Humans of Denali
“I’d really like to find some bones or teeth.”Dr. Patrick Druckenmiller is a University of Alaska Museum paleontologist who is conducting research in Denali this summer. After the initial discovery of dinosaur track fossils in 2005, hundreds of sites with thousands of trace fossils have been found in the park, with new fossils finds every year.
“They’re probably rare, but when you have dinosaur tracks the conditions can vary just enough in a certain place where you might get bones. So, if you just walk enough miles, find the right rock layer that has a particular type of preservation, then you could hit the jackpot."
Brian Moe is a backcountry ranger at Denali who has previously served at North Cascades National Park. He truly enjoys helping plan trips for those heading out into the park and talking to visitors about their backcountry experiences, but admits he is always looking ahead to his next patrol into the backcountry.
"We're always itching to get back out there. Your mind always has to be in the backcountry to be prepared for your next trip, because it's really just us out there when we're on patrols. And that's the element that I love. I love pushing myself. Just knowing that the only way I'm going to get the extra mile in or climb that extra peak is if I motivate myself."
"I fell in love with Denali almost instantly. This has been an experience that I wouldn't trade anything in the world for."
Eugene Dixon is a Student Conservation Association intern who is spending his summer working with Denali National Park and Preserve. Growing up in Anchorage, Eugene's awe for his home state of Alaska took form on school trips while visiting the state's beautiful natural areas, such as Flattop Mountain.
It's hard for Keli Mueller to talk about what it's like to live in Alaska because it's all she knows. She grew up in Kenai, Alaska and came up to Denali to live, work and raise a family. She currently works in Administration for the National Park Service. Like many families living off the Stampede Trail, Keli's family lived in a dry cabin without running water, electricity or a phone.
"The biggest challenge is laundry - It's just more work. There was a KOA or you make a day of it in Fairbanks to do laundry. When you haul the water you first wash the babies and then you mop the floors with the same water. It's just being smart with the planning."
"I still never take it for granted, I love doing laundry because I remember what a chore it was before."
Although the Muellers left and spent some time in Oregon, they came back home to Alaska and to the community that Keli loves.
"Raising a family here was ideal, lots of fresh air, lots of time outside."
She looks up as she remembers tidbits of stories and talks about picking berries and hiking with her kids.
"When they were little I would always be the one behind, you know, bringing up the rear of the little one, and the others would be running ahead. I was just thinking about this, how I would say, 'Okay, come on, let's go,' while we're all walking up the trail. And then, not so long ago, I'm realizing I'm like, 'Hey guys wait, wait,' and I'm the last one in the group now and no one's there saying, 'Come on mom, we can do it'."
"There's magic going on every day in these parks and I believe it has tremendous power to change and shape lives."
Kim Heacox is an award winning author, photographer, and a former Denali park ranger. As a passionate storyteller of the National Park experience, his hand gestures embody the excitement in his voice.
"So many beautiful moments would not have happened without the National Park Service. Without the national commitment to historical sites, places of beauty and biodiversity."
"To see people looking out the window in awe at not just the vastness but the beauty, it just makes my soul smile."
Dale Ebben has spent 23 seasons in Denali National Park, 19 of those as a bus driver. Anyone who talks to Dale knows he is dedicated to his profession and passionate about this place. Perhaps his most unique story is of his own epic wedding adventure in the park at Polychrome in 2013.
"She has her hiking shoes on and I'm holding on to her wedding shoes, that was the deal to get her out there on the rock afterwards…it's something I relive everyday when I drive out there."
Every story Dale shares fills the listener with equal parts awe, wonder and respect. Respect for a person who embodies what it means to be an "Ambassador of Denali."
"I had these motorcyclists that came up from Ohio, they were policeman and firemen, and we went out into the park and we had just an amazing day. One of my friends from Green Bay, my birthplace, was on the bus with his family and he called me the next day. These guys were heading south from Anchorage [motorcyclists] and someone driving north fell asleep and went right through them and killed two of those guys … Don't ever take for granted the difference you can make in the people's lives out there. To think that their last experience was with me, in the park, that is something that I have never forgotten and hopefully I never forget because you know a lot of people who come here, it's their bucket list, and I'm Their Guy to fulfill their bucket list."
