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A native of Vermont, where as a youth his interest in natural history could flourish, Charles Sheldon went on to Yale and bright prospects in the profession of law. Then the family business supporting this progression collapsed. But with a good start and his own talent and determination Sheldon became a success in the rail-road business. He served as general manager of a railroad in Mexico from 1898 to 1902. During this time his investments in Mexican mining allowed him to retire from active business in 1903 at age 35. From that time on his avocation as a hunter-naturalist would become his public-service vocation in a life dedicated to preserving North American game animals. [1]

It was in Mexico that Sheldon's particular interest in the mountain sheep of North America first took hold. Learning that Dr. Edward W. Nelson of the U.S. Biological Survey (forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) had done biological studies in Mexico, Sheldon contacted him in 1904. Sheldon's association with Doctor Nelson and his equally distinguished colleague Dr. C. Hart Merriam became a moving force in Sheldon's life. He decided to devote his natural history interests to furthering the work of the Biological Survey, especially as it related to the preservation of game animals and their habitats. Nelson and Merriam became his mentors in the mammology and specimen-collection work that eventually brought him to the Denali region in 1906 to study the white Dali sheep of the North. [2]

From all accounts and from original documents that trace his altruistic career Charles Sheldon emerges as a loyal, dependable, and friendly man. In his scientific work his search for facts was indefatigable. As a seasoned man of affairs he was astute in the ways of politics and could spot a rascal at a distance. He did not suffer fools, but friends he never forgot—no matter their station in life. He was indeed of the Eastern elite, but he was no elitist, as his enduring friendships with and favors from and to Alaskan friends demonstrate.

Physically Sheldon was a sturdy 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighing a hard 170 pounds. He was inured to hardship as the price of the wilderness adventures he savored and followed to the day of his death in 1928 at age 60. Harry Karstens and others of his Alaskan associates admired Sheldon as a fellow woodsman, a man to be trusted on any trail no matter how long and tough it might be. This was a compliment bestowed rarely on people from the Outside.

Teddy Roosevelt, the archetype of the strenuous life in the turn-of-the-century era when Sheldon rose to prominence, had this to say about his fellow hunter-naturalist in a review of Sheldon's book The Wilderness of the Upper Yukon (1911):

Mr. Sheldon is not only a first-class hunter and naturalist but passionately devoted to all that is beautiful in nature, and he has the literary taste and ability to etch his landscapes into his narratives, so they give to the reader something of the feeling that he must have had when he saw them—and that this is no mean feat is evident to everyone who realizes how uncommonly dreary most writing about landscape is, for the average writer either treats the matter with utter bareness, or, what is worse, indulges at much length in "fine writing" of the abhorrently florid and prolix type.

Mr. Sheldon hunted in the tremendous Northern wilderness of snow-field and torrent, of scalped mountain and frowning pine forest; and in all the world there is no scenery grander in its lonely desolation than that which he portrays. He is no holiday hunter. Like Stewart Edward White, he is as skillful and self-reliant a woodsman and a mountaineer as an old-time trapper, and he always hunts alone. The chase of the Northern mountain sheep, followed in such manner, means a test of every real hunter's quality—marksmanship, hardihood and endurance, nerve and skill as a cragsman, keen eyesight, and high ability as still hunter and stalker. Mr. Sheldon possesses them all. Leaving camp by himself, with a couple of crackers and a piece of chocolate and perhaps a little tea in his pocket, he would climb the mountains until at last he saw his game, and then might have to spend twenty-four hours in the approach, sleeping out over-night and not returning to camp until late the following evening, when he would stagger downhill through the long sub-arctic dusk with the head, hide, and some of the meat of his game on his back. . . .

