Exploring America’s National Parks for a Living

Shooting video in the Alaskan wilderness – Photo: Daniel Kemp

Exploring America’s protected wildlands is both a dream job and a challenge.

Just ask my fellow crew members on ABC’s Rock the Park, produced by Tremendous Entertainment in Minneapolis.

We’ve been lucky enough to visit secret waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest, tromp through giant cave formations in New Mexico, traverse remote Alaskan glaciers, and explore abandoned gold mines in Nevada and California.

Rock the Park airs Saturday mornings on ABC, and is part of Litton’s Weekend Adventure block. The show’s format is travel/adventure. The audience is all ages, with a particular focus on families and kids.

Our hosts, Jack Steward and Colton Smith, have made it a goal to travel to every national park in America to document their adventures. Lately, the show’s focus has expanded to include national wildlife refuges, national forests, and international locations too. The duo has a unique bond, having spent years exploring national parks since they were kids.

During my tenure on the show, our crew has visited some of the most remote national parks in the country, including the stunning Denali National Park and remote Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, both in Alaska.

“Rock the Park” hosts Jack Steward and Colton Smith prepare ice crampons in the rain during a glacier trekking segment near Kennicott, AK – Photo: Matt Standal

Denali Crop3

North America’s highpoint, 20,310′ Denali (Mt. McKinley), as seen during our trip in 2016 – Photo: Matt Standal

Colton checks out Denali after mountain biking part of the park road at 10:30 p.m. – Photo: Matt Standal

The guys drive their trusty Subaru Outback along the Denali National Park road. A special film permit allowed us to drive in private vehicles, which is normally only granted via a lottery system  – Photo: Matt Standal

Hiking on the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias Park in July – Photo: Matt Standal

A glittering pool reflects deep blue light during our walk on the Root Glacier – Photo: Matt Standal

Camera operator Tommy Steward leans over a 200′ glacial moulin to capture video of ice climbing – Photo: Matt Standal

Jack and Colton practice ice climbing skills on the Root Glacier – Photo: Matt Standal

During the 2016 filming season, we also visited parks in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington D.C., and Virginia.

Each adventure typically last about two weeks, and includes journeys within two or three national parks or national forests, depending on park size and location.

For example, during the crew’s 2016 trip to Alaska, we learned just how amazingly huge the terrain here is. Our travel days between Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks, included several 12-hour drives through the remote Alaska wilderness in one gigantic cargo van loaded to the top with film equipment.

The biggest initial challenge was having everything on hand in order to film, and that meant packing our rig so the most important gear was accessible first, a.k.a on top of the pile.

Media manager Daniel Kemp approves of my packing system – Photo: Matt Standal

The crew preps camping and film gear before backpacking into Denali National Park – Photo: Matt Standal

Conducting an interview at Kantishna Lodge, just outside of Denal National Park – Photo: Matt Standal

It was on this journey that we experienced the unique lodge life in communities like Kantishna and Nabesna, both tiny outposts in the Alaskan bush.

Imagine a weathered cluster of cabins – some with plumbing, some without – standing on a mossy hillside in the extreme Alaskan elements.
Add a few outhouses, an airstrip for bush planes, plus the most rugged people you can imagine, and you’ll understand what I’m referring to.

The first time I ate moose lasagna was at Devil’s Mountain Lodge in Nabesna, AK. The next night we ate moose stew. I soon detected a culinary trend.

Bush pilot Kirk Ellis owns and operates the remote lodge. His wife Ginny cooks the food. The couple is second-generation Alaskan. They’ve raised four children just outside the northernmost border of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The closest paved road is 40 miles away.

My lodge room overflows with film equipment and beer – Photo: Matt Standal

Devil’s Mountain Lodge with rain clouds building in the background – Photo: Matt Standal

The lodge airstrip is little more than a mowed field with a fuel reservoir – Photo: Matt Standal

Lodge owner and pilot Kirk Ellis flies “Hulk” over the Alaskan backcountry – Photo: Matt Standal

The tundra meadows of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as seen from “Hulk” – Photo: Matt Standal

Ellis is a self-taught pilot, aircraft mechanic, and electrician. I gamble on those skills as I buckle my seatbelt inside “Hulk,” the double-wide, fully customized Piper Super Cub he’s designed and built from plans inside his shop near Anchorage.

We fly over the still-smoking, Skookum Volcano, attempting to shoot video of the dramatic landscape from the tiny bush plane. Far below, the rest of the crew circumnavigates the rugged, volcanic slopes in search of dall sheep and grizzly bears. Swooping over this primordial landscape in a tiny, fragile plane is unforgettable.

A few days later, media manager Daniel Kemp and I repeat part of the hike in order to shoot beauty shots of the volcano. We spend two hours ascending an unmarked path along a braided stream filled with ankle-crushing boulders and loose rock.

By the end of the 1,800 vertical-foot hike, both my feet and brain are confused. The route eventually changes into sharp lava fields covered in deep moss that literally swallows my boots. I feel sorry for the mountain goats and sheep that call this place home. This terrain can not be easy for animals either.

The rugged Skookum Volcano towers above  Nabesna, AK – Photo: Matt Standal

The rocky creek and high meadows leading to Skookum Volcano – Photo: Matt Standal

The rugged cliffs of the Skookum Volcano, with mossy tundra below – Photo: Matt Standal

Little did I know, the 14-mile trek my coworkers had experienced while I was buzzing around in an airplane was even more rugged and grinding. What park rangers call “The Volcano Route” took three days, included multiple narrow passes, and tore up knees and ankles. When the group staggered back to Devil’s Mountain Lodge on day three, they were rain soaked, beaten, and starving. Simply cleaning their muddy clothing and tents took hours.

If there was a lesson to be learned here, it was that Alaska’s terrain was a level of difficulty above anything in the lower 48. The place is home to North America’s highest mountains, biggest glaciers, and most dangerous rivers. It might sound cliche, but the landscape here is seemingly designed to kill you.

I can’t wait to go back.

The crew attempts to dry camping equipment after backpacking to the Skookum Volcano – Photo: Matt Standal

We make every gate agent’s day worse when departing with 20 cases of film gear – Photo: Matt Standal

Leaving Alaska after 18 days and a lifetime of memories – Photo: Matt Standal