Outback to the future

Retiring superintendent Jim Northup comes full circle in a 36-year national park adventure

Jim Northup, Shenandoah National Park's superintendent, is retiring Jan. 2: "I still remember the tingle that went up my spine that day when I heard those words, and I said to myself: ‘I just found my life’s work. I found my sense of purpose.’ "
Jim Northup, Shenandoah National Park’s superintendent, is retiring Jan. 2: “I still remember the tingle that went up my spine that day when I heard those words, and I said to myself: ‘I just found my life’s work. I found my sense of purpose.’ “ By John McCaslin

For Jim Northup, there was no better view of Shenandoah National Park — and the White House, nation and world — than from atop a chimney in Rappahannock County.

Now the one-time chimney sweep, who came home four years ago to become superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, has announced his retirement after 36 exceptional (read exhilarating) years with the National Park Service.

See also . . .

In his tenure with the national parks, Jim Northup has taken to heart the park service mission: “To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” See the story here.

“It’s really been fun to go full circle like this,” Northup says during a farewell interview inside his rustic office at Shenandoah National Park’s headquarters in Luray.

But first things first — a chimney sweep?

“As I travel around Little Washington and Flint Hill and other places I can point out several houses where I swept the chimneys,” he beams.

As the popular park superintendent tells the story, he was two years out of college and delighted to have finally landed a job as a seasonal interpretive naturalist at Mathews Arm Campground, as the crow flies about seven miles west of Little Washington in the park’s northern district.

“But that only kept me employed six months of the year,” explains Northup, who was living in those days on his family’s weekend property (a pair of cabins) in Riley Hollow outside Huntly. “I needed something to keep me employed in the wintertime.”

The year was 1979, and happy to be earning at least a seasonal salary in Shenandoah Park (he’d spent two years after college guiding the occasional rock-climbing adventure for a small Virginia outfitter), Northup knew that few part-time jobs existed in Rappahannock County during the cold winter months.

Some 75 miles away, at the same time, Jimmy Carter’s presidency was consumed by the nation’s energy crisis. On his infamous list of household energy-saving tips, the president encouraged more Americans to turn down their thermostats and fire up wood-burning stoves.

“They were even burning wood in the White House,” Northup points out.

That said there was no shortage of local firewood suppliers who on a daily basis peddled truckloads of cords in the big cities. But Northup had another idea pop into his mind that just might get him through winter.

“A buddy and I started a chimney sweeping business in Rappahannock County,” he says with a boyish grin. “We were both college graduates and we were sweeping chimneys for a living. And it was filthy, dirty work as you might imagine.”

Not Buckingham Palace but . . .

Pressing forward with their rods and brushes from one end of the county to the other, these gritty young men with newly blackened fingernails would generate a decent enough profit in Rappahannock. But it also dawned on them that if they were going to be chimney sweeps for however long a period they might as well make the most of their profession.

“So one evening after we swept a bunch of chimneys we were sitting in some bar somewhere having a beer,” Northup recalls, “and as a joke I said something like, ‘We should class up this act and see if we can get the contract to sweep the chimneys in some place like Buckingham Palace or the White House.’ ”

Wouldn’t you know the business partner, who under all the soot had the makings of a marketing mogul, took Northup’s off-the-cuff remark and ran with it.

“Unbeknownst to me he sat down and wrote a letter to the White House, sending them our little brochure about chimney sweeping,” the superintendent continues. “And a week or so later we got this phone call, basically from the White House chief of maintenance, who said: ‘You know, we’ve been thinking of sweeping the White House chimneys, could you come down here and give us a quote?’

“The next day we were inside the White House,” Northup exclaims, sounding just as astonished today by the unlikely turn of events. “You only get inside the White House two ways: You’re either an important person or you’re a maintenance person. I got in by being a maintenance person.”

Suddenly standing on the top rung of their industry ladder, the rapidly rising pair wouldn’t make 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue their last presidential stop: “We got the contract to sweep the chimneys of the White House,” he confirms. “And later we got the contract to sweep the chimneys at Camp David.”

The Rappahannock News editor in those days could not have been more impressed, sensing the headline: Two local chimney sweeps make their way into — and onto — the Executive Mansion!

