May 06, 2015
“Fun Hog” month is how we refer to March in Denali. It is the long anticipated arrival of spring for year-round residents. Spring in Interior Alaska does not evoke birds chirping or tulips popping out of the ground; there is likely still over a foot of snow and nobody flinches if daytime temperatures don’t make it above -20°F. The arrival of spring here means only one thing for certain: daylight. The sensation of going to bed and rising with the sun is one that has almost been forgotten. For Alaskans, it is time to cash in vacation days and go play.
For my first winter camping trip longer than a weekend, I could have done without the -30°F thermometer reading when my musher, 10 sled dogs, and I hit the trail. The two-week adventure would take us from the entrance of Denali National Park to Kantishna and back. For someone who spends all summer inside the Park, it was an incredible thing to see Toklat River frozen rather than flowing, Eielson Visitor Center blanketed in snow, and an empty Park Road. For the most part, the winter skiing & mushing trail stays off the road, wandering its way through the river valleys instead. Every once in awhile, we would hop onto the road for a low, straight stretch. It was surreal to see a 30MPH sign sticking out of the snow, signaling cars that hadn’t passed that way in months.
I would have written it off as a ridiculous notion if three years ago someone told me that I would seek out and be thrilled by a winter camping trip where temperatures stayed below zero, 15-30 miles of skiing per day would be involved, and better yet, I would be sleeping in a tent in winter, not a cabin. But I found myself with a smile on my face, in nothing but a base layer at -10°F relaxing in the sunshine. I was looking at Denali with a bluebird sky backdrop eating a well-deserved Snickers after skiing up and over Stony Dome. I had spent the last several hours skiing after a team of sled dogs going faster than reasonable for pulling 500 pounds of sled, musher, and gear.
I have camped more nights than I can count in wilderness all over this country, but no trip quite compares to stepping out in the morning to rosy, snow capped mountains, frozen landscape, and nothing but deserted horizon.
March 02, 2015
While there are certainly colder nights and more snow in New England than in the Park, winter still reigns, even as more light returns each day. Year-round staff busily work at setting up all the details for the summer. Simon and Jenna flew in to the lodges to see that all was well. Interviews for new staff are nearly wrapped up, and now the tough decisions begin about who to hire. Emails fly back and forth between returning staff expressing enthusiasm in contemplation of another season of work. In the office, reservations flood in, and cabins and rooms fill up for the season to come.
Each year as the summer season approaches, year-round staff compare numbers of guests in the previous season to those booked for the season to come. Last year? Two thousand, four hundred twenty-one guests. That makes for a lot of people ferried from the Park entrance to the end of the road, a lot of world-class meals served, and a lot of questions asked. How do you do this? Do you stock supplies over the winter? How does the food get here?
The simple answers? A knowing smile, no, and the same way the people get here. Truck, Cessna, or, as shown in the 2013 photo from early May, late snowmelt necessitated flights from Talkeetna, over the Alaska Range, and then snow machine to cover the four miles from Kantishna. With supplies. Enough to last until the road opened to traffic.
In another part of the office, Jenna reviews the previous season’s inventory as she ponders prospective orders for the season. Inventory lists show what a successful season looks like, and the revelation is mind-boggling. In 2014, we soaked through 12,000 tea bags. $3,960. As I sit here with my single cup of Earl Grey, I can’t quite get my arms around that number. Marginally easier to visualize are the 1,170 pounds of coffee beans, brewed into my addiction of choice at a whopping cost of $11,466. Then there are those 5,000 (five thousand) pounds of flour for daily bread and yummy cookies. That’s one hundred 50-pound bags of flour hefted in and out of the Warehouse. Hmmm. No wonder our bakers are so fit. And the eggs: 5,400 eggs. Per month. Twenty-eight thousand (28,000!) total eggs consumed.
But the statistic that amuses the most and prompts hoots of laughter is toilet paper. TP. Outhouses and bathrooms require lots of paper, apparently 1,680 rolls of it. The details continue: each of those 1,680 rolls contains 2,000 inches of paper which divides out to 280,000 feet. Taking that another step, you end up with fifty-three miles of toilet paper. Picture a TP trail going eight times up and down the Wickersham Wall. Or covering the trail out and back to McGonagall Pass with enough length left over to make up for the amount that washes down the McKinley River.
Now that is a statistic.
Exuberantly everyone prepares to pitch in with the work, the lugging and hauling, stowing and shelving, dusting and scrubbing. Thoughts spring forward to the guests’ smiles at the first whiff of morning coffee, their joy at finding a basket of Focaccia on the table, and the satisfaction of seeing that little white roll hanging on the wall.
January 30, 2015
Mid-January is the time we hear back from our previous summer staff whether or not they’ll be returning to work for another season at Camp Denali and North Face Lodge. This time of year is also when we will get an update as to where our Staff has scattered to during the Annual Staff Migrations that occur in late fall and spring.
After a long summer working at Camp Denali, our daring staff are more often than not itching to begin a great adventure, return home to visit family, start new winter jobs, or discover more of Alaska. Being that we are isolated from the rest of the state for most of the summer, our staff takes time planning trips to hike, paddle, climb, and generally explore the different corners of Alaska at the end of the season, just like many of our guests do on their vacations. Many summers, staff will borrow, buy, or rent a car and drive to the Lower 48 discovering the wonders of Eastern Alaska, and the Yukon and British Columbia, Canada.
The choices of exploration and winter work run the gamut. This past fall, three of our staff members Tom, Eric, and Tess, drove from Fairbanks to Massachusetts. One of our hosts, Sadie, took a Yoga Instructor course in New England and is now working at a Yoga center in Costa Rica for the winter. Our Housekeeping Coordinator, Kendall, and her husband, Justin, hiked the Camino de Santiago in Spain and are now exploring Central America. Finally, our Executive Chef, Chris, chose to spend his winter backcountry snowboarding on Mt. Baker as he has done in the past.
Another path chosen by our staff is that of working in Antarctica over the “austral summer.” Two of our current staff members, Kristen and Max, are working as cooks at McMurdo Station. This site is a U.S. Antarctic research center on the south tip of Ross Island. The working season in Antarctica matches up well for our staff because it allows ample time to travel in the spring before heading back to Camp Denali in late May.
Each season our dedicated staff members work tirelessly for more than three months providing amazing experiences for our guests. The time of year when they journey south and begin adventures or go back home is a well-deserved and rewarding time. We relish in hearing their plans before departing and look forward to the migration north in the spring when most of them return to Camp Denali, stories in tow.
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.