Denise Landau pretty much knew from the get-go that she would be spending her life in the out-of-doors interfacing in some undefined capacity with critters. But, as she was winding her way through high school, she figured that ambiguous vocational objective would be limited to traipsing through the woods of her native Michigan.
She could scarcely have guessed that her wild life would eventually take her to Svalbard, Glacier Bay National Park, the Amazon Basin, the South Pacific, Antarctica and the South Georgia Islands, a remote (understatement) archipelago made famous (all things being relative) by Ernest Shackleton’s ridiculously bad-assed “Endurance” expedition in 1915.
Landau first visited the Roaring Fork Valley when she was a senior in high school in 1973.
“My father brought me out here to ski at Snowmass,” Landau said. “He told me we were going to the most beautiful place on Earth. We rode all the lifts. I really liked the area.”
Landau attended Michigan State, where she took degrees in wildlife biology and field natural history.
“I loved the thought of studying animals,” she said. “I thought it would be in Michigan, which is also a beautiful place.”
Fate intervened when Landau landed a seasonal position working with the National Park Service, first in the North Cascades in Washington, then in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, where she began to develop what turned out to be a life-long fixation with really cold places.
“Those were five-month jobs, which meant I could teach skiing at Aspen,” Landau said. “Which I have been doing since 1978. The first five years were at Aspen Highlands. The rest have been at Snowmass.”
She had adopted the Roaring Fork Valley as her home base shortly after graduating college. Her father was mystified.
He “introduced me to this place, yet he couldn’t understand why I was moving here,” Landau said with a grin.
Her gig with the Park Service in Glacier Bay was textbook Smokey the Ranger. She gave interpretive talks and slide shows, led nature walks and studied wildlife and park management. Several times a week, gigantic cruise ships would arrive, disgorging a 1,000 people at a time. Landau would talk over the PA system of the ships, edifying passengers about the ecology of the area.
Though the cruise ship aspect of the Park Service job was a bit overwhelming, it turned out to be one of the most fortuitous things to ever cross Landau’s path.
After leaving the Park Service, she guided trips in northern Alaska for nine years, all the while returning each winter to the Roaring Fork Valley to teach skiing.
“In the middle of all this, I got offered a full-time job in St. Louis working for a small cruise ship company that owned three ships, each holding only 130 passengers,” Landau said.
One of the three ships went to Alaska in the summer and through the Panama Canal and up the Rio Orinoco in Venezuela in the winter. Another ship would go between the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. The third ship would go to the Arctic in the summer and the Antarctic in the winter.
As the company’s director of operations, Landau was not just able but required to ride upon the ocean blue to all these exotic locales.
“I hired the expedition staff, organized the shore excursions, arranged for all the necessary legal and environmental permits and scouted for new locations,” she said. “I was traveling two weeks every month. It was during this time that I really got bitten by the traveling bug.”
It was also during this time that Landau’s traveling bug started to become polar specific.
Next on this dream life was a stint working for another cruise company, Quark Expeditions, which is headquartered in Connecticut. Quark operated seven ships that mainly went to the Arctic and Antarctic. Once again, Landau was, among other duties, in charge of hiring and organizing the company’s expedition staff.
“I did a lot of environmental impact assessment writing,” she said. “I was also still teaching skiing back in the Roaring Fork Valley. I finally convinced my bosses to let me move to Colorado in 1997. That’s when I became a full-time resident of the valley. I had managed to carve out a niche for myself.”
That niche manifest itself at least partially in 1999 when Landau became involved with an outfit called the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators.
“This is an organization that sets the environmental guidelines for ships and tourists visiting Antarctica with minimum impact,” Landau said. “We established standards for whale watching, for seals, for lots of things. We established the regulation for there being only one ship at a time in a harbor or bay. At the time, tourism in Antarctica was really getting big. We had nine ships and 24 member companies when I started. When I left after serving nine years as the executive director, we had 60 ships and 108 member companies.
“I had to go to many meetings about the Antarctic Treaty and I had to listen to representatives from all these countries, all of whom want to prove their worth to their bosses,” she continued. “Just representing the U.S. would be people from the Department of State, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. It got to be too much.”
