Over the years, I have been asked many questions about my work experiences. Millions of people visit our national parks annually, but many don’t know what a park ranger’s job is like or what our responsibilities are. In my new series Ranger Life, I’ll discuss the day to day lives of park rangers to give you a glimpse into our world. Here, you’ll learn about my national park internship at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska.
This internship was through the Student Conservation Association (SCA), an organization many individuals interested in careers in the outdoors utilize to get started. I’ve done three internships through this company, and feel the experiences were very worthwhile and got me to where I am today. The SCA paid for my housing, my flights to and from Alaska, and provided a weekly stipend. I kept a detailed journal since it was such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Below you will find those journal entries, describing my summer internship. This is by no means what all internships are like; this was solely my experience.
On my way: Leaving was quite possibly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but nonetheless, here I am sitting on an airplane, nervous as can be. See you soon, Alaska.
Halfway there: Sitting at the gate in Minneapolis, halfway to Anchorage; feeling pretty numb still, like there’s no way this is real. How am I possibly headed to Alaska for four months to work at a national park? It’s crazy! And I left my family and friends behind? What? Am I really doing this by myself? There’s just no way…. and yet, here I am, sitting at a gate in Minneapolis, feeling numb.
I made it: Alaska is beautiful. I was worried I’d be bored on the long plane trip, but when you look out the window and there are mountains as far as the eye can see, time begins to fly by. Anchorage honestly hasn’t impressed me much yet, but I’m taking a tour in a few hours so maybe I’ll change my mind. Sadly I’m not adjusted to the time change yet, as it’s currently 6:34 am (10:34 am in my native Florida), but I’m sure I’ll get used to it soon.
Arrived at my new home: I am finally in Copper Center, living the life.
Day 1: I don’t start training until Monday so today I set up binders for the staff. It was still pretty fun, the day went by really quickly. I was also able to check out my bike today so I can ride to work instead of walk (though it would be a really nice walk). There’s also an absolutely spectacular view of Mt. Drum on the trail I take. I met some very nice people as well, and two more people moved into the community today. My roommate won’t actually arrive until June, so I have a while by myself, but it’s nice that everyone is starting to get here. They’ve all worked and lived in very cool places, so it’s great hearing their stories.
I still haven’t adjusted to the time change. I can make myself stay up pretty late no problem, but when it comes to sleeping in it’s a whole new ordeal. The sun is up like it’s noon in Florida at around 5:45 am, making it very difficult. Hopefully, I will adapt soon. I need some sleep!
Day 2: More menial work for me today, yay! Finished up the binders for training, cleaned up the visitor center, organized the table displays of skulls, scat, and claws, organized the uniform closet, helped sort through boxes of brochures, carried boxes up the elevator, broke down boxes, and filed all my paperwork. Phew, I’m tired!
I might go to Valdez this weekend if someone else does. There’s an air show this weekend, then next weekend a maintenance van is going down and willing to take some people, so free trip!
Weekend in Valdez
Valdez, AK is an absolutely breathtaking city. It’s completely surrounded by the Chugach Mountains and the harbor right on the Prince William Sound. They get a lot of snow down there, and some snow was still piled up to be taller than me! It was a bit cloudy and still pretty cold, but I had a great time and can’t wait to go back. We saw an abundance of birds, including bald eagles and arctic terns, who have the longest migratory cycle of any bird in the world. The people of Valdez also have many domestic/feral rabbits running around town that they feed and protect to make sure they aren’t eaten by said eagles. Pretty funny, actually!
Days 3-4: Training, training, training! We’ve been learning a lot about the history of Alaska, the park I work for, the other Alaska parks, plants, invasives, boreal forests/taiga, wildlife, cultural and natural resources, and more. Training continues this week, and next week we’ll be traveling around the park to learn more about specific areas and see everything we’ve been told up close.
