Denali Dispatch

It is our pleasure to present Dispatches, a journal of the goings on at Camp Denali & North Face Lodge.

Written by members of our staff, Dispatches is an opportunity to peek into life in Denali: wildlife sightings, Denali National Park issues, recipes from our kitchens, and insights into the guest experience at Camp Denali & North Face Lodge. Dispatches will carry on through the winter, when we hope to share stories of snowy ski adventures, deep cold, and the events of a small Alaskan community.



Batten Down the Hatches, Winter is Coming

October 13, 2017

Last month, our lodges closed for the 2017 season. They will be tucked away in snow at the foot of the Kantishna Hills until May. It’s an incredible thing to see; within two weeks, we go from a full house to shutters on the windows. After decades of fine-tuning the operation, a small crew manages to wrap up fall projects and batten down the hatches for the winter in less than two weeks.

Guests often ask: What is involved in this process? What does it take? How do you do it? You mean nobody watches over the place in the winter? This year we decided to keep a daily log about each day’s accomplishments.

Day 1, September 11th

The final guests of the season departed today. Wheels were down the driveway at 6:45 a.m. as the staff consumed as much coffee as they could before their last 7 a.m. shift. Today was “strip and clean.” All the linens, carpets, duvets, curtains, quilts, wool blankets, and hand towels were gathered from the guest cabins and rooms. Laundry will dictate the pace of closing; the water lines can’t be shut off and drained until the laundry is done. Our four washing machines will be running on the hour every hour for the next several days as each and every item is cleaned one last time and folded on shelves. At 6 p.m. sharp, the staff gathers for our “Thanksgiving” feast to celebrate the year.

Day 2, September 12th

“Deep clean” and “clear out” summarized the workday for our staff. The Potlatch kitchen and dining room at Camp Denali were unrecognizable by the end of the day. The long tables had transformed into winter storage shelves as the kitchen was gutted and scrubbed down to the last baseboard. Our office files, computers, and potted plants were packed and loaded into the van that would drive them to our winter location the following day. The big project, which would take several days, was digging new outhouse holes for two guest cabins. This has to be done in the fall after guests depart, as the ground doesn’t thaw until mid-July!

Day 3, September 13th

In our staff community, this is known as “Happy Bus” day, the day our seasonal staff members depart for their next adventure. Incidentally our staff’s arrival day in May has the same name, as they are happy to arrive, but also happy to depart. The morning was filled with heartfelt goodbyes and warm wishes. A caravan departed after breakfast, and that’s when the real closing work began. The laundry reached new heights, and the outhouse digging continued.

Day 4, September 14th

The atmosphere dawned differently today. Only 15 folks were left on site to complete the remaining tasks. A group hiked up Camp Ridge to shutter up Pika Hut for the winter. The hike is beautiful, but try doing it with tools! The greenhouse was also shut down today, the last of the produce succumbing to the falling temperatures. The Potlatch kitchen received its first of many layers of buff & wax. And the crew outside continued to dig…Digging a hole through tundra by hand that is 4 x 4 feet square and 8 feet deep is no small feat. The second hole to be dug had better site access, which allowed the tractor to be brought in.

Day 5, September 15th

The sun was obliging today, a nice gift as most of the work happens outside. Trail work was done to the new outhouse locations. This involves brush clearing and laying gravel. Tundra cut up for the new path was repurposed to reclaim the vegetation on the old trails. Each chimney at Camp Denali was swept (think Mary Poppins), a fun job to do when the sun is shining down. The water was turned off at Camp Denali today and the hydro line drained, so the staff relocated to North Face Lodge for hot showers and meals.

Day 6, September 16th

This day can be summarized as “generally lifting heavy things.” Shutters were put on windows of the common buildings at Camp Denali. Next time you visit, take note of the number of windows there are and you won’t envy this task. The tractor and bulldozer were greased and the final coats of wax were applied to the Potlatch kitchen floor. 

Day 7, September 17th

The Potlatch dining room and kitchen were officially closed today. The final stages of winterizing the building were completed and the power shut off. The staff cabin, Motherlode, was raised one foot. The tundra likes to do some “reclaiming” of its own, which usually involves buildings sinking beneath grade. One of the original cabins, Romany, built 56 years ago by the founders, had a rotten log replaced. The afternoon brought the work crew to North Face Lodge, where half of the guest rooms were winterized and locked up. We use thin wire to fasten the doors closed. We worry that if the doors pop open, winter frost heaves will move the building enough that the doors won’t close in the spring. This also helps prevent strong winter winds blowing open the doors and turning our guest rooms into snow caves.

Day 8, September 18th

The deep clean of North Face Lodge’s kitchen began today, an interesting project to undertake while our chef is still preparing three wholesome meals a day for the closing crew. Several of the appliances were winterized, and our fleet of small passenger vehicle was prepared to weather the winter onsite. Wiper blades are removed and stored so the heavy snow load does not bend them out of shape. Battery cables are also disconnected, as a drained and dead battery will freeze and burst.

Day 9, September 19th

The last loads of laundry were washed today, allowing the washing machines to be winterized. This signals that the end is in sight. By this time, the last roundtrips to Fairbanks or Anchorage have been completed. It is important to make sure everything is already on site that will be essential come May; if the road is not open in the spring, our opening crew will have to fly in. Important items to have stocked include lumber for building projects, rock softener salt for the water system, and plenty of coffee. The local utility companies have filled our fuel and propane tanks, and drained the septic systems. The day ended packing vehicles for the next day’s journey. Windows at North Face Lodge were boarded, leaving only a few key tasks to be completed on departure day.

Day 10, September 20th

Several vehicles took off in the morning after breakfast with supplies that would need to spend the winter in a heated space, although one of the vehicles was packed with the final garbage run of the season. The root cellar was emptied, and the remaining produce was trucked out to share amongst our neighbors. The final stages of winterizing North Face Lodge were the last tasks to complete; water lines were drained and filled with glycol, and the generator was turned off. There is something incredibly peaceful when the thrum of engine noise from our powerhouse finally gives way to nature’s silence. The last vehicles departed mid-afternoon, officially completing the 2017 summer season.

It can be an anticlimactic end to the season, but the lodges look peaceful and ready for several months of quiet. There are a few lucky people who may fly/ski/mush into Kantishna in the winter and pay a visit, but for the most part, there won’t be any human footprints on the ground until May.

September 25th

Well it hadn’t snowed yet, so one last group of remaining staff rallied back in to Kantishna to drop off a few other vehicles whose annual maintenance had been completed. You never really know when the summer work might end.

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