“The Rappahannock News ran an article about me and my business partner sweeping the chimneys of the White House,” Northup laughs. “And on the front page was a picture of me — standing on top of a chimney on the West Wing.”

A Shenandoah start and finish

The rest as they say is history — or will be soon when Northup officially hangs up his well-worn ranger’s hat on Jan. 2. (His goal on his final day as superintendent is to climb Old Rag Mountain.)

“I worked two seasons as an interpretive naturalist here at Shenandoah,” Northup begins his narrative, until eventually becoming a backcountry ranger, “which is probably one of the best jobs I ever had. The primary purpose of our backcountry rangers is to get out on the trails, to hike and interact with people who are backpacking and camping in the park, and really teach them about what we call ‘leave-no-trace’ camping techniques.”

Northup at the same time enrolled in the Park Service’s seasonal law enforcement training academy (just the start of his extensive career studies that include Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Senior Executive Fellow Program). He soon became a commissioned law enforcement ranger, patrolling Shenandoah’s popular Skyline Drive and 500-plus miles of hiking trails.

“I was living my dream,” he says, recalling the pivotal moment in 1970 when he and his high school classmates in suburban Washington, D.C., participated in the inaugural Earth Day, which inspired him to pursue a career in conservation. Later, while earning a degree in Environmental Education at the University of Maryland, he would intern on Capitol Hill with the bipartisan U.S. House Environmental Study Conference.

“That was a real powerful experience for me,” he states. “I had a real strong environmental ethic . . . and that was the environmental decade in our country. But when I attended these [congressional] hearings I realized I really didn’t know America, I didn’t know what conservation looked like out on the landscape — in the Midwest, and the West, in Alaska.

“So I yearned to get out of Washington, D.C., quite frankly, to get out of that ‘bubble’ and see what America was really like.”

The Seashore, the River and wilds of New York

That he did. Following two years in Shenandoah, Northup in 1981 was awarded his first permanent assignment with the Park Service at North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Two years later he was on his way to Buffalo National River in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains.

“It’s a beautiful free-flowing canoeing stream with beautiful limestone bluffs that rise up from the river,” he recalls. “Also it is a relatively new park that, like Shenandoah, was created out of what had been privately owned properties. So initially there was a lot of animosity about the Park Service being there,” he points out.

“So I learned pretty early in my career about sort of being a ‘conservation ambassador’ — just trying to sell the conservation idea, sell the National Park Service conservation idea, to communities that weren’t accustomed to having a national park.

“In places like Yellowstone [in Wyoming] and Glacier [in Montana], those parks have been there a really, really long time,” Northup notes. “But in the ’70s and ’80s, when we were creating these many new parks, a lot of these communities didn’t openly welcome the Park Service. That was a surprise to many of us because we thought we were a bunch of guys with white hats. Who wouldn’t love the Park Service?”

Northup next made what he describes as an “odd shift” in his career path, heading to Fire Island National Seashore, a suburban recreation area off Long Island, New York. But the budding ranger was surprised by what he discovered.

“Even though that park is very close to New York City it is the only place in New York State where there is designated wilderness, which is absolutely amazing,” he says. “A barrier island seashore park, right off the coast of Long Island, and it’s the only designated wilderness in all of New York State. So a really great experience.”

Out of Fire Island and into the fire

After two years of patrolling the tall dunes and tidal flats of Fire Island, Northup headed west to majestic Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, where in the capacity of supervisory ranger he was appointed wildland fire management officer.

Two record-breaking fire seasons in greater Yellowstone would coincide with Northup’s tenure, and he found himself supervising not only firefighters on the ground but fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters battling the infernos from above.

“Of course everybody remembers 1988, when the entire Yellowstone ecosystem was on fire,” he says.

Northup, well trained in rappelling, has also experienced his share of search and rescue incidents, some with good outcomes, others unfortunately not so good.

“I’ve had to do a lot of rescue work — a lot of body recoveries in various places over the years,” he replies. “Many people don’t think about these aspects of national parks. They just think we sit around campfires and tell stories. We do have some great days like that, too.”

