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 www.anchoragemusuem.org.
*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.
February 14, 2013
This Valentine’s Day we’re reminded of the romance of the tundra. The mountains, wildlife, and natural scenery have provided inspiration to a number of artists trying to capture the beauty with each word, shutter click, or stroke of the brush. Artist or not, Denali develops a passion and love for the natural world in every person. It also ignites a love in one another. Among the community and camaraderie of fellow travelers: friendships develop, families get closer, and in some cases romances bloom.
At Camp Denali and North Face Lodge, it’s not uncommon to find a guest celebrating their anniversary or honeymoon. A stay offers the opportunity to enjoy daily adventures in Denali through hiking, biking, and canoeing together. The evening affords time to relax by the fire while gazing at the stunning Alaska mountain range. The beautiful setting has even inspired marriage proposals, as we found out last summer. One particular evening during the sharing of the day’s highlights at dinner, a couple of guests announced their engagement. Cheers erupted throughout the dining room.
As a staff, we often get asked if our summers are anything like the movie Dirty Dancing: full of excitement and romance (and dancing). While we do have the time of our lives living in a spectacular setting with wonderful people, and sometimes even have a few nights of dancing, it’s not quite like the movies. Dating in such a remote setting can be challenging. A “date” often entails going on a hike, canoe, or bike ride. With fifty people in our small community and most staff members having a roommate, say goodbye to privacy. And if things happen to not work out, there is nowhere to run. But even with all the challenges, a number of couples have developed relationships that last.
The lodge has been the setting of a few staff weddings throughout the years. A couple of summers ago, two staff members held their wedding up on Camp Ridge at Pika Hut. Nearly 30 staff members attended the celebration in the small hut. All the cake, food, and flowers were backpacked up the steep 3 mile trail to the hut for the “I Do’s”. Other locations that have inspired weddings and proposals include the greenhouse, Cranberry Ridge, and Potlatch (Camp Denali’s main dining/living room). This January, staff members Marshall Ambros and Megan Mulcahy (pictured) got engaged! What started as a day hike a couple of summers ago has led to the promise of endless hikes and adventures together.
While some might choose to mark Valentine’s Day with flowers, teddy bears, and chocolates, we like to reminisce about the things that romance us back to Denali year in and year out. The smells and colors of the wildflowers, exciting encounters with grizzly bears, delicious meals, cozy cabins, and yes, the camaraderie with our fellow travelers and staff, in all its forms.
October 11, 2012
There are a number of things we are proud of at Camp Denali and North Face Lodge: our fine cuisine, unparalleled views, unique lodging, our longevity (60+ years). But one of the things we are most proud of is our staff. To quote one of our guests, “Although it is impossible to beat the beauty of this place, the staff are your next best asset. Their knowledge and enthusiasm were unbeatable and most enjoyable.”
Our small community of 48 staff members live, work, and play in the heart of Denali. When you arrive at our lodges, each and every staff member is there to help and welcome you into the community. Whether it’s a staff member you see or don’t see, each person works a number of jobs to help make the guest experience a memorable one.
The first staff members you meet are our naturalist drivers, whose responsibility is to provide an introduction to Denali National Park and drive safely on the one lane, gravel road 90 miles into our lodges. Upon arrival, our hosts are waiting to welcome you. They strive to make you feel at home and offer assistance during your stay. The next morning is the first of many delicious meals; our cooks and bakers craft by hand each of our fine breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. The servers deliver these meals to you and help to satisfy your appetite. After breakfast, our naturalist guides take you out to experience the park firsthand; sharing their knowledge of the wildlife, geology, botany, or history of Denali National Park.
Behind the scenes, there are a number of staff members working. The housekeepers: who help meticulously clean and prepare your room or cabin, making it a space of comfort and retreat. The greenhouse crew: growing and cultivating greens for the meals. The operations staff: fixing, building, and checking that everything runs as it should. We all chip in with duties like washing dishes and vehicles. Each person contributes to the community, making it a well-oiled machine.
The scope of talent in our staff ranges in fields, degrees, and education from just graduated high school to those with a doctorate. The age range represented is between 19 and 70. They migrate to Denali from places as close as Fairbanks or as far away as New Zealand or Antarctica! Some staff have been returning for twenty plus summers, others are fresh faces offering a new perspective. A few of our guests have even loved their experience so much they joined our staff!
On days off you will find the staff out enjoying and appreciating this place we are privileged to call home: hiking, backpacking, rafting, canoeing, biking, socializing, berry picking, swimming, playing games, or just basking in the beauty.
Wherever our staff comes from, whatever their position, and however long they stay, they are an integral part in supporting our mission to “Provide active learning experiences and foster stewardship of the natural world through a tradition of excellence, community, and place.” We hope you have the opportunity to join our small community some summer as a guest or perhaps, one of our staff.
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.