Cooper Landing mountain club goes above adventure

Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2002

The pioneering spirit that brought adventurers north to Alaska in the middle of the 20th century is alive and kicking in Cooper Landing, and the 20 or so members of the Top of the Mountain Club are doing their best to make sure it stays that way.

"The spirit of adventure doesn't die when you get older," said Gene Craig a charter member of the club and Cooper Landing resident for 14 years.

They may be senior citizens, grandmas and grandpas, some well into their golden years, but they are an Alaska breed -- a sport utility vehicle driving group of men and women in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s who don't let a silly thing like age get in their way.

To the members of the Top of the Mountain Club, age is a purely arbitrary number that is more freeing than restrictive, because now that they are in their retirement years, these men and women have the time to do things they have always wanted.


Mayme Ohnemus, a member of the Top of the Mountain Club in Cooper Landing, revisits the same spot in 1999, the same year the club was formed.

Photo courtesy of Top of the Mountain Club

And what Mayme Ohnemus always wanted to do was go to the top of "The Mountain," as Cooper Landing residents fondly refer to Cecil Rhode Mountain, which towers protectively 4,405 feet above the tiny hamlet.

For more than 30 years since she and her husband, Duane, settled in Cooper Landing, Ohnemus often had looked up at the mountain and wondered what it would be like to see her hometown from the vantage point at the top.

Finally, one day as she sat eating lunch with some of her friends, fellow Dall Homemakers, Community Club members or Sexy Senior Dumpster Cleaners -- all groups that share many names on the membership rosters -- Ohnemus looked out of the window straight at the mountain and decided getting to the top was exactly what she was going to do.

Her announcement was met with a rousing chorus of "Oh, sure" but Craig was quick to back up her friend's ambitious' dream.

"'If you go, I'm going with you,' she said," Ohnemus said in an animated retelling of how the club was born. "Gene is game for anything."

As it turns out, so are many others in Cooper Landing.

By word of mouth, a group of 19 ready-and-willing adventurers were signed up to make the trip. Ohnemus orchestrated the entire project. She hired a helicopter and pilot to take the thrill seekers up to the top in shifts. And in true Cooper Landing fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style, a week before they were scheduled to make the flight, Ohnemus decided the morning of Aug. 19, 1999, had dawned too beautiful a day to let pass by. With a few quick phone calls, they were all soon assembled at the softball fields awaiting their aerial ferry.

This is a group that knows how to party, so someone made sure to pack the cheese, crackers and champagne with which to celebrate, while everyone relaxed at their final destination -- the peak of Cecil Rhode Mountain.

Three years later, descriptions of the trip are still vivid and full of enthusiasm.

"It was awesome up there, such a breathtaking view. It was so scary," Ohnemus said, nearly shaking as she recalled the jagged rock pathway she walked on tight-rope style to get to the edge where she could peer down at Cooper Landing nestled far below.

"She scares easy," joked Jacque Greenman, a charter member and one of the JAMs, as the other women fondly refer to Jacque, Ann Engbers and Marjorie VanKooten who all live together in Cooper Landing.

Greenman and her roommates, though, have been to their fair share of mountains. VanKooten used to live near Mount Baker in Washington state.

"We'd work all night and climb all day," she said.

She has been to Thailand, Taiwan, Russia, China, Mexico, England, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland. Between herself and Craig -- who also has seen a bit of the world, including Italy, Spain, France, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, England and Scotland -- the two of them have the entire continent of Europe pretty much covered.

"I didn't get to Ireland, though. I still need to go there," said Craig as an example of the ever ambitious nature of the group's members.

She may be turning 84 in two weeks, but like others in Cooper Landing, there is never a dull moment or a lack of something to do.


Mayme Ohnemus, a member of the Top of the Mountain Club in Cooper Landing, revisits the same spot in 1999, the same year the club was formed.

Photo courtesy of Top of the Mountain Club

"The only reason I would want to be in (side) is if I had a good book," Craig said. "Eighty-four used to seem like an awful, old age, but now that I'm nearer, it doesn't seem so bad."

You're only as young as you feel, and Cooper Landing residents do a pretty good job of maintaining the energy level that will ensure they never age a day.

With one-third of the town's 369 people over the age of 55, the town is becoming somewhat of a retirement community. However, it also is a place where those who want to stay active in their old age can find plenty of others willing to try anything new.

"I think it is a little harder in a big community, harder to find enough people with the same interests," Ohnemus said when asked if the atmosphere in Cooper Landing could exist elsewhere.

President of the club and cousin by marriage of the man who lent his name to "The Mountain," Sue Simpson agrees wholeheartedly.

"It's not 'we do something,' it's when," she said. "I love to be around those people with an onward and upward look and philosophy. They are the kind you like to be around if you are of the same spirit."

Birds of a feather flock together, said Simpson, and that is certainly an adage that applies to the residents of Cooper Landing. They are an aging generation of adventurers who came to the state looking for a change as far back as 50 years ago, and they haven't slowed down since.

"When you are in Alaska you have already done something that others would view as adventurous. It may be that people who have come to Alaska are a little more restless and willing to get out and do something," said Craig.

The die-hard adventurers' spirit led them to Cooper Landing.

