1) You grew up in a mining community in West Virginia. Early on you decided to step away from your self-professed path to delinquency. You even decided to break away from the well-meaning expectations of your parents and community. What motivated you to go beyond the confines of that West Virginia experience?
Three things had a distinctly positive influence on my life, love of the out-of-doors, reading and playing sports. I loved camping, fishing, hunting and just being in places where some semblance of wild nature survived. Whenever possible I would escape into the woods. I was an avid reader consuming books about the frontier and distant wilderness areas. Playing sports, especially football, gave me a sense of teamwork and positive accomplishment. I was not particularly talented, but I put my heart into the game and achieved some minor, but important recognition.
I also saw friends with the same background as mine and who had taken a path I had been following. Many ended up quitting school and taking jobs in the mills or mines. A few got into serious trouble with the law and spent time incarcerated.
My family fully expected me to quit school and take work in the mills. It was a family tradition. I loved and respected my parents, but I decided that I wanted more out of life. With the support of some teachers and friends I was able to complete high school. Going to college opened up a new reality for me.
2) What was your first impression of Alaska after leaving West Virginia? Did you know from the start that you would be there more than one year?
For Barbara and I going to Alaska was like traveling to another planet. We were overwhelmed by such endless expanses of wilderness lands where it was not possible to drive to the next city or even to another part of the country. I never fully realized just how small I am until I was struck by the overwhelming immensity of the Alaska wilds. It was both exciting and a intimidating.
Beyond the visual impact of Alaska is the psychological shock of realizing that in this part of the world “civilization” is thin thread compared to the broad cloth of nature that still covers most of the state. Stepping away from the tiny rural communities and few urban areas can immediately place one on the doorstep of a wilderness that can literally eat you. I loved that thought. It produced an intoxicating sense of freedom and never ending discovery.
3) As school teachers in Barrow and Wainwright, you bucked the conventional protocol of non-Native teachers within the rural school system. Why was it important to you and Barbara to become involved in the communities where you taught?
We had become attracted to working in the rural area of Alaska, in part, through our contacts with Native students at Sheldon Jackson in Sitka. We wanted to learn more about their culture and the ways they had adapted to an amazingly demanding environment. Limiting our village contacts to mostly non-Natives from the same general culture and lifestyle as our own seemed self-defeating.
Interacting with our Inupiat neighbors opened up a whole new world to us. We found them to be amazingly friendly and willing to help a couple of young tuniks (white people) who were interested in their way of life. They were the
experts and specialists in the science of arctic adaptation and survival. We were their students.
4) How did your involvement in rural communities among Native elders change your outlook on education and on the environment?
We had been conditioned to see education as a one-way street where the teacher imparted knowledge to the students, somewhat like filling an empty container. However, we soon realized that the Native people had as much or more to teach us than we did them. Once we became familiar with our neighbors and other villagers we realized that our job was not to “change” their culture but, hopefully, to enlarge on it. We could help them acquire skills necessary to working with a world largely dominated by western cultures, but that did not mean that they had to abandon their traditional culture or their relationship to the land. We invited Native Elders into the classroom to tell ancient stories and display their skills of environmental adaptation. These special visits became the basis for teaching conventional academic skills such as reading, math, science and social studies.
5) What prompted you to take a 1200-mile cross-country trip by dog team?
It was a dream that evolved over a period of some fourteen years into a reality. My first long solo dog team trip was in 1962, traveling some 200 miles round trip between Barrow and Wainwright. Over the years in northern Alaska I traveled by dog team with local Natives sharing their snow block shelters and gradually acquiring the skills to be more proficient and comfortable in arctic travel.
I had read books by arctic explorers that included long journeys traveling with dog teams and began to wonder if I could successfully carry out a long dog team expedition.
When we moved to the Koyukuk River area in the late 1960s, we became serious about doing a winter trip across the northern part of Alaska. We bred and trained huskies for their strength and endurance rather than speed, and we designed and built special equipment for the journey. This took several years of planning and work that culminated in our cross-Alaska dog team trip in the late winter of 1974.
6) Switching careers from education to a vocation in stewardship of large landscapes was a big change for you and Barbara. Initially, what was the biggest challenge of the transition from being school teachers to working for the National Park Service?
As teachers we had a relatively structured work environment based on lesson plans, tests, academic exercises, teaching aids, consultations with parents, etc. Our workday had a set time for beginning and ending classes. There was a set date for starting the school year and for ending it. This basic system was in place before we arrived and largely remained in effect after we left. Everyone knew what to expect from us and what our place was in the community.
When we went to work for the National Park Service we were literally inventing our job and there were no set guidelines to follow. I literally wrote my own job description outlining what I believed I could accomplish in the planning of new national parks in Alaska and how my progress could be measured. The description was adopted virtually verbatim. It included exploring the vast wildlands of the central Brooks Range, acting as a representative of the NPS
with local Native and non-Native residents, training new NPS employees in cultural and environmental adaptation, etc.
7) Later, you again challenged conventions, this time against the bureaucratic culture of the National Park Service itself. You seem to have the highest regard for the mission of the NPS and for the people who work there. What did you stand up against – and what do you stand for?
Strange as it may sound, I have the highest possible regard for the National Park Service as an agency founded on the ideals of the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916, later clarified by the Redwood Act of 1978. No other government agency has been assigned the same level of environmental and cultural stewardship and national trust in the assumption that it will do what is right for the public, both present and future.
My concern is that some individuals in the NPS are prone to lose sight of the true purpose of the agency and slip into a pattern of rationalization and compromise that ultimately undermines both the parklands and the organization itself. Nowhere is this more true than in Alaska. A three-member Alaska Congressional delegation effectively has political oversight of more than 50% of the combined acreage of the entire National Park System. They can and frequently do cowl park managers and senior level officials who fear career damaging retribution for opposing the wishes of the delegation – even when they are counter to the best interests of the parks.
Some might say that I am naïve and overly idealistic regarding the care of the parks. However, I only ask, and occasionally demand, that the National Park Service live up to its own standards and policies and carry out the
commitments made in park plans with full open participation of an informed public. No NPS official should be excused from doing everything possible to prevent damage to park resources and values. This includes putting their career on the line if need be to carry out their duty.
8) What one thing do you wish people would know about wilderness and these last large landscapes left in North America?
Wilderness is not simply scenery. It is literally a web of life virtually unaltered by the hand of man. It is where we can go to see unharnessed nature at work and where we can establish a baseline to measure our own impacts on a living and breathing planetary ecosystem. Maintaining surviving wilderness areas has value that transcends recreation and esthetic pleasure.
Wilderness is always under attack. It will effectively shrink and ultimately disappear from much of the world unless we are willing to fight for it, not so much for ourselves as for those yet unborn.
Mankind was born in wilderness. It was the cradle of humans and their natural habitat for countless thousands of years. As wilderness is lost we are losing a connection with the rest of life on the planet and, thus, we are losing a crucial part of our heritage.