One thing we love most about our journey is meeting all sorts of incredible people throughout the National Parks – rangers, concessionaires, artists, volunteers, fellow visitors, etc. For each park we want to share the story of at least one person we meet. Because, after all, the parks belong to all of us!
Below are the People of the Parks from Leg 5 of our trip. To ease load times and navigation through the stories of our now 40+ people, we have catalogued previous legs (see our route map for leg definitions) on different pages. There are some incredible stories and you can see them all here:
Leg 1 People of the Parks (Great Sand Dunes to Black Canyon of the Gunnison)
Leg 2 People of the Parks (Cuyahoga Valley to Mammoth Cave)
Leg 3 People of the Parks (Haleakala to American Samoa)
Leg 4 People of the Parks (Hot Springs to Olympic)
Glacier National Park
As we paddled back toward the boat launch, we saw another person getting ready to slide their kayak into the lake. I asked Elizabeth where she was headed and she said she was planning to just paddle up Swiftcurrent Lake to the connected Josephine Lake. Since it was the same route we had just completed, I excitedly told her about the grizzly we saw on the cliffs above the connector stream foraging in the dirt. She knew exactly the spot I described. It turns out Elizabeth has been a ranger at Glacier since 1999. 17 years! Before that she worked at Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Currently she is about to start the summer season as a supervisor who shows other interpretive rangers the ropes. She works mostly in East Glacier because beautiful scenery and open views over the heavier forests of West Glacier. She said she almost retired the year before, but couldn’t stay away. However she plans to retire eventually and rig up a trailer behind her car and explore the U.S.
Yellowstone National Park
We were cruising through the wildlife hub of Lamar Valley when we saw a big collection of cars down a side road. Since a bunch of cars in Yellowstone almost always signals some interesting wildlife, we pulled in and joined the crowd. The problem was I had no idea what everybody was looking at and I didn’t want to be the noob who asks, “Hey, whatchya look in’ at there?” Thank goodness Pam came to the rescue. She told me that the big group with all there spotter scopes, telephoto camera lenses and fancy binoculars were all tracking the wolf den way up on the far hill. The next thing I knew, two hours of wolf-watching had flown by. Pam said this was their first time there had been activity in the den in six years and that it was super rare to have a den so viewable from the road. It was extra exciting because there were two mothers sharing the same den with 8-13 pups between them. It turned out that Pam and her husband Dennis were big wolf enthusiasts from near Salt Lake City who had been coming to Yellowstone for several weeks a year ever since the wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995. Although, Pam said she’d been coming to the park ever since she was a little kid 65 years ago – “Yellowstone is in my blood.” Pam was so gracious to let us peek through her spotting scope when the pups came out of the den. She answered all our questions, told us about the fascinating and dramatic history of wolves in Yellowstone and showed us the family charts of which packs live in which area. It was so cool to learn from someone so passionate about their hobby.
Grand Teton National Park
It was great to meet Paul and Owen after coordinating our visit to Grand Teton months ago. We felt like they were our special guests at the park. Paul and Owen actually work for the marketing division of Garmin. Paul is a producer for the many marketing videos Garmin creates for its products and Owen is the videographer and editor of those videos. Since Garmin is one of our awesome gear sponsors, they asked if they could follow us around at a park and shoot footage to feature our story. They are making an internal promotional video to show how we live life on the road and make the most of their new automotive GPS, Drive Assist. We felt like celebrities as they followed us around with fancy cameras and treated us to meals! Plus it was definitely fun having other people to hang out with than just ourselves. Paul is a former teacher who taught himself a wide range of video production skills to crack into the industry. Owen is a former news cameraman. Paul had been to Grand Teton years before during a road trip through the area. Owen had never been. We loved initiating them in a bit of #SwitchbackStylte. They were naturals!