But the most important part of Mr. Sheldon's book is that which relates not to hunting but to natural history. No professional biologist has worked out the problems connected with these Northern mountain sheep as he has done. He shows that they are of one species; a showing that would have been most unexpected a few years ago, for at one extreme this species becomes the black so-called Stone's sheep, and at the other the pure white, so-called Dali's sheep. Yet as Mr. Sheldon shows in his maps, his description, and his figures, the two kinds grade into one another without a break, the form midway between having already been described as Fannin's sheep. The working out of this fact is a matter of note. But still more notable is his description of the life history of the sheep from the standpoint of its relations with its foes—the wolf, lynx, wolverine, and war eagle. [3]

Sheldon was not only a hunter-naturalist and gifted writer, he was also a man of broad philosophical perspective. The preservation of wild places and the wildlife inhabiting them, to which he devoted the specific actions of his public life, had a much broader objective. He believed that "the continued vigor and moral strength of the American people," would, in a closing America, be maintained only if the Nation's "forests, mountains, waterways, parks, roadways, and other open spaces" continued to provide opportunities for both energetic and contemplative outdoor recreation. Every generation of Americans, he asserted, must have these opportunities. They were part of the character-forming American heritage. It was incumbent on the federal government, through the various agencies that manage such landscapes, to aggressively provide for the health and welfare of the people through a national recreation policy that would foster and coordinate this critical public service, ramifying its benefits through all jurisdictions from federal to state to local. The particular points of this policy, as he sketched it about 1920, included a comprehensive recreation plan encompassing the great national parks and forests and wildlife preserves, as well as smaller regional and near-urban spaces for easy access for all; educational programs to guide the conservation of these open spaces; and the exclusion of economic development in the National Parks. [4]

In taking this stance, Sheldon joined the national debate then raging in American conservation policy. He was too practical a man and too politically attuned to espouse an extreme preservation position. At the same time, he differed from the prevalent utilitarian notion that all natural resources should be developed for economic ends. He believed that chosen landscapes should be maintained in pristine condition as reminders and places of generational reliving of the frontier experience that had driven America's history. His was a balanced concept that paired the Progressive conservation movement, organized around the "wise-use" ideas of Gifford Pinchot, with the older ideas of George Perkins Marsh and John Muir, which asserted man's obligations to the natural environment and the intangible benefits to be derived from Nature's unaltered works. In such balance would be found both the Nation's economic health and its spiritual salvation. [5]

Teddy Roosevelt's description of Charles Sheldon's field work on the Upper Yukon suffices for understanding his mode of operation at Denali. During his first visit in the summer of 1906, he and Harry Karstens, along with packer Jack Haydon of Dawson, traveled almost continuously with packhorses, living largely off the game that they hunted. Their rudimentary equipage and provisions allowed them to set up and fold camp with minimum effort. Typically, when a campsite was chosen after a day of travel, Sheldon took off alone while the men performed camp duties. He hiked over the ridges and into the lower elevations of the mountains noting everything he saw—game trails and other signs, and the animals themselves. He killed as necessary for meat. They entered the Denali piedmont and valley via Eureka ("about twenty tents and a few cabins"). At the head of Moose Creek they reached the crest of the outer hills overlooking lower Muldrow Glacier and McKinley River. Here ". . . Denali and the Alaska Range suddenly burst into view ahead, apparently very near."

I can never forget my sensations at the sight. No description could convey any suggestion of it. I have seen the mountain panoramas of the Alaska coast and the Yukon Territory. In the opinion of many able judges the St. Elias range is one of the most glorious masses of mountain scenery in the world. I had viewed St. Elias and the adjacent mountains the previous year, but compared with the view now before my eyes they seemed almost insignificant.

Three miles below lay the glacial bar of the Muldrow Branch of the McKinley Fork, fringed on both sides by narrow lines of timber, its swift torrents rushing through many channels. Beyond, along the north side of the main Alaska Range, is a belt of bare rolling hills ten or twelve miles wide, forming a vast piedmont plateau dotted with exquisite little lakes. The foothill mountains, 6,000 or 7,000 feet in altitude and now free from snow, extend in a series of five or six ranges parallel to the main snow-covered range on the south. Carved by glaciers, eroded by the elements, furrowed by canyons and ravines, hollowed by cirques, and rich in contrasting colors, they form an appropriate foreground to the main range.

