Rustic retreat celebrates 50th anniversary

Posted: Sunday, July 28, 2002

CAMP DENALI (AP) -- Everyone seemed pleased -- but tired.

About three dozen visitors to this rustic lodge and wilderness center deep in the heart of Denali National Park had finished their supper and been asked to describe their first outings.

On the bus ride the previous day, they'd all spotted bears and caribou and watched the clouds part to reveal Mount McKinley. But setting off on foot that morning, they still managed to see a lot more.

On a walk along Wonder Lake, one party glimpsed a pair of loons with 2-day-old chicks, then visited the ridge where landscape photographer Ansel Adams composed a famous picture. Crossing a meadow of spongy tundra, another group watched two beavers swimming near their lodge, then walked a little farther and found a champion bull moose grazing in a pond.

Trekking 10 miles over a series of ridgelines, a third contingent identified dozens of wildflowers, birds and small mammals -- then found wolf droppings studded with the hoof cartilage of a partly digested moose.

After all the groups had reported in, an elderly voice piped up from the back of the dining hall.

''Well, I just sat on the porch of the A-frame reading a book,'' said Ginny Wood, one of the Alaskans who founded Camp Denali 50 years ago this summer. ''And I watched a big, blond grizzly walk right past me.''

Sometimes good things happen to those who sit and wait.

It isn't every 84-year-old grandmother who would consider a personal visit by a barren-ground grizzly a stroke of good fortune. Then again, Ginny isn't your usual elder -- just as Camp Denali isn't your usual resort.

In fact, it's not a resort at all, according to its brochure. Camp Denali is a small enclave of cabins, on a slope near Wonder Lake, that can accommodate 35 to 40 guests, ideally the kind who prefer nature over television, room service and bar tabs.

Each of the camp's sleeping cabins is equipped with a wood stove, propane lights and a view of Mount McKinley but no electricity or running water (though each has an outhouse, and other buildings provide showers and power outlets).

A large staff includes several full-time naturalists and a couple of young gourmet cooks. A bakery produces fresh bread, and a greenhouse supplies green salads. A central lodge serves as library and meeting hall, and a natural-history center brims with plant and animal collections. Accomplished scientists and authors are invited to the camp all summer to talk to guests about nature.

The camp began with Ginny's love of flying. She was born in 1919 to a supportive mother and a father who once rode the rails out West. She grew up in the wide-open world of eastern Oregon and Washington during the barnstorming era of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.

She was 4 when her father took her on her first plane ride. She was 10 when she and her friends tried to build their own plane. During high school, she learned about horseback riding and packing while working on dude ranches in the summer, and in winter she learned to ski.

She attended Washington State University in the late 1930s but dropped out to bicycle around Europe for a year. She lived in New York City, then returned to college at the University of Washington in Seattle. There she heard about a nationwide effort to train civilian pilots at U.S. colleges. Ten percent of the applicants could be women, so Ginny applied and in 1941 earned her wings.

As America entered World War II, she quit college a second time to join the Women Airforce Service Pilot program, in which about a thousand American women piloted military aircraft around the country as part of the war effort. Ginny flew virtually every type of military airplane made, from twin-engine bombers to the fast but troublesome P-39s. Sometimes she flew them from Southern California to Great Falls, Mont., where male pilots took over the controls to transport the planes to Alaska.

Women couldn't fly to Alaska, Ginny was told. There were ''no facilities'' there for them. Still, she listened to the relay pilots' stories about the big land up north and resolved that one day she'd fly there herself.

Ferrying planes out of Portland after the war, Ginny met fellow pilot and kindred spirit Celia Hunter. Late in 1946, the two women were hired to fly a pair of war-surplus planes to Kotzebue. The trip through Canada was fraught with bad weather and red tape. It took them 27 days. They finally reached Fairbanks on New Year's Day, 1947 -- and quickly fell in love with the country.

''There, what you look like, whether you had money, whether your family was Boston society or raised on a stump ranch -- it didn't matter,'' Celia later said. ''You were accepted for what you were able to do, and you were free to do many things.''

