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Introducing Emily Sullivan

By The Cairn Project

Our Ambassadors are catalyzing next-level adventures and personal challenges into community fundraising campaigns that support our grants program. As she gets ready to set out on a packrafting and backpacking exploration of the Brooks Range in Alaska, we caught up with Ambassador Emily Sullivan to learn more about her upcoming trip and how she cultivated her love of outdoor adventure.

Especially for those of us who reside in the Lower 48, Denali and Alaska loom as almost mystical places in our minds. How did you end up working at Denali National Park, and what keeps you there?

As a teen, I visited southeast Alaska and immediately fell in love with the mountains and the wild landscape that I found there. Having grown up a city kid in Richmond, Virginia, I had never seen anything like the beauty of Alaska. I quickly decided that I would live here someday. Fast forward to 2009, the year I finished college. The minute I graduated, I found myself online, applying for jobs around Alaska. I was offered a gig as a raft company photographer in Juneau and one as a hiking guide in Denali National Park. I had never been to Denali or the interior of Alaska. I didn’t know a single person in the state. I asked both companies: “Will I see the Northern Lights this summer if I come work for you?” The man in Juneau said no, the man in Denali said yes. My decision was made.

Denali is magic. It would be near impossible to put into words the power this place possesses over those who take the time to become intimate with the landscape. From midnight sunsets hikes to Aurora Borealis shivers, from the tiniest life forms of lichen and moss to herds of caribou and wolves, this vast expanse of untouched ecosystem stirs a part of the soul that I believe many people forget about. Besides the magic, there are endless opportunities for exploration. Year after year, I find that I will never be able to accomplish all that I want to do here. We’ve got 6.2 million acres of untouched, trail-less wilderness and the largest mountains in the continent at our back door.

Along with being a backcountry guide, you’re a photographer. How does this skill inform your time in the outdoors?

Photography continually motivates me to move further faster, knowing that I will see more beauty around each bend.

I was always a photographer and artist first. Honestly, this passion is what drew me to the outdoors in the first place. I would not have spent as much time hiking in my first few seasons up here if I weren’t chasing golden hour hues on the tops of mountains for the sake of shooting. Hiking quickly became a passion and I subsequently and slowly grew into a backpacker, trail runner, backcountry skier, and true lover of time in wilderness. Photography continually motivates me to move further faster, knowing that I will see more beauty around each bend.

Part of the inspiration of your upcoming packrafting trip across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was to retrace some of Mardy Murie’s route. Tell us about what Murie’s legacy means to you, and what most excites you about your upcoming trip?

There are so many impressive women in Alaska’s early history: women who bucked social norms and toughed out harsh conditions, taking risks and making history. Arguably none of them have as powerful or lasting of a legacy as Mardy Murie. We have her to thank for much of our existing Wilderness in the U.S. She and her husband and friends were hugely instrumental in convincing Dwight D. Eisenhower to protect the remote and sacred land of the Arctic Refuge, and Mardy also had a heavy hand in advocating for passage of the Wilderness Act. The purity and sanctity of our untouched wild lands are the legacy of Mardy Murie, and I hope that we continue to value and protect them. Unfortunately, due to time and budget constraints, I won’t be able to make it as far East as the Muries’ beloved Sheenjek River. But I’m so excited to visit the lands and ecosystem that Mardy Murie loved, those lands are truly her legacy up north. I will start walking at the Marsh Fork of the Canning River, a place that Mardy considered to be the western-most reach of a true remote and untouched wilderness.

As an Ambassador to The Cairn Project, you’re joining a team of women who are catalyzing their outdoor passion into a force that passes this opportunity on to the next generation. How and when did your connection to the outdoors blossom, and who were the people in your life who helped to make that happen?

As a kid, I always felt a strong pull to nature and the outdoors because of the aesthetics of beautiful landscapes. But it wasn’t until my late college years that I ever found myself really moving in and connecting with these landscapes–I went on my first-ever backpacking trip when I was 20 years old. I have my friend Luci and her dad Ted to thank for bringing me along on that overnight, and my family to thank for believing in me when I decided to move to Alaska and subsequently become crazy about outdoor recreation and conservation.

My mom has always supported the decisions that I make, though they haven’t always been the path she probably envisioned for me. She became a bit of an adventurer herself in her mid-fifties as she fell in love with long-distance cycling, camping, and exploring new places. She, despite being afraid of heights and not much of a hiker, walked the entirety of the Inca trail a few years back. I think it’s pretty cool that we both got addicted to the outdoors over the last decade, and I enjoy sharing that connection with her. One of my favorite memories with her will always be biking the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier together a few years back.

Lastly and maybe most importantly, my communities in Missoula and Denali have taught me how much I am capable of. My friends in these communities are endlessly inspiring and showed me just what is possible in the mountains: as soon as I saw what my friends were capable of, and how they believed in me, I began to slowly transition from just an average hiker to a ski mountaineer, long-distance traverser, trail runner, and orienteer. I am so excited for the opportunity to open doors for other young women in the outdoors, and I hope that my fundraiser will have a lasting impact on the lives of a few girls who will be given a chance to fall in love with adventuring in wild places.