All of Alaska brought a bounce to Charles Sheldon’s gait. Like a protagonist in a novel by James Oliver Curwood, he decided that every inch of the territory was Edenic, though with a lethal component. But it was 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, its peak blanketed in deep perpetual snow, that left Sheldon in awe. Just looking at McKinley—which he first saw in mid-July 1906 from a hilltop near Wonder Lake—seemed to lower Sheldon’s blood pressure and heart rate. Time stood still within a fifty-mile circumference around the base. Even in summer, the temperature on the mountain, wrapped with storm clouds and mist, frequently dropped below zero Fahrenheit. Gold prospectors had named the towering peak in 1896 to honor President William McKinley. The name stuck. To the Athabascan Indians, however, the peak was Denali (“The Great One”). Sheldon used the Indian name (although he sometimes simply said “The Mountain”). The south peak was the highest point in North America. To Sheldon the whole area around Mount McKinley—the huge glaciers, the trough-like gorges, the miles of tundra stretching out to meet other mountains on the blue horizon—was his beloved “Denali wilderness.” The Alaska Range made the Colorado Rockies seem like foothills. Furthermore, in terms of its sheer rise from base to summit Denali was the tallest mountain in the world.
Traveling around Mount McKinley, Sheldon was like a cowboy riding through a well-stocked cattle ranch in Texas and eyeing his herd, except that Sheldon’s cattle were migratory caribou. From halfway up the mountain the caribou looked like ants. In his field journals he waxed eloquent about caribou herds and told of risking his life to study grizzlies. Unlike the slopes in the Lower Forty-Eight, the Alaska Range—home to 161 species of birds and thirty-seven of mammals—was not heavily forested; it was primarily blanketed by snow and ice.1 Besides protecting wildlife, Sheldon also wanted to ensure that the large quantities of hemlock, birch, poplar, alder, and willow surrounding McKinley didn’t become cordwood. Alaska had more than 450 types of plants that botanists believed might be potential medicines. He feared that the Alaska Railroad line connecting Fairbanks to Seward—completed in 1914—would forever ruin the Denali wilderness. Yet he recognized that because McKinley was between the two cities, the railroad would make the national park a convenient stopover. “To America’s fledgling conservationists, railroads were synonymous with wildfire, destruction,” the historian Tom Walker wrote in McKinley Station. “Enter the railroad—gone the wildlife; gone the frontier.”2
In the aftermath of the Harriman Expedition, it was the search for a Roosevelt elk (Cervus roosevelti), in 1904 on Victoria Island in Canada, that first injected Charles Sheldon into the drama of saving Alaska’s wilderness.3 The Biological Survey was looking for this subspecies of wapiti—which had survived in small herds on the Olympic Peninsula (in Washington state) and Vancouver Island (in British Columbia)—to analyze in Washington, D.C., and Sheldon volunteered to bring back mounts.4 (There were no native elk species in Alaska.*) Although he was essentially a big-game hunter, Sheldon had become a legend in old Mexico for climbing sheer cliffs to spy on bighorn sheep. Financially comfortable and politically astute, he was a well-rounded sportsman who was difficult to ignore. His sharp features conveyed willpower, an impression confirmed by his deep, almost gruff voice. Looking like a Canadian Mountie, the pinched-lipped, muscular Sheldon stood at about five feet ten inches. Demure, respectful, and bookish, he was a clean-shaven embodiment of roughing it like Jim Bridger, an old-time mountain man of days past, easily able to backpack 100 pounds or so across rugged terrain. As a big-game hunter for the Biological Survey, Sheldon was always ready with rifle, field glasses, and camera. To Sheldon wildlife conservation wasn’t an optional policy; it was a life force, the necessary corrective to manifest destiny and to the industrial revolution.
Reading Sheldon’s faithfully kept faunal journals isn’t for everybody. Much of his prose smacks of Forest and Field and the old-style campfire yarns of the nineteenth century (a genre in which “half-breed” Indians were backwoods scouts and educated white men made historic “discoveries” in bioregions where Native American tribes had lived for thousands of years). Sometimes, however, when he describes blunders he made on the trail, the reader can almost hear silent laughter. Anecdotes of deer carcasses hanging from clotheslines, endless winter nights, and salmon impelled to swim upstream because of “tooth and claw” mandates reveal Sheldon as a Darwinian naturalist—Theodore Roosevelt without TR’s elegant, dramatic turn of phrase. When Sheldon vividly described the flora and fauna of Admiralty Island (then part of the Tongass National Forest and since 1978 a national monument) and Montague Island (at the entrance to Prince William Sound)—both around 300 square miles with sheer-sided and thickly wooded coastlines—he was superb.
Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, Sheldon set up U.S. Biological Survey camps on sheltered beaches on Alaskan islands. Unusually for a hunter-explorer in the early twentieth century, Sheldon brought Louisa Walker Gulliver—his wife—with him as a partner on his expeditions. Sheldon, a proud family man, also regularly brought his four children on his remarkable outdoor educational adventures. Together they would study brown bears, which were thick on Admiralty and Montague islands. These enormous bears weighed from 600 to 1,700 pounds when they were fat from feeding on the spawning salmon found throughout coastal Alaska. Bears that ate a steady diet of these weighty Alaskan fish tended to put on pounds themselves. On three other Alaskan islands—Kodiak, Afognak, and Shuyak—the largest subspecies of brown bear roamed freely: Kodiak bears (Ursus arctos middendorffi). No fewer than five species of mammals have been named in Sheldon’s honor. These include two Alaskan discoveries: Ursus arctos horribilis (a bear) and Marmota caligata sheldoni (a hoary marmot).5
To Sheldon, brown bears—which ranged from Wyoming to Alaska—were the most awesome creatures in North America. All bear cubs, Sheldon noted, followed three rules of survival: obey mother, trail mother, and have fun.6 His field notes described variations in coloration from dark brown pelage to very pale or gray-brown. Whereas most hunters would either shoot a bear or climb a tree for safety, Sheldon tried to study their muscle humps to estimate size. All over Alaska bear rugs were a centerpiece of living rooms; the thick underfur and guard hairs were warmly comforting. What Sheldon found particularly fascinating about bears was that their front paws were easily twice the size of the back paws. Many a day while working in Alaska, Sheldon saw a brown bear click its teeth, froth at the mouth, put its ears back, and then just walk away. Long before Sheldon, naturalists had written about bears; but he pioneered in dispelling the myth that bears were prowling killers of humans.
There was a new environmental awareness shining forth in Sheldon’s Alaskan field journals. When he hunted in places like Admiralty Island, his big-gun mentality evaporated into a more modern ecological attitude. What interested Sheldon were topics like the range of grizzlies. On Admiralty Island, unlike vast Denali in the interior, the coastal rain forests produced large berry crops and salmon ran deep, so grizzlies seldom wandered beyond a forty-mile limit. Sheldon hoped to someday conduct quantitative research on the polar bear; he was tired of hearing only tall tales and yarns spread by the trophy seekers. Alaskans were still imbued with the wasteful frontier mentality, the idea that there were no limits to America’s wildlife resources. Temperamentally unsuited for city life, although New York City was his principal home, Sheldon believed that the American frontier was alive and well in the blueberry backcountry of Alaska. Some of Sheldon’s colorful journal entries had the descriptive power of paintings by Hartley or Marin.
