Airborne Over AK

Pilot Dan Shelden Finds His Place in America’s Wildest Refuge

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Dan Shelden, pilot for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS)

Dan Shelden grew up In New Jersey — with 1,206 people per square mile, the most densely populated state in the union. He ended up in Alaska on the opposite end of the spectrum with 1.2 people per square mile. His journey between these two extremes was inspired by the summers he spent in Colorado and Montana as a boy, working on relatives’ farms and ranches. After a few seasons spent trout fishing in the Rockies, he was disinclined to return to the urban environs of the East Coast. The wide open spaces beckoned. And at 19, he responded.

The year was 1989, and Dan made it as far as Valdez. But his fishing career was tragically terminated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in March, and he spent the entire spring and summer washing and caring for oiled seabirds, sea otters and other wildlife.

By this point Dan was determined to stay in Alaska. He landed a job the following summer as a fishing guide in a remote lodge on the Iliana River; he loved both the work and the venue.

Golden Horn Lodge — and 1.6 million acre Wood-Tikchik State Park ­­– was Dan’s home for the following eleven years. For a dedicated angler and wilderness enthusiast, it was close to heaven on earth. Every freshwater fish species found in Alaska — including all five species of Pacific salmon — plied the waters accessible from the lodge, and the scenery was incomparable. But there was one downside. Remote lodges in Alaska are truly remote. Golden Horn Lodge was roughly 60 air miles from Dillingham, and aircraft were the standard means of conveyance during the four-month fishing season. But the winter was another matter.

A pilot friend who worked at the lodge during the summers was a certified flight instructor, and he told Dan he would teach him to fly if he bought a plane, which Dan did: a Taylorcraft F-19, one of the aviation workhorses of the Alaska wilderness.

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Dan in flight (Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS)

But Dan was determined to master his Taylorcraft. He found an instructor in Anchorage who was willing to teach him at an accelerated pace the following winter. His subsequent training, however, wasn’t without some untoward incidents. At one point, his instructor landed hot at Port Alsworth, almost careening off the end of the runway and into Lake Clark. And on his first solo flight, Dan was cleared for a deviation over Elmendorf Air Force Base — a standard practice for planes with small engines such as the Taylorcraft, given their difficulty in reaching safe altitudes prior to crossing the Knik River.

Dan had planned to fly for an hour, but he returned after a few steep turns to face the music.

Within a month Dan passed his written and practical tests and had his private pilot license. Then he headed back to Golden Horn Lodge.

That unexpectedly long and physically uncomfortable flight did nothing to quash Dan’s enthusiasm for aviation, however. He took every opportunity to fly in any and all circumstances, both for business and pleasure. After the fishing season ended, he worked — and flew ­ — as a hunting guide through the fall and early spring. Four years later, in 2001, he secured his instrument rating and got his commercial license. In the ensuing years, he flew schedules and charters from Dillingham, King salmon, Bethel, Iliamna, Bettles, Fairbanks and Kodiak for a variety of companies, lodges, private parties and agencies — including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Dan Shelden in the Sheenjek River Valley of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with Steve Berendzen, Refuge Manager (Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS)
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Then in 2016, Dan accepted a permanent position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a pilot tasked with flying in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Pilots often develop a sense of the world that is both more expansive and ordered than those of us shackled to the earth. Distances that seem ineffably vast from the ground tend to become more comprehensible, more easily understood, from altitude. But even by those standards the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is so extensive that being airborne only expands a seemingly boundless horizon.

sinuous rivers in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
sinuous rivers in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Flying into the Sheenjek River Valley, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS)

When did you join the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

In 2016 I began working full time. I started flying charters for the Service in 2005.

What do you think people would find most surprising about your job?

If I can do it, anyone can.

What inspires you most about Alaska?

The presence of God — that He made this amazing and beautiful place for us to enjoy.

What is your foremost concern about Alaska’s wildlife resources?

Basically, selfishness. People tend to see the small picture, they tend to just focus on their desires. They don’t consider the big picture — what we need to do to save what we have.

When I’m not at work, I’m…

Enjoying time with special people, places and God.

What’s the greatest misconception people have about Alaska?

That it’s so vast that we can’t possibly hurt it. But I see evidence of our profound impact every time I fly.

What’s a particularly treasured memory of Alaska or your job?

Being alone in the wilderness. The silence and the solitude — the consciousness that it’s all up to you. This place is so much bigger and more powerful than you are. There’s simply nothing like being alone in Alaska’s wildest places.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

It can be a good fit for some people, but it’s not for everyone. If you do find it a good fit, it can be a rewarding and enjoyable opportunity to combine personal interests and professional pursuits.

What animal most inspires you?

For a very long time I was drawn to wolves. They’re very impressive animals. They’re personable, with a lot of character. But after spending quite a bit of time with nearly every animal species in Alaska, I’d have to say wolverines. People constantly talk about how ferocious they are, but they’re not under most circumstances. They’re extremely clever, very intelligent, they’re social and playful and fantastically capable in their ability to survive.

Interview by Glen Martin, freelance writer/former San Francisco Chronicle environmental reporter.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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