The beat of a different drummer

New superintendent of Bighorn Canyon has a lot on his plate, including rock and roll

Mike Tranel — the new leader of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and other National Park Service properties in the region — looks over Horsehoe Bend at Bighorn Canyon during a short hike in the area. Tranel formerly worked for 25 years in Alaska.
Mike Tranel — the new leader of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and other National Park Service properties in the region — looks over Horsehoe Bend at Bighorn Canyon during a short hike in the area. Tranel formerly worked for 25 years in Alaska.
Tribune photo by Mark Davis

By day, he wore the uniform of Park Service ranger in Alaksa. By night, he kept the beat in a classic rock band. Then Mike Tranel got a call; it was time to leave the band behind.

Earlier this year, the National Park Service offered Tranel a newly created position in Wyoming and Montana as group supervisor for Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Devil’s Tower National Monument, Ft. Laramie National Historic Site and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

It was the gig for which he’d been waiting. Tranel was coming home.

Raised in Big Horn, Wyoming, the lanky 59-year-old always felt an indescribable pull to the land. Memories of his boyhood in the mountains and celebrations with family made him long to be near. He left the West to get his undergrad degree at Notre Dame and then got a master’s in geology from the University of Iowa. He soon joined the Park Service and spent time as a ranger at Ocmulgee National Monument, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Denali National Park and Preserve, and at the service’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

He returns home to Wyoming after 25 years in Alaska, most recently as the superintendent of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Skagway.

“The move is great for our family,” said Tranel, whose mother still lives in Billings. “And it’s a great job.”

Tranel settled in Red Lodge with his wife, Mary Tidlow, and two children, Abigail, 12, and Olivia, 10. Tidlow is an architect for the Park Service and works as a facilities manager in energy management. Her job is challenging in trying to make service properties — some new and others close to 300 years old — energy efficient, Tranel said. He has a third daughter, Kelsey, 29 from a previous marriage.

A fitness buff, Tranel enjoys long distance running and biking when he can find the time.

“I’m just trying to keep up with my kids,” he said.

Arriving in the area in June, Tranel had a hectic summer settling his family in the area and getting a grip on new responsibilities. He commutes to Lovell three days a week and splits the rest of his time between the Yellowtail Dam at Ft. Smith, Montana, and other properties in his charge. Managing the four properties should be the challenge of a lifetime, he said — spanning hundreds of miles and covering diverse cultures, both past and present.

“Growing up in the Bighorns, I became interested in all the stories,” Tranel said. “And the stories are all connected here, at the canyon.”

There is some culture shock. Skagway is a busy seaport where thousands of visitors come to the Klondike Gold Rush park from cruise ships. Tranel’s new home is quiet.

“I’ve been surprised by the lack of traffic here,” he said.

One of his main priorities is ramping up visitation at Bighorn Canyon. He’d like to help develop more commercial services in Ft. Smith with the Crow Tribe and he wants to replace the historic log ranch house building at Ewing-Snell that burned in December 2015.

“There’s room for growth. Continuous improvement is what you have to do to be competitive in business. It applies to us here as well,” he said. “If we could double visitor use, we would be able to collect a fee again and that would bring in [needed funds].”

Tranel’s top goal is to modernize facilities and elevate the standards of Bighorn Canyon to that of national park. Tranel also wants to attract local employees to the properties and hopes to encourage more area students to take up studies for NPS jobs.

Todd Johnson, park ranger, appreciates what Tranel has already done in the short time at the park.

“He has a great vision for what he wants to get done,” Johnson said.

Johnson said much of Tranel’s time has been committed to community outreach, spending a lot of time talking with leaders from surrounding communities; Gov. Matt Mead met with Tranel on Wednesday to discuss water issues and for their first meet and greet.

But Johnson had no clue Tranel was an animal on the drums.

Watching the reserved administrator work through the day gives no clues to the wild man behind the drum set at night. Music is in his blood. As Tranel continues to find a routine at work, he’s returning to his music. To start, he’s jamming at Snow Creek Saloon in Red Lodge on Tuesday nights.

“That will be a way to connect with a band,” he said.

This time maybe he’ll get a chance to have input on the group’s name. His previous band was called the Hot Toddies.

“The band was already named by the time I joined,” he said, “so you can’t pin that on me.”

To see a Tranel drum solo, visit