CHARLES SHELDON AND THE MOUNT MCKINLEY PARK MOVEMENT
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. 
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. 
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 forgotno 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):
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. 
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. 
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 sawgame 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."
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:
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." 
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:
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:
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." 
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 objectsto study the life history of these sheep and to collect representative specimenscould 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 hornsthese 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 strategyinching 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:
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 clotheswet 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 companionnot 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.  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.
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,  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 playall 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.
The Wilderness of Denaliessentially Sheldon's field notes edited by Nelson and Merriam after his death 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 partnersKarstens' old comrades, the future Sourdough climberssharing 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 purposebeyond the life history of the sheepbegan 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." 
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.  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:
Last Updated: 04-Jan-2004