Ken Karstens is the great-grandson of the park's first superintendent, Harry Karstens. Just like his ancestor, he is passionate about the outdoors, has climbed Denali, and is a prolific storyteller. It is clear by speaking to Ken that the power of storytelling prevails throughout his family history and continues to resonate in the park even today.
"Harry was an amazing storyteller. Everybody that wrote about their experience in the park in the early days spoke about the highlight being the fire at the end of a long trip. They would start a big fire and Harry would walk around and would just be telling the stories of the mountain."
Dexter Armstrong is a seasonal interpretation ranger who got his start at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since then he's served at a diverse selection of park lands including Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site. While clearly a confident individual, Dexter acknowledges his unique challenges of being a front line representative for the National Park Service.
"When I talk to African American visitors this might be their first and only black park ranger they're going to see. That being said, I have to make sure this experience is great for them. It makes me nervous because I'm that one opportunity to make sure that this experience goes right. It's the one shot you get to show that you're great and others can do this too."
Michael Bobbick came to Denali National Park and Preserve through a impressive and far off way – via Antarctica. Through a co-worker, he learned about the park and the tight knit community it supported. And so began Michael's adventure to Alaska to be a Tour Bus Driver, Guide for Doyon/Aramark Joint Ventures, and how he joined the unique group of Humans of Denali.
"At first everyone kept going on and on about how great it was that I was going to get to drive the road ... As a driver, it really is about the road and getting to drive the road. The road is what connects us all to the park. It's how I got here, it's why I have a job, and it's how the visitors get here ... Then I get to tell the story of this road and the park and how it connects to everyone. Yeah, now I'm the one yelling 'It's all about the road.'"
Dre Langefeld is a Kennels Ranger at Denali National Park and Preserve. She has pent summers mushing on glaciers, winters training racing dogs, and working in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Glacier National Park. Her joy and excitement from working with such talented animals is written all over her face as she talks about daily experiences mushing dogs.
"A normal day as a backcountry ranger in Glacier was covering at least 28 miles, like we were hauling, just booking it constantly. Then coming to Gates of the Arctic, a wilderness park where there are no trails at all, you have these things called tussocks, and muskegs, and moose swamps, and mosquitoes by the gazillions. A good day of hiking was maybe three miles. But then in the winter, you're on top of all that on the snow, the mosquitoes are all dead, and you're cruising behind a dog sled team. That is the perfect way to explore. You can't beat dog-powered adventure."
Bud Marschner is an Alaskan resident who lives in Fairbanks and visits Denali frequently with his dog Dancer. While staying at the Teklanika River Campground, he relived his first experience in the wilderness. Bud's nostalgic story conveys the feeling that we are ultimately tiny in relation to the universe.
"We were sleeping outside because it wasn't raining that night and the air was clear like no other place in the world. There we were staring up on a moonless night looking at all the stars. It feels like you're just getting sucked up into the sky because there's nothing holding you back. It made you feel about 'this big' (As he gestured with his thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart.)"
"For me I think as a tour guide, my job is to have them make a connection to this place. If they can make positive and wonderful memories of this place then I think that I did my job. If they can say, 'Wow, I remember that girl and I remember her stories and I know she lived here, she didn't just come from out of state to make money for the summer, this is her home.'"
Annie sits down to share her stories after she's completed a 10-plus mile run along the Triple Lakes Trail. It's obvious she's a woman who revels in being in the outdoors. She talks about her job as a Tour Director, but more importantly, her connection with the first place she lived when she came to Alaska, Denali.
"I actually really enjoyed the winter here. I enjoyed the cold and the quiet and the stillness and just being out in nature in such a pristine place. I never thought some place could be that pristine and dark and that silent, while being simultaneously beautiful."
Three years ago, Annie's association with Denali became further ingrained when she adopted a retired sled dog named Coho.
"He is truly the love of my life."
Before the adoption, Annie brought her other husky, Esca, to the park to visit and to be sure the two dogs were compatible.
"On that very first walk, the dogs realized that they were two best friends. Three years later they're still best friends, they go everywhere together."
Cellphone service and internet connections in the deeper parts of the park are often unavailable or nonexistent. Visitors have mixed feelings on being disconnected, but for many, it is a part of what makes Denali so special. Gary Arndt agrees it is a challenge, but a necessary one to overcome.
