Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Berle Mercer

Berle Mercer was interviewed on September 18, 2000 by Jarrod Decker at the Mercer ranch outside Healy, AK. Brett Navin and Todd Shorey from the Denali Foundation, a non-profit organization offering educational programs, were also present and assisted with the interview. In this interview, Berle talks about running pack horse trips into Denali National Park and freighting supplies to mountain climbers. He recalls packing in supplies for some of his most memorable clients, including the ill-fated Wilcox Expedition, Bradford and Barbara Washburn, and a very finicky wildlife photographer. Berle also discusses rescuing a Swiss climbing party that descended the Muldrow Glacier after their guide abandoned them on the West Buttress, and openly criticizes a number of Denali National Park policies and employees. He offers his opinions on controversial topics such as access to remote areas within Denali Park and the permit and concessionaire system.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2000-17-29

Project: Denali Mountaineering
Date of Interview: Sep 18, 2000
Narrator(s): Berle Mercer
Interviewer(s): Jarrod Decker
People Present: Brett Navin, Todd Shorey
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


1) Growing up in Nebraska and first coming to Alaska with the Army

2) Growing up in Nebraska, meeting his wife, Claire, and having a double wedding with their twins

3) Settling in the Healy, Alaska area

4) Living in Anchorage in the 1950's, and trucking up their first livestock to their Healy ranch

5) Getting into horse packing by observing other people's needs and acquiring a permit to pack in Denali National Park

6) Trying to get equine insurance and a concession in Denali National Park

7) Guns being required by permit holders on account of an increased number of bear attacks

8) Beginning to pack for climbers and packing for the National Outdoor Leadership School

9) Experiences packing in Paul Petzolt's climbing group

10) The Muldrow Glacier surge and pioneering new trails, particularly for pack animals

11) Establishing trails and his experience with the Wilcox Expedition

12) The National Park Service dropping the climbing permit system and its effect on who was allowed to climb the mountain

13) His favorite groups that he took packing

14) His worst clients, a group of picky photographers

15) Watching bears and wolves in Refuge Valley

16) Meeting the Olaus and Margaret Murie

17) Commencement of the Wilcox and Schneider Expedition

18) Crossing the McKinley River with the Wilcox/Schneider Expedition, and the bad feelings of the group

19) A group of Swiss climbers that were abandoned by their guides

20) Packing out the Swiss climbers and helping them on their way

21) Disagreement over policy issues with the National Park Service

22) Packing a party in to the south side of Mount Foraker

23) Continuation of the trip to Mount Foraker, and the trips that his wife, Claire, has joined

24) The pace of trips with paying versus non-paying clients, and the impact of horses and mules

25) Taking salt on trips and choosing horses

26) Using mules, and National Park Service regulations

27) Advantages of using pack animals

28) The season that packing is permitted

29) The disadvantage of not being able to tie the animals up at night

30) Dealing with the animals at night, and differences between horses and mules

31) Taking control of mules

32) Getting in trouble for not always following the rules

33) Particular items that are hard to pack, and how he charges clients

34) Problems with bears

35) Avoiding bear theft by using mothballs

36) Dealing with animals in icy, snowy conditions, and the termination of equine commercial use in Denali National Park

37) Packing his family in Denali National Park, and avoiding suspicion of commercial use

38) Not being able to successfully raise range animals in Alaska because slaughter houses required that meat be used for owner use only

39) Getting rid of his bison, and finding that it's easier now to buy vegetables from the store than to grow them in the summer

40) Acquiring land in Alaska

41) Changes in the definition of agriculture and grazing leases

42) The State of Alaska breaking their own rules, and living in limbo while the courts decide their fate

43) Land being burned and life's cycles continuing on

44) Pulling for public support in opening access to Denali National Park

45) Scouting areas before taking in clients and traveling all over the Park

46) Opening Denali National Park access up to more people

47) Considerations on allowing more access to the park with reasonable restrictions

48) Adding more campground spaces in Denali National Park

49) Manipulation tactics and lack of knowledge of park personnel

50) The gear required for a pack outfit, and the locations of trails and campgrounds