And Sheldon, while lacking the evocative flair of Muir or Thoreau, developed a smooth, marvelously controlled prose style when describing how Alaskan mammals struggled to survive human intrusions. “It was the mystic hour of evening when our work was finished, and, the clouds having lifted, the rain suddenly stopped,” he wrote on September 20, 1909, after a couple of stormbound days on Admiralty Island. “It was calm, and a peaceful silence brooded over woods and waters. Mrs. Sheldon and I walked far out on a point of reefs. Everywhere ducks were lazily floating on the surface of the water, which reflected the large trees towering near the shores as well as the high, snow-crested mountains behind them. Huge reefs were scattered all about, snow-white with the thousands of gulls which flocked on them to pass the night. Little islands, covered by groves of lofty trees, were numerous, and on one of these, in the top of a gigantic dead spruce, a fine bald eagle and its mate now perched facing each other, each one calling at short intervals in a series of shrill screams which echoed about the irregular shores.”7
For Sheldon the best places in the western hemisphere were those where the wind velocity had rip-roaring power. The Denali valleys, he said, were like swells in the ocean, boundless and breathtaking. Those who heard his appeal were instantly ready to purchase a one-way ticket to Alaska. Private gentlemen’s clubs—the most elite in America, such as the Cosmos and the Century—wanted Sheldon as a lifetime member. Poised and always adaptable, comfortable both at the Metropolitan Opera and curing fish with Native Alaskans in the Kenai Peninsula, Sheldon added both hardiness and élan to any conversation, luncheon, or campfire. Alaska, he avidly declared, was the escapist tonic for any urban dweller sick and tired of the rat race. The hummocks, tangled streams, and forested rivers allowed a somnambulistic urbanite a chance to follow his inner compass. Self-possessed when writing about Alaska, full of perspicacity, Sheldon charmingly made first-person declarations about “my wilderness,” “my river,” and “my country” to express his deep love for the sprawling territory. Back in New York, he would always tell friends that he’d left his heart in Alaska. “For Sheldon the Alaskan wilderness was not a tooth-and-claw setting for the defiance of death as it had been to Jack London and Robert Service,” the historian Roderick Frazier Nash wrote in Wilderness and the American Mind. “He saw it as a frontier, but especially in regard to big game habitat, a perishable frontier that needed protection.”8
Born in 1867 (the year the Andrew Johnson administration purchased Alaska from Russia) to a Vermont marble-quarrying family, Sheldon grew up with the beautiful Green Mountains as his backyard. All he remembered about his childhood was the beatitude of sunny summer days and the high drama of magnificent snowstorms. Kinship with nature was an inherent part of growing up. Vermont had a number of peaks over 3,000 feet high—Mount Mansfield, Mount Ellen, and Camels Hump among them—that the teenage Sheldon climbed. Canoeing in Vermont’s rivers—the Winooski and Lamoille in particular—also was a skill that he learned growing up along the hogbacks of the Front Range. When he was an adolescent, his hikes in Otter Creek Valley, where the brook trout were thick, turned him into an ardent outdoor sportsman. Nobody else in Rutland, Vermont, learned how to use an ax as skillfully as Sheldon. And because the family business was marble quarrying, Sheldon was also skilled with a chisel and hammer.
Exceedingly bright, Sheldon attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, reading sportsmen’s literature by Izaak Walton, Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, and Frank Forester. After prep school he went to Yale University. Sheldon quickly became a leader of the class of 1890. He was a lover of American poetry, particularly Longfellow and Lowell; and he joined the Elizabethan Club. Nobody, however, remembered his performances in plays. The words that his classmates used over and over again to describe him were “rugged” and “no nonsense.” One afternoon a salesman came to Yale, banging on students’ doors, offering boxes of Cuban cigars. Not long after the salesman’s visit, Sheldon noticed that his flute had been stolen from his quarters. Immediately he turned detective. For a long day he visited all of New Haven’s and New York’s pawnshops, hoping to find his flute. His determination paid off. At one of the Manhattan shops, Sheldon stumbled on the petty thief, the flute sticking out of his suit coat pocket. Without hesitation Sheldon, like a linebacker, tackled him to the ground. He then made a citizen’s arrest. The salesman went to jail and Sheldon returned to Yale with his treasured instrument.9
Sheldon’s first job after college was working for the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad. From young manhood onward, he was transfixed by the most forlorn reaches of North America. Bouncing around Mexico for a decade, he made a risky investment in Potosi, a Chihuahuan silver and lead mine, which paid out huge dividends. Endowed with a certain charisma, Sheldon became friends with the family of Don Luis Terazas, powerful landowners in Mexico, whose haciendas were over 8 million acres in size. Everything, it seemed, was going his way financially.
Independently wealthy at age thirty-five, in 1903, Sheldon abruptly retired from business. Wide-browed, with neatly parted dark brown hair, Sheldon didn’t want to become a gent in a blue blazer holding court at the Polo Lounge or the Newport races. He wanted to be a ruddy-cheeked foot soldier in Roosevelt’s conservationist revolution. Hoping to model himself on TR—the jaunty naturalist who happened to live in the White House—Sheldon contacted Dr. C. Hart Merriam and Dr. Edward W. Nelson at the Biological Survey in early 1904, offering his services collecting wildlife. They were immediately taken with his handsome appearance, his gentlemanly ways, and his abiding interest in the Yukon and Alaska. His whole demeanor was that of the young TR, a sophisticate who could associate easily with packers, wranglers, and backcountry iconoclasts. So the U.S. Biological Survey tapped Sheldon to collect mammal skins on Vancouver Island, in the Yukon, and in Alaska from July to October 1904. That’s when he went looking for biological data on the Roosevelt elk.
