Returning to Alaska

I woke with a start. I’d been dozing on and off for the past couple of hours, but this time was different. My heart was hammering in my chest, as if my body could sense where I was in the world, my internal alarm clock ringing and bouncing off of the shelf. I quickly sat up and pulled open the window shade to my right.

Snow covered mountains. Glaciers, rivers of ice carving through the rocky ridgelines. Spruce trees blanketing the lower elevations, the familiar boreal forest. Braided rivers with intricate patterns in the gravel bars. I knew those patterns changed by the day, never the same. I smiled and took a deep breath.


It’s been more than 3 years since I left Alaska for the last time. I can still remember Denali National Park in the rearview mirror as John and I pulled away in his 2000 Subaru outback, packed to the gills. When we left, we grieved, because we were not planning on returning the following year. I was about to start graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison the following summer. Though we were hopeful we would return someday, there’d be no returning to Denali to work for at least two years. After four consecutive summers of midnight sun, arctic wildflowers, grizzly bears, and northern lights, it was hard to imagine.

Then COVID shook the world, and even if we’d planned on returning, our jobs didn’t exist the following two summer seasons. We began to settle into Madison during my graduate program and after I finished. I accepted a position with a local non-profit that was thrilled to have me. John finally landed a job he enjoys as a park ranger with the City of Madison. We have a cozy apartment within walking distance to numerous restaurants, cafes, a grocery store, bars, and even the state capitol building.

So much has changed in the past three years. In Denali, my job as a field educator inspired me to pursue a greater understanding of environmental conservation. I loved facilitating discussions with park visitors, but I wanted to know what it felt like to be part of the conservation work itself.

Turns out, conservation is complicated and there are few “right” answers, but right now I’m doing exactly what I set out to do.

Last summer as part of my graduate school capstone, I coordinated and co-facilitated the Driftless Conservation Plan for the Driftless Area in southwestern Wisconsin. A year later I’m finishing revisions and edits and presented virtually at the North American Conference for Conservation Biology, my first conference presentation, on our lessons learned. The more time that passes, the more I realize how much I love my job: the work I get to do, the flexibility, the way I’m supported—heck, I’m on a plane to Anchorage right now to work remotely for 2 weeks before my vacation begins!

Hiking at Alyeska near Anchorage, Alaska.

I’m not the same person as when I left Alaska, though there is no doubt that it feels like I’m returning home. Soon after departing Chicago, I looked out the window at the pixelated landscape below, patches of green and gold fields as far as the eye can see. Lately when I’ve driven across Wisconsin I’ve wondered, dreamed, about what the landscape must have looked like 400 years ago. The remnant and restored pieces of prairie light up my imagination as I see entire agricultural fields transform into rolling plains with golden grasses and wildflowers in every color—yellow, pink, purple, gold, white—some taller than I am. It’s impossible for me to hold the image in my mind for long, super imposed over reality.

In Alaska, I don’t need to wonder, or imagine. The land has yet to become as scarred by excessive overdevelopment and pavement. Most of the expansive landscapes and ecosystems are still intact, thanks to the Alaska Natives and indigenous people who have stewarded the land for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, and they continue to do so today. Yet the lands, waters, and wildlife are not without their own threats.

Plans for copper mines and oil wells threaten the tundra and the ocean in a frighteningly permanent way. A small patch of tundra can take up to 100 years to re-establish after it is destroyed. Meanwhile climate change has already done extensive damage—Alaskan coastal villages are eroding into the ocean, and permafrost is melting throughout the state, threatening infrastructure and ecosystems alike. In Denali, melting ice underground has led to an ongoing landslide at Polychrome Pass, where the road is closed at Mile 43 of 92 total miles. Wildfires rage across the land in early summer. Ecosystems are moving up in elevation, pinching the alpine tundra and the species that depend on it against the tops of the mountains, shrubs threatening to invade to the top.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but we can’t do it with hearts that are burned out. So for now, I am going to reconnect with the human and natural communities that I know so well.

Denali was the first place that I knew intimately in an ecological way. I knew the flowers, trees, the mosses and lichens, the animals that depend on them and what they do to survive. It gave me a sense of peace and meditation to understand the working of things. I walked the same trails week after week and watched the transition from winter to spring to summer and then fall, all in the span of four months or less. I’ve missed having that deep of an understanding of the land, what drives it, what it taught me.

Let’s see what I learn this time.

Cindy Johnson and I hiking at Alyeska with the Turnagain Arm (part of the Gulf of Alaska) in the background.

One thought on “Returning to Alaska

  1. Richard Kunkel says:

    I’m delighted that you have this wonderful opportunity to return to the land that you love. As I get even older, I realize how important it is to be where you want to be and do what you want to do … and I’m so glad that you’re doing just that a young age. Hope you have a splendid time in your adopted state of Alaska!
    Uncle Rich


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