Photograph by Ken Geiger
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Brooks Glacier, Denali National Park
Photograph by Ken Geiger

Denali Is in Alaska, Right?

This post was originally published in July 2014. We’re resurfacing it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday effort to give some love to our favorite posts.—The Proof Team

Editor’s Note: On Monday, August 31, President Obama announced that Mount McKinley would be renamed Denali, the name historically used by native Alaskans.

Ever wonder how a National Geographic magazine story starts? It’s fairly simple. The director of photography walks into your office and tells you the editor of the magazine wants to do a wolf story in Denali National park. “Would you like to do the story?” she asks. “Sure!” I say, at the same time thinking to myself, “Denali is in Alaska … right?”

No sooner than I’ve agreed does the six-million-acre immensity of the project become crystal clear. After countless hours of research, meetings with the National Park Service here in D.C., and phone calls to photographers who have worked in the park, I come to the realization that the one and only 92-mile road into and out of the park is going to be a major problem. Ask any photographer who has ever worked there and the answer is the same: “It’s the most difficult park in the country to photograph, because there is little—or no—access to the wilderness area.” On top of that add the record-low spring wolf count: 49 animals, the lowest count of wolves since 1939, when the park began keeping records.

After amassing the list of seemingly endless photographic challenges for this shoot, my favorite part of the process begins: finding the right photographer. I know I need someone with the skill set to climb Mount McKinley and someone who can, at the same time, make stunning landscape images. I need someone with the patience of Job and someone who can survive through days of pouring rain on a glacier with no cover other than a tent. And when the rain stops, someone who still has the energy to make exciting images of grizzly bears, Dall sheep, and moose—not to mention the declining wolf population.

Oh, and one more thing: That person needs to have the not so common ability to make immediate connections and relationships with the local people that depend on, live in, and know well that wilderness surrounding the park—the people who choose to live in the Alaskan wilderness because they like to be alone, who are not interested in being bothered by a National Geographic photographer. And lest I forget, the story is seasonal, meaning it will take an entire calendar year to shoot, so any personal plans my intended photographer has will surely be hijacked by calving caribou and blooming wildflowers.

Enter Aaron Huey, one of the few photographers with the skill set to succeed at making this magazine story a success for our 2015 series celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the national parks. As Aaron climbs, hikes, sleds, flies, and explores one of our nation’s most beautiful parks, he will be posting images on the @natgeo Instagram account. Good luck, Aaron. It always starts off simple enough!

Read more about Denali National Park in the February 2016 feature story “How Can 6 Million Acres at Denali Still Not Be Enough?“

Aaron Huey is an active member of the climbing community—earlier in May he helped raise funds to support the Sherpa families affected by the devastating Everest avalanche that occurred on April 18. Follow him on his website and on Instagram.

Follow Ken Geiger on his website, Instagram, and Twitter.