Days 5-7: Training is (technically) over! But not really. All next week we’ll be learning how things run over at the visitor center. What is over though is the long days of PowerPoint presentations. For those who have been to national parks, if you went on a ranger-led program, that’s what I’ll be leading this summer when I’m not at the front desk. I have to give three, and if I want to I can give five. My three are focused on a creature of my choosing, a guided walk on the boreal forest trail, and a talk where we stand at the bluff outside the visitor center while I talk about any relevant subject with a beautiful view behind me (most days). I haven’t decided what I’m going to discuss yet, but I plan on doing a lot of research today in order to figure it out.
No travel plans this weekend since there’s supposed to be a lot of snow (this is the longest spring on record!), plus I’ll be traveling a lot within the next two weeks for work purposes. We’ll be going up to the Slana ranger station and staying at a hostel there, then exploring the Nabesna Road. Next weekend, after Memorial Day, we’ll be traveling to McCarthy and Kennecott, as well as the Chitina ranger station, so long as Kennecott isn’t still buried under snow.
Days 8-9: As part of training this week we went to the northern part of the park, where the Nabesna Road and Slana ranger station are located. It was absolutely beautiful! The highlights were seeing my first large mammals. First, there was probably eight caribou crossing the road, then a moose about twenty seconds later, followed by four caribous the next day. I also got to practice spraying bear spray as part of bear safety training which was pretty exciting! It made us all cry a bit and cough for a few hours, it’s so strong. The mountains were gorgeous. We saw three different ranges, the Wrangells (which I see every day from where I live), the Mentastas, and the Nutzotins, which are both a part of the larger Alaska range. We stayed in a beautiful cabin called Huck Hobbit, a hostel run by some of the last Alaskan homesteaders. They had some very cool stories. Overall, it was a wonderful trip, and I can’t wait to return.
Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.Teddy Roosevelt
Days 11-12: Training, training, training! Actually started my real job officially today, but won’t be giving any ranger programs until after June 1. But it was nice to finally be able to work! Wish I could dawn the real park ranger uniform.
Days 13-14: Continuing training, this week we visited Kennecott, an old copper mining district, and McCarthy, a town of about 40-50 people five miles from Kennecott. Getting there is quite the adventure. You have to drive on a gravel road for about 60 miles, but it takes two hours. Once you’re there you have to park your car and walk across a footbridge because only locals can bring their cars to the other side and drive in town. Once you cross the footbridge, you’re only about a ½-¾ mile walk from McCarthy, but shuttles are waiting to take you either there or another four miles to Kennecott (for a fee). Also in Kennecott, we got to hike the Root Glacier Trail. By far one of my favorite things I’ve done in Alaska so far, the 4-mile round trip trail leads you to a glacier that you can then walk on if you wish. Crampons really help. Upon leaving the trail, we saw a mother moose and her one-year-old calf walking along the trail in front of us. We made lots of noise to scare them away before preceding down the trail.
After hiking, we ate lunch then got some special treatment. The old copper mill is currently unstable, so there’s a lot of construction going on to maintain the foundation and visitors aren’t allowed in. However, National Park Service employees and their friends are! So we got to go inside and see how the milling process happened, then went down to the curator’s office and got to see everything left in the mill. We did have to wear hard hats to ensure safety.
Overall, an amazing trip. I’ve been recommending it to visitors ever since!
Day 15: Today was a normal day at work. I helped a lot of visitors plan trips and told them which trails are finally free of snow. Overall, pretty uneventful.
This Saturday, I’m going to Valdez again, although I think Saturday is the day our two weeks of nice, warm, clear sky is going to disappear to make room for a rainstorm. Either way, I’m looking forward to the trip. Plus, six days from today I’m going to Denali National Park, and I CANNOT WAIT!
Another epiphany: Today, I realized that not only am I going to miss Alaska, but when it comes down to it, I won’t want to leave.
Day 16: Instead of working at the visitor center today, the park paid for me to take a CPR/First-aid training course in case I need to perform either on a visitor. Since Alaska is so rural, it takes a while for 9-1-1 operators to call who they need to call in order to get an ambulance out here.