Denali—a majestic dome which from some points of view seems to present an unbroken skyline—rises to an altitude of 20,300 feet, with a mantle of snow and ice reaching down for 14,000 feet. Towering above all others, in its stupendous immensity it dominates the picture. Nearby on the west stands Mount Foraker, more than 17,000 feet in altitude, flanked on both sides by peaks of 10,000 to 13,000 feet that extend in a ragged snowy line as far as the eye can see. [6]

Sheldon began his survey for sheep at the foot of the Peters Glacier moraine. Several days there produced no results, so the party got ready to move northeasterly along the piedmont, paralleling the range. The mountain loomed directly above the Peters Glacier camp, and Sheldon could not resist it. He had found old camps left by Judge Wickersham and Doctor Cook, so he must try at least the lower reaches of the mountain. On July 27 he climbed up the spur that curved around the east side of the glacier, then zigzagged upwards through soft snow to a point several thousand feet above the plain where the walls became vertical:

. . . As the clouds lifted, leaving the vast snow-mantled mountain clear, I seated myself and gazed for more than an hour on the sublime panorama. There was not a breath of wind, and no sound except the faint murmur of the creek far below, and the cannonading and crashing roar of avalanches thundering down the mountain walls.

Great masses of ice kept constantly breaking away from far up near the summit. Starting slowly at first, they increased in momentum and size, accumulating large bodies of snow and ice, some of which during the rapidity of the descent were ground into swirling clouds resembling the spray of cataracts. When the sliding material pitched off the glacier cap and struck the bare walls below, enormous fragments of rock were dislodged and carried along with the mass, which finally fell on the dumping ground of the moraine. Then, before the clouds of snow had disappeared from the path of the avalanche, the rumbling of the echoes died away and silence was again supreme. During the four hours that I was there, nineteen avalanches fell—some of them of enormous proportions. Eleven were near by and visible throughout their descent.

Behind me reared the tremendous glacier cap in all its immensity. To my left Peters Glacier filled the deep valley between the north face of the mountain and a high adjoining range; to my right was the northeast ridge of Denali; and, as far as I could see, on both sides of me were the spired crestlines of the outside ranges.

Directly below us was the newly formed moraine of Peters Glacier, the glacier itself appearing like a huge white reptile winding along the west side. Not yet smoothed by the elements, this moraine was one confused mass of drumlins, kettle holes, eskers and kames. Many miniature lakes glistened in the depressions; patches of green grass and dwarf willows along the water courses, with flowers and lichens, added a wealth of color to its desolate surface. Along the base of the mountain was the dumping ground of the avalanches—a wild disorder of debris.

Through bisected ranges of mountains I could see the rolling piedmont plateau, filled with hundreds of bright lakes, and still beyond could look over the vast wilderness of low relief all clothed in timber, until the vision was lost in the wavy outlines of rolling country merging into the horizon. Far to the northwest Lake Minchumina, reflecting the sun, fairly shone out of the dark timber-clad area surrounding it.

Alone in an unknown wilderness hundreds of miles from civilization and high on one of the world's most imposing mountains, I was deeply moved by the stupendous mass of the great upheaval, the vast extent of the wild areas below, the chaos of the unfinished surfaces still in process of moulding, and by the crash and roar of the mighty avalanches.

The sun was low; a dark shadowy mantle was cast over the wild desolate areas below; the skyline of the great mountain burned with a golden glow; distant snowy peaks glistened white above sombre-colored slopes not touched by the light of the sun, which still bathed the wide forested region of the north. A huge avalanche ploughed the mountainside not a hundred and fifty yards to my left, while clouds of snow swept about me.

