National Park Ranger Talks Wildlife and History

Jay Katzen ’58 shows a wolf pelt to visitors on a nature walk in Alaska’s Denali National Park.
Jay Katzen ’58 shows a wolf pelt to visitors on a nature walk in Alaska’s Denali National Park.
Paddy Katzen

Résumé: Interpretive ranger at Alaska’s Denali National Park. Former Peace Corps chief of staff. Four-term representative to Virginia’s House of Delegates. Foreign Service officer for 23 years. Majored in politics.

Teaching about nature At an age when other people would retire, Jay Katzen ’58 is stepping it up. Three years ago, at 74, he began a career as a National Park Service interpretive ranger in Denali National Park. A year-round resident of Talkeetna — a community of about 300 people roughly a three-hour drive north of Anchorage — Katzen works from April to November, giving twice-daily talks to visitors on everything from wolves and moose to rocks and the history of the park. He takes visitors to one of Talkeetna’s three rivers to talk about fish, and assists climbers who scale Mount McKinley.

Creative interpretation On the job, Katzen dons a plaid shirt, suspenders, and a wool hat when he “takes on the personage” of gold miner William Shawcross, a character he created. In a poem he wrote and delivers, Katzen — as Shawcross — re-creates the hard life of prospectors who migrated to Alaska after gold was discovered along the Klondike River in 1896.

Saving the best for last Katzen’s latest endeavor is one in a string of life adventures. His work in the Foreign Service included posts in Burundi and communist Romania. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Katzen volunteered in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) with the nonprofit Operation Blessing, which aided refugees. After a stint with the Peace Corps, he traveled for a year — at one point fighting forest fires in Australia. Katzen says he has “saved the best for last. We’re introducing people to things they have not been exposed to in hopes they’ll bring home some of what we talk about here: respect for the wilderness, kindness to animals, maybe volunteering at a local park.”