Day 17-18: Since I’m sure which field I’d like to go into, my supervisor is nice enough to try and expose me to every division of the park that she can. This week, I’m working with the maintenance crew and the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) and helping construct an amphitheater for the park. It’s pretty exciting for me because once it’s built I’ll be able to utilize it for my ranger programs. It overlooks a bluff with a gorgeous view and was supposed to be completed five years ago so a lot of people are very, very excited that it’s finally here.
Day 19: Today we had seasonal orientation all day, extremely boring stuff. Basically summed up my week’s worth of training earlier this summer, except everyone had to attend, not just the interpretation staff. I’m surprised I stayed awake.
Day 20: Yesterday was my first day giving ranger programs. It went pretty well, I had four people listen to my talk about caribou and five listen to my talk about what it’s like to live in Alaska. I was supposed to give my talk about life in Alaska twice, but no one was around the second time. Hopefully today I feel better about them, I definitely left out some things that I wanted to include, and quite possibly rushed through the information a bit.
Day 21: I felt much better about my programs today. Two visitors actually came to both of my talks and seemed to love them. They were very enthusiastic about Alaska and all it has to offer, which are my favorite kind of visitors. The mosquitoes are getting pretty bad though. I’ll be happy when they start to disappear later this summer.
Visiting Denali National Park
I crave snow-topped mountains, dreary wastes, and the cruel Northern sea with its far horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins. Here skies are more clearer and deeper and, for the greater wonders they reveal, a thousand times more eloquent of the eternal mystery than those of softer lands.Rockwell Kent
Denali National Park is an amazing place. It’s really hard to put it into words. I saw more wildlife than I have in my entire life just in those two days. I’m one of the 30% who actually got to see the mountain of Denali itself. We hiked to the top of two peaks, Polychrome Mountain and the Alpine Trail hike near the Eielson Visitor Center. I saw bears for the first time in my life, two extremely large grizzlies, and was probably 50 feet away from some Dall sheep. A moose calf ran right towards the car I was in. I also saw a golden eagle soaring along the mountains, arctic ground squirrels begging for food, and a hoary marmot watching me climb up into its habitat, judging to see if I was a threat. I had never felt more at peace. Denali is pristine wilderness and it is exhilarating to experience it first-hand. I’m already trying to find someone to go with me a second time so I can do it all over again.
Day 22: Today, I was able to spend time working on my programs as well as preparing for a new one I have to give on June 26, which will be a guided walk through the boreal forest. So it was a pretty slow day. I would much rather talk to visitors than stare at the computer, typing away.
Day 24: Today I talked to five people about caribou, and that’s really it.
What is exciting, however, is there was a bear sighting Monday morning. A grizzly sow and two cubs were seen walking along the trail we lead visitors down every single day. So that was pretty thrilling! Except now I carry bear spray wherever I go, so also a little frightening…
Day 25: I talked to 27 people today. 27! Of those, 25 wanted to hear about caribou. That’s by far my most interesting talk it seems, although it’s also earlier in the morning so that might have an effect. I thought visitors would be more interested in personal Alaskan experiences and what the residents do in the winter, but I guess not. That’s okay though. My favorite part is when I’m giving my Alaska talk, I ask whether they think I’m from Alaska or not, and some say they do. It makes me feel like I did something right.
Days 26-27: I spent last Thursday preparing to give my first guided walk through the boreal forest. Then, on Friday I gave my regular caribou and Alaska life presentations before heading to McCarthy to celebrate the solstice. Here, it was actually a three-day event where the sun would set for about 4.5 hours each night, but there was never actually darkness. The sky was orange-pinkish, like dawn or twilight, all night instead of black. It was stunning.