At the Biological Survey headquarters on Thirteenth and B Street (later renamed Independence Avenue) in Washington, D.C., Dr. Nelson was known as “Mr. Alaska,” and for good reason. During the 1870s, decades before the Klondike gold rush, Nelson, with old-time WASP ingenuity, had traveled all over Alaska for four years, serving as a weatherman for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in the Bering Sea. Besides monitoring blizzards and wind velocity from primitive weather stations, Nelson collected wildlife specimens and Eskimo artifacts for the Smithsonian Institution (known then as the U.S. National Museum). His most astounding biological discovery was collecting field data about the all-white Dall sheep with gorgeous curled horns that populated Alaska and northern Canada. He actually purchased a couple of these sheep from backcountry hunters to conduct scientific experiments on. The sheep were carefully studied by the Smithsonian biologists, intrigued by theories about animal coloration. Dutifully Nelson wrote a zoological treatise on rams in 1884, based largely on Sheldon’s taxonomic principles. Nelson even named a new species of sheep:Ovis dalli (an homage to William Dall, the great Alaskan naturalist-explorer).10
Merriam, Nelson, and Roosevelt welcomed Sheldon into their small clique of biological-minded outdoorsmen. In Mexico’s Sierra Madre and the Yukon’s subarctic mountains, Sheldon had studied sheep’s maneuvers on high cliffs, seeing their fancy footwork as poetry in motion. Roosevelt had written biologically accurate essays about bighorns in The Wilderness Hunter (1893), and Sheldon would do the same for Dall sheep and Stone sheep (Ovis dalli stonei) in his own book, based on his 1904 and 1905 northern Canada–Alaska expeditions. The journals from these high-altitude outings were eventually published in 1911 as The Wilderness of the Upper Yukon. In New York’s zoological circles, Sheldon was anointed the great pathfinder of the early twentieth century, a new Deerslayer or Natty Bumppo. Bursting with enthusiasm for everything Alaskan, Sheldon wanted to make national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness zones out of his favorite campsites in the Alaska Range and north Pacific coast islands.11
Sheldon’s backwoods style enthralled Roosevelt, who saw him as a spiritual heir. Roosevelt, in fact, reviewed The Wilderness of the Upper Yukon in the Outlook, declaring his young protégé the new TR. “Mr. Charles Sheldon is a . . . wilderness wanderer, who to the hardihood and prowess of the old-time hunter adds the capacity of a first-class field naturalist, and, also, what is just as important, the power of literary expression,” Roosevelt wrote. “Such a man can do for the lives of the wild creatures of the wooded and mountainous wilderness what John Muir had done for the physical features of the wilderness. . . . His experiences of Alaska, and indeed the entire Northwest, are such as no other man has had; and no other writer on the subject has ever possessed both his power of observation and his power of recording vividly and accurately what he has seen.”12
Imbued with a visionary streak, Sheldon wasn’t trying to present the wilderness in Alaska as a souvenir of the closed frontier. His importance to the history of conservation lay in his belief that the days of Kit Carson had passed, but that if the primitive arts were learned, a vibrant wilderness adventure could still be had. Much like the Camp Fire Club of America, which was created in 1897, Sheldon recognized that wildlife would survive the onslaught of civilization only if huge tracts of habitat were saved for certain species—an approach Roosevelt had pioneered with bison near Fort Sill, Oklahoma.13
Sheldon, having completed his apprenticeship in Mexico and Alaska, soon became a transformational leader in the conservationist movement of the progressive era. He was elected an officer in the Boone and Crockett Club, National Parks Association, and American Forestry Association, among numerous other preservationist-minded organizations. From the outset, Merriam respected Sheldon for treating the natural world with humility and restraint. Roosevelt, in fact, saw Sheldon, whom he deemed “a capital representative of the best hunter-naturalist type today,” as almost a member of his extended family.14 Roosevelt often turned to Sheldon to serve on various wildlife committees of the Boone and Crockett Club.15 Because Dr. Merriam had failed to finish his magnum opus North American Mammals, Roosevelt started hinting that perhaps Sheldon should step up and fill the void.16 While Sheldon never produced such a comprehensive study, he led the movement for America to adopt progressive game laws.17
Interior Alaska was an unforgiving land in 1904, when Sheldon first went to study Dall sheep in earnest. None of the territory’s 30,000 residents suffered from being too gentle. Sheldon felt like a voyageur, an intrepid explorer following animal tracks all over the Alaska Range. There was only one rule of dress: stay warm. Clothed in heavy wool garments, determined to survive, Sheldon proved his mettle as a true explorer. Every day his clothes got wet and his bedroll clammy. But he didn’t complain. His rifle of choice in 1906 was a Mannlicher .256 caliber. Unlike Andrew Berg—a Finnish immigrant who became the first licensed hunt guide in the Kenai Peninsula and moonlighted as a fur trapper—Sheldon carried field glasses as his favorite tool. Berg’s hunt notes, however, proved to be a monument to phonetic misspellings: “at home doctoring,” “no suckuss above freezing all day . . . weathre warm.”18
In The Wilderness of the Upper Yukon—published in 1911—Sheldon enthusiastically described the plans and goals of the U.S. Biological Survey’s Yukon-Alaska expedition: to study the golden-horned, all-white Dall sheep foraging on grasses, sedges, forbs, and dwarf willows. Drawing on his diaries to give the book a real-time structure, Sheldon analyzed all species of wild sheep of North America. He divided the family Bovidae into two species subgroups: thinhorn and bighorn. Dr. Nelson had previously accumulated valuable information about sheep’s hooves and horns, but it was based on conjecture and limited biological proof. Sheldon, filling the vacuum, provided authoritative Darwinian analysis of wild sheep’s range in the Yukon and Alaska. “Indeed, so little was known about the variation, habits, and distribution of the wild sheep of the far northern wilderness, that my imagination was impressed by the possibilities of the results of studying them in their native land,” he wrote. “There was, besides, the chance of penetrating new regions, of adding the exhilaration of exploration to that of hunting, and of bringing back information of value to zoologists, and geographers, and of interest to sportsmen and lovers of natural history.”19
Awed to be working with the great Dr. Nelson, Sheldon now made Alaskan mammals and birds his area of zoological expertise. For the next decade, he commuted between New York and Fairbanks, where all the roads abruptly ended. Trails in the Alaska Range during Roosevelt’s presidency had been built exclusively for the mining and timber companies. After outfitting himself in Dawson and hiring Jack Haydon as a guide, Sheldon developed the daily pace of a man on the march. Living out of a backpack and duffel bag, he was prepared for extreme camping at all times. Sheldon had clearly not come to Alaska for recreation. From dawn to dusk he worked, collecting wildlife data. No matter how grueling the outdoor experience became, he never let it affect his appearance. A proper wardrobe was the sign of a Yale man, even in the outback. He refused to look scruffy, like a muskrat trapper. Venturing down the Yukon River, he declared all the nature around him worthy of a thousand Thomas Cole paintings. The forest animals he encountered in the Denali wilderness—deer, wolves, and ground squirrels—had variations of color and size he had not anticipated. Sheldon dutifully recorded the precise numbers of the migrating caribou he encountered. Eskimos claimed that up in the Arctic great herds roamed the tundra above the timberline along the coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea. He hoped to visit the Arctic someday. To the Gwich’in people (known as the Caribou people), these great herds represented the primary source of cultural and economic sustenance. As herbivores, the caribou ate willow, dwarf birch, lichens, moss, and even dried sedges in winter. In turn the Gwich’in people ate the caribou.
Sheldon returned to the Alaska Range wilderness (which formed the southern border of the Yukon basin) on August 1, 1907, and stayed through June 11, 1908. His guide for this expedition was Harry Karstens, who wanted much of wild Alaska saved from commercial exploitation. Sheldon snowshoed through fresh powder in the Alaska Range with Karstens, forging new trails at high altitudes. The saw-toothed Alaska Range had a distinct crest line, with peaks from 8,000 to 10,000 feet high (unbroken for a breathtaking 200 miles). The range south of Fairbanks was imposing, wild, forlorn, and stern. Many peaks—Foraker, Russell, Hunter, Hayes, Silverthrone, and McKinley—were over 10,000 feet high. A trifle nervous about winter in the Alaska Range, Sheldon and Karstens stayed in the snug valleys, moving their base camp according to the weather. In the winter they holed up in a cabin on the upper Toklat River. They marveled at how, in springtime, everything came alive in Denali. The sky was filled with flocks of geese that sprawled over the long fields—Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons). Surrounding Sheldon and Karstens in swirling columns were arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) and sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), sometimes in pairs, but often in cloudlike clusters. To Sheldon there was a sense of ancient history about these great bird flocks. He was annoyed that there were virtually no U.S. laws to permanently protect them.