Rocky Mountain National Park
We were really excited for Rocky Mountain. Three couples of our friends traveling to join us over Memorial Day weekend. Ryan and Bri flew into Denver from their home in Detroit where they are both teachers. Our mothers are good friends and I’ve known Ryan since before kindergarten. Adam and Ashley came from our most recent home of Kansas City. Adam and I have been close friends ever since we were random roommates freshman year. Mackenzie and Emily were driving our hometown of St. Louis and picking up the others along the way. Mackenzie and I became friends in grade school and hung out all the time after I moved into his neighborhood. The guys were three of my four groomsmen and It meant a lot for them to make the effort to join us on the trail. Adam and Ashley had actually gotten married outside Estes Park (and I officiated the ceremony), but it was the first time any of us had been to RMNP. It was like we were sharing our home (the parks) and we actually felt like hosts for the first time since our going away party last August. Elizabeth and I set up the campground before they got in, lent everyone our extra tent and sleeping gear, planned out perfect park activities, and even delivered on a moose sighting guarantee. We have definitely found National Parks are better with friends!
Badlands National Park
Pete and Callie were one of those delightfully spontaneous overlook encounters. We ran into them at Panorama Overlook right before we stepped out of the park for a little evening visit to Wall Drug. They told us how they took off for a week to explore the surprisingly robust outdoors destinations of western South Dakota. Callie is from Laramie Wyoming and Pete is from Colorado. Pete was telling us he will actually be starting at Rocky Mountain as a ranger next week! We were envious that the two of them had set up their car to sleep in the back. They said after four nights they still hadn’t used their tent! We told them about our spot at the remote Sage Creek free campground in the park and we agreed with them that it’s hardly ever necessary to pay $26 for a campground if you are creative. Then they gave us a great endorsement of the nearby Harney Peak trail (tallest point between the Rockies and the Swiss Alps), but I think we’ll have to fit that in our next visit. Like us, they were surprised by the wealth of stuff in western South Dakota and we’re trying to pack a lot into a short week. But when they go back home I’m sure they’ll manage to find plenty of natural beauty too!
Wind Cave National Park
We had been Twitter friends with @naturetechfam for a while. So when they offered to meet up with when we visited in Wind Cave National Park just 20 minutes from their house in Custer, SD, we were really looking forward to it. Kari and her two sons, Calvin and Linus, met us at the picnic ground (the dad was working). Their effort was much appreciated since they were in the midst of preparing to leave on their big summer vacation later that night. I remember the preparing and packing the car was always my least favorite part of our family vacations – and I barely had to do any of it! Kari said the break from packing outside in the park was good though because they could get out some energy before the long car ride – which they appeared to do very effectively by running around and throwing pine cones at each other. The road trip will include an ambitious 9 different National Parks throughout the Southwest in just 12 days. It was funny that despite all those different parks, Calvin was definitely most excited for all the pools they would visit throughout the KOAs they stayed at. I wish I was still that easily entertained!
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
We can definitely tell it’s family vacation season in the National Parks. We met another awesome family who actually knew us from Twitter. It was the first time we met people in a National Park who were following us! The Danielsons are also from Kansas City and were on a 2-week tour of 5 parks – Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier and Theodore Roosevelt as their last stop. Eric and Allison explained that their goal was to visit all 59 National Parks with their 3 kids by the time the oldest son leaves for college. I love it! The kids told us their all-time favorites were Zion and Badlands and their favorite from the trip was Glacier. The cool part is that Eric and Allison are documenting their trips on a blog to share with their friends and family (sounds familiar, haha), so check out minivanielson.wordpress.com. Seeing the kids running around the mini van and teasing each other with all their pent up energy definitely brought back memories of our family summer vacations.