Solstice in McCarthy and Kennecott
This weekend I went to McCarthy to celebrate the solstice, but not without having some good ol’ Alaskan fun! Friday night we celebrated at the McCarthy bar, The Golden Saloon, with some bluegrass music and a full crowd of people. Saturday, I spent the day hiking on glaciers, through ice caves, and up creek beds. I’m still sore! Then, Sunday I went white-water rafting for the second time, and I really enjoyed it! Before the white-water, we floated around a lake to check out some icebergs and see rocks/chunks of ice fall from the top of the glacier into the lake. It was fantastic! Man, I love Alaska.
Gunsight Mountain Summit Attempt
Attempting to summit Gunsight Mountain proved to be much more difficult than I imagined. Going in, I didn’t realize it was a 10-mile hike roundtrip with a 5,000-foot elevation gain. I made it halfway up, but because I was still sore from recent hikes, I had to stop. It is an epic mountain, and this is not my last attempt. A friend and I have made it our goal to summit Gunsight before we leave Alaska in August.
Days 28-31: This week was pretty exciting. On Tuesday, I gave my first guided walk down our half-mile trail through the forest. I wasn’t as nervous about it as I was for other programs. It’s pretty easy to talk about what you see along a trail and explain it to visitors. Yesterday was my first rove day. Roving is when I drive around and make informal contact with visitors, asking if they have any questions and what their plans are to help orient them. I also hike the trails on my own to get updated trail conditions and see how visitors are doing on those. It was a nice day. I went to the ranger station in Chitina and the ranger gave me two whole salmon, so I had quite the delicious dinner last night!
After work on Friday, I headed to Anchorage for the weekend to do some shopping, hike Flattop Mountain, check out Earthquake Park, and accompany a friend while he gets his bike and his car repaired.
Days 32-33: Since my mom is coming this week, I only had to work for two days, hoorah! They were pretty normal. The second was slow since I spent the whole day waiting for my mom to arrive. It rained the entire time she was here, but luckily she didn’t seem to mind, and the rain didn’t deter her from thinking that Alaska is nothing short of beautiful and mind-blowing.
Part of my trip when my mom and brother visited involved driving to Valdez in order to catch the ferry to Whittier the next morning. We stopped at Worthington Glacier, Thompson Pass, and at the two main waterfalls in Keystone Canyon; horsetail and bridal veil. It was a lot different from the first time I drove the route since I did it in the beginning of May and it was absolutely covered in snow. This time, it looked more like a rainforest.
The next adventure was the ferry ride. It was awesome, we got to see a lot in those 6 hours, plus it saves a lot of time (and gas) since it’s about a seven-hour drive from where I live to get down to the Kenai Peninsula. We saw a lot of neat icebergs in all sorts of shapes, including some that looked like whales and others that looked like walruses. We also saw some sea otters and bald eagles along the way.
Our next stop was the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center just outside of Whittier, AK. It was neat, and they had all sorts of Alaskan animals for visitors to get pretty close to. I got some fantastic wildlife pictures while I was there, and my mom and brother saw their only grizzly bears.
This next portion was perhaps my favorite part of the trip. We did some sea kayaking and took a wildlife cruise through Resurrection Bay and Fox Island from Seward, AK into Kenai Fjords National Park. We saw all sorts of wildlife, only missing out on killer whales. Seward was a very cute little town, and I would most certainly return.
The last stop was back in Valdez, but more eventful this time. We took a kayaking trip in Valdez Glacier Lake and got up close and personal with some icebergs, and got out and had lunch on the glacier before walking around and exploring a bit. This included some pretty epic crevasses! We headed to the salmon hatchery to look for bears and didn’t see any, but there was a hungry bald eagle waiting for a meal. The sun came out, which rarely happens in Valdez, so I took a nice photo of the small boat harbor as well. Valdez is beautiful without sunshine, so even a little bit peeking out from behind the clouds made for a very memorable afternoon.
Days 34-35: I could really get used to only working two days a week! These two days were pretty eventful, though. Yesterday my boss came to my caribou talk in order to audit me. Basically, that means to see how well (or not well) I did. She liked it, however, she said I could improve if I made it more of a story rather than including so many facts and figures, which makes a lot of sense. This morning, I came in and another ranger wasn’t feeling too great so I had to do two extra talks without more than an hour’s notice. Not only did I have to do them back to back, and for 21 people in each group, but I had to turn a 45-minute long walk into a 30-minute one. Luckily, it went very, very well, and seemed like a very smooth transition even with such short notice.
