Ptarmigan Tracks

The Newsletter of Camp Denali and Parkside Guest House

Online Version 2021

Remembering Neal Brown

Dr. Neal Brown, a dear friend of Camp Denali, died this summer in Lebanon, NH where he and his wife, Fran Tannian, moved in 2019 to be nearer to their families. For 33 consecutive summers, Neal shared his contagious enthusiasm for the aurora and the night skies with our guests and staff, becoming a well-loved member of our Camp Denali “family.”

Neal’s life-long curiosity about the natural world and how things work has roots in his childhood. The 200-acre farm that he grew up on in Eastern Washington nurtured in Neal a can-do approach to fixing and building things. Following a bachelor’s degree in physics from Washington State University, Neal first saw the aurora during a year working for NASA in Thule, Greenland. A master’s degree in Geophysics from the University of Alaska Fairbanks came next, propelling Neal into an 18-year career as Director of the Poker Flat Rocket Research Range outside of Fairbanks where he led the design, building, and launching of rockets to study the aurora. He later focused on his passion, science education, through a directorship of the Alaska Space Grant Program, where he worked with teachers to bring STEM education to rural Alaska schools, and through the founding of Alaska Science Explained, a platform to share Alaska science topics to public and academic audiences.

Spending a week at Camp Denali each fall as a Special Emphasis Series guest speaker was a perfect fit for Neal. He came equipped with gadgets to demonstrate the earth’s magnetic field and neon light fixtures to depict how different gases when energized emit unique colors. His ever-evolving presentations reflected his commitment to keeping up with the latest science and techniques for studying the aurora.

Neal’s enthusiasm for observing the aurora and sharing its beauty with others was profound and Camp Denali guests were an eager audience. He would be up on the hour, every hour, each night of his stay to wake up those who wanted a chance to see the lights. Neal was elated when hand-held radios became readily available, saving him the walk to each cabin door! The following September 2016 excerpt from his Camp Denali cabin journal  illustrates his passion: “11pm AKST Aurora till 0530, Sept 3. Stupendous: one of the best I’ve ever seen, and observing and studying aurora has been my professional life’s work. Aurora lit up the ground and Denali [at] 0130. Silent dance weave—just incredible.”

As sad as we are to close a 33-year chapter with Neal, we’re delighted to begin a new era with Ronn and Marketa Murray. In many ways, Ronn’s enthusiasm mirrors Neal’s, as he studies the aurora through the lens of photography.

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