Awakening to a realization that I had been and was still in a path of danger, I slowly made the descent. [7]

Frustrated by the lack of sheep, Sheldon and his men packed up and moved on, keeping close to the range. The ridges near the lower Muldrow were also barren of sheep. So they kept on toward the Toklat River headwaters. The plateau reminded Sheldon of "a well-stocked cattle ranch in the West, except that here cattle were replaced by caribou." [8]

A painful carbuncle on Sheldon's ankle forced a 3-day halt, even with Karstens' pocket knife field surgery. Sheldon accepted this delay with equanimity, for the weather was perfect, and the layover gave him a chance to enjoy the smaller creatures:

The abundant ground squirrels amused us, marmots whistled on the moraine, Canada jays flew about, the tree sparrows and intermediate sparrows sang continually, and waxwings and northern shrikes were particularly plentiful. White-tailed ptarmigan with broods of chicks were near; the wing-beats of ravens passing overhead hissed through the air; Arctic terns flew gracefully over the meadows; and the golden eagles soared above the ridges. Old bear diggings were everywhere, but no large animal was seen except a big bull caribou which Haydon saw on the moraine. Our numerous traps failed to capture any mice, nor did we see any sign of these small mammals, always so interesting to the faunal naturalist. [9]

Finally, on August 5, with walking staff in hand, Sheldon and the others made their move for the Toklat headwaters. A nearby sheep trail and a white object in the distance cheered Sheldon, despite the pain of his affliction:

Sheep at last! I thought. But the field glasses revealed a grizzly bear walking along smelling the ground for squirrels or pawing a moment for a mouse. Under the bright sun its body color appeared to be pure white, its legs brown. It seemed utterly indifferent to the eagle, which again and again darted at it. Continuing, it often broke into a short run, pausing at times and throwing up its head to sniff the air—always searching for food. [10]

At last, at camp that night, Sheldon "looked toward the top of a mountain directly ahead and on a grassy space just below the summit saw twelve sheep, which the glasses showed to be ewes and lambs. This was my first sight of sheep in the Alaska Range; how elated I felt." [11]

Finding timber at the main forks of the Toklat, under the rise of Divide Mountain, the expedition set up its main camp. For 10 days Sheldon roamed the nearby crags finding sheep in numbers "more abundant than I had ever imagined." Groups of 60 or 70 ewes and lambs were not unusual. But even here, Sheldon's objects—to study the life history of these sheep and to collect representative specimens—could not be fulfilled, for not a ram did he find on the Toklat

On August 16, with Sheldon's time running short for return to the Yukon and steamboat passage out, Sheldon and Haydon packed one horse and rode east toward the mountains of the Teklanika drainage. On that day of transit, with sheep on every mountain, Sheldon estimated that he saw at least 800 sheep, more likely 1,000. Excepting a band of young rams on the Toklat-Teklanika divide, they were all ewes and lambs. Disgusted, Sheldon sent Haydon back with the horses and, alone, made camp near Sable Pass.

Next day, on the north end of Cathedral Mountain, which he named as he scanned it, Sheldon saw a group of sheep high up. Getting closer and using the glasses, he saw that they were rams. Closer yet he could distinguish their big horns—these were old rams, nine of them with "strikingly big horns." Despite the day's long hike Sheldon instantly began the stalk, crawling across the flats visible to the sheep, crossing swollen glacial streams, and finally getting into the cover of the mountain flanks where he could climb rapidly. A squall of wind and rain heightened his sense of wild excitement in the magnificent mountain panorama. Low clouds made the crestlines seem suspended over a broken horizon.

