North to Alaska: Alum Found Outdoor Calling at UNI

Sam BrabandSam Braband, ’10, says we shouldn’t “pigeonhole” his alma mater. UNI’s offerings aren’t limited to its outstanding education and business programs.Sam Braband and his family

“UNI provides lots of great experiences for a wide range of graduates. It prepared me for my career in the wilderness,” Sam said.

Originally from Clive, Sam has been working for the past five months as an Alaska State Park Ranger for the Fairbanks area. He graduated from UNI with a degree in leisure, youth and human services.

Sam knew what he wanted to do from the second day he was on campus. That first day, though, was a little different.

“I came in as a pre-nursing major,” Sam laughed. A meeting with an advisor from the biology department followed a dizzying first day of anatomy class. When Sam said he didn’t think the major was right for him, he was asked about his interests.

“I proceeded to describe basically what I’m doing today: I knew I wanted to work outside,” Sam said.

 The advisor helped Sam switch his major the second day of class and he would go on to graduate with an emphasis in outdoor recreation.

It was the National Student Exchange program that gave Sam his first taste of Alaska; his junior year he enrolled in outdoor studies at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. After graduating from UNI, he took a position managing the outdoor recreation program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks before becoming a park ranger.

 “It feels good to be doing what I wanted to be doing all along,” Sam said.

Sam and just two other rangers oversee the northern Alaska state parks, some 250,000 acres of land north of the Denali National Park and Preserve. It’s a wilderness (“the people who actually live here don’t consider it ‘wilderness’ because it’s just their back yard”) crawling with fauna: from beavers, lynx and willow grouse to wolves, grizzlies and black bears. On occasion the hooves of hundreds of caribou do the work of the ranger: carving out passable trails to be enjoyed by human users.

A park ranger is both a resource manager and a law enforcement officer. The theme of the job, Sam says, is never knowing what to expect.

He described a recent rather mundane morning of snowplowing trails that quickly turned to a whirlwind afternoon hunt for a bandit who had stolen gas from the Department of Natural Resources and a few other offices located within Sam’s jurisdiction. Teamwork among the rangers, state troopers and other agencies had the thief in custody by the end of the afternoon.

Another day was filled by a more unusual adventure: a six-mile odyssey through the harsh Alaskan bush to deliver a fresh outhouse to a rental cabin.

“No, that’s not something I thought I’d be doing when I graduated from UNI,” Sam chuckled. “But that’s the name of the game.”
Sam Braband ice climbing a frozen waterfall

Sam found plenty of opportunities at UNI that set him on his career path: he led backpacking trips to the Grand Canyon as a student with the UNI Outdoors Program, participated in a tallgrass prairie burn and helped construct a trail system as part of a managing impacts on natural resources course.

Sam says Dr. Kathy Scholl inspired him to work with natural resources.

“She was instrumental in identifying that passion in me and making it a career.”

He also found his wife of seven years, Stacy, within the confines of the Wellness and Recreation Center.

“I worked at the climbing wall in the WRC and she taught Pilates classes. Of course I had to walk past the open glass group fitness studios to get to the climbing wall,” Sam said. The pair noticed each other and connected through a mutual friend.

The two caught a lecture at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center and shared their first date over a beer at Toad’s Bar and Grill on Main Street. More than 3,000 miles and about 10 years later, they and their three children have made their home among a great community in Fairbanks.

“For someone who loves the outdoors, it’s nice to know you’re on the frontier of America’s biggest wilderness — and to have it so close by,” Sam said. 
Sam Braband and his family in front of a lake

Sam believes we should all do our best to appreciate the outdoors while we can. Though many of us take part by way of a simple hike, Sam is different, a bit of a self-described adrenaline junkie.

One of his more exhilarating adventures was climbing the frozen Bridal Veil Falls near Valdez, Alaska. The waterfall stands nearly 500 feet.

Asked if he considers that dangerous, Sam replied matter-of-factly: “It’s all about your sphere of acceptable risk.”

Sam’s quick to mention he even learned ice climbing while at UNI — rather than an Alaskan waterfall, it was an ice-covered silo in the middle of an Iowa winter.