51) Making a new trail that is separate from the hikers

52) The furthest point livestock can go in the Park, and naming Buckburn Creek

53) Finding one of Hudson Stuck's camps

54) National Park Service personnel pilfering old camps, and names on old maps

55) Trails he prefers over others

56) Funny stories in the park

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


Section 1: birthplace -- Thedford, NE\ sod house\ Thomas County, NE\ high school -- graduation\ Army -- drafted\ Anchorage, AK\ Army -- discharge\ poison ivy\ poison oak\ poison sumac\ snakes\ marriage -- Claire\ Nenana, AK\ cattle raising\ electricity -- none\ power -- none\ wind generator\ kerosene lamps\ outhouses|

Section 2: livestock -- growing up\ brother -- twin\ horses -- sleeping sickness\ horses -- driving\ cornfield\ Mt. Vernon, NY\ school -- graduation\ sister -- twin\ wedding -- double\ farm life\ life -- outdoors\ Alaska -- personal freedom|

Section 3: Nenana, AK\ birth -- child\ Nebraska\ Koots, AB\ Edmonton, AB\ Grand Prairie, NE\ Coghill, Jack\ livestock -- raising\ Fairbanks, AK\ Healy, AK\ airplane\ geese\ snow -- lack of\ homestead -- patented\ Federal Grazing Lease\ Savage River\ Teklanika River\ Old Stampede Road\ transportation -- train\ telephone\ communications -- Federal Government|

Section 4: freedom\ Army\ Anchorage, AK\ Federal building\ boardwalks\ trails -- mud\ General Black\ Chamber of Commerce\ Fort Richardson\ livestock -- trucked in\ Nebraska\ South Dakota\ Fairbanks, AK\ Lignite Road\ mules -- team\ horse -- saddle\ harnesses\ Yellowstone National Park\ McKinley National Park\ locomotives|

Section 5: cattle raising\ pack saddles\ McKinley National Park\ horses\ mules\ Montana\ Savage River\ Fish Creek\ hunting -- license\ packing -- game\ Pearson, Grant\ permit -- packing\ permit -- special use\ concessionaires\ Superintendent -- Denali National Park|

Section 6: concession\ packing -- hunters\ Denali National Park -- packing\ permit -- insurance\ guiding license\ Fish and Game\ Mexico\ Brazil\ Peru\ insurance -- Lloyd's of London\ Butrovich, John -- Fairbanks|

Section 7: hunting\ guiding\ photographers\ Northwestern University\ firearms -- prohibited\ Telida, AK\ McGrath, AK\ Tanana, AK\ Minto, AK\ bear -- attacks\ berry picking\ Brown, Gary -- chief ranger\ Eielson Airforce Base\ gun -- 440 Magnum Ruger Blackhawk\ permit|

Section 8: Petzolt, Paul\ National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)\ Lander, WY\ Wonder Lake\ McGonagall Pass\ pack trips -- request\ Anderson, Carl\ Pearson, Grant -- superintendent\ permit\ Fontaine Valley Private School, CO\ Cheny, Dexter\ climbers\ students|

Section 9: horses\ gear -- packing\ river crossings\ McKinley River\ Clearwater River\ Petzolt, Paul\ fuel cans\ camp|

Section 10: McGonagall Pass\ Wood, Ginny\ Hunter, Celia\ Camp Denali\ Muldrow Glacier -- surge\ ice spires\ trails\ trail -- pioneering\ Luthey, Dale -- ranger\ Wonder Lake\ McKinley River\ Turtle Hill\ Washburn, Bradford\ Washburn, Barbara\ Anderson's\ The Narrows\ Clearwater Creek\ Cache Creek\ muskeg|

Section 11: trails\ routes\ McKinley River -- bar\ moss\ muskeg\ Denali National Park -- eastern\ photographers\ Refuge Valley\ Teklanika River\ mountain climbers\ Wilcox expedition\ Schneider expedition\ Mt. McKinley\ National Park Service -- employee\ Merry, Wayne -- chief ranger|

Section 12: Wilcox expedition\ Wonder Lake\ Cache Creek\ McGonagall Pass\ Schneider Party\ permit\ US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals\ permits -- dropped\ Genet, Ray -- son\ climbers -- Finland\ wagon\ gear\ snowshoes\ crampons\ ropes\ ice falls\ maps|