"It's always difficult, but a lot of the cool places on earth require that."
He is a social blogger, travel writer and photographer. Connecting with people is his job. Gary's photographs capture the viewer's attention with stunning images of the places he visits. In addition, he offers insights into what you might expect in each place, providing information for potential travelers.
"The biggest compliment I can get from people is that they went to a place because of something they saw that I did."
His advice to potential visitors to Denali: "I think people need to do a little bit of planning, and if you come here, plan to go all the way in or as far as you can. Take a couple days, get on one of the buses and go to the very end of the road and prepare yourself. You're going to spend a very cold day because that is how you're going to see the park the best."
Jen Jackson is an interpretation ranger who started off her career in the National Park Service as a volunteer at Minute Man National Historic Park. Her pride for our nation's history as a ranger and a military wife is clear from the moment you meet her. With her historic background, she brings a unique perspective to Denali.
"I love to tell stories about people and have always been particularly drawn to the stories of those who made this country great. I began my Park Service career at Minute Man National Historical Park, where I was able to tell the story of the opening battle of the American Revolutionary War, of the people who first stood up and fought for those great American ideals of liberty and freedom. The experience also led me to a deeper understanding of the importance in remembering where we came from as a nation. That's what's so great about the Park Service, we preserve not only beautiful, wild places, but also those great and powerful American stories."
Garron Nanalook is a Student Conservation Association intern working in the Denali National Park kennels. He is a Native Alaskan from the village of Togiak, Alaska. While he is soft-spoken, he speaks passionately about his work with the sled dogs and the wildlife refuge he calls home.
"I was doing the same thing in my village. Helping protect and clean up, as these dogs do in the National Park Service here in Denali. I would pick up debris, watch out for poachers, all kinds of stuff, just patrolling our river in order to protect it. So it's possible for other people to enjoy what I enjoy."
Sabrena Ambrezewicz is spending her first summer with the National Park Service as an interpretation ranger. She understands the importance of getting kids outside to experience nature and what it meant to her as a child.
"I wouldn't be where I am without that outdoor experience as a young child. I mean, it wasn't formally constructed like the kids that I taught, but getting dirty, climbing trees, climbing hills, really being out. That was just in my cul-de-sac in southern California. We found nature wherever it was. Since then there's been a connection between me and getting out in nature, exploring nature, and studying nature. And I feel it's grounded in that interaction with nature as a child."
Bob Paley has been a Boy Scout leader for over 25 years. He's taken generations of scouts on high adventure trips to parks all across the country. While visiting Denali, he enjoyed a stay at Teklanika River Campground. He recounted how some memories remain with you because of what those moments meant to others.
"I had a group of scouts and we were hiking in Grand Teton National Park and the views there are just stunning. We were all sitting on a rock outcrop and I was just in earshot of hearing one of the boys ask another one, 'What do you think of this backpacking trip?' and the kid immediately replies without hesitation, 'I think this is the best thing I've ever done in my life.'"
Chuck and Kerry Dorius
Chuck and Kerry Dorius have lived in Girdwood, Alaska for 17 years and are Denali regulars. While they recounted many wonderful experiences within Denali, a chance to share an elusive wolf sighting with their grandchildren was one that they would never forget.
"We've always enjoyed trying to see a wolf, but they're very elusive. Well, two years ago we brought our grand kids into the park as a fluke I figured we should take them into the park. So, we were on the bus later in the day and just as we got past Igloo Campground we saw some wolves. The bus stopped and the wolves started to move. And the bus started to slowly follow them. We followed that pack of wolves for a half an hour up the road. It was the best wolf sighting you could ever imagine."
Corrie Lambrecht Hruby
Corrie Lambrecht Hruby came to Alaska four years ago to the University of Fairbanks for cultural anthropology. While getting her Master's Degree she would often attend yoga classes offered by the university in order to unwind. Being within viewing distance of such a striking mountain like Denali inspired her to venture into the park to find peace of mind and body.
"I'd go on Saturday mornings to yoga classes and on clear October days when the air is cool and still you can see the Alaska Range from campus. I've always been entranced with Denali since before I moved to Alaska. And In yoga when you're doing balance poses it's important to think of something sturdy. The north and south peaks of Denali are my stable image."
Last updated: March 29, 2017