Tomorrow, I’m going down to Valdez for the day (weird, I feel like I was JUST there…). We’ve heard that a lot of sockeye salmon are about to start their run, and we’d love to see them rushing into Valdez. Some friends would like to catch a few, and those grizzly bears may finally be out so we can see some! I’ve still only seen the two in Denali, nowhere else, and many friends haven’t seen them at all so cross your fingers that they’ll be around!
Another Weekend in Valdez
On our way to Valdez, it was an absolutely beautiful day. The drive is hardly ever sunny. It’s usually cloudy and filled with fog. Since it was so nice, we decided to stop at Worthington Glacier. I’d only ever driven by it and admired it from afar before that point. Seeing it up close was a totally different experience. People who have never experienced a glacier or haven’t seen many think that they’re all pretty much the same. At first, I did, too. But it’s totally incorrect. Once you’re around them so much, you realize they’re all different, and they all tell their own story of where they’ve been, and what used to be there before they pushed it all out of the way. They’re absolutely incredible.
We went to Valdez to do some fishing, but when we got there we looked around and no one seemed to be catching anything. So, we did some shopping, met up with some friends, and ate dinner before driving back home. It was foggy and much cloudier on the drive back, so just that alone should tell you how rare it is to have a nice day there.
However, we didn’t go home empty-handed the next night! We met up with some friends on the Klutina River in town and fished there. It took 3 hours, a lot of patience, two bites with no snags, and one we had to release before we finally snagged a sockeye in the mouth. It was most definitely the best salmon I’ve ever had.
Monday morning, I had the pleasure of going on a scenic overflight of my park (well, a portion of my park). I got to fly over the mountains that I see every day when I wake up and get a much closer look. Amazingly, they look a lot different when you’re 7,000 feet in the air and only a few miles away. I was really nervous about climbing into that little plane. I hate flying, and it was my first time in something other than a commercial jet plane. But once I was in the air and got to see everything I got to see, my nerves went away for the most part and I simply enjoyed the ride.
Days 36-39: It was a very normal work week. The only strange thing was Thursday when we didn’t give a single ranger program because no visitors were around or were simply not interested. Most of the visitors were also on special tour groups, and don’t usually have time to go to a program anyway (or don’t speak English). Other than that, same ol’ same ol’, nothing exciting.
This weekend I made an awesome trek all the way to Inuvik, NWT from Alaska. We drove at least 1,630 miles in order to make it there, and we did it in about 3 days and 6 hours, so it was a pretty incredible feat. But it was well worth it. Inuvik is a very cool, quirky town, and so is Dawson City, YT. The best part was Tombstone Territorial Park. It was absolutely gorgeous, untouched wilderness. Other highlights were crossing the Arctic Circle and seeing four bears! One black bear, and three Grizzlies – a sow and her two cubs – running as quickly as possible away from the car. All in all, even though it was a lot of time spent in the car, it was a blast, and I’m glad I did it. I’ve finally been to a foreign country, even if it was just Canada…
Day 40: Back to work again today! I gave my guided walk for the first time in a week, and my supervisor came on it to audit me. Everything she pointed out that I needed to improve on was things I already recognized I lacked, so that’s good. Now to fix them!
Day 41: Today, I was lucky enough to go on an NPS employee rafting trip down the Gulkana and Copper Rivers. It was pretty awesome! I saw lots of bald eagles, mature and juvenile. I also learned to row the boat myself, which is just as hard as you might think. But I had a lot of fun despite my sore muscles and a little sunburn!
Day 42: Another typical day at the visitor center. I only gave one program because we were a tad short-staffed and I had to watch the desk, but the one I did give went wonderfully. The audience I had was very enthusiastic about what it’s like to live in Alaska!
