Airborne Over AK

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

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.

“I was running a landscape construction crew of 21 guys, and I was offered a job fishing the herring season in Cordova,” says Dan, “and I just decided Alaska sounded cooler than New Jersey. So I put my dog in my truck and I drove up here.”

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.

“Then the veterinarian in charge of the program invited me to Anchorage to rehabilitate oiled wildlife over the winter,” Dan says. “I ended up supervising a group of volunteers, and we cared for 40 eagles and about 1,000 other wild birds. I also helped out at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage. ”

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.

“I’d fished constantly as a kid, and I really didn’t feel like leaving Alaska,” Dan says, “but my job on the Iliana was seasonal, and I needed something full time. So I put an ad in the newspaper offering to be a lodge caretaker over the winter. I got more offers than I could’ve imagined, and I took the best of them — the Golden Horn Lodge on Michalk Lake in Wood- Tikchik State Park.”

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.

“We had access to three lodge-owned de Havilland Beavers during the fishing season, but for several months each year transport in and out was by snow machine, and it was 100 miles by trail to Aleknagik, and then another 20 plus miles to Dillingham,” Dan recalls, “so during the off-season it was difficult getting groceries, mail — and company. At a certain point the snow machine trips were getting a little much and I realized my truck had been parked and unused for years. It dawned on me that I needed to learn how to fly.”

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.

Dan in flight (Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS)

“It had floats, skis and wheels, so it could pretty much accommodate anything,” Dan says. “Unfortunately, my friend left for a new position shortly after I bought it, so I only got a few hours of instruction from him.”

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.

“The international controllers often stayed with me to the practice area rather than handing me off to the air force controllers,” recalls Dan, “but this time the Air Force didn’t get the memo. Suddenly, one fighter jet passed high and left while another passed low and right, so close that my airplane went inverted and shook so violently I thought the wings might come off. I went on to the practice area with a strong admonition from the Elmendorf controller to come have a talk after I landed.”

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

“Thankfully, everyone had listened to the recorded tapes by the time I’d landed and told me I wasn’t at fault,” Dan says. “I was even invited for a drink to discuss my first combat mission.”

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

“Spring was coming and I didn’t want to have the lake ice go out on me, so I felt I had to hurry back,” Dan recalls, “and there was more of a headwind than I anticipated. I should’ve been back at the lodge in four hours, but it took me eight. But what I remember most about that flight wasn’t landing in the dark without a runway and very short on gas — it was the realization that I had drunk too much coffee. As usual.”

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.

“At one point I went back to the Lower 48 with my then wife to have our child, and we ended up staying for one-and-a-half years,” says Dan, “but we missed Alaska terribly. So we came back and I got a job flying Beavers for Brooks Range Aviation, caretaking lodges, flying for air services in Kodiak. But I got tired of moving around two or three times a year, so I took a job as the northern hub pilot in Kotzebue, with my hours split between Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service.”

Dan Shelden in the Sheenjek River Valley of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with Steve Berendzen, Refuge Manager (Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS)

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.

“My job is essentially to fly whoever and whatever needs to be flown in and around the refuge,” he observes. “Though I fly for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I’m available to anyone from Department of the Interior agencies who has work to do on federal lands. I might be flying people involved in moose or Dall sheep studies one day, fish, archeology, bird, geology, hydrology, or caribou surveys the next, and law enforcement agents checking up on hunters or investigating poaching incidents the day after that. I’ve been involved with lynx, wolf, moose, bear, sheep and bird telemetry projects, and I’ve flown VIPs into the wilderness to experience what they are fighting for. Interacting with so many people has been fascinating and incredibly instructive — I’ve learned a lot through osmosis.”

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.

“Certain routes that I fly on the refuge are deeply familiar,” says Dan “but there’s so much country up there that most of it still feels unknown, still feels new. It can be difficult, for example, to not become lost in the eastern Brooks Range — in a good way. There are so many places there that have never been visited by human beings. And when I go to those places, when I walk around them, it’s thrilling. That feeling of smallness, of being in the most remote reaches of North America, is the best feeling I’ve ever had.”

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