You could even stake your own land.

In 1951, the northern boundary of Mount McKinley National Park ended just shy of the old mining community of Kantishna. Land north of the boundary was open for staking under terms of the federal Homestead Act.

But who would want to?

Gold mining had played out; only a few old-timers hung onto their claims. There were no roads to the park and very few visitors. Motorists who wanted to visit the highest mountain in North America had to load their car on a slow train from Fairbanks or Anchorage, depart at the McKinley depot, then endure a white-knuckle ride out the 89-mile, single-lane, cliff-hugging park road to the Wonder Lake ranger station.

Ginny met Woody in Fairbanks in 1947 and they married in 1950. One year later, while Woody was working as a ranger at Mount McKinley, the couple began talking over the idea of staking land beyond the park boundary for the construction of a small tourist resort.

It was partly Celia's idea. She'd flown her plane to Kantishna to explore the area with Ginny, Woody and chief ranger Les Viereck. When the weather moved in and they couldn't fly out, the four friends decided to walk up a ridge overlooking Moose Creek, just outside the park boundary. There they found a sloping benchland, perhaps suitable for some cabins with a view of Mount McKinley.

Woody, Ginny and Celia claimed the property in the summer of '51.

With Woody and Ginny spending the summer in the Katmai, Celia had flown back to Wonder Lake to stake 80 acres above Moose Creek as a ''trade and manufacturing site'' under terms of the Homestead Act. That fall, the partners returned and began building their first few tent cabins. The plan was for guests to cook their own food and see after themselves while their hosts enjoyed their independence.

''All we wanted was an excuse to spend some time here,'' Ginny says, ''because we loved this country, and we thought: 'How can we make a living in the summertime here?' ''

They'd just built the first tent cabin in the summer of '52 when a friend flew overhead in a plane and dropped a note: I have three live ones for you. I'll meet you down at the airport.

''It was three gals from Juneau,'' the first customers, Ginny recalls. They soon informed their hosts that they were really hungry. The partners all looked at each other.

''We hadn't even thought about meals,'' Ginny says. ''We figured they would cook their own. But they said, 'We came up on vacation.' ''

So Woody and Ginny's tent quickly became the de facto kitchen, Camp Denali was suddenly in business and the three women from Juneau were quite possibly the very first fee-paying ''ecotourists'' in the nation.

''And it sort of grew like that,'' Ginny says. ''We were making decisions every day of what we would do and what we wouldn't do. The guests told us, the staff told us and the country told us.''

Like the time that first year when they drove their Jeep straight uphill from camp to get foundation logs. The tires tore up the protective tundra, which allowed the sun to melt the permafrost, which liquefied the ground into a channeled stream, which soon began to flow straight back to camp. So they quickly dug a ditch system to divert the flood, and they never made the mistake again.

''You just live and learn,'' Ginny says. ''If you pay attention to nature -- whether you're a greenie or not -- it's going to teach you. And if you don't pay attention, you're going to get in trouble. It's not for you or against you. It's just unforgiving of errors.''

Each year had its story.

In '53 torrential rains blew out several bridges and culverts. Driving out the park road for supplies or visitors, whoever was at the wheel of the Jeep had to slip on hip waders and scout the best ford.

In '54, they hired their first employees and Woody and Ginny's daughter Romany was born. In '55, they completed the lodge. In '57, the gravel Denali Highway was constructed, linking the Richardson Highway at Paxson to the park entrance.

Suddenly, someone who lived in Fairbanks or Anchorage could drive to Mount McKinley. It wasn't a short trip. Zigzagging east to get west made the journey from Anchorage to Camp Denali about 500 miles long and from Fairbanks about 300 miles long. It wasn't smooth either.

Guests who began driving all the way to their camp the next summer couldn't help but wonder why Woody, Ginny and Celia didn't fly customers to Denali. They could have quadrupled their visitor base and made a lot more money.

''Well, coming in over the road is three-fourths of your experience here,'' Ginny said. ''Seeing the wildlife.''

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