DENALI PARK, Alaska — The next time Claire Curtis enters the Denali Visitor Center, it will be strange. She will be a visitor, not the person in charge.
The 58-year-old Curtis has retired from the National Park Service, after 30 years working at Denali National Park, most recently in charge of visitor services.
She and her husband, Ken, are headed to Moab, Utah, for warmer weather adventures.
“We wouldn’t trade what we have done here, and all the adventure and excitement for anything,” she said. “We are just ready to start another chapter of the same adventure in a different environment.”
Curtis is practically a pioneer employee at Denali National Park. She watched park staff and services grow and never lost her dedication to this special place.
“There are bigger, brighter and younger brains that can take what we have built and take it forward,” she said. “My ideas are running out. I’m beginning to stagnate doing the same thing over and over again.
“I’m not into the tech world, like they are. I can certainly support them in that, which I love to do, but we need new energy.”
Curtis came to Alaska from Colorado in 1982. She and her husband were high school sweethearts who shared an interest in coming to the Far North.
Ken Curtis worked at Rocky Mountain National Park and Claire worked at Breckenridge after numerous seasons with the U.S. Forest Service. They applied to Denali National Park and were hired.
Ken became a ranger at Wonder Lake and Claire was an entry level employee working at the Savage check station, dubbed the “Savage Box.” In 1982, it was at Savage Campground.
Surprisingly, the Curtises almost didn’t even make it here.
In those days the road to Denali National Park was not marked. It was merely a side road off the Parks Highway. The turnoff was easy to miss.
“We were due here the first of May,” Curtis said. “It was later in the evening, we came from Fairbanks and we ended up in Broad Pass. We never saw a sign that said, ‘This is the park.’”
“Ken said if he had enough money, we would turn around and go back to Colorado. Instead, we stayed at the pullout at Mile 197, sleeping under our camper shell.
“The mountain was out in all its glory. So in the morning, we said, Let’s go find the park entrance.”
This time, they found it.
“It was better marked from that direction,” she said.
Her career began in the Savage Box where she kept trip logs and waved to visitors on buses. In those days, the person at the Savage Box never talked to visitors, not wanting to interrupt the interpretive tour already under way.
She acquired law enforcement training and began working patrol on her days off. She became a law enforcement ranger full time through 1986.
That was when the park instituted an entrance fee and began to develop visitor services.
Curtis found herself in visitor services, overseeing the Savage Check Station, dispatch and the reception desks at headquarters and the campgrounds office. Meanwhile, Sandy Kogl took over everything having to do with the backcountry, including the kennels.
The park continued to grow and so did Curtis’ responsibilities.
“Interpretation and visitor services and backcountry were really pulled in to offer advice,” she said. “What are people looking for? Simple creature comforts.”
The concept turned out to be ideal, she said.
The new plan, which included building the new visitor center and adjacent campus, allowed visitors to experience Denali, with all the creature comforts close at hand, in the first 15 miles of the park. The wilderness could be accessed quickly and easily from there.
“I feel like we’ve gotten there,” she said. “I feel we don’t need any more. We provide a good facility to get bus tickets, campgrounds, nice convenience store with laundry for backpackers and other travelers, and a world class visitor center.”
She praised a park-school building trades partnership that had students build cabins for park service employees.
“I lucked out and got into one of the new cabins,” she said. “Those cabins are just amazing and they make a real difference for staff.”
Curtis has a reputation for looking out for her employees and making sure they have the resources to do their jobs efficiently.
She has passed up opportunities for other administrative positions.
“I never wanted to leave being with staff,” she said. “They are what makes the park run.”
A couple years after arriving, she and her husband moved into the community, along the Parks Highway, south of the park entrance.
“As we sell the house now, I talk about it before power and after power,” she said. Power came to the area in 1995.
“It’s hard for people to understand, in that era, there were a lot of us without power,” she said.
In those days, McKinley Community Center was powered by a generator so everyone came together for movie nights. This was before the days of VCRs or DVD players.
“We did a lot more visiting as well,” she said. “There were more potlucks, more dinners, more sitting around talking. But we always had a finite time because everyone had to get back to the house to stoke the fire.”
Curtis said she decided she wanted to leave on a high note and that note is sounding now.
“Ken thinks I should have retired five years ago, but I think it’s just right now,” she said. “We have all sorts of ideas and energy and good health, to do things we’ve always talked about doing.”
Whenever Curtis led training for new staff, she walked them into the Denali Visitor Center and asked them to quietly just look and feel the place.
One of those new employees told her, “I could feel your pride and how you felt about the park. That gave to me a sense of the place and where my responsibility lay.”
“I didn’t know I was doing that,” Curtis said. “But that’s what I felt.
“I will truly miss the freedom and the sanctuary that the park provides. No where else that I will possibly ever visit gives me that sense of complete restfulness.”
She wonders if she’ll find that same peace in a little canyon or along a river near Moab.
She can’t wait to find out.