Well, it’s that time of year again. I’ll be heading back up to Denali National Park and Preserve this summer to help celebrate the park’s 100th birthday! This will be my first time driving up. If you’d like to follow me along on my 3,800 mile journey click this link to see where I am over the next week 🙂
Some of you may be wondering what is next for me. Well, you no longer have to speculate about this. I am happy to say that I have travelled back to Alaska! This time I will be working at Denali National Park & Preserve as a Park Ranger (Interpretation) at the entrance area!
This past Saturday I flew up to Fairbanks from Indiana to stock up on supplies before heading out on the Alaska Railroad the following morning. I reached Denali that afternoon and have been taking the time to settle in and explore my new home. Training will begin this Thursday and will last several weeks before the summer season begins. I am very excited about this opportunity, and I look forward to sharing my experiences with you all!
Over the next few weeks I was asked by a few of my coworkers if I was related to Willie, and it made me think about whether or not there was a possibility that I was. Another coworker who is from Alaska asked me if I was related to anyone around Denali because she had heard a lot about a Nancarrow family around there that frequently has get-together’s and is a fun family. A few weeks later we opened the Visitor Center and I noticed on the campground reservation sheet that someone was from Denali. They came into the VC to ask a few questions and look around, and soon one of them asked me if I was related to anyone in Denali, to which I answered “No” once again. She then told me that she is a neighbor with a Nancarrow, and I told her the story of how I had heard of a quilter with the same last name in that area. Well guess who her neighbor is? That’s right, the same Nancarrow that does the quilting. I then told her the story of the first ranger here. Recently there was even a visitor that noticed my last name, and said that they knew some Nancarrow’s living in California.
From all of the information I have gathered I believe that this quilter is more than likely a descendent of Willie, being that they are both from the same area. The only question now is, am I related to them? When discussing this with my Grandfather recently, he noted that his Grandfather said some of his relatives had moved to areas of Oregon and Washington state around the turn of the century. So maybe they eventually made their way up to Alaska. I will have to do some research and find out if this is a possibility. Either way one thing is clear; it certainly is a small world.
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.
Never in my life have I run into another person with the last name of Nancarrow. Nor has anyone ever asked if I was related to “So-and-so Nancarrow”. I have a pretty unique last name, coming from Cornwall and meaning “valley of the deer”. Yet, during both of my summers here in Alaska I have actually had people recognize my last name and tell me about other Nancarrows that are out here on the Final Frontier as well.
The first time someone recognized my last name was last year while I was working at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. I was at the Visitor Center at Kennecott and had interacted with some visitors that were from the Denali area of Alaska. They asked me if I was related to anyone from there and explained that there was a quilt maker there with the same last name. Needless to say I was very surprised that someone had recognized even my last name, and more surprised that they were so close; only about 200 miles away (in Alaska that isn’t very far)! This was pretty cool, but soon it went to the back of my mind as I left my Alaskan summer home and came back to Indiana to finish up my senior year of college.