Section 13: groups -- best\ Washburns\ mapmaking\ Muldrow Glacier\ Oastler Pass\ McGonagall Pass\ Mt. Brooks\ Hunter, Celia\ surveying\ camps\ tents\ horses\ transportation\ Rockefellar family\ Kantishna, AK\ Camp Denali\ Mt. McKinley -- road\ Rainy Pass\ Talkeetna, AK\ Wonder Lake|

Section 14: photographers -- bad group\ Goodyear, Frank\ Pittsburgh, PA\ cabin -- Sunday Creek\ tents\ photograph -- wildlife\ film -- movie\ pictures -- still\ Refuge Valley\ wolverines\ moose|

Section 15: Yould?, Peter\ Portland, OR\ bears\ cubs\ Refuge Valley\ wolves\ Wonder Lake\ Camp Denali\ Muddy Trail\ Goodyear, Frank|

Section 16: Goodyear, Frank\ camp\ Goodyear, Frank, Jr.\ horses -- loose\ Tatlanika River\ Murie, Adolph\ Igloo, AK\ river drainage\ sheep\ Murie, Olaus\ Fairbanks, AK\ Murie, Margaret\ Camp Denali|

Section 17: Wilcox expedition\ Washburn, Brad\ photograph -- bathing suits\ Schneider group\ Wonder Lake\ Merry, Wayne\ McKinley River\ river -- crossing|

Section 18: river -- crossing\ horses -- packing\ horse -- kidney problems\ camp\ Schneiders\ McKinley River\ bathing suits\ rescue\ National Park Service|

Section 19: climbers -- Switzerland\ Talkeetna, AK\ Denali -- traverse\ guides\ maps\ paperwork\ Denali -- summit\ Clearwater Creek\ McGonagall Pass|

Section 20: climbers -- Swiss\ Muldrow Glacier\ crevasses\ Washburn, Brad\ helicopters\ McGonagall Pass\ tracks -- horse\ tracks -- mules\ Clearwater Creek\ skis -- burned\ Wonder Lake\ Talkeetna, AK\ National Park Service\ permit\ gear -- packing\ guides -- United States|

Section 21: National Park Service -- policies\ Cache Creek\ packing\ Ped?, Brian\ backcountry rangers\ Red Mountain\ Washburn, Brad\ Boston, MA\ glacier -- Waterhouse\ backpack\ pack saddle\ Death Valley, CA\ Fairbanks, AK\ Ester, AK\ wheelchair\ Healy, AK\ McKinley Park\ train|

Section 22: rangers\ Luthey, Dale\ horses -- numbers\ National Park Service\ Roach, Barb\ Roach, Gerald\ Mt. Foraker\ Muddy River\ Straightaway Glacier\ moraine\ Kuskokwim River -- Swiftfork\ Third Valley\ river crossings\ McKinley River|

Section 23: packing\ National Park Service\ Brown, Gary -- chief ranger\ Keane, Dan -- superintendent\ cooking\ tents\ Denali National Park\ fuel\ permit\ McGonagall Pass\ Muddy River\ Peters Glacier\ Gunsight Pass\ Oastler Pass\ students -- youth exchange|

Section 24: clients -- non-paying\ clients -- restrictions\ Denali National Park\ food -- horses\ hay -- not permitted\ pack station\ Wonder Lake\ bears\ willows|

Section 25: salt\ permits\ horses -- pack weight\ skis\ campfires\ stoves\ tent\ rangers\ horses -- rodeo\ horses -- bucking stock|

Section 26: problems -- people\ animals -- lineage\ mules\ chief rangers\ children\ McGonagall Pass\ Camp Denali\ trails -- animal maximum\ Washburns\ food\ supplies|

Section 27: animals -- sleeping\ river\ streams\ McKinley River\ river crossing\ loads -- carrying\ climbers -- Japanese\ wagon riding|

Section 28: Denali National Park\ Wonder Lake\ season -- operating\ Eielson Visitor Center\ animals -- truck\ animals -- feed\ Moose Creek\ Kantishna\ clients -- non-paying\ Camp Denali\ Hunter, Celia\ horses\ snow machines\ Wood, Ginny -- daughter|

