Crew Talk: Park Rangers of Alaska
Most of the Crew Talk interviews will be with members of the crew or staff on the cruise ships. But with Alaska cruising season coming to a close in a few weeks I thought it would be fitting to interview one of the park rangers in Alaska.
The people of Alaska know Alaska and they share their beautiful state with us when we cruise there. We collect epic memories in just a week’s time, so imagine the sights they see year-round?
I had the opportunity to chat with Dan Irelan, Denali Park Ranger for the past fourteen years – seven years as their summer park ranger and seven years and going, as their year-round park ranger. I asked him about his experiences, tips on spotting wildlife and what makes Alaska special to him. He paints a beautiful picture with his words, and his love of Alaska is so very apparent. Here’s what he said.
If you could give a visitor one tip about wildlife spotting in Denali National Park, what would it be?
One tip? "Buy a bus ticket."
Although wildlife sightings are never a guarantee, the best chances for viewing tend to come to those who are traveling our 92-mile park road. Much of the road traverses open tundra and wide river bars – vast mountain scenes where the big mammals are often out in the open. Your chances of seeing them are even better if you let someone else do the driving and join forty or more others in scanning for wildlife together.
If you don't want to stay on a bus all day, you can plan your trip to include a day hike, or stay in a campground or even go backpacking. Visitors who take the time to travel the park road for at least one full day are giving themselves the best wildlife viewing opportunity. And it doesn't hurt to stay in the area 2 or 3 days, to give yourself more opportunities as you explore the places you couldn't visit the first day.
What is the one memory of Alaska that will stick with you forever?
One June evening in my first summer here, I was walking alone on the Toklat River when a bear appeared and started approaching me. When I stood my ground, waving and talking, it stopped for a bit...just long enough for its sibling and mother to appear.
Fortunately, these two wanted nothing to do with me and walked on by, but the curious cub approached me a few more times as I tried to convince it to do otherwise. Finally it turned and rejoined the others, leaving me with a racing heart and a good story to tell. Although it only lasted half a minute, and he "only" came within 20 meters, I still recall every moment, thought and emotion from this encounter 17 years later.
I learned that day that "standing your ground" works, though not always right away! I also learned that traveling in bear country is not so much about fear for my own survival, as it is about respecting wildlife for their survival.
What makes Alaska special to you?
The amazing and unusual aspects of the far north – the midnight sun, vast spaces and incredible mountain surroundings, winters of darkness and solitude, northern lights – each continue to inspire me, even as each feels like a normal part of life here.
Even the challenges provide their rewards: a mosquito-filled brushy bog eventually leads to soft tundra or a breezy ridge, the hidden sun of January makes way for magical moonlight skiing, and the feel of the forest and the air itself is almost indescribable at thirty below. (It's absolutely worth going outside! You just have to dress for the occasion.)
From my very first visit here, I have found the people special as well. Someone pointed out to me that almost everyone you meet here is living, working, and playing exactly where they want to be. That tends to make most of us pretty pleasant to be around.
Here are photos Dan shared with us of what Alaska looks like in the cold (and beautiful) months of the winter.
My frozen face after skiing at 20 below (I was warm on the inside!)
A view of the frozen Rock Creek near Denali Park headquarters
The stillness of Denali Spruce Forest after it snows
The Savage River Basin in winter
Another picture of the Savage River Basin in the heart of winter
Have you been to Alaska? What makes Alaska special to you? Share with us in the comments below.
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