Arctic Flight

Posted By: Sarah

April 11, 2013

2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the first flight in Alaska. In 1913, a group of merchants in Fairbanks shipped a plane up by steamboat. Two barnstormers* flew the biplane 200 feet above Weeks Field in Fairbanks, going a mere 45 miles per hour. The flight was considered a spectacle, and they sold tickets to the show. 100 years later, Alaska has the highest number of pilots per capita than any other state with 8,550 pilots or 1 in 78 residents.

Prior to the airplane, dog mushing (the official state sport of Alaska) was a major means of transportation. The famous 1,150 mile Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome commemorates the 1925 serum run, in which mushers delivered medicine to diphtheria-stricken Nome when all other forms of transportation failed. Today, a number of small towns and villages rely on scheduled or charted bush flying services for cargo, passengers, and mail. Many communities have small air taxi services, which help meet the demand for customized transport to remote areas.

In Denali National Park, the first airplane landed in 1924 by aviator Carl Ben Eielson along the bluffs of Copper Mountain**. Between 1925 and 1927, the Alaska Road Commission built two airfields in the area: a 1500-foot strip near Lake Minchumina, built as an emergency landing area, followed by the 600-foot-long Kantishna Aviation Field, “on the left limit of Moose Creek between the creek and Wonder Lake,” which was used by area miners along with an “occasional tourist”. Nearly thirty years after the introduction of aviation in the park, Camp Denali founders Ginny Wood, Celia Hunter, and Woody Wood took a flight to Wonder Lake that would change their lives.

Ginny and Celia were WASPs (Women Air Service Pilots) in WWII. They were trained to fly planes from the factories to training centers and ports of embarkation. They met while ferrying surplus planes. After the war they traveled to Alaska and worked in a number of early tour agencies, flying cargo and visitors to remote locations in Alaska. Ginny once said, “Flying is 90 percent boredom, but in Alaska, 10 percent is sheer terror! You may have to land dead stick on a sandbar or in the tundra. When I first came here there were no airfields, and definitely no wheat fields where you could put a plane down safely.”***

In 1950, Ginny’s husband Woody was a park ranger in Denali and heard about a particular ridge from Superintendent, Grant Pearson, above Moose Creek just beyond the north-western boundary of the park that he thought they should explore.   So, one weekend Ginny, Woody and Celia flew their Cessna 170 out to the airstrip at Kantishna, shouldered their rucksacks and set out with Les Viereck, the Wonder Lake ranger.  Hiking through low clouds and drizzle, they happened upon an exquisite tundra pond at the edge of the ridge.  They asked Les to return on a clear day and let them know if the mountain could be seen from there.  A week later Les’s written message back to the park entrance was simply, “WOW!” That fall, they homesteaded 67 acres of that ridge, centered on Nugget Pond, and built Camp Denali. They ran it for 25 years, forging livelihoods out of ingenuity, hospitality, and love of the land.

Camp Denali started arranging flights for guests in 1981. Lowell Thomas Jr. flew guests around the mountain in his Cessna 207 for twelve years. Today, locally based Kantishna Air Taxi provides flight seeing tours around Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range where you can see the vast scale of the mountains, glaciers, and landscape.

If you are coming through Anchorage this summer, be sure to check out the Anchorage Museum exhibit Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation. The exhibit features historical artifacts, video footage and photographs telling compelling stories of survival, adventure and ingenuity. Demonstrating in 100 years, how airplanes have evolved from frivolous spectacle to crucial part of the Alaska way of life.

For more information visit



*Barnstorming was a popular form of entertainment in the 1920’s where stunt pilots would perform tricks with airplanes, either individually or in groups called a flying circus.

** A pioneer aviator, Carl Ben Eielsen attained international recognition for several polar expeditions. After he was killed in a crash in 1929, the U.S. Congress changed the name of Copper Mountain to Mount Eielson to honor his memory. Eielson Visitor Center, at mile 66 on the Denali Park Road, is also named after him.

***Excerpt from Women Pilots of Alaska: 37 Interviews and Profiles by Sandi Sumner.


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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.