"That's why we came. That's why we came to Alaska in the first place," said VanKooten, who worked as a nurse at the Alaska Native Service Hospital in Anchorage for many years before moving to Cooper Landing.

"That is what is unique about our community, and I love it," she said.

No matter if they are climbing mountains, playing softball in the annual tournament, cleaning Dumpsters, walking in the Snail-a-thon or anything else, these seniors are with like-minded people and that makes any time a good one.

"Mainly, I think what makes it such an enjoyable community is that we all have a lot of fun doing what we do. We make the best of it," said Craig. "I could feel (the sense of adventure) when we first started discussing going to the top of Cecil Rhode Mountain. I could feel the enthusiasm in the air. Nobody seemed to draw back because they were old or frail."

"I don't think anything like this could happen in Denison, Texas," said Simpson, comparing her other home with her present one. "We love the people in Cooper Landing, the tranquility, love and caring of the people."

While she and her husband, Glenn, live in Denison for the majority of the year, Simpson said it is in Cooper Landing where they truly feel at home.


Twenty-five members made the trip. They included Mayme Ohnemus, Jan Mitchell, Jacque Greenman, Marge VanKooten, Jim and Pinkie Richardson, Dave and Sally Davis, Gene Craig, Alice Puster, Anne Engbers, Glen and Sue Simpson and their grandson Seth, Mack and Jane McConnel, Jack and Carla Britton, Richard and Paula Iverson, Katie Thomas, Ken Green, Bob and Darlene Church and Irene Stewart. Connie Stafford, front, far left, was the air hostess on the trip.

Photo courtesy of Top of the Mountain Club

"I think in our hearts we are here," she said. "It's our home away from home."

The couple first came to Cooper Landing to visit her cousin -- Helen Rhode -- and it was that connection that made the trip up the mountain especially momentous for Simpson.

"That was a big part of it," she said. "It was awesome. The scenery from up there is something that can't be seen from somewhere else. It is beautiful, God-given territory."

Craig said she most enjoyed the weightless feeling she got while resting so far above the tree line.

"The sensation of being up high -- the feeling of lightness -- everything doesn't seem to be pressing down so hard up there."

While the club's inaugural trip may have inspired its name, the Top of the Mountain Club is more concerned with getting outdoors and seeing exciting places rather than fixating on actually getting to the top of the peaks.

It is hard to determine what activities are club inspired and which are just a group of friends out for a good time. So, while technically a tram ride following the slopes of Alyeska in August 1999 may not have been club endorsed, it was still an opportunity for 11 of the club's members to get another breathtaking view of the Kenai Peninsula from their favorite location -- perched high above the ground.

Similarly, another trip that fall, inspired by a longtime desire to reach Coyote Notch in Cooper Landing, was a smaller scale adventure but still just as rewarding, Ohnemus said.

"The points of interest seemed to be spaced at perfect intervals for catching your breath," wrote Ohnemus in a journal she keeps for each trip. "It was steep, slick -- and did I mention steep?"

After a failed excursion on the DC-3 Era Aviation Vintage flight to Mount McKinley in the summer of 2000 due to high winds and rain, the group scheduled another club expedition for June 19, 2001.


Gene Craig pauses for a photo atop Coyote Notch in September 1999. Craig, a charter member of the club, is the one who gave the club its name.

Photo courtesy of Top of the Mountain Club

This time the skies were perfectly clear.

All 25 members and friends of the Top of the Mountain Club climbed on board and were treated to a vintage flight, complete with champagne and news tidbits circa the 1940s period when the DC-3 was frequently used for commercial and military flights.

"I have a love affair with the DC-3s," Craig said. "I always felt with no instruction at all I could sit and fly it."

Craig may not have had the opportunity to try out her theory, but she and her fellow mountaineers were allowed to visit the cockpit and view McKinley over the pilot and co-pilot's shoulders.

"We went right between the Moose's Tooth, right into the mountain," Ohnemus said. "It just looked like you could reach out and touch it."

The first McKinley trip inspired Ohnemus and others so much that future plans for the club include a possible chartered flight to land at a base camp somewhere on the mountain so Ohnemus really can reach out a touch it.

"I love the thrill of being scared," said adrenaline-junkie Ohnemus, who may have squealed on the knife-like precipices of Cecil Rhode Mountain but still wants to make the trip again.

However, before the club does any repeat performances, there are still many places in and out of the state they want to check out.

"There's an awful lot of places to see," said Ohnemus, who had a hand in deciding this summer's destination -- the abandoned Kennicott copper mines in the Interior of Alaska near Chitna.

"I've been wanting to go to Kennicott for ages. I used to go to Chitna, but in those days you couldn't get to Kennicott," said Craig who will be among the group heading north sometime later this summer.

"I'm really curious. I really want to go."

Some, like Craig, will fly as close as they can then enter the mines by tour bus. The road warriors of the group will drive in a caravan of motor homes and other vehicles.

While the exact date for the trip has yet to be set, the group has tentatively decided on the last week of August.

One thing is for certain, though, regardless of when or where they go, the camaraderie that flourishes in the Top of the Mountain Club will make it a trip for the picture album and will, at least, temporarily satisfy their appetites for adventure.

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