Expedition Photography

A few researchers working in Denali have come to retrace the steps of the park’s early explorers.  Field journals, notes, and photographs help them establish a route to follow and allow them to compare the Denali of the past with the Denali of today.  These photo pairs are evidence of both dramatic vegetation change and changes to the cultural landscape and traditions surrounding Denali’s great explorations.

Karstens with dog sled
Photo courtesy of Charles Sheldon, Wilderness of Denali book, 1908

In 1906, when much of the land in what is now Denali National Park and Preserve was known only to Alaska Natives, trappers, and prospectors, naturalist Charles Sheldon and packer Harry Karstens spent months at a camp on the Toklat River.  Over the winter of 1907-1908 they built a cabin and observed and studied wildlife movements along the Toklat River corridor.  Observing the majestic beauty of the place, it was here that Sheldon fueled his idea for creating a wilderness park to protect the area he had grown to love.  Ten years later, in 1917, Mt. McKinley National Park was established.  Karstens, also present that fateful winter, was later named the park’s first superintendent.  One hundred and one years later, in 2008, Willie Karidis, then Executive Director of the  Denali Education Center, spent 61 days in the Denali National Park and Preserve backcountry attempting to retrace Sheldon and Karstens’ steps, and retaking some of Sheldon’s photographs.  While this 100-year time span showed impressive changes in treeline, thanks to Sheldon’s and others’ efforts in establishing the park, human development and impacts were limited.

Stephen Capps portrait
Photo courtesy of the USGS Portraits Collection

In 1916 and 1919, U. S. Geological Survey geologist Stephen R. Capps conducted scientific field investigations in the Denali area.  His journeys through the Kantishna and Toklat regions were significant contributions to the early understanding of Alaskan geology and glaciology.  Nearly one hundred years later, in 2011 and 2012, Ron Karpilo, a research associate at Colorado State University and Murie Science and Learning Center Research Fellow, reconstructed these journeys by first pouring through Capps’ field notes, photographs, maps, personal letters, and publications.  Then he took to the field by foot, attempting to camp and travel the same routes that Capps did.  The repeat photo pairs gathered show a century of changes in Denali’s glaciers, permafrost, ponds, streams, and vegetation.

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