Voyageurs National Park
Ranger Melissa was incredibly helpful and patient as we worked through the complicated process of getting our Voyageurs camping permits. Our request was an odd one. It first involved a paddle-up campsite for that night on Rainy Lake, which we would depart for from the Visitor Center where she was working. The next day we would travel to Kabetogama Lake and needed a cached canoe rental and a backcountry campsite on one of the smaller lakes in the interior of the Kabetogama Peninsula. Ranger Melissa led us through the process and did some extra research into campsite availability to make sure we got the best spot. It definitely paid off with a beautiful sunset from our own private island for the first night. When we mentioned we were heading to Isle Royale next, she really got us excited by saying it’s “Heaven on Earth.” Since she had been a ranger there for a couple summers, she gave us a few helpful tips for our planned backpacking route. Although she had plenty of experience with aisle Royale, she said she has sadly not had much time yet to explore her new park at Voyageurs because it’s been so busy (especially because almost everything requires a boat to access). Hopefully since her husband also works in the park, they can have their own adventure soon. I’m just glad we didn’t cause her husband to be any busier than necessary because he’s a law enforcement Ranger.
Isle Royale National Park
Brian and Joe were had just gotten married on Isle Royale the day before we met them. We met them on our last day at the park during the ferry ride from Rock Harbor back to Grand Portage, MN. Since the ride was 7 hours and the small boat only had a handful of people, we had plenty of time to chat. They were about to begin their 4-week road trip of a honeymoon by touring NPS sites around the Great Lakes. Then they head west to Omaha for the 4th, Grand Teton and Yellowstone and, finally, Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Joe worked for the most beautiful National Park lodge we’ve seen to date in Grand Teton and Brian is a big parks fan (the Southwest is his favorite). It was also really interesting to hear about Brian’s quest to visit all 50 state capitols. They told us their whole trip took shape when they were feeling stressed by the planning and financing of a big wedding and wanting to elope. But they settled on the compromise of planning their wedding in a remote, natural, charming destination that still very much seemed exotic and opening the invitation for whoever could make it. They had a small ceremony on the dock. Then they watched the summer solstice sun set beyond the harbor before walking over to the other side of the peninsula to watch the full moon rise over the water, a combination that won’t happen again for another 70 years. So I like to think that was Isle Royale’s wedding gift.
We had another special couple joining us for the entire journey across Isle Royale. Chance is one of Elizabeth’s high school friends and he came up from Indianapolis with his wife Dani. We loved spending time with them, especially since it was their first backpacking trip as a couple. We knew our plan for 42 miles in 3 days was going to be a sizable feat, but we definitely didn’t anticipate the havoc of swarming mosquitoes or quagmire of swamped trail we would encounter. We conquered each mile together and were really proud of our friends for their challenging inaugural trip. I just hope they will want to go backpacking with us again!
Glacier Bay National Park
We were super lucky that our second night in Glacier Bay coincided with a very special evening program at the park. Kim Heacox is the author of the official National Geographic book of the NPS Centennial. He is a former Gustavus resident and Glacier Bay Ranger turned serial National Parks author. And he returned to his old stomping grounds to give a talk about the NPS past, present and future. It was a packed house in the auditorium of the Visitor Center, so we ended up standing along the wall. Kim’s talk was an engaging mix of educational NPS history, insightful commentary and quotes from the book. He said the NPS was remarkably fluid and responsive for a government agency and broke done its 100 year life into 5 successive focuses – scenery, history, biology, diversity and, most recently, relevancy. He described how in the history of National Parks it’s usually just one or two people at the point of the spear working tirelessly to save a special place and everyone else falls in behind. He illustrated this with a story of the “most contentious” National Park, Grand Teton, and how Horace Albright convinced John D. Rockefeller Jr. to buy up ranches and save the land. But between all the serious analysis were plenty of Kim-isms and peeks into the quirky personality of the author. During the post-talk reception we introduced ourselves to Kim to thank him and mention our trip. He was “intrigued” and was very interested to hear more. We could’ve said the same for his book. Maybe it’s my next Christmas present for Elizabeth ;).
