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Harry Karstens, the Daring First Ranger of Denali National Park

This is how an adventurous miner, mountain climber, and hunter became the defender of Alaska’s iconic National Park.

When Henry “Harry” Karstens first showed up in Dawson City, its doubtful the young 19 year-old knew what was in store for him in the Klondike. If he had a inkling to all of the challenges he would face, a moment of doubt might have sent him packing back to Seattle. Karstens stayed though and had many adventures, including the first complete ascent of Denali (Mount McKinley), working as a hunting guide and becoming the first Superintendent of the Denali National Park in 1921.

A man of adventure

On his arrival to the Yukon in 1897, Harry Karstens either already had the outdoor skills necessary to survive in such a brutal climate, or he developed them quite quickly.

Arriving in Dawson City in 1897, he found that most of the quality mining claims were already taken and he was faced with decision to mine an inferior claim near Dawson or strike his fortune elsewhere. Eventually finding a suitable spot along the Seventymile Creek, Karstens dug in and got to the hard business of pulling the “color” from the earth. In 1902, he helped lay out the town of Eagle, Alaska, as well as becoming a mail man, a very demanding position in those days. As part of his duties, he carried mail and cargo via dog teams to the gold boom towns of Fairbanks, Valdez and Kantisha, being paid $75 per month for his trouble. During his mining days and adventures with the post office, he gained the nickname “Seventymile Kid.”

Mining for gold and driving dog teams was wasn’t enough adventure Harry Karstens. He took on the extremely hazardous job of carrying other miners supplies over the famed Chilkoot Pass, hauling 50-pound packs up the 1500 steps that were carved into the icy mountainside every winter.

Miners climbing over Chilkoot Pass. FindingLife Expeditions
Miners climbing over Chilkoot Pass. FindingLife Expeditions

From 1906 to 1908, Karstens worked as a guide for Boone and Crocket chairman Charles Sheldon on hunting trips into the Toklat River region. Sheldon described Karstens as a “tall, stalwart man, well poised, frank, and strictly honorable.” Besides being a hunter, Sheldon was also a highly influential conservationist and naturalist, successfully campaigning to have the area set aside as a park in 1917. The park was first known as Mount McKinley National Park and later changed to Denali National Park.

Before that happened however, Harry Karstens had some more adventures in store. In 1913 he would join a team of climbers in an attempt to be the first to reach the south summit of Denali as part of the “Stucks-Karstens Expedition.” Reaching the summit on June 7th, 1913, Stuck and Karstens along with two others accomplished their goal, paving the way for all future climbers to come.

Hegg, E.A (1867-1948) - Wikipedia/ Library and Archives Canada
Hegg, E.A (1867-1948) – Wikipedia/ Library and Archives Canada

Erik Johnson, Denali National Park historian said in an interview, “Karstens embodied the rugged Alaskan of the late 19th and early 20th century”, adding, “He was highly independent and skilled in ways that allowed him to adapt and thrive in the harsh northern climate. His experience and understanding of the local conditions made him the ideal choice as the first superintendent.”

Superintendent of Denali

Denali National Park (then known as Mount McKinley Park) was officially established in 1917, but without any designated funding or staff, the founding of the park was without much backbone, especially when it came to protecting the parks diminishing wild game species from poaching.  With a railroad line and more “civilization” on its way to the park boundaries, it was apparent that for the park to survive, money and manpower would have to be provisioned.

Karstens, who had returned to Seattle, was once again called to serve in Alaska, and in 1921 got the job as the parks first superintendent.

“Karstens was sensitive to local attitudes, and because he understood the plight of the miner and subsistence hunter from his own experience, he used his position to balance the needs of locals and concerns from leaders in Washington,” Johnson said.

As superintendent, Karstens would be instrumental in the new parks success, setting the tone for future leaders. He developed the required infrastructure, supervised the construction of cabins for rangers and guests and organized patrols to fight the poaching of the parks treasured wild game.

National Park Service/ Karstens Family Photo
National Park Service/ Karstens Family Photo

Harry Karstens came to Alaska as a young man looking to strike it rich on a gold claim. In the end though, the riches he found weren’t precious metals pulled from the ground, but in a life well lived in the outdoors, protecting and advocating for one of our nations greatest treasures, Denali National Park and Preserve.

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Harry Karstens, the Daring First Ranger of Denali National Park