The final hour and a half of the stalk required all of his patience, skill, and strategy—inching along when in view, moving only when the rams had their heads down feeding or were turned away, absolutely silent during his progress on knees and elbows over rough, loose rock. Finally he reached the brink of the canyon beyond which the rams were feeding. The rain had become a drizzle, but the strong wind still favored him:

Finding a slight depression at the edge I crept into it and lay on my back. Then slowly revolving to a position with my feet forward, I waited a few moments to steady my nerves. My two-hundred-yard sight had been pushed up, and watching my opportunity, I slowly rose to a sitting position, elbows on knees. Not a ram had seen or suspected me. I carefully aimed at a ram standing broadside near the edge of the canyon, realizing that the success of my long arduous trip would be determined the next moment. I pulled the trigger and as the shot echoed from the rocky walls, the ram fell and tried to rise, but could not. His back was broken. The others sprang into alert attitudes and looked in all directions. I fired at another standing on the brink, apparently looking directly at me. At the shot, he fell and rolled into the canyon. Then a ram with big massive wrinkled horns dashed out from the band and, heading in my direction, ran down into the canyon. The others immediately followed, but one paused at the brink and, as I fired, dropped and rolled below. Another turned and was running upward as I fired and missed him.

For a moment, after I had put a fresh clip of cartridges in the rifle and pushed down the sight, all was silence. I remained motionless. Then came a slight sound of falling rocks and the big ram appeared, rushing directly toward me—coming so fast that he crossed the slope to the brink of the canyon before I could get a bead on him. He dashed down the steep opposite side and came running up only twenty feet away, when I fired. He kept on, but fell at the edge of the canyon behind me. Two other big rams were following, but when I fired at him, they separated. One ran up the canyon and as he paused a moment, I killed him in his tracks. The other had gone below but at the sound of the shot, started back. When he reached the top I fired and he rolled down near the bottom. A smaller one ran up the slope near by, but I paid no attention to him.

Then another appeared on the edge of the canyon, where the first two had been shot. He had returned from the bottom of the canyon and seemed confused as to which way to run. Since his horns were large, I pushed up the two-hundred-yard sight, and brought him down. Another then came running out of the canyon directly toward me, and turned up the slope. As his horns were not very large, I let him go. The remaining three rams must have ascended through the bottom of the canyon for they were not seen again.

Seven fine rams had been killed with eight shots—and by one who is an indifferent marksman! My trip had quickly turned from disappointment to success. [12]

After dispatching the wounded animals Sheldon descended the mountain in darkness and reached camp about midnight. He made soup and tea and sat by the fire to dry his clothes—wet since the morning's first stream ford. Then he worked on his journal notes to record "the success of that memorable day." Now followed several days of intensive labor by Sheldon, still alone: butchering the sheep and hauling meat, skins, and skulls down the mountain; treating skins and skulls for specimen preservation; noting stomach contents, physical condition, and measurements. On the third night after the hunt, Karstens appeared with the horses, and next day the lot was hauled to the main camp. Sheldon's main work of the summer was done. He had tracked the Dall sheep in their Denali haunts and gathered specimens that could be analyzed by scientists and mounted for display in the American Museum of Natural History.

A flight of cranes winging south brought mixed emotions. Their urgency sparked his own not to miss the last steamboat before freezeup. At the same time, he knew that he had just begun to understand the Dall sheep and the larger world of the Denali region. Karstens had become a real companion—not only was he a master of all practical matters of camp life and travel in the wilderness, but also "brimful of good nature" and agreeably interested and helpful in the work that Sheldon was doing. [13] It would be hard to leave this life of freedom in a place that so fully requited Sheldon's spiritual, intellectual, and physical ideals.

But he would come back. The weeks of frustrating search for the big rams had become a symbol of all he did not know.

I realized that the life history [of the white sheep] could not be learned without a much longer stay among them and determined to return and devote a year to their study. With this in view I planned to revisit the region, build a substantial cabin just below my old camp on the Toklat, and remain there through the winter, summer, and early fall. [14]

The return trip through the nearly deserted camps of the Kantishna and down that river and the Tanana got him back to the Yukon in time. The Dawson-bound steamer Lavelle Young. crowded to bursting in that last-chance-out season, picked him up at Tanana Station, a cluster of saloons, gambling houses, and trading company warehouses, with an Indian village on one end and the Army's Fort Gibbon on the other. From Dawson another steamboat took him to Whitehorse, where he boarded the White Pass train to Skagway, whence he departed by ocean steamer on October 22.