To Sheldon’s surprise, the truly irreplaceable link in Alaska’s food chain was the willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus). These birds mated in May and their eggs hatched in June. They were particularly thick in Roosevelt’s Yukon Delta.20 Once their white downy feathers were lost, the ptarmigan’s plumage turned as brown as the willow, dark birch, and spruce boughs. They were well camouflaged, clinging to the ground to feast on wild berries and willow buds. When flushed, the ptarmigan, which are plump, seem to struggle with flight, forced to keep a low trajectory only ten to fifteen feet above the ground. The naturalist Margaret E. Murie, in Two in the Far North, joked that the ptarmigan was a comical creature, seemingly saying, “Come here, come here, come here—go back, go back, go back.”21 Every predator in Alaska considered the willow ptarmigan fine dining. The red foxes and ground squirrels, in fact, seemingly identified the brown-speckled ptarmigan eggs as the finest delicacy on the tundra. Other birds—golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), gyrfalcons, short-eared owls, and goshawks among them—swooped down to lift away willow ptarmigan in their claws for dinner.22 For wolves and wolverines, the willow ptarmigan was a veritable Thanksgiving dinner in waiting. Once ptarmigan were devoured, the tree sparrows (Spizella arborea) and white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) collected the feathers to use as nest lining.23 “The ptarmigan,” Sheldon reported in his field journal, “flying from rock to rock above, kept sounding their croaking chatter.”24
The primordial bird populations in Alaska included 100 million seabirds, 70 million shorebirds, and 12 million waterfowl. (Unfortunately, there were even more mosquitoes that swarmed up out of the marshlands.) Charles Sheldon—considered by both Grinnell of the Boone and Crockett Club and Merriam of the Biological Survey as the best young American naturalist-hunter—ended up inventorying the birdlife around the north base of snowcapped Mount McKinley with scientific exactitude. He published his findings in the January 1909 edition of the Auk. More than 400 bird species inhabited or migrated through Alaska, including many Asian species. Sandhill cranes and golden eagles were found throughout the territory, feeding along mirror-still lakes. The Aleutian chain was full of colonies of raucous seabirds, which Sheldon never got to inventory.25
One bird that Sheldon admired during his Alaskan wanderings was the trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator). With its bright white plumage, long periscope-like neck, and black bill, the trumpeter swan—the largest waterfowl species on earth—was magnificent. Besides being the unfortunate victims of fashion—women wanted their feathers for bonnets—these swans were sensitive to contaminants. A small colony of trumpeters lived in the lower Copper River system and the Kenai Peninsula. They bred in northwestern British Columbia and in the Saint Elias Range backcountry; those populations, however, were not faring well.26 Determined to help the trumpeter swans survive in their core range in Alaska, Sheldon worked with the Boone and Crockett Club, the New York Conservation Society, and the Camp Fire Club of America to help protect the swans. In 1968 the nonprofit Trumpeter Swan Society assumed the full-time duty of advocating the protection of these regal birds. E. B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, published in 1970, memorably introduced these beautiful birds (which can stand on one leg for more than half an hour) to many children.27
Market hunters were the bane of Sheldon’s days in Alaska. One afternoon while Sheldon and Karstens were tracking Dall sheep, they came upon a couple of hunters with sixteen dogs around a campfire. They were gorging themselves. They had slaughtered a herd of Dall sheep, including the ewes and lambs—the whole family—which Sheldon had been inventorying. “Naturally,” he wrote, “I was deeply disappointed to hear that my sheep, which I had been so carefully observing, were to be disturbed by vigorous market hunting, but could do nothing to prevent it.”28 He vowed to fight for laws to protect Alaskan game against “slob hunters” who didn’t even know what conservation meant. And he mistakenly warned Natives not to trust Hudson Stuck, a Presbyterian minister whoseTen Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled, filled with tales of cold winter journeys on behalf of Christ, became a best seller.29 Before long, however, Stuck became Sheldon’s ally. In 1913, Stuck led an expedition up the summit of McKinley. His memoir of the climb was titled The Ascent of Denali.30 With almost evangelical vigor, Stuck insisted that the name of Mount McKinley was an affront to the mountain and Native people and should be changed back to Denali. “There is, to the author’s mind,” Stuck wrote, “a certain ruthless arrogance that grows more offensive to him as years pass by, in the temper that comes to a ‘new’ land and contemptuously ignores the Native names of conspicuous natural objects.”31
The 1907–1908 year on the upper Toklat River (in an area that became part of Mount McKinley National Park) was brilliantly described in Sheldon’s memoir The Wilderness of Denali. Nowhere in the world, Sheldon proclaimed, were there mountains as majestic in winter as the Alaska Range. He felt privileged to have walked among such towering manifestations of the ice age. The Alaska Range, filled with swollen rivers in springtime, divided the Alaska territory not only into districts but also into distinctive climates. For an experienced mountaineer like Sheldon, tramping around the crags, clefts, waterfalls, and marshlands of interior Alaska was far better than climbing the comparatively dull Matterhorn in Switzerland. Besides the Alaska Range, there was the Rocky Mountains extension that slashed across northern Alaska as the Endicott Range (about 200 miles from the Arctic Ocean). The Coast Range, which John Muir also loved, consisted of the Fairweather and Saint Elias mountains, with peaks over 10,000 feet high (here were the blankets of glacial fields). The Wrangell Mountains were a string of unsymmetrical lava cones with peaks—Blackburn, Castle, Drum, Jarvis, Regal, Sanford, Wrangell, and Zanetti—all over 10,000 feet high.
