Rustic retreat celebrates its 50th anniversary

Posted: Monday, July 29, 2002

CAMP DENALI - 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 found a champion bull moose grazing in a pond.

A third contingent identified dozens of wildflowers, birds and small mammals - then found wolf droppings.

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," Ginny Wood, one of the Alaskans who founded Camp Denali 50 years ago, told the Anchorage Daily News. "And I watched a big, blