this: I work in these places so that I can live at home.

And in so doing, I hope to convert a few other to the same love and contentment I feel, in the hopes of protecting these resources that nourish life – and, of course, in the hope of protecting my home.


Native Knowledge

This past weekend, I found myself looking through online seed catalogs and thinking towards spring. I sent a note to a friend of mine who has lived in northern Alaska his whole life, asking for advice on gardening up here. I said I was just looking for ideas; I had nothing specific in mind. Jack wrote back with solid ideas and his personal experience. One thing he wrote struck me:

Carrots, beets, lettuce, and other row crops are started once the ground can be worked and the cotton wood trees send out a red catkin bud… that means the temperature is moderated and ground is thawed enough… rule of thumb the old timers used.

It’s been a bit of a slow day here at the MSLC. I’ve been taking advantage of the free time by preparing my upcoming snowshoe walk program and reading through one of the Eppley Interpretation courses. As interpretive rangers, we like to tie concrete, tangible park resources with the bigger picture – their intangible meanings and concepts. Jack did that so well in his note to me. He pointed out how generations before us knew the plants, knew the species and their phenology. They understood not only what the plants themselves were doing, but how those plants (and, by extension, the seasons, weather and growing conditions) could be a sign to us for our daily activities.

It’s easy (easier) sometimes to see the Native Knowledge in play up here in Alaska. The state is relatively young; some of the native cultures are still around – although quite altered from where they were 100 years ago. Some of the old ways of doing things are still of interest and still in practice – even if they are, at times, only for entertaining tourists.

One of the examples in the course I’m working through described Peace Pipes used by tribes of the western United States 150+ years ago. The actual pipes might be an interesting artifact, but put in the context of the Sand Creek Massacre (for example), these pipes take on a new meaning. If you’re unfamiliar with the Sand Creek Massacre, I’d request you read up on this episode in American History. My point today is not to debate America’s Manifest Destiny or Imperialism (I’d be well up for that debate at another time), but merely to wonder what we could have learned from these people that were needlessly slaughtered. They lived well more connected to the natural phenomena that still affect our daily lives: weather, seasons, animals, plants, etc. I’m convinced that we, so-called ‘civilized’ or modern Americans, have missed out on a great deal of knowledge we were intended to have. Do we pay attention? Do we notice the little things around us?

It’s easy for me to think such things. My desk looks right outside into the snow and the stand of spruce and aspen right in front of the MSLC. I can see the tracks made by countless animals as they go about their daily lives. They far out-number me and my coworkers. And they have made a home in this harsh environment. They make me want to learn more.

Wrong Weather

Here at Denali, we’re used to cold weather. Last week one day it got down to -26F. But today and tomorrow will see a warm, moist storm roll through. It’s hovering around freezing right now – WAY too warm for this time of year around here.

I just thought I’d share the contents of an all-employee email I just received. Not really a laughing matter, but it tickled me.


Road conditions north and south of the park are bad and are likely to get worse. Freezing rain has been reported in Healy. People in Fairbanks have described driving conditions there as “horrendous”! A winter storm warning is out for our area and Fairbanks. Talkeetna and the Mat Valley have been issued an ice storm warning.

If you’re planning to drive to Fairbanks or Anchorage in the next couple of days now would be a good time to seriously reconsider.

As for the park road. We have ice edges and chains on a grader and a full sander and sand bay. The road crew will be out blading and sanding as conditions require.

Be careful as you travel for the holiday this week!


The Denali Kennels

One of the common subjects of interest at Denali National Park and Preserve is the Sled Dog Kennels. The park was established in 1917 and the first Superintendent, Harry Karstens, was appointed in 1921. Karstens was already a musher and he brought his dogs with him for patrols. He established the park kennels; sled dogs have been active in the park ever since.

Not only are they more historically accurate for park operations, the dogs provide a means of transportation in the winter here that mechanized transport can’t. They are more in keeping with the wilderness of Denali, where mechanized transport doesn’t fit.

A team of 8 dogs coming back to the kennels after a short patrol:

The dogs are a favorite of most people around here. People – including park staff – flock to the kennels to meet the dogs, learn about the kennel operations, watch demonstrations, and (staff members) walk the dogs.

I’ve visited the kennels twice so far. Next week I get my training on walking and feeding the dogs. I’m so excited! A few more pictures:

Aurora and Trout wondering when it will be their turn to run:

Pup Sylvie (about 8 weeks old) trying to eat the current Flat Stanley mailing. The class that gets this picture will love it! Sylvie just came to us from a kennel in Eagle, AK. She’s so cute when running around sniffing and chewing on anything that doesn’t run away.

Three more pups – this summer’s litter. I still don’t know all of their names.

Tuya got to lead on this patrol. He looks rather happy; he’s ready to run again! These dogs have more energy than any other beings I’ve seen. 😉

If you’d like to read more about Denali’s Kennels and meet the dogs, click here.


How much light is there on November 10, 2010?

I get a lot of questions about light in Alaska. “Isn’t it dark all winter?” or “Is that because there is always so much darkness?” or “How do you see to walk to the bathroom?”

I started a little project today that I hope to continue every few days through the winter. I really don’t like the location of my pictures; tomorrow I might try this again, looking in a different direction from the building. The trees and building shadows obscure the light a bit. But either way, you get the idea.

8:45 a.m.

9:45 a.m.

11:00 a.m.

12:15 p.m.

2:30 p.m.

3:45 p.m.

4:20 p.m.

7 hours +/- of good light today? Something like that.


Basket Making with Julia

This morning I got my weekly update from King Salmon, AK… in the form of the weekly letter from Julia (she sends a weekly email everyone at once about what’s been going on in her life during the past week).

Some of you know Julia, some have only heard of her from me. Julia was a terrific mentor to me while I was at Mount Rainier National Park. She and I have both moved on for now; we’re both up here in Alaska (although several hundred miles apart). She’s a good writer and I enjoy getting these letters. Today’s letter hit on a key concept: work. How we approach it, how we learn and how we help others to do their best. This is part of what she wrote:

King Salmon may not have many people in it, but it has plenty of infrastructure left over from the heyday of the military presence. This includes a large building housing a branch of the University of Alaska, known as Southwest Alaska Vocational and Education Center (SAVEC). Through grants and tuition, teachers are brought in and housed at SAVEC for a variety of classes.

Southwestern Alaska is famous for grass basketry. Lucy flew with her husband Joe from Togiak to teach us her form of basket-making.

Lucy is a Yupik speaker, and her English is heavily accented with hesitant consonants. She tried to teach us a few words from her language. I found it difficult to duplicate her pronunciation: Yupik has a number of sounds that English lacks. “Quyana,” for instance, the word for “thank you,” is said something like “koo-YA-na,” but with the “koo” deep in the throat and much gentler.

Her manner, too, was gentle—very unlike some of my classmates who rapidly ran her over with their own chatter. The cultural contrast was very marked. It often seems to me that people of my own culture need to constantly tell others about themselves (I am guilty of this myself too often). We are poor listeners on the whole.

There is also a tendency in mainstream Americans to reassure themselves by sticking with what they already know. Conversation ran to raising kids, the local doings at the school and in the community, building houses, the rising cost of electricity and airplane tickets, words in the local dialect (different from Lucy’s Yupik).

Lucy gave us an explanation of basket making while we waited for our grass to soften in warm water, and showed us a number of baskets and other items she had brought. There was a rattle, an “Eskimo yo-yo” (a toy with two balls on the ends of unevenly matched cords, played by making each ball circle in opposite directions), and a small ball in addition to baskets, to show us the variety of things that could be made. The baskets ranged from about the size of a large thimble to larger than a softball, most with lids.

Although we would be learning how to use grass, other materials, from raffia to strips of plastic rice bags, could be used. For colored designs, dyed grass or seal intestine (scraped and dried, translucent, and crackly as paper) are added.

It wasn’t easy to get much instruction with the constant interruptions of the other women in the class. We grasped the basics enough to strip our grass blades and get started. We had Friday evening, 9-5 on Saturday, and 9-2 on Sunday; and quickly discovered that sewing baskets with grass is a time-consuming activity. I finished a small basket and made a lid for it by Saturday afternoon, at least half a day ahead of the rest. By now Lucy was sewing her own basket, and I could sit and watch her.

It was watching Lucy that made me realize I had made my entire first basket incorrectly. Although she had walked around the room looking at our work, all she had ever said was, “Wow! Look at that…” in her soft tones, smiling at each of us. Working on my second basket, taking breaks to watch Lucy more closely, I pondered this lack of correction.

An explanation arrived later in the form of a story. When asked about what her own first basket had looked like, she said that the centers were showing (the strands around which a flattened piece of grass is wound); but that her grandmother said it was wonderful anyway. Ahhh… teaching by encouragement, not by criticism, is a very different style from what most of us are used to. And there is a much greater responsibility placed on the student: to learn well, one must listen well and watch closely.

When I look at my two little baskets now, I remember that lesson: watch, and learn. Model your work after the work you admire. Pay attention.

Pay attention is the same message delivered by the world around us. I try to walk outside every day, and the faster I can empty my head of idle chatter and pointless worry, the more I enjoy the walk and the more I see. Yesterday evening, for example, I went out shortly before dark. The small amount of snow lying on the ground, left for days in the cold without melting, is dry and squeaky. I make such a racket walking through it that I was unable to hear anything but myself. I stopped to examine the view of King Salmon Creek from atop the bluff; and once I was still, heard a surprising amount of noise from below. At first, I thought some large animal was thrashing its way through the brush. Then I realized I was hearing the ice on the creek being moved by the current: snapping, cracking, and gurgling.

Julia always gives me something to think about. Besides the fact that I want to learn basketry.


Another Cabin in Alaska…..

Flashback to 2007….

This was the first cabin. Within the city limits of Fairbanks, and yes, it was dry: no plumbing. See the square blue thing by the front door? We had four of them to bring water into our precious little cabin. I shared this cabin with two other girls who were also in Alaska working at the University. It was such an interesting summer.

Fast-forward 3 years and 2 months…..

This is the cabin I’m in now. You’ll notice my little blue truck in front of it. Besides the fact that I love working in our parks, if you’re curious about what brought me back to Alaska, you might consider the view from my front porch:

For the next few months, I will be working at Denali National Park and Preserve. I don’t have every little detail worked out (I still don’t know my mailing address!), but I’m hoping for a good winter.

Not only is this an amazing park, with stunning scenery and natural resources, but it was a place I wanted to explore further. I’m hoping to turn this winter job into a summer job for next year as well. Yes, I’d miss Sunrise and Rainier, but this is ALASKA.