On his Alaska Expedition from 1905 to 1908, Sheldon collected specimens of the caribou (Rangifer tarandus), Alaska moose (Alces alces), white sheep (Ovis dalli), snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), and lemming (Lemmus trimucronatus yukonensis) for the U.S. Biological Survey and U.S. National Museum (Smithsonian Institution), both in Washington, D.C. Camping among the dwarf fireweed along the Savage River in Denali, he performed taxidermy on the skins and preserved the skulls of four different subspecies of meadow mouse, catching the rodents with little homemade traps. A wonderfully precise sketcher, Sheldon also drew vivid illustrations of the wildlife he procured, a time-honored tradition of the Boone and Crockett Club. Regularly Dr. Merriam wrote Sheldon glowing letters about the value of his adventures in the far north to the world of biological conservation. “While his personal interest centered chiefly in the larger game animals, Sheldon nevertheless appreciated the importance of collecting the smaller mammals and took the trouble to trap, prepare, and label large numbers of mice, lemmings, shrews, and other small species, all of which he presented to the Biological Survey for permanent deposit in our National Museum,” a grateful Dr. Merriam recalled of Sheldon in an introduction to The Wilderness of Denali. “These specimens have been of inestimable help to naturalists engaged in defining and mapping the ranges of the smaller mammals and besides have brought to light a number of species previously unknown. And it should be borne in mind that while the major part of his field work was done in Alaska and Yukon Territory, he also made important collections and field notes in British Columbia, Arizona, and northern Mexico.”32
Perhaps Sheldon’s greatest pieces of writing, in hindsight, were his flawless essays on Hinchinbrook and Montague islands (published as chapters in The Wilderness of the North Pacific Coast Islands). Both large barrier islands are located between the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound. They are what Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Island are to Cape Cod, but thicker with wildlife. What interested Sheldon about these islets were the vast families of brown bears. (Along Alaska’s coastal waters they were called brown bears; those living in the interior were grizzlies.) As the Japanese Zen poet Basho- had written, “To learn about the pine, go to the pine. To learn about bamboo, go to the bamboo.” To learn about brown bears, Sheldon regularly visited these offshore islands of Prince William Sound. There was a profusion of bears on the islands around every puddle and bend. Sheldon was determined to accurately count their distribution numbers; accurate data would be the first step toward saving the bears.33
“No sight in the American Wilderness is so suggestive of its wild charms than that of the huge bear meandering on the mountain-side, or walking on the river-bank, or threading the deep forest,” Sheldon wrote. “He who still retains his love for wild nature, though accustomed to the sight of wild animals, and surfeited in some degree with the killing of them, feels a lack in the wilderness—perhaps the loss of its very essence—when, tramping about in it, he knows that the bear, that former denizen of its depths, is there no more—exterminated forever.”34
What amazed Sheldon most about the Alaskan brown bear was its massive head, which, incongruously, had inconspicuous ears and tiny eyes. In the East, zoologists thought of Alaska’s bears as having fur of a single color. But Sheldon found that these bears varied from pale tan, sandy, gold, silver, and cinnamon to all shades of dark brown and black. Because of their color variations, Ursus arctos demanded a lot of careful biological scrutiny. Owing to Sheldon’s research, for example, the Biological Survey learned that the bears from coastal Alaska were much darker and more uniformly colored than those found in the interior (which had pale-tipped guard hairs). Furthermore, Sheldon inventoried everything these brown bears ate, including grasses, tender shoots, wildflowers, tree roots, tubers, mosses, willows, and especially berries. While these solitary (except during breeding season) bears occasionally grubbed for insects, larvae, and eggs, they were unable to digest coarse forage very well.35 By cutting out the molar of a shot grizzly, then counting the annual rings of cementum, Sheldon could tell the age of a bear. Whenever he ran into a successful bear hunter, he asked for a molar.
Both Sheldon and Merriam were determined to oversee the most comprehensive inventory of Alaska’s brown bear population ever undertaken. They were convinced that zoologists hadn’t properly identified subspecies of brown bears like Kodiaks. Sheldon was Merriam’s “bear man” in northern Canada and Alaska, trying to understand the range of brown bears, in particular. On Montague and Admiralty islands, he slept in an open canvas shelter with his wife, staying warm under reindeer skin robes. “I note that you giveUrsus horribilis as mainly Rocky Mountains,” Sheldon wrote to Merriam. “These scarcely touch Yukon Territory, except north of the Pelly River and they extend well up the Mackenzie. Ursus horribilis is confined to the territory East of the Lewis and South of Steward. But west of the Lewis toward the Alsek River and the White River, close to the coastal ranges I have always thought that the grizzly there resembled those of the Alaska range (alascensis). There is one skin from that district in your collection and two female skulls. Therefore I had Yukon Territory divided up into three regions possibly. Urses phaeonix, ogilves region north of latitude 64—horribilis in district southeast of Yukon Rivers and alascensis inside St. Elias and other coast ranges north.”36
For all his skills as a naturalist, Sheldon was unusual because he enjoyed lonely reveries amid the spruce, often not seeing anyone else for weeks (that is, when his wife wasn’t along). Sheldon shot, with his .22 rifle, a wide range of coneys, marmots, shrews, and ground squirrels for the Biological Survey to analyze. On one Alaska-Yukon trip, Sheldon coincidentally bumped into the world-famous British hunter Frederick Selous, who was collecting for the British Museum. For six weeks, the pair trekked through the far north together, discussing South African game and Alaskan bears. Selous was sixteen years older than Sheldon but, like everybody else, was charmed by Sheldon’s show. They became lifetime friends. When Selous died in 1917, Sheldon wrote to Roosevelt about creating an impromptu memorial to the great British conservationist. “Will you bring the matter up,” Roosevelt wrote to Sheldon, “before the Boone and Crockett Club?”37
But the outdoors life that Sheldon led had drawbacks. In Alaska, for example, the plague was mosquitoes. There are more than 3,000 species of these insects, and at times it seemed that all of them had decided to hold a revival meeting or a roundup in Alaska. When Sheldon studied paleontology as a boy, he learned that mosquitoes had been around to buzz and bite the dinosaurs. Scientists would in coming years find mosquitoes trapped in amber (petrified sap) in a tree fossil more than 38 million years old. During the summer months, swarms of mosquitoes attacked Arctic Alaska’s four caribou herds, forcing the Porcupine herd to migrate 700 miles to escape them. If an Eskimo hunter killed a caribou in summer with a spear or arrow, the carcass would be blanketed by mosquitoes within seconds. There were other true flies in Alaska—crane flies, midges, and gnats—but it was the mosquito, wings beating between 250 and 600 times a minute, that became the bane of outdoorsmen, considered a hazard as menacing as wind, sleet, and snow.
What haunted Sheldon, making him seethe with anger, was the gradual diminution of the larger mammals such as Dall sheep, moose, and deer as a result of market hunting across the tundra-covered valley. Sometimes, even when he was hungry and miserable, Sheldon nevertheless counted and collected for the Biological Survey. Only the thick swarms of biting flies and insomnia during the summer solstice really hindered him. Driven by his love of the outdoors, Sheldon, when the creeks were down and the trails melted out, kept biological diaries of his pioneering wildlife observational research on the northern slopes of the Alaska Range. “Complete enjoyment of the wilderness,” Sheldon wrote, “needs periods of solitude.”38 Being alone at a high altitude gives a person plenty of free time to think. Sheldon began dreaming of the Denali wilderness as a national park—the largest in the system, millions of protected acres. Karstens’s journal entry of January 12, 1908, recorded Sheldon’s first hope that the U.S. government would maintain Denali National Park as a quasi-wilderness area (i.e., roadless).39
The McKinley River was the longest and widest of hundreds of glacier-fed rivers, streams, and creeks. Everywhere a visitor looked, there were braided brooks gurgling across the wet tundra. More than twenty ridges were involved in the drainage of the McKinley River. With his loyal packer Harry Karstens (nicknamed “the Seventy-Mile Kid” because he had once mined a claim on Seventy Miles Creek outside Dawson City), Sheldon built a weatherproof cabin along the Toklat River, located opposite the mouth of present-day Sheldon Creek (named in his honor). From the start, they split plenty of firewood to prepare for the subzero winter. At a trading post they acquired roof shakes and a small keg of nails. Using their lean-to shack as a base camp, Sheldon began wandering around the Denali wilderness. Head down, he struck out into the high-velocity wind, with gun, pad, and pencil. He was a man in his element. It sickened Sheldon that residents of the Kantishna region north of McKinley were mass-butchering game while building the Alaska Railroad.40 It also sickened him to see market hunters butchering Dall sheep to put meat in the pots of mining camps in the Savage, Teklanika, Toklat, and Sanctuary river valleys. Much of this meat was fed to the sled dogs. Much like annual tree rings, the indented lines on a ram’s horns, some spreading as much as three feet across, indicated the Dall sheep’s age. Sheldon feared the species was headed toward extinction. Even the U.S. Army infantrymen stationed in Alaska at Fort Gibbon at Tanana and Fort Liscum near Valdez considered the sheep butchery repugnant.