Section 29): packing -- mountain climbers\ Wilcox expedition\ packing -- National Outdoor Leadership School\ animals -- locating\ Clearwater Creek\ Cache Creek\ McGonagall Pass\ animals -- tying up|

Section 30: clients\ backcountry rangers\ animals -- bells\ animals -- hobbies\ Clearwater Creek\ Cache Creek -- upper\ McKinley River\ ravines\ hilltops|

Section 31: mules -- safer\ Omaha, NE\ Stampede Road\ cook\ Washburns\ animals -- leading\ Denali National Park\ rivers\ Turtle Hill\ McGonagall Pass|

Section 32: McGonagall Pass\ chief ranger\ animals -- leading\ Petitt, Brian\ Alaska Magazine\ Brown, Gary\ snowshoes\ mules\ horses\ skis\ gear -- pannier\ gear -- duffle bags|

Section 33: packing -- junk\ National Park Service\ military\ ski poles\ shovels\ crampons\ clients -- charge\ animal -- weight\ Petzolt, Paul|

Section 34: group -- Petzolt, Paul\ ice axes\ horse -- injured\ bears -- problems\ animals -- pack\ cornfields -- Nebraska\ horses -- South Dakota\ grizzly bear\ moth balls\ food\ rangers -- park service\ group -- mountain climbing|

Section 35: group -- mountain climbing\ Craighead twins\ black bears\ meat\ wolverine\ moose\ caribou\ moth balls\ tobacco\ client\ bear -- charging\ Denali Foundation\ Denali National Park\ animals|

Section 36: animals -- lack of\ ice\ Denali National Park\ horses -- crossing rivers\ Toklat River\ Kantishna, AK\ animals -- cooperate\ snow\ mosquitoes\ packing -- end\ equine -- commercial use\ equine -- personal use\ violation -- federal|

Section 37: Peters Glacier -- surge\ brothers\ son\ chief ranger\ Thedford, NE\ Hayward, CA\ tents\ Cabela's\ Griffiths, Tom -- chief ranger\ park superintendent|

Section 38: business -- buffalo raising\ beef cattle\ bison\ agriculture\ slaughter plants\ World War II\ federal government\ animal products -- sold\ cattle -- wasted\ Kenai Peninsula\ Kodiak Island\ Sandpoint, AK\ sheep -- slaughter\ animals -- owner use only\ North Pole, AK\ Delta, AK\ Palmer, AK\ Division of Corrections\ penal institutions -- food|

Section 39: slaughter house -- state owned\ correctional institutions -- food\ market -- range animals\ Kodiak Island\ Soldotna, AK\ Wasilla, AK\ Palmer, AK\ North Pole, AK\ Delta, AK\ ranchers -- private\ Mercer, Claire -- secretary\ farming\ animals -- feed\ highway\ garden\ vegetables|

Section 40: land -- private ownership\ homestead\ Lignite\ Mackey, Otto\ land -- private entry\ railroad\ Anderson, Carl\ Anderson, Lidia\ Healy, AK\ Congressional Act\ grazing lease\ horses\ packer -- big game\ guide -- big game\ Denali National Park\ Wood River\ Castle, Lynn\ Waugaman, Bill|

Section 41: Tanana Valley Development Authority\ National Park Service\ agriculture\ boundary -- Old Park\ Parks Highway\ permit -- fee\ dog mushers\ recreationists -- 4-wheeler\ courts\ livestock -- open range\ Keztler -- lease\ Delta, AK\ Stratton, Omar -- lease\ Kodiak Island, AK\ animal -- control\ plants -- native|

Section 42: State of Alaska\ road beds -- vegetating\ permit\ livestock\ crops\ horseback riders\ beaver ponds\ domestic livestock\ occupations -- change\ Castor, Stephen -- lease\ Talerico, Frank -- lease\ Bald Hill\ Stampede Road\ Dry Creek\ Parks Highway\ Panguingue Creek\ Buzzwell, Dick\ subdivisions\ railroad\ homestead\ land -- university reserve|