His accomplished journey took him next to the Texas border with Mexico and Big Bend National Park, where for four years he was the rugged park’s chief ranger.

“It’s probably the most remote park in the Lower 48,” he notes. “Our [two now-grown] daughters love to tell the story about it being 110 miles to the grocery store — which it was! The nearest town of any size was 110 miles away.

“So my daughters have lived a pretty unique life,” Northup agrees. “But there was a small school in the park that went from kindergarten through eighth grade. If I recall correctly there are only five national parks in the country that have schools located within the park: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Big Bend, and the Grand Canyon. And my daughters have attended three of those five schools.”

The list goes on: He’d become deputy chief ranger of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona for five years; chief ranger of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Northup labeled last month’s deadly forest fires there “tragic,” pointing out the Smokies normally get 60 inches of rain annually, so raging flames of this magnitude and intensity are “highly unusual”); and just prior to coming home to Shenandoah, he was superintendent for eight “great years” at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—“our first national lakeshore in the system, which I just loved.

“This is a little fun fact in my career: I was assigned to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the first national seashore in our [park] system; the Buffalo River in Arkansas, our first national river; and finally, Pictured Rock, our first national lakeshore.”

It was Northup, not surprisingly, called upon to manage several visits by dignitaries to national parks, including Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The latter 42nd president not only spent time at the Grand Canyon but good chunks of two summers with his family at Grand Teton.

“They took extended vacations to Grand Teton National Park,” the superintendent says of the Clintons. “Those are always a big deal. You’re working with White House staff and the Secret Service weeks in advance. The logistics are complicated.”

Northup over the years has also participated in international conservation efforts, traveling to China, the Republic of Georgia, and closer to home, Mexico and Canada. He hopes to continue his conservation efforts in his retirement — that is, when he’s not hiking, fly-fishing or sitting by a stream: “I’ve found a lot of peace over the years sitting by a stream somewhere,” he confesses.

Preserving ‘these wild places’

“My passion has always been these wild places. I love to hike, I love being in the wilderness. I think wilderness is a really powerful and healing influence. One of the reasons we are staying in the area (apart from his Rappahannock property, Northup and his wife Phyllis enjoy a home in Luray) is I have a lot more hiking I want to do in Shenandoah.

“I’m not sure I’ve discovered my favorite place yet,” Northup admits. “Every park I’ve worked in it’s been my goal to not leave that place until I felt like I really know it. And I’m not there yet with Shenandoah.”

His favorite places to escape in the park?

“I love both Big Devil and Little Devil Stairs. I love Jeremy’s Run. I love Old Rag even though it’s overcrowded. It’s a classic hike,” he says. “And I’m beginning to discover the south district, which is the most rugged and remote part of the park. It’s amazing how different it is.”

Similar hiking tips Northup no doubt passed along to Shenandoah National Park visitors some four decades ago.

“I will never forget — this is now almost 37 years ago, probably in my first week as a seasonal ranger here in Shenandoah — I was sitting in a classroom and a member of the park staff came and did a little presentation on the Park Service mission, what we call the Organic Act [of 1916], the enabling legislation that created the National Park Service.

“And it’s in that act where it says that the purpose of the Park Service is basically to preserve and protect these places ‘unimpaired’ for the enjoyment of future generations. I still remember the tingle that went up my spine that day when I heard those words, and I said to myself: ‘I just found my life’s work. I found my sense of purpose.’

“But the story I like to tell — and I’ve never forgotten that moment — the person who was doing the presentation that day brought with them a framed piece of the Organic Act. And so when I came back to work here [in 2013] I remembered that.

“And wouldn’t you know I was getting settled into my office and I’ve got this closet back here,” says Northup, motioning behind his desk, “and I went into it. And what should I find in that closet but that framed piece of that Organic Act. I mean I recognized it immediately. And I said, ‘Wow!’

“So I’ve since taken it out of my office and I’ve hung it in the historic conference room here [at Shenandoah headquarters],” he concludes. “It is that language in the Organic Act about preserving and protecting these places ‘unimpaired’ for future generations that has been the inspiration for my career and the things I am proudest of.”

About John McCaslin 477 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.