Landau decided it was time to move on. She said she rarely saw her husband.
In the middle of all this travel to some of the most-boondock locations on the planet, Landau met and married an Englishman named Dick Filby. They were married atop Aspen Mountain in 2002. They still maintain a house in England. Filby works for Rare Bird Alert. Established in 1991, Rare Bird Alert is the longest-running instant bird news service in the UK. Its team of experienced and dedicated birders check and send reports as soon as they break, 16 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Filby also established the bird-feeding program on top of Sam’s Knob at Snowmass.
Not content to catch her breath for more than about 20 seconds, in the fall of 2008, Landau signed on with an outfit called the South Georgia Heritage Trust, the goal of which, according to the group’s website, is “to work with all who wish to preserve the island’s natural and historical heritage for future generations — to redress the damage to its environment done in the past, and to preserve the human heritage of the island which so clearly shows the best and worst of humanity. The groundbreaking SGHT Habitat Restoration Project will save native birds from extinction and increase by millions the numbers of endangered seabirds on South Georgia.”
During the old-timey days, South Georgia became a major setting for the seal- and whale-harvesting industries. According to Landau, the seal population of South Georgia came within a whisker of being totally wiped out. Bad as that was, the main damage inflicted upon South Georgia’s rich ecosystem came from the inadvertent introduction of the Norway brown rat, which devastated South Georgia’s native bird population.
The SGHT has been working to right that environmental wrong. Though the methods might seem cold, the goal has been to restore the ecology of the island by eradicating the island’s sizeable rat population.
According to Landau, the task was daunting and complicated but not impossible.
“South Georgia is 100 miles long and 40 miles wide at its widest point,” Landau said. “It’s about the size of Long Island. Down the middle, it has a large range of mountains that are home to a lot of glaciers. Rats won’t cross glaciers, so they live in isolated pockets.”
In 2011, 2013 and 2015, the SGHT brought helicopters in from New Zealand, along with a team of eradication specialists.
“They had experience because New Zealand is trying to eradicate all non-native species by 2050,” Landau said. “The helicopters, which had to be brought in by ship, would drop big bait buckets. The bait was like you would use at home to kill mice. The rats would take it back to their nests and die. The teams would do on-ground inspections.”
The program has been so successful that, on May 8, Landau said the SGHT hopes to announce that South Georgia Island is now rat-free. The invasive-species-eradication lessons learned on South Georgia are already being exported to other isolated islands, like Gough — which is near Tristan de Cunha — and the Falklands.
“The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was so impressed with our success on South Georgia that they had me over in February to talk about fundraising,” Landau said. “The SGHT had raised more than $12 million, which is pretty good for a place no one had heard of.”
In the midst of all this, Landau continues to run her own eponymous company, which she started in 1998. She handles permits, environmental documentation and logistics for a number of cruise ship lines that lead tours of Greenland, the Canadian Arctic and Svalbard, home to the world’s northernmost real town and also home to a sizeable population of polar bears.
She is clearly smitten by frosty regions, saying she loves loves “everything about ice.
“The way it looks, the color, the way it moves. I love glacier ice. You hold a piece of glacier ice in your hands and you know it’s thousands of years old. I also love the Arctic and Antarctic wildlife — the seals and penguins.”
Yet, she always returns home to the Roaring Fork Valley.
“I love living here — the relaxed attitude about life, that people are always skiing, hiking or biking,” she said. “They want to be outside. I consider myself a global citizen, or maybe a modern-day gypsy would be a better way to word it.”
She also remains grounded hereabouts because of the joy she finds teaching skiing.
“I teach all ages and abilities and seeing the smiles inside and out of all my guests who have accomplished new skills in skiing that makes skiing more fun, safer and adventurous is so rewarding,” Landau said. “I realize this sounds a bit trite, but I love when people discover new ways to tactically approach skiing and use subtle parts of their body to efficiently and effectively ski better. That confidence then can be used in all our aspects of their life.
“I also find it a wonderful challenge to quickly be able to sort out our guests’ learning styles in order to be more effective for me and for them,” she continued. “The challenge of successfully working with nearly every type of personality and age keeps a smile on my face.”