Throughout 1907–1908 Sheldon, like a new John Muir, had shared campouts with the Chilkat (in southeastern Alaska). His journals also indicate encounters with the Minchumina, Nenana, and Tanana.41 The Ivy Leaguer looked as if he had been born and raised amid Alaska’s varied habitats—glaciers, mountains, tundra, grasslands, wetlands, lakes, woodlands, and rivers. He wore rawhide moose snowshoes and traveled in forty-foot-long bark canoes. In his log cabin, whose roof was scarcely higher than his head, he scribbled furiously about the great round moon, silvery waterfalls, icy fjords, and torrential rains. Despite all the precipitation, Sheldon worried constantly about brushfires. Ever since the U.S. Forest Service was created in 1905, men had been paid decent wages as fire lookouts. Sheldon hoped to raise funds in New York for hiring more lookouts for Alaska. “Alone in an unknown wilderness hundreds of miles from civilization and high on one of the world’s most imposing mountains, I was deeply moved by the stupendous mass of the great upheaval, the vast exterior of the wild areas below,” Sheldon wrote, “the chaos of the unfinished surfaces still in process of molding, and by the crash and roar of the mighty avalanches.”42
As reflected in Karstens’s remembrances, Sheldon was determined to see Mount McKinley saved as a kind of Grand Canyon of the north—a protected American wonder, a true wilderness area untouched by axes or construction crews where a citizen could go and get lost. To his mind only one two-lane road should be allowed to cut through the park. Mount McKinley, he said, was an inheritance for his grandchildren.43
When Sheldon returned to New York before Christmas 1908, invigorated by the stinging snows of Denali, he almost single-handedly launched a campaign to create a national park around Mount McKinley. He was the best cheerleader wild Alaska ever had. The bird flocks in the area, he said, were loud enough to throw an orchestra out of tune. The salmon-rich rivers had the cleanest, purest water that ever rushed over rocks. To see a double rainbow over the Teklanika River at summer twilight was proof that the world had a Creator. Painting word pictures, Sheldon told his audiences about seeing Mount McKinley free of clouds, lording it over the adjacent snow-clad summits, as grizzly bears patrolled the base. The great Muldrow Glacier falling down the eastern side from the snowfield between the two domes, he claimed, was one of the great sights in nature. What worried Sheldon was that hunters were slaughtering more and more game to feed mountain-ringed towns such as Nenana, Kantishna, and more distant Fairbanks. As a purist with regard to nature reserves, he disdained the filthy backwoods stump mills, placer operations, and forest “units” earmarked for cutting. Once the railroad came, connecting Seward to Fairbanks, additional market-hunting syndicates would patrol the Denali wilderness and kill everything that moved.44
It had taken George Bird Grinnell a full nineteen years to see Glacier National Park become a reality. But Sheldon, who always believed luck was on his side, was determined to obtain the designation within a decade. Recognizing that securing congressional approval was tough sledding, Sheldon began intensely lobbying the heavyset James Wickersham, the Alaska territory’s only delegate on Capitol Hill, a quasi-Rooseveltian conservationist. Wickersham, a pioneer judge originally from Illinois, was Alaska’s voice in Washington, D.C., from 1909 to 1921. He favored both the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks and the establishment of Mount McKinley National Park.45 Working alongside Sheldon in lobbying were Nelson, Grinnell, and the Camp Fire Club of America. Together they vowed to have Congress vote in favor of the national park within the decade. One crucial fact was that the Alaska Railroad was being built from the southern coast of Alaska to Fairbanks. Tracks were being laid across Broad Pass, so the eastern limit of Mount McKinley National Park would be accessible by train, a plus for tourists wanting an excursion from Anchorage.46 Wickersham thought Mount McKinley would make an ideal railroad stopover. He imagined a getaway village, built around a string of hotels, which would attract tourists from all over the world.
Something about Sheldon’s fervor for protecting Alaska’s wildlife heritage was very appealing in the age of Model T’s, telephone wires, catchpenny devices, skyscrapers, soap bubbles, and the Wright brothers. What could be more American than a huge brown bear feeding on salmon in a fast-moving stream or a bull moose bedding down under a pine?
At meetings of the Boone and Crockett Club, Sheldon planned with friends exactly how to create a vast national park reserve the size of his home state, Vermont—a park to be run by the U.S. Department of the Interior. They got Stephen Mather, the director of the National Park Service, to sign on, with huge enthusiasm. As an inducement, Sheldon would talk about Denali as the last frontier. The 1909 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language had an interesting definition of frontier: “the border or advance region of settlement and civilization, as, the Alaskan frontier, chiefly U.S.”47
The historian Richard Slotkin, in The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier, 1776–1890, described the concept of the “frontier” as the “longest lived of American myths” and a “powerful continuing presence.”48 The Denali wilderness would now be the frontier. The national park would encompass broad river valleys, wildflower tundra, massive glaciers, and a portion of the lofty Alaska Range, including the unsurpassed Mount McKinley, North America’s highest summit. While many people celebrated the defeat of wilderness as progress on the march, Sheldon saw it as a loss of something essential to democracy. Sheldon realized that conservation had too many misleading labels. A crusade to eradicate bark beetles wasn’t Sheldon’s idea of either Muirian or Rooseveltian conservationism. To Sheldon the heart of conservation was saving wild landscapes. He saw himself, in the end, as a pioneering advocate of wilderness reserves, building on the legacy of TR’s federal bird reservations. Conservation was a term of compromise whereas wilderness was preservation at its purest.
