A picture from Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, where Skagway resident Mike Tranel will be taking over as park superintendent. PHOTO BY JONATHAN WELDE/NPS
By DAN FOX
Seven-year Skagway resident Mike Tranel will be leaving his position as superintendent for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in late May.
Tranel, who has spent 25 years of his 33-year career working for Alaskan parks, is moving to a superintendent role for the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and group superintendent position for the eastern Montana-Wyoming Group of parks – a move that will take him back near where he was raised.
“I grew up in Wyoming and Montana, so the area where we’re going, that’s where I grew up, but I’ve actually lived in Alaska longer than anywhere,” Tranel said. “Twenty-five years, and we consider Alaska home.”
National Park Service (NPS) Intermountain Region Director Sue Masica, who named Tranel to his new appointment, was the Alaska Regional Director for the NPS when Tranel was hired for the Skagway superintendent position; Tranel said his verbal agreement with Masica was that he’d spend at least two years in the position, with the expectation that after two or three years he’d move on.
“The reason I’m still here is just because we liked it [Skagway] so much,” Tranel said.
Starting in the western United States, Tranel’s career took him down a path winding around the country before he arrived in Skagway. He attended undergraduate school at University of Notre Dame and attended University of Iowa for his master’s degree, and worked several summers in Yellowstone National Park for a concessioner, where he saw the park rangers in action.
“I realized that you can’t just get a job in Yellowstone right out of school, because it’s extremely competitive to get in,” Tranel said. “But I was interested enough in history that I was like, well if I end up in some little historic site somewhere, that’s fine.”
It took “lots of applications” and a full year for Tranel to land a job with the NPS. That position took to him to Georgia and south Mississippi, which presented a bit of culture shock for the Montana/Wyoming-bred Tranel.
“But I had a fun job down there, I did law enforcement and drove around in a boat all the time in the barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi,” Tranel said. After a stint in Utah, Tranel moved on to Denali National Park & Preserve in 1993, where he worked a number of different jobs for a period of fifteen years.
“I started out as an environmental specialist, and then worked up to chief of planning,” Tranel said. The time he spent at Denali was an immersive crash-course into Alaska; Tranel did a lot of field work, which took him into the backcountry throughout Denali National Park.
“It’s six million acres, it’s the size of Vermont, and so there’s a lot of country to see,” Tranel said. “You need to have advanced-level backcountry skills to be out in those places.”
Following his time in Denali and a three-year stint in Washington D.C. working for the Alaska Regional Director, Tranel came to Skagway in the spring of 2011.
“That was a homecoming, that was just wonderful to come back in the spring and it’s the beautiful, sunny Southeast Alaska,” Tranel said.
Tranel’s two younger daughters Abigail and Olivia Tidlow-Tranel were both born in Anchorage, but were very young still when he left his position at Denali. Coming to Skagway and back to the Last Frontier was a welcome return for his kids and wife, Mary Tidlow.
“Mary loves Alaska, and it’s hard for her to leave here too,” Tranel said.
“And the girls, they’ve always been outdoorsy, even in D.C.,” he added. “We took them to the parks, and hiked and they ran up and down the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial and stuff like that.”
Tranel said he had an “idyllic” childhood growing up on a ranch in Big Horn Wyoming, adding he’s found that “in Skagway, that’s still possible.”
“Being able to give that to my daughters is probably the primary reason for staying here as long as we did,” Tranel said.
Under his tenure, Tranel has overseen several projects completed for the Klondike Gold Rush Park, such as the locally-designed “Ton of Goods” bronze stampeder sculpture on Broadway, or getting all-new exhibits for the park’s museum. The most gratifying achievement, however, was helping to cultivate a happy and productive workplace, according to Tranel.
The park has scored the highest with its employee viewpoint surveys of any national park in Alaska for five years straight, according to Tranel, in every category except workload.
“Having this be the best place to work of anywhere in the National Parks Service in the Alaska region is the thing that I’m proudest of,” Tranel said.
“The teamwork, the esprit de corps, people have a lot of pride in their work, and they take care of each other, they help each other out.”
The job hasn’t been absent from challenges, however, and the uncertainty of the federal budget is one of them. The idea of government shutdowns at the nation-wide level makes preparation and planning tricky.
“We don’t even know right now,” Tranel said. “Today, we’re funded until March 23…so how do I plan for the summer?”
Working through occasional misunderstandings and misconceptions between citizens and the park has been another obstacle to overcome.
“I’ve always really encouraged the community and the borough government to take advantage of the fact that there’s a national park here,” Tranel said. “It’s Alaska’s most-visited national park, and that can be a great marketing tool for the community.”
Seven year’s work makes Tranel the superintendent with the second-longest tenure at the Klondike Gold Rush park, putting him only behind former park Superintendent Clay Alderson.
Karl Gurke, historian for the Klondike Gold Rush park, has worked in Skagway since 1984 and said he’s seen his share of superintendents come and go.
“I’ve gone through seven superintendents, and certainly Mike has been one of the best, I would say,” Gurke said. “He’s relatively open, certainly approachable, willing to talk, and you feel like he’s actually listening to what you’ve said, what you’re saying.”
To fill Tranel’s position in Skagway, an acting superintendent will first be appointed for the impending summer season.
Tranel said he’ll be involved in selecting the acting superintendent, and that the hope is to have a permanent superintendent by sometime in the fall of 2018.
Tranel plugged the Skagway School as one of the things he’s going to miss about the town.
“The school is outstanding, and the elementary teachers the girls have had are wonderful,” Tranel said. “The girls will always remember them, we’ll always remember them. We’ll miss that environment, I don’t think you’re going to improve on that educational environment no matter where you go.”
As to some of his fondest memories from the last seven years, Tranel pointed to a defining trait of Skagway: the Chilkoot Trail. He’s hiked the Chilkoot nine times, and said he “should do it once more to have an even 10.”
“Hiking that with my family, I did it with my older daughter Kelsey who’s from Anchorage,” Tranel said. “And then hiking it with Mary and Abigail and Olivia. The Chilkoot trail is just an awesome, iconic experience, and a family hike on the Chilkoot Trail is a wonderful experience.”