Wintertime Life in a Small Community

Posted By: Jan

February 06, 2013

Between late May and mid September our staff live, play, and work on site at Camp Denali and North Face Lodge, set deep in the heart of Denali National Park far from lines of supply.  We generate our own power on-site, bring our food in once weekly via a box truck, and fix darn near everything without the aid of off-site handymen or hardware stores.  When Denali’s 90 mile long road leading into our lodges closes for winter and the snow begins to fly, we pack up and move as well.  Most of our 50 person summer staff spend the winters, like the migratory birds we see in Denali, in more southerly climes.  Our staff can be found as lifties at ski resorts, cooks in Antarctica, set-up crew for Burning Man in Nevada, or as trekkers around the world.  Our small winter staff (Simon, Jenna, Martha, Sarah, Katherine, and myself, along with the dog, Chulitna) move operations to our winter office each fall, located eight miles south of the Denali National Park Railroad Depot along the George Parks Highway. 

Our winter community generally has around 200 people living here.  Of course, at any one point you’re as likely to find a household empty with a “Gone to Hawaii for January” sign on the door as you are to find a neighbor from whom to borrow a cup of sugar.  The nearest towns are Cantwell (about 25 miles to the south) and Healy (to the north about 30 miles), neither of which have a “proper” grocery store, but both of which have a bar, churches, a gas station, and a K-12 school.  Along the road to Healy in winter you drive by the “ghost town” of the park entrance facilities, with boarded up hotels and stores, each awaiting the return of summer and traffic.

Our little community is home to an eclectic bunch.  Dog mushers, National Park Service personnel, off-season bus drivers and raft guides top the list.  Many are self-proclaimed hermits in winter.  Our local community center occasionally draws us together, with events such as Monday night yoga or Fridays children’s play group.  When I recently attended an event there, the only tracks leading to the center in the fresh snow were from skis, feet, snowmachines (known as snowmobiles if you are from outside of Alaska), and one fat-tire bike. Recognizing the tracks is part of the beauty and, to a degree, the claustrophobic nature of this little place. I’ve had friends identify my ski tracks and know whose homes I had visited, and I’ve predicted (with accuracy!) exactly when a friend of mine could be found running his dog team at a particular point in our local trail network. 

As we gain 6 minutes of light a day (that’s nearly 45 minutes a week!), it’s easy to wax nostalgic about the darker days of winter behind us.  Most of us have taken a few weeks to travel “outside” for a spell, or watched an entire series of whatever your favorite TV program is on Netflix.  All summer, as we stay packed to the gills with quintessential busy-ness, I think wistfully of those dark, cold days of winter to come.  And then, somehow, in the moment, those dark, cold days are so busy.  Friends to ski with, work to do, cabin repairs to work on, dogs to walk, town trips to run, family to visit, and suddenly it’s nearing the end of winter.  For most of us here in Denali Park, February and March represent the sweetest months of winter, with good snow pack and daylight in which to enjoy it. So for me, that stack of 10 books I planned to read is still 8 books tall, and likely to remain so.  The recipes I had hoped to try are untouched, the knitting still in the corner and the dream of learning to play a little guitar still a far-fetched notion.  But winter, here in this huge and yet very small place we call our winter home, continues at its unhurried (and yet somehow expeditious) pace.

< Back to the Blog

Share Share on Facebook

Subscribe via RSS

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 the special sightings notebook, brush up on Denali National Park issues, read about our ongoing projects in sustainability, and maybe get a whiff of what’s cooking in the kitchens. 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.