In 1912, the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons brought out Sheldon’s memoir The Wilderness of the North Pacific Coast Islands: A Hunter’s Experiences While Searching for Wapiti, Bears, and Caribou on the Larger Coast Islands of British Columbia and Alaska. In it, Sheldon wrote about Admiralty Island, particularly the brown bear populations, in biological terms. There are beautifully written anecdotes about brown bears digging up wild parsnips, stalking prey, and fleeing after whiffing the scent of man. There was nothing purposefully sentimental about Sheldon’s encounters with bears, which included measuring the size of tapeworms in their dung. “It is a wonderful sight to see the huge bear suddenly appear on the bank of a creek swiftly flowing through the great forest, while the salmon fight and splash and the gulls scream in the plaintive voices as they hover about the pools,” Sheldon wrote. “To see a bear leap into the rapids, sweep out a salmon with its paw, and return silently into the wood to make its feast must be a stirring experience and one that would give a wonderful glimpse of wildlife in the forest of the wilderness. It is, however, a field for the photographer, not the sportsman.”49
Sheldon did a convincing job of presenting the Denali area to the Department of the Interior as a teeming and impressive land. Helping the lobbying, and arriving at just the right time, was a memoir by the mountaineer Belmore Browne, The Conquest of Mount McKinley (1913), complete with anecdotes about mushing behind a team of dogs over high mountain passes.50 Ever since the nomadic Yupik and Inupiat brought dogsleds from Siberia to Alaska, mushing had become a preferred and practical mode of transportation across the wilderness territory. Declawed, their incisors pulled, sometimes even castrated, Eskimo dogs (or malamutes) had an inbred sense of direction and made winter travel feasible in Alaska. Arctic explorers such as Leopold McClintock and Fridtjof Nansen had popularized these dogs in their adventure sagas. Jack London transformed them into symbols of the far north in The Call of the Wild. In 1908 Nome inaugurated the All-Alaskan Sweepstakes, a sporting event that eventually led to the Iditarod race. And now Browne, in The Conquest of Mount McKinley, presented these dogs as heroic mountain climbers, thus helping Sheldon’s proposed national park get extra newspaper coverage in the Atlantic coast states.
Browne’s unanticipated assistance convinced Sheldon of a political truth: if you stuck to your guns long enough in America, right would eventually prevail. Sensing an opportune moment, Sheldon wrote to Nelson at the Biological Survey that the time had come to push the legislation for Denali National Park through Congress—the letter was dated October 10, 1915.51 This document was the opening salvo of a fierce legislative tussle. Sheldon’s journals about Denali, in fact, were now carefully studied by U.S. congressmen as clear-eyed dispatches from “The roof of the continent.” Every page, it was quickly understood, constituted a first-rate argument for the wilderness and wildlife preservation rather than logging in the Denali region.
Sheldon finally achieved his goal in 1917. After a flurry of last-minute negotiations about railroad entry and hunting laws, and after crucial lobbying by the Boone and Crockett Club and the Camp Fire Club of America, Congress presented Sheldon with an approved bill. Immediately, document in hand, Sheldon hurried to the White House, hoping to speed up the signing process. On February 26, President Wilson at last approved the legislation to create Mount McKinley National Park. He invited the jubilant Sheldon to attend the official signing ceremony at the White House. Sheldon’s arduous treks across the Alaska Range over glaring snowfields in icy gales, counting caribou and Dall sheep, had paid off for America and the world. The U.S. government had finally recognized his vision of Mount McKinley—and the beautiful raw-bone foothills of the Alaska Range—as belonging to every citizen. Laws associated with the new national park complemented Sheldon’s vision: no market hunters, no gold prospectors, and no oil-field geologists would be allowed in the 2 million-acre wilderness.
But there were some problems. For one thing, Congress rejected the name Denali in favor of Mount McKinley National Park. Sheldon and others were annoyed. Congress also refused to appropriate new money to protect Mount McKinley from the poaching of wildlife and timber. All President Wilson and Congress had really agreed to was a template for protection. With no funds set aside for the long-term preservation of Mount McKinley, Sheldon knew, the Denali wilderness wouldn’t last long. Conservationist activism was a constant experience of tribulations. Disappointed, Sheldon tapped the Boone and Crockett Club for $8,000 so that the Department of the Interior could hire a superintendent for Mount McKinley.52
Because of Sheldon’s public promotion of Mount McKinley, tourists started trickling in—very slowly—to see it. Only seven visitors came to see the new national park in 1922.53 In 1923 the Curry Hotel opened in time for the park’s formal dedication. A scenic viewpoint—the “Regal Vista”—was established so that tourists could snap photographs of McKinley without an arduous hike.54
The only newspaper that seemed to care about the new national park was the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Not until 1924, when roads and concessions were built, did the number of visitors increase. Stephen Mather lobbied aggressively for congressional allocations to help the park develop infrastructure. A log structure (looking rather like a strip mall) became the tourist gateway of McKinley Station; it comprised a roadhouse, a general store, a post office, a public garden, and little log motel cabins to rent. The Alaska Railroad, working closely with the National Park Service, printed up attractive brochures and extolled the run from Seward to Fairbanks as the “Mount McKinley Route.”55 As the historian Alfred Runte noted in National Parks: The American Experience, the new park met the major preservationist criterion of the era: “monumentalism.”56
Sheldon also achieved, like Muir before him at Glacier Bay, the promotion of discovery and recreation in Alaska for tourists of tomorrow. A later cult of wilderness enthusiasts wanted to explore Alaska’s boundless forests and glaciers. Colonel A. J. “Sandy” Macnab and Frederick K. Vreeland—of the Camp Fire Club of America—represented the new breed of outdoors enthusiasts, eager to make a permanent mark as conservationists in Alaska. After World War I, Americans, aglow with victory, discovered Alaskan mountains and rivers as a leisure-time destination. Aviation now made “doing Alaska” feasible for rich people from the East Coast. Colonel Macnab, who served under General Pershing in France, had supervised a rifle school there, outside Le Mans. Under his leadership more than 200,000 U.S. soldiers a week learned how to use a Springfield .30-06 rifle. After the war Macnab, based in Camp Benning, Georgia, dreamed of Lake Clark, Alaska—where the Dall sheep, caribou, and bears reportedly were abundant. Vreeland—an electrical engineer, photographer, and wilderness enthusiast based in New York—had a different motivation. He wanted to photograph the region and test his survival skills.
Macnab and Vreeland, as noted above, were both members of the Camp Fire Club of America (CFCA), which had been started in 1897 by the zoologist Hornaday. The club’s name sounded rather bland (as if it were for aging Boy Scouts who wanted to toast marshmallows); but in truth, its elite membership consisted of approximately 100 physically fit survivalists and wilderness devotees. (Later, its membership increased to about 480, and many members came from the Westchester County area.) Deeply secretive about their club’s history—it was a kind of Skull and Bones for outdoors endurance—the members often climbed the highest peaks, went down category 4 or 5 white-water rapids in kayaks, and tested themselves against hurricanes, blizzards, avalanches, and torrential rains.57 In his book The Forest (1903), Stewart Edward White described the CFCA as brave men of “essential pluck and resourcefulness pitting themselves against the forces of nature.”58 Perseverance, toughness, ardor—every club member was a Theodore Roosevelt or a Charles Sheldon in the making.