Sheldon's year in residence in the lee of Denali, from about August 1, 1907, to June 11, 1908, [15] allowed systematic, season-by-season observation of the wildlife whose mysteries he had started to plumb the previous summer. From the home cabin that he and Karstens built at timberline on Toklat River, Sheldon ventured forth in good weather and bad. On long trips, say to the Teklanika Mountains, he and Karstens would set up camp and Sheldon, alone or sometimes with Karstens as hiking companion, would tramp the country noting the distribution and movements of the animals. He aimed to get a definitive picture of the life history of Dall sheep. During that pursuit he also gathered facts on other species, with a particular interest in the ever-shifting caribou, whose abundance in a given place one day and total absence the next intrigued him. In time he began to discern patterns that linked their seemingly random movements. He noted, too, the predictability of the sheep, whose pastures, changing with the seasons, largely defined his own rounds. Birds, bears, moose, foxes, and the multitudes of small creatures, including many species of field mice and voles, caught his attention, and their habits were noted as he tracked the sheep. The rutting behavior of caribou and sheep he described. Predation and flight, the antics of animals at play—all these he recorded.

For a man like Sheldon each season was another act in Nature's drama, each valley or ridge a setting, each event a scene. Winter landscapes, appearing to casual observation dim and lifeless, spoke strongly to Sheldon of life, of infinite adaptations by the many creatures that survived and found sustenance there despite deep cold and darkness only faintly relieved by a horizon-hovering sun. And then, of course, came spring: light, renewal, return of migrant birds, flowing waters, greening of plants, and then the short summer's surge to start the new generations.

book cover

The Wilderness of Denali—essentially Sheldon's field notes edited by Nelson and Merriam after his death [16]—captures the endless fascination of this naturalist's Shangri La. In short, Sheldon fell in love with this country. The rush to accomplish too much that previous summer was replaced by a deliberate and contemplative energy. During this year he had time for people, and he became fast friends with Joe and Fanny Quigley. He got to know Tom Lloyd and his partners—Karstens' old comrades, the future Sourdough climbers—sharing with them his understanding of the mountain's topography. He met some market hunters, men he understood, but whose work worried him.

As Sheldon roamed the Denali wilderness another purpose—beyond the life history of the sheep—began to take form. He later confided to Madison Grant, fellow Boone and Crockett Club member and historian of the Mount McKinley Park movement, that it was the club's interest in establishing game refuges, particularly in Alaska, ". . . which inspired in him the thought of preserving this area after personally studying the situation in that land." [17]

As long-term chairman of the club's Game Conservation Committee, Sheldon would help lead the club's evolution from the original ideal of a comradeship of riflemen and hunters toward a far-reaching ethic of conservation. This transformation matched the Nation's evolution from frontier to almost old-world conditions. [18] In Alaska, even then the Nation's last frontier, the Boone and Crockett Club, under Sheldon's leadership, would focus its new concerns on the establishment of a park-refuge that would preserve Denali's wildlife.

Except for the nascent idea, the park movement was still in the future when Karstens and Sheldon shared camp together. They did talk about market hunting: its potential impact as the surrounding country developed, and the waste entailed by the hunters feeding their dogs half or more of the meat taken before it could be delivered to the mining camps or Fairbanks.

As they roamed the country the idea of a park-refuge found embodiment in the landscapes occupied by the wandering animals. In a letter written on July 25, 1918, Karstens recalled his work with Sheldon beginning in 1906:

He was continually talking of the beauties of the country and of the variety of the game and wouldn't it make an ideal park and game preserve. . . . He came in the following July hunting for the Biological Survey and stayed a year, during that time . . . we had located the limits of the caribou run. We would talk over the possible boundaries of a park and preserve which we laid out practically the same as the present park boundaries. [19]

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Last Updated: 04-Jan-2004