In March of this year I found out I would be returning to Alaska, but this time roughly 600 miles West-Southwest of where I was, to the Alaska Peninsula. I hadn’t thought about my encounter for some time. I was on the plane from Anchorage to King Salmon (where the headquarters of Katmai National Park & Preserve is located) sitting next to the Chief of Interpretation for the park when he asked me if I was related to a Willie Nancarrow. “No, I don’t know anyone by that name in my family”. My family is fairly small, so I would be able to say whether or not someone was related to me. The Chief then proceeded to tell me that this Willie was the first park ranger that worked at Katmai, and more specifically Brooks Camp. What are the odds?! I didn’t hear much else about this until I would get out to Brooks a week later.
After we all had migrated to Brooks Camp I was walking around when I ran into the Chief again. He said “You may get annoyed by people telling you about Willie, but he actually built many of the buildings that are still around camp.” He told me about the Ranger Station, which used to be the boathouse.
You can still see where a hole in the wall would’ve allowed boats to be put inside has been filled in. A few of the small shacks around camp that he built were used for storage. And then there is the Visitor Center. The gift shop area of it was added on recently, but the area where everyone is required to come and attend a bear orientation was actually Willie’s cabin!
I touch on this during one of my programs I give that is focused on “home” and how Brooks Camp has been considered a home by many for thousands of years: Alaska Natives, bears, salmon, and other wildlife, and finally lodge and National Park Service employees have all inhabited the area at different times.
After the largest eruption of the 20th century occurred in 1912 at one of the volcanoes that are in the park, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes was created from the ash that filled the valley the volcano was located in. Then in 1918 the National Park Service designated it as a National Monument. This area is about 23 miles from Brooks Camp, which was not part of the monument at that point. Soon the monument would be expanded several times until it encompassed Brooks Camp as well. Up until 1950 there were no National Park Service employees in Katmai because there wasn’t any need for one. Visitation was extremely low because of the lack of infrastructure, so there was no need for any employees. Soon enough interest began to grow from anglers coming to the area. A contract was signed allowing one company to build a lodge at Brooks Camp, and because of this the Park Service decided they would need a ranger there to make sure everyone is obeying the fishing laws and so that someone was representing the agency. Mount McKinley National Park (now known as Denali National Park) was in charge of managing the relatively new unit of Katmai, and largely ignored it until this point. They decided to station Ranger Willie Nancarrow there for one year, which lead to more rangers being stationed there in the future.