Section 43: cultivation\ field -- till\ trees -- spruce\ land -- burn\ Tanana River\ Lignite Creek\ Browne's Court\ Clear Sky Lodge\ Arctic Coal Company\ trees -- cottonwood|

Section 44: support -- public\ Denali National Park -- open area\ National Park Service\ rangers -- backcountry\ McKinley River\ horses\ mules\ Muddy River\ park regulations -- destruction\ Earthquake Boulder\ Cache creek\ trail\ Narrow Ridge\ permit -- violating|

Section 45: ranger -- job\ hikers\ trails -- moose\ trails -- caribou\ tracks -- horse\ clients\ Eagle Gorge\ reconnaissance plane -- military\ National Register\ Alaska Range\ Park Hotel\ Savage River Canyon\ caribou corrals\ reindeer\ Seward Peninsula\ Broad Pass -- winter\ Fang Mountain|

Section 46: Chief Ranger\ Pearson, Grant -- ranger\ park superintendents\ bones -- pile\ muskeg\ National Park Service\ publications\ stagecoaches\ hiking\ river valleys\ permit -- elite\ tour company\ Seattle, WA\ McGonagall Pass\ Oastler Pass\ Peters Glacier\ Wonder Lake\ McKinley River -- bar\ road systems|

Section 47: restrictions -- reasonable\ National Park Service -- image\ contributions\ Winship, Tom\ Boston Globe -- editor\ McGonagall Pass\ Oastler Pass\ Denali National Park -- road\ Denali National Park -- north side\ Stampede Road\ Rex Bridge?\ Old Mail Trail\ access -- Denali National Park\ Eielson Visitor's Center|

Section 48: moose -- dust\ road -- paved\ bears\ Stoney Pass\ campground\ Wood, Morton\ Wood, Ginny\ bears -- grizzly\ bears -- hunted\ Wonder Lake\ pollution\ Toklat River|

Section 49: reports -- Washington, DC\ campgrounds -- closed\ Congress\ funds -- appropriate\ Yosemite National Park\ Glacier National Park\ Denali National Park\ magazine -- Western Horseman\ figures -- manipulation\ injuries -- park personnel\ bears\ giardia -- park personnel\ beaver lodges\ Wonder Lake|

Section 50: permit\ Denali National Park\ saddles\ pack gear\ animals -- outfit\ map\ Wonder Lake\ ranger station -- Wonder Lake\ park road\ campgrounds\ pack station\ Wonder Lake campground\ trails\ McKinley River\ McGonagall Pass\ Cache Creek|

Section 51: Turtle Hill\ ponds\ Clearwater Creek\ Cache Creek\ Wonder Lake Campground\ McKinley River\ The Narrows\ horses\ trail\ map -- Swiss\ trail -- hiking\ Earthquake Boulder\ moraine\ Washburn, Brad|

Section 52: trail\ livestock\ packing gear\ mountain climbers\ McGonagall Pass\ Washburn, Brad\ stream\ Buckburn Creek\ Washburn, Barbara\ Stuck, Hudson -- camp|

Section 53: Carol, Reenan\ Wells, Jana\ Mt. McKinley\ World War II\ cameras\ tobacco\ crates -- wooden\ Stuck, Hudson\ Nenana, AK\ Washburn, Brad\ Boston Museum of Science|

Section 54: Park service -- personnel\ Washburn, Bradford\ hacksaw blade\ camps\ expeditions -- military\ Wonder Lake\ Petzolt, Paul\ National Outdoor Leadership School\ superintendent -- Jacobs\ National Park Service\ Embalming Hill\ climber\ crevasses|

Section 55: Fairbanks, AK\ Washburns\ Pearson, Grant\ maps -- modern\ Embalming Hill\ Oastler Pass\ Muldrow Glacier\ glacier -- movement\ McGonagall Pass\ marsh\ Clearwater Creek\ McKinley River\ Turtle Hill\ Cottonwood Trees\ trails\ horses|

Section 56: Forest\ roots\ cabins\ National Park\ buses\ Eielson Visitor Center\ moose -- albino\ Toklat River\ helicopter\ McKinley River\ Iowa\ Indians\ horses\ caribou\ Fairbanks, AK -- newspaper\ Cantwell, AK\ poachers -- beaver|