Poor Diego had no choice but to meet us at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. We booked a Root Glacier hiking tour in the park and he was our guide. We met in the town of Kennecott where he took us through some of the buildings leftover from the old boomtown days and described life in the bustling mining town. Then we hiked over to the glacier, strapped on our crampons and followed Diego across the ice. As he told us about the dynamic nature and impressive stats of the glacier, it was clear he really enjoyed his job. He said he always liked coming to the glacier because it was always changing to show him something new. And the Stairway Icefall sliding down the mountain to feed the glacier was his favorite. We also got plenty of time to chat as we walked. In past years, Diego had been a rafting guide in Colorado. Last winter he was invited to guide – along with some former colleagues – for a company in Wrangell-St. Elias called McCarthy River Outfitters. Mostly Diego leads rafting trips from 1-7 days on the river, but he also enjoys the new territory of glacier hike guiding. When not guiding, he lives in the canvas platform tents on some land owned by the company in the park and gets plenty of reading done. And he gets groceries and supplies delivered for free by Amazon Prime. He mentioned that all the simple tasks of living take a bit longer when you live in the wilderness. We could definitely relate!
Kobuk Valley & Gates of the Arctic National Parks
When we hopped in the back of Jared’s four-seater flightseeing plane, we were quickly trusting him with our life. It wasn’t hard. The confidence and calmness with which he wheeled the plane from the hangar to runway and took off in a matter of seconds quickly made us comfortable. Jared had been flying – “legally” he added – since 19. At first it was just a way that he and his dad would get around central Alaska to hunt (his other passion), explore or run errands. However, around six he started up Golden Eagle Outfitters with his dad and cousin as co-owners. Since then the company has earned a great reputation and also expanded to flying in northwest Alaska. They fly year-round. In the winter Jared transports people and supplies to all the villages and schools around their base in Kotzebue. In the summer he does a lot more flight tours and backcountry drop offs. Our trip was a half-day outback-and-back flight that landed briefly at Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic National Parks. We told Jared it’s not how we usually visit the parks. He agreed the ideal way to see these two is to get dropped off for a few days in the backcountry. Soon he hopes to land on one of the mountain ridges we passed and take a pack raft through the beautiful gorge where we landed in Gates of the Arctic. Unfortunately his packed flight schedule leaves little time for such adventures. He barely has a chance to get home for dinner in Kotzebue with his wife (who he proudly told us just became the first female Alaskan Native dentist) and his two young boys. Despite the busy schedule, he hesitates to hire additional pilots. He feels that if Golden Eagle gets too big it will lose its personality – and he’ll be stuck behind a desk instead of in the cockpit! At the end of our whirlwind tour, I really appreciated Jared’s commitment to his family business and its operating philosophy. But I think the thing I liked best was their slogan: “Trust us with your life, not your daughter or your wife.”
Kenai Fjords National Park
Franzi, Hanna and Maria are three sisters who moved with their parents from Germany to the eastern U.S. Since then they’ve discovered a love for the National Parks. They decided to take a big sister trip to Alaska and we met them outside the Nature Center at Kenai Fjords National Park. We remembered them from the huge group of 40 who showed up for the Saturday ranger hike to the Harding Icefield. We all started in the “hearty hikers” front group with the first ranger. We ended up migrating to the back and eventually setting our own pace because, we agreed with them that we weren’t trying to set any hiking speed records. We also agreed the hike past Exit Glacier and to the top of mountains basically filled with an ice lake was so beautiful that it merited taking our time. We were happy to hear the next day the sisters were going on a boat tour with Kenai Fjords Tours. That was our favorite thing in the park and I think some sort of tour is a must for any park visit. To cap off their Alaska trip the sisters were heading to Denali. It seemed that in whatever National Park we met people, they told us they were also going to Denali. I don’t blame them, it’s definitely iconic. But I also think the sisters made an excellent choice for their other National Park.
Lake Clark National Park
During our visit to Lake Clark we met a couple interests characters. There was our pilot, Chris, who flew us on Lake and Pen Air from Anchorage to Port Alsworth, the town encompassed by the park. There was Lucas Wescott, who lives in Port Alsworth and works in the Visitors Center for the full year as a ranger. Then there were just a half dozen other people we ran into over three days in the park – mostly locals. However, I want to feature a historical figure of Lake Clark.