It wasn’t until 1910 that the CFCA became an active group for the protection of wildlife habitats in America. Wisely, under the leadership of Ernest Thompson Seton, the club purchased two heavily wooded farms in Westchester County as a retreat—the total area was 161 acres.59 There were two lakes on the property. More land was added in 1917. The main lodge was built from local cedar logs. (Boy Scouts of America was founded on its porch.) No electricity was allowed, but gas lamps were permitted. Pistol shooting was encouraged on the range. Every spring the club had outdoor outings. To be a member, an applicant had to feel claustrophobic about big-city life—and pass twenty-one survival tests.60
One afternoon at the CFCA compound Macnab and Vreeland launched a plan to hike all around the Lake Clark–Iliamna area of southwestern Alaska; it would be, in their estimate, the next Mount McKinley (or Denali). There was a paucity of maps of the Lake Clark area in the 1910s. The whole mountainous area was a jumble of unnamed streams and lakes essential to Bristol Bay (the preeminent salmon fishery in the world) and Cook Inlet (the shipping route to Anchorage). What Macnab and Vreeland understood was that Lake Clark was the big-hearted country of Alaska. If that sounded like balderdash, consider this geographic fact: Lake Clark was the junction of Alaska’s three great mountain ranges: the Alaska Range (from the north), the Aleutian Range (from the south), and the region’s own Chigmit Mountains. There were two active volcanoes soaring over Cook Inlet—Iliamna (10,018 feet) and Redoubt (10,197 feet)—within the lands considered worthy of becoming a preserve. Going straight west, across a vast stretch of tundra, brought a traveler to Roosevelt’s Yukon Delta Federal Bird Reservation. “Glorious views of Kachemak Bay,” Muir had written of the area east of Lake Clark in his journal for 1899, “many glaciers; bright weather. Fine views of Iliamna, Redoubt, and other volcanoes, the former smoking and steaming distinctly at times; surrounded by sharp lower peaks and peaklets—the most beautiful, icy, and interesting of all the mountains of the Alaska Penin- sula.”61
Seeing the sky-piercing volcanoes around Lake Clark from the luxury of Harriman’s yacht, however, was far different from hiking near their lava base snapping photographs, as Macnab and Vreeland aimed to do. Traversing miles of moss and muskeg, with swarms of hard-biting flies as companions, and camping among the swamp willows and alders was no picnic. The Lake Clark plateau resembled the Arctic terrain, with caribou herds wandering the permafrost tundra. It was hard going for even a nature photographer like Vreeland (after whom a Canadian glacier had been named) and a crack marksman like Macnab (who was just back from the Great War). Besides a few Euroamericans, the main populations around Lake Clark were the Dena’ina Athabascans (on Iliamna) and the Yupik Aleuts (at the mouth of the Newhalen River and the southwest portion of Iliamna Lake). These tribes were good stewards of the land. But as industrialization increased—with overpopulation becoming a new plague—Lake Clark was bound to attract the extraction industries.
There was about Vreeland a touch of the naturalist Muir. Vreeland had written a number of excellent articles in Field and Stream about the preservation of nature in New England. His “Passing of the Maine Wilderness,” in the April 1912 issue, was credited with saving Mount Katahdin (the favorite peak of Thoreau and, later, Roosevelt) from clear-cutting. Although Vreeland failed to get the North Woods of Maine designated as a national park, his indefatigable advocacy led to the creation of Baxter State Park (the fourth largest in America).62 The sacred Appalachian wilderness where Thoreau had written The Maine Woods, published posthumously in 1909, was secured.
A few years later, in May 1916, Vreeland testified before the House Subcommittee on Public Lands for the establishment of Mount McKinley National Park. An excellent skier and a leader in the Boy Scout movement, Vreeland lectured about the need for American wildlife and for gorgeous wilderness landscapes like Denali to be handed down to future generations to enjoy. Along with Stephen Mather (National Park Service) and Robert Marshall (U.S. Forest Service), Vreeland was the most effective conservationist to testify that afternoon on Capitol Hill. Passionately defending Sheldon’s field research on the Denali wilderness, Vreeland helped convince U.S. congressmen that Mount McKinley was irreplaceable.63
Vreeland—in his forties, always meticulously dressed with not a wrinkle in his clothes—considered himself more of a “camera naturalist” than a hunter or an angler. Growing up, he had hunted in Maine and Quebec. Like Hornaday, however, he recoiled from trophy hunting as he matured. One of his closest friends was Daniel Beard, a founder of the Boy Scouts of America; they frequently challenged each other in learning all the birds and trees of the Adirondacks. After graduating from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1895 and Columbia University in 1909, Vreeland made a fortune inventing and patenting dozens of electrical devices, including the sine-wave oscillator, a radio band selector, and the Vreeland spectroscope. He earned further renown for photographing the grizzlies of Yellowstone in their lairs. Roosevelt considered him the best wildlife photographer around, the best landscape and portrait photographer being Edward Curtis. An expert cartographer, Vreeland also mapped the mountains between the Peace and Fraser rivers in British Columbia and Alberta. In 1915 Vreeland Glacier was named in his honor by the Canadian government.64
Macnab and Vreeland shared at least two ideas: the CFCA’s belief that wilderness defined the American character; and the certainty that market hunting, overfishing, and poaching were reprehensible acts of debauched scoundrels. Committed to the outdoors life, they saw the Lake Clark region along Cook Inlet as a first-rate locale where hardy sportsmen of the CFCA could go in the summer to camp, hike, run rivers, fish, and maybe shoot a few ducks for dinner. The real Alaskan fishermen—both Euro-American and Native Alaskans—were good marine stewards of nearby places like Bristol Bay, Kachemak Bay, and the Shelikof Strait. The CFCA thought the resident fisherman should have a self-imposed limit of two to five halibut a day. And any fish over 100 pounds, unless they were trying to win a contest, had to be released; it was obviously a female full of eggs. So the fishermen of Homer, reels down, would bring the halibut and salmon to the dock, clean up, and go home. Fair fishing made sense to most of them. But the CFCA rejected the Seattle and San Francisco fishing companies that depleted the salmon waters around Bristol Bay for a single season’s profits. Such “fake fishermen” were bad actors, anticonservationists, greedy money-grubbers. It was an uphill battle because Alaskan politicians cared only about lining their own pockets with fast money.
That Roosevelt, Muir, and Sheldon had inspired men of high character such as Macnab and Vreeland to join the wilderness movement was heartening. Conservation was proving to be more than a mere fad or an obsession with the outdoors. A U.S. Army colonel (hunter) and a famous inventor (photographer), modeling their advocacy on the campaign to preserve Mount McKinley, had set their eyes on exploring Lake Clark. Once again, Merriam and Nelson of the Biological Survey were offering wise counsel on what flora and fauna Vreeland needed to collect for the National Museum.65
Vreeland and Macnab plotted their Lake Clark–Iliamna adventure like military logisticians, determined to open up the Cook Inlet region to hunters, hikers, and recreationists who just wanted to experience the wild (or to vacationers who liked the idea of seeing treasured Alaskan landscapes). As CFCA survivalists straight from upstate New York, they were determined to reach the headwaters of the Mulchatna River.66 They were “extreme sportsmen” long before the phrase came into vogue.