Image credit: Illustration by Dung Hoang

Winter 2012

Hunkered at the Gateway

By Christine Byl
Winter 2012: Hunkered at the Gateway

A seasonal employee in Denali National Park decides to stick around, and sees a completely different side of Alaska.

They call us seasonals. People who move to a park for a temporary job—me, fifteen years ago to Glacier National Park, as a laborer on a trail crew. In northern parks like Glacier, the shoulders of summer (May, October) stretch a six-month work season between them, but after the ground freezes and tourists leave, most seasonals do too. Travel and ski bumming, winter jobs, a stint at the South Pole. The reasons vary, but the outcome is the same: seasonals leave.

Until, sometimes, we stay. Laborers become crew leaders, returning to a job for years. A permanent job comes along, health care and retirement: a career, that weighty word. Or, we fall in love with the place and can’t see leaving once the season’s over. We rent or build houses nearby, buy a horse or have kids or get a dog team, hitching ourselves to a post that’s anchored deeper than just “park” or “job.”

By the time we stayed put, my husband Gabe and I had worked trails for ten seasons in three different places, moving every six months. Seven seasons in Glacier, one for the Forest Service in Cordova, Alaska, and then to Denali National Park, where despite our years of trails experience, we started from scratch: seasonals, somewhere new. Our first two seasons in the park were broken up by winters in Anchorage, where I was in graduate school. But after our second summer in Denali, we had no reason to leave when the trails season finished. October came. Summer people left. We stayed.

On paper I was still seasonal, to the park a temporary employee, a trail crew leader laid off when gloves wore out and the snow flew. But for the first time in our twelve-year history together, six months passed with no move. No biannual novelty shot, no sorted possessions, protracted goodbyes. No identity based on being about-to-leave. Six years past that first choice to stay, I know all four seasons here, back to back, year to year. Permanent. For now.

My first summer in Denali, Gabe and I lived in C-Camp, the NPS seasonal housing compound just inside the park entrance. Brown cabins lined the road to the maintenance lot where out-of-state Subarus plastered with bumper stickers sat parked next to 10-yard dump trucks with Peterbilt mudflaps. We walked to the trails shop from our one-room log A-frame, the rent deducted from our paychecks. We showered in the public washhouse, planned trips into the backcountry. My reality was defined by the park, the job, the parameters of a transplant, up for the summer. I knew few locals from the nearby town of Healy—the trails foreman, in Denali ten years; a fellow trail crew leader born in Alaska; a handful of permanents from other divisions.

Returning the second summer, we left C-Camp in search of privacy, a place we could have a dog, neighbors, a life beyond the park’s rhythms. We moved north, outside Healy, population 984. Healy’s year-round employers are the coal mine visible across the Nenana River, the power plant (coal-fired), and the park, “protected” from both of them, twelve miles to the south. The two-lane Parks Highway passes through the middle of Healy and its face to the world is the quintessential small town one—two gas stations, a ratty bar, a truck-stop diner with the usual gut-bomb breakfasts served all day. Off the road, a K-12 school whose small library is open to the public four afternoons a week, a Community Center with a tiny clinic, a VFD. Healy booms when summer tourists flock to Denali, but people pass through quickly. Despite its scenic backdrop, Healy is as invisible to travelers as the apartment buildings outside a New York City subway car, or the neat ranch houses off I-90. Residents cluster in town on gravel streets or up creeks and on ridges in dry cabins, yards full of sled dogs and tarp-covered lumber piles.

Healy is in some ways a town all its own, unlike anywhere I’ve been, where the Post Office bulletin board boasts lynx hides for sale (from a local 4th-grader with a trap line) and the air smells like coal dust and tundra plants mixed by a muscular wind. In other ways, it’s Interior Alaska’s version of the same town you pass through on the way to any park, both entry and buffer. However common, or however special, Healy is the odd little place I’ve called home. It’s a place made up, in part, of seasons. And despite June’s famous midnight sun, half of the year, it’s winter.