We watched a movie in the Visitor Center about how Richard Louis “Dick” Proenneke (May 4, 1916 – April 20, 2003) lived alone for almost thirty years on the shore of Twin Lakes in Lake Clark National Park in a log cabin he built himself. He was born in Iowa and joined the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor. He worked as a carpenter and mechanic for the Navy. In 1950 his work brought him to Alaska. When he retired to his cabin in 1968, Proenneke lived off the land by hunting, fishing and gathering food, and also had supplies flown in occasionally. He documented his life in journals and on film, and observed meteorological and natural data in the area. Today the Richard Proenneke Historic Site is a popular day trip for visitors who fly in from Anchorage. We considered it ourselves, but the Port Alsworth area had better access to Lake Clark. (photo below from Proenneke’s wikipedia page).
Katmai National Park
Several times while in Katmai we opted to relax in the cozy Brooks Lodge common room instead of hanging in our tent during the relentless rain. While there I picked up a photography book from the coffee table called Katmai Coastal Brown Bears. The photography of bears nabbing salmon leaping over Brooks Falls and cubs wrestling with their mothers was incredible. When someone told me the couple who took all those photos was currently in the park, I decided I had to meet them. I found Jim, of Jim and Debbie Chagare, in one of his usual stations. He was set up in the corner of the Upper Falls platform with a camera and its gigantic telephoto lens on a tripod with another huge camera hanging underneath the tripod. Both himself and his gear were decked out in camo. I realized he was the same person we had cooked dinner next to in the campground where we had overheard him telling people his camo wasn’t for animals (you could never fool them), but for people. He added that his camo outfit also allowed him to wear it for a week straight without people being able to tell. On the platform, Jim told me he was a professional photographer who lived in Indiana. He has a portrait photography studio there, but he hopes to soon give that up and focus more on his passion for wildlife photography. The most remarkable thing was that all the amazing photos in the huge book I saw were taken during one two week visit in 2008. He also made another book from his two week trip in 2010. His visit this time will also be two weeks simply because that’s as long as you can stay in the campground consecutively. Unfortunately, he told me this visit he hadn’t seen nearly the number of active bears as in the past. I heard the rangers echo this observation and they guessed it was because the salmon were so plentiful that the bears could get full quickly without needing to spend the whole day out fishing. Whatever the case, it was really cool to meet the person who had photographed the book on Katmai bears. I have no doubt he’ll have more great pictures to share from this trip.
Denali National Park
We were very lucky with our timing in Denali National Park. One the two days of our visit we spent exploring the entrance area happened to coincide with their 5th annual Denali Music Festival. It is a super unique event where composers and musicians gathered at the Visitor Center to give talks and play concerts. Our favorite speaker was Alan Chan, who was the current composer-in-residence at Denali. We never knew that was a thing, but apparently it’s part of their artist-in-residence program. When I introduced myself to Alan after his talk, he told me he was at the end of his amazing 10-day stay. The park set him up in a backcountry cabin on the Tolkat River. The small cabin was propane powered and used water that Alan retrieved from a nearby tank everyday. He said his days were mostly spent soaking in the wilderness around him: going on ranger hikes, riding the bus to Wonder Lake, wandering through the creeks and valleys about the cabin and lots of staring through the rain. He is soaking in these experiences like a sponge and will turn them into a composition that will be recorded and donated to the park. He draws a lot of his inspiration from places he visits and he is not unfamiliar with National Parks. Just this year, he went to Yellowstone and Grand Teton and also brought his parents to Zion and Grand Canyon when they visited the U.S. Alan was born in Hong Kong and now lives in LA. He started in the classical world, but now composes and conducts for the Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra. I loved the clips he played for us during the presentation and can’t wait to hear the Denali piece when it’s posted on their website a year from now.