Day 43: This morning I had a wonderful surprise: I got a fish filleting lesson! I got to cut my work day short in order to learn how to properly fillet a salmon, and the best part was we got to keep ten salmon fillets, amounting to one per person. It was pretty awesome and very, very filling.
Final Weekend in Valdez
Went to Valdez once again this weekend! It was absolutely incredible. I’ve been six or seven times now, and I’d never seen it so beautiful. The sky was 100% clear the entire drive and once we got into town, and it was sunny and warm. Neither of those three things ever occur in Valdez, especially on the same day! It was spectacular.
We went to Valdez in order to catch some salmon. I caught five, but two got away so I ended up with three. Together, we took nine home, which we caught in about an hour and fifteen minutes. There were fish everywhere!
The best part of the day was seeing a family of grizzly bears. A sow and her four cubs, who are pretty famous in the area since it’s almost unheard of for a sow to successfully care for four cubs for so long. They were out fishing along with us. We spent the first hour or two of our time in Valdez just watching them fish, videotaping and snapping photos as often as we could. We both agreed it was the most touristy we’ve been so far in Alaska. But neither one of us cared, it was such a neat experience, and definitely one of my favorite days spent in Alaska so far.
Days 44-47: Tuesday, I went to the Gulkana airport to work with the dispatcher there. I got to track a flight and answer phones when passengers and pilots called to check in. It was pretty neat to see that from a perspective other than a nervous flyer.
Wednesday, I prepared my new guided walk that I’ll be doing over at Princess Lodge. Then, I drove a shuttle down to the river to pick up some friends and the YCC crew from a raft trip they did. After that, I gave a guided walk, worked the front desk, and did some other small projects.
Yesterday, I helped maintenance paint the buildings. I may be doing that again Tuesday.
Today will be a normal day of programming for me. Once work is done, I’ll be going to Anchorage for the night. Then tomorrow I’ll drive to Homer to explore and have some lunch before going to Ninilchik for the rest of the weekend for Salmonstock Music Festival! I’m so excited!!
This weekend, I got to attend a music festival called Salmonstock that benefits a great cause against mining in Bristol Bay, where a large amount of salmon enter Alaskan rivers and benefit the Alaskan economy immensely. One of my favorite bands, Trampled by Turtles, performed at the festival and it was awesome to see them live.
Before we went and enjoyed the music, we traveled down to Homer to have a look around. I’ve heard such wonderful things about it, so I was very curious to see what all the fuss was about. I definitely understand. It was a very cute little town with a lot of stuff to see and do. I wish I could’ve spent more time there.
All in all, it was a fantastic weekend filled with lots and lots of fun. I’m really not looking forward to leaving Alaska in two and a half weeks.
Days 48-51: This week I did my normal job for two days, but then got to travel to McCarthy to work on a fish weir for the rest of the week. A fish weir is put into to a stream in order to count the number of salmon coming in (at least in this case). We counted 21 salmon the first day, but zero the second day. It’s a pretty easy job. The fish are recorded 24/7, then daily someone goes up there to watch the video from the day before to count.
I enjoyed being in McCarthy and Kennecott again, especially since it was the last time before I leave Alaska.
Day 54: Today I had the opportunity to work with one of our fish biologists to analyze the water temperature, pH balance, and other levels of Tanada Lake and Copper Lake in the northern areas of the park. It was a beautiful day, and my first time on a float plane!
Days 53, 55-56: I gave my last program on Alaska today, as for the rest of the summer I will be giving guided walks and creature talks on caribou exclusively. The end is near, and I’m becoming less and less okay with it every day.
Sadly, I am back in the hot and humid Florida, visiting with family and friends before heading back to school for my final semester. I miss Alaska dearly, even though seeing friends and family is, of course, always nice. Nothing will ever compare to my summer in Alaska, but I will greet my last semester with an open mind, and hope that whatever adventures I have during and after school will be somewhere as close to as amazing and spectacular as Alaska was. One can only hope…