By September, Healy hunkers down. Tourism done, restaurants and gift shops board up their windows, and the only stoplight for 200 miles blinks yellow, then goes dark. Life gets stripped down. Fairbanks is two hours north by snow-packed, two-lane highway, and we go on bi-weekly, day-long binges: groceries dog food building materials bookstore doctor visits Thai food a movie (if there’s time). Other than that, we’re on our own. Healy has a little store where you can get a rock-hard avocado, chips at $6.50 a bag, or a gallon of milk for the same. There’s no “stocking up” in Healy. In winter, you get what you get.

Don’t come here looking for chai. This is not Outside magazine’s Best Town In America. No ski resort, no health food store. And though I’ve used—and often miss—that cultural tackle, Healy has the charm that comes from its lack of artifice, the old kind of dorkiness—uncalculated. An informal tai chi group meets weekly in the school gym. No yoga studio with fancy workout clothes; we bend and bow in baggy long underwear to the tinny commands of a Chinese woman on a warped VHS tape. Here, chi smells more like sweaty socks than incense.

Like any small town, Healy has entrenched divisions—pro-road, anti-mine, more wilderness, no zoning. Yet, nothing’s simple. Park employees have trap lines and coal miners have dog teams. We all complain about the price of gas and the weeks at 40 below. Healy is a tiny and pragmatic place, invisible to anyone who doesn’t live here, and that’s what bonds those of us who do. There are ideological divisions and old grudges, to be sure. But animosities have to sit alongside what we have in common: remoteness, self-reliance, weather that matters. Undiluted by a larger population, we’re really neighbors. During a deep freeze, everyone clumps around in the same insulated bibs and bunny boots, politics bundled beneath the veneer of the practical.

Solitary tasks make up the winter days of many residents—hauling water, running the dogs, caring for the baby, dry-walling the basement. To ward off too much loneliness, locals gather for any reason we can muster: book club, knitting group, poker and hockey games, school pageants, a periodic slide show by someone back from afar. At the community center, a chili feed, a Borough hearing, and midwinter, the holiday extravaganza—Healy on Ice, where Santa rides a Zamboni at the outdoor rink behind the school. Don’t let this list fool you. Healy is quiet. Some days the cabin feels dark and small, there’s no way to stay warm outside for longer than an hour, and I wish for a clean, well-lighted space, a hot drink amidst the bustle of the public sphere, the haven of anonymity. Not here. There’s no hot, no bustle, no public. No anonymous.

Up here, winter makes you local. Denali as workplace means summer months on the trails, tools in hand, always on the move, crowds of seasonals gathered at bars and parties and river-access pullouts. It’s clear why anyone’s here—the job is full-time, the world hospitable. But while summer is an easier place to live, winter makes this home. When we chose to stay past the usual cusp, the reason wasn’t the weather or the job or the potlucks. We stayed because right now, it’s where our life is. With the exodus of summer’s ease, we settle in with canned goods and Netflix and our ski loop behind the cabin, where the snow blows into drifts as hard as tarmac and we never see anyone.

How do you stand the dark, Outsiders ask. Simple: it balances out the mania of constant day. In blaring summer, I crave dark, cold, snow. Dark is less expectant than light. It shuts out all stimuli but what you choose for yourself. Dark gives permission for mulling, for hours of reading, late breakfasts and the free-of-sensory-overload unconscious time that rebuilds me. Summer is friendly, but dark is an ally.

Everyone has a tip for thriving in the dark months—buy a SAD light, dump that needy boyfriend, take up knitting. The way I learned to love the Interior winter was simple: move vigorously outside for at least an hour, and expand my sense of day. In June we sleep when it’s light out, and in winter, dark needn’t mean quit. A full moon lights a night ski-jor, reflected starlight on snow a rural street lamp. January evenings mean lit candles in the windows, a dim log cabin the excuse to let Christmas lights glow for months. Winter tells me, push past the limits the body’s clock sets for itself. Expect darkness. Watch for light.

Dark can be inconvenient. I hate quitting a task because of a forgotten headlamp or a waning moon, hate banging my shin on the porch step on the way to the outhouse because it’s too black to see. There’s pressure in winter daylight, time slipped through fingers: at two o’clock you think about dinner, at seven, bed. If you’re sad or overwhelmed, dark seems bottomless, a soul-plummet in the worst kind of free-fall.

But dark is also magical. Winter feeds a primordial hunger, an urge to curl up and lick your paws, to pause on the questions that light rushes us past. I take my cues from our two old sled dogs, who sleep soundest in winter, curled up in a pocket they’ve melted in the snow, or so near the woodstove their coats are hot to the touch. Deep winter is the cave of the year.

Sanity hangs in the balance of light and dark. A year in the Interior is like a day anywhere else; the spectrum makes sense. Together, the seasons have symmetry, the calendar folded on itself like a paper snowflake. Now that I am home here, it’s hard to imagine anything less extreme. My body has been calibrated toward the twelve-month cycle, and I sleep with sun on my face in June and wake at 6 am in December (groggily), to begin a day in a day that has not yet begun.

Many winters since we moved to the Denali region, Gabe and I don’t work for the park anymore. Despite its reputation as America’s Best Idea, the Park Service has a dark side, and it was high time for us to shake off the petty management dramas, the grueling bureaucracy, the taking for granted. Often, especially for seasonals, leaving a job means leaving a place. But Denali doesn’t belong to me via the NPS anymore. I belong to the place, via the claim made by time spent and things learned. Over the past few years, figuring out a way to stay, we’ve put up a yurt on our small chunk of land and started our own trails business. We travel a lot for work, and between the busy field season and wintertime forays, I feel less nested than when we worked for the NPS. We don’t spend every month here, and my cadence feels syncopated, my weight shifting. Still, Healy remains my mental home, the place I think of when I’m anywhere else. The park, that old ground zero, feels like a different world.

Subscribe to

National Parks

You can read this and other stories about history, nature, culture, art, conservation, travel, science and more in National Parks magazine. Your tax-deductible membership donation of $25 or more entitles…

See more ›

We still end up in C-Camp once in a while, to bring the recycling, or poach a shower after a backcountry trip. When I drive past our old cabin, I remember that first summer fondly, our introduction to a landscape, the edge of community, by way of a park entrance. If I’ve learned anything during my time as a seasonal, it’s this: to know a place is a tough and complicated goal. It means more than knowing all the hiking trails or where to get a cheap beer, what transplants learn first. In part, knowing a place means knowing its seasons, and what indicates them: when the Sandhill cranes pass over on their way from Arctic to Equator, when the cranberries ripen, which two weeks the wood frogs sing loud. Knowing when to put out the rainwater barrel because a hard freeze is unlikely, and when to harvest carrots because a hard freeze could come any time.

Knowing a place means investing in it like you aren’t going anywhere, even if you might. For me that’s meant volunteering at the library, going to community meetings, searching for the owner of a lost dog. Knowing a place means knowing what I love (the smell of tundra plants in rain), what I hate (small town gossip), and what has nothing to do with me (when the bears den up). Mostly, it means tuning into a place beyond just what it can offer. This takes daily effort, daily noticing. Annie Dillard says that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and that’s exactly why a seasonal life can also be a permanent one.

Looking back the fifteen years since I first showed up in a trails shop with new Carhartts and soft hands, I can see all those days stacked up like cordwood, built into months, and then years, and now, here it is, this hunch growing in me all along, Glacier, Cordova, Denali, and on: living somewhere doesn’t mean you know it, and a job alone doesn’t make a place a home. It takes work to do that.

This article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue

National Parks, our award-winning quarterly magazine, is an exclusive benefit of membership in the National Parks Conservation Association.

More from this issue

Maiden Voyage

Read more from NPCA