Editor’s note: This book review is one in a series about unsung or forgotten Alaskan histories.
When people think of Alaskan wildlife, they often think of Denali National Park. But what most don’t realize is that the mountain the park is named for is not why the park exists. The need for a wildlife preserve is what prompted its creation.
In the early 20th century, Fairbanks was a gold rush boomtown, and commercial hunters were traveling to the Alaska Range to harvest Dall sheep to feed the growing city. This led to concerns that market hunters would ultimately decimate the sheep population.
For this reason, Charles Sheldon, a politically connected conservationist who studied Dall sheep early in the century, started working to preserve the region in 1906. Joining forces with artist and climber Belmore Brown, the duo relentlessly lobbied Congress on this topic. Their dream was realized in 1917 when Mount McKinley National Park was established.
This is but one of many things readers will learn from prolific Alaskan author Tom Walker’s two volume history of Denali and its surrounding regions.
The first book, Kantishna, tells how the nearby Kantishna mining district sprang to life following a gold strike in 1904. Walker follows the community of people who coalesced in what is now the park region, particularly Fannie Quigley, one of the most beloved figures in Alaskan history. He also traces the impact of James Wickersham, who was appointed federal judge to interior Alaska in 1900, becoming a towering figure in the territory for decades.
Climbing tales are aplenty, including the famous Sourdough Expedition to the lower northern summit of Denali in 1910, and the first successful ascent to the higher southern peak three years later by a party that included Walter Harper (the first to the top), Hudson Stuck, and Harry Karstens, who emerges as the leading figure in Walker’s books.
Kantishna ends with the park’s establishment, and in the follow-up volume, McKinley Station, Walker continues from there. Karstens, a close friend of Sheldon’s, was appointed the first superintendent of the new park. Starting from absolute scratch, Karstens laid the groundwork for what is today Alaska’s premier attraction, the destination of over half-a-million visitors during normal tourist seasons.
Alaskans had mixed feelings about the park. Although these days they’ve mostly come to accept and even love it, in the early going, the idea of closing such a vast landscape to hunters, trappers, and miners rubbed territorial residents the wrong way. Meanwhile, developing the park for tourism created its own pressures on the land and its resident wildlife. Mt. McKinley National Park became a flashpoint for some of the epic 20th century battles over land use in America.
Walker details how the gruff Karstens worked to balance these competing pressures on the park, earning the eternal gratitude of many and the enduring enmity of some. In these books, Karstens emerges as one of the most pivotal figures in Alaska’s transition from the gold rush free-for-all into a federal territory bound for statehood.
Walker’s books are as much a biography of Karstens as they are a history of the park, and the two stories are inseparable. “Despite widespread antipathy,” Walker said, “Karstens’ sourdough credentials—climber, musher, hunter, prospector, and cabin builder—enabled him to succeed where an Outsider would have failed. He was absolutely fearless and true to his word, a force of nature that dissuaded poachers and spoilers, his mere presence enough to protect the new park.”
McKinley Station ends in 1932, leaving much yet to be told. But for a history of how land and wildlife conservation came to Alaska, one filled with countless adventures along the way, this pair of books is