A Return to Wilderness

A century later, one man revisits Charles Sheldon's Denali experience.


By Scott Kirkwood


In 1907, Charles Sheldon spent a year in the wilds of Alaska, in what we now know as Denali National Park. His work documenting the wildlife and landscapes led him to become a primary advocate for the park’s creation, which came about in 1917. Shortly after his death in 1928, Sheldon’s widow published The Wilderness of Denali, which detailed his experiences a century ago. One hundred years after that historic trip, Willie Karidis decided to trace Sheldon’s path. He took a hiatus from his position as executive director of the Denali Education Center, adjacent to the park, and spent 61 days in the middle of winter to learn all he could about the park, the wilderness experience, and ultimately, himself. National Parks Editor Scott Kirkwood spoke with him this summer.

Q. How did this idea first come to you?
A. It started 22 years ago when I first read the book—I wasn’t even a quarter of the way though it when I decided it would be a great experience to spend the entire winter out in Denali. The dream evolved, and I later realized two months would be a reasonable amount of time. I thought it would be a wonderful spiritual journey for me, but I also saw it as a way of celebrating Sheldon’s experience.

Q. Can you talk a little about the book and its impact?
A. The Wilderness of Denali is actually a painful book to read in many ways, because 100 years ago, the method of studying wildlife was to kill everything. Sheldon was a master hunter—he collected everything from the smallest shrews to the largest grizzly bears, as part of his work for the biological survey, then brought those animals back East to the museums for study. His initial interest was in Dall sheep because no one had really studied the species before, but the book wasn’t simply about hunting. Sheldon had an amazing way of describing color and seasons and feelings—he was a naturalist, too, during a time of transition for the country, when people were just starting to recognize that preserving large tracts of land was important for our future.

Q. And what is his connection to the creation of the park itself?
A. Back then, Kantishna was a gold mining area deep inside what is now Denali National Park, so market hunters were going through the area and collecting as many sheep, caribou, moose, and bear as they could to feed the camps. Sheldon recognized that if something wasn’t done to preserve this area, all of the animals that he loved would be eliminated. His time in Denali led him to formulate the idea of creating the national park. He and others petitioned the federal government to create Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917—the first national park created after the formation of the Park Service in 1916.

Q. Talk a little about the logistics of your journey.
A. I began purchasing some of the gear many years ago, but the biggest push was in the last year—working to become a volunteer in the park, whose staff were extremely helpful, stashing firewood because I obviously couldn’t chop down any trees in the park, making sure I had enough food… My original intention was to camp near where Sheldon’s cabin used to be, and live in my Arctic Oven [a tent that allows campers to build a fire inside]. But when I went to the area, it was obvious that wolves had been bedding down there, so rather than invade their territory, I got Park Service permission to stay in the old Pearson cabin built in 1927.

Q. Was there ever a time you thought this whole idea might have been a big mistake?
A. Never. In fact, very early on I made a conscious decision not to have any negative emotions, like impatience, stress, anger, fear, or intolerance. On my second day alone, I realized that all of those emotions would just cause me to make bad decisions, so instead I decided to focus on joy and love and happiness and compassion and patience. It was something I’d never done in my life but it just seemed like the natural thing to do out there. It made my decisionmaking a lot clearer and my experience a lot more fulfilling.

Q. What other lessons did you learn?
A. One of my goals was to try to duplicate the photos that Sheldon had taken 100 years to the day, so I was looking for these opportunities constantly, but every time something would come up. The weather would turn bad, or I wouldn’t be able to find the right location—there was always an obstacle. The last time I really had an opportunity to take one of these 100-year photos on the same day as Sheldon was March 10. The snow was coming down, so the visibility wasn’t great, but I found the spot on the east branch of the Toklat, and I was overwhelmed with joy when I took the photo.

And I realized one of the things I’d been looking for this entire trip was our commonalities as human beings—things that we all share—and wilderness is one of those commonalities. It’s where we all come from. It’s our country’s greatest wealth. But another thing we share is faith in a moment. We all have our own dreams—they might not be focused on wilderness, but we have faith that our unborn child is going to be healthy, we have faith that our loved one is going to come back safely from war, we have faith that we’re going to do well on a test…. And the more things that we can identify that we have in common, the closer we’ll be to a world that’s more balanced, and the better able we’ll be to communicate with each other. That was a huge revelation to me. It changed the way I look at life and the world.

Q. What was it like being so out of touch with the world?
A. I talked to my wife a few times a week on a satellite phone, but being alone for so much time really got me in touch with the simplicity of life, and the idea of learning this new culture. I equated it with going to a foreign country or a place I’d never been before—at first you’re curious and you’re looking around, but you don’t know anybody there, you don’t know where to go, and you can’t really speak the language. But as you stay there longer you get to know the people who live there, you discover some of your favorite places, and you learn how to speak the language.

Because I kept the satellite phone wherever I was sleeping, in the cabin or Arctic Oven, I had to be slow, steady, and purposeful
with every step I took, to make sure I wasn’t twisting an ankle or falling into ice. But after a while I didn’t have to be as concerned, because the environment became so familiar. Initially, I felt like I was clumsy and out of place, but by the end of it, I felt like I fit in really well. At first, the mountains seemed really large, too, but the more I walked and hiked and climbed, the smaller they became.

I used to always be a person who looked straightforward and side to side occasionally, but I realized that even though I saw signs of wolves, I rarely ever saw them. That forced me to change my perspective, to take in all 360 degrees, always looking behind me, so I didn’t miss a thing. And months later, I still do it all the time.

Q. Do you have plans to capture the lessons of your journey?
A. I do want to write about my experiences. When Sheldon was in Denali, he was out hunting and collecting and exploring the area, but my trip became more of a reflective, spiritual journey. While I was out there I read the autobiography of Gandhi and Ethics for the New Millennium by The Dalai Lama, the Koran and sayings of the prophet Mohammed, the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. I was seeking a greater understanding of what we all have in common, so the lessons I took away are obviously quite different.

Q. Obviously, few people can tackle such an extreme journey like yours. Are there ways for the rest of us to learn these lessons?
A. Certainly. Not everyone can experience Denali like I did, but it’s up to each person to find their own experience, whether it be your neighborhood park, the ocean, or your backyard. To find the simplicity of nature is something that is within all our power. It  xists in wild places, and you can find those places almost anywhere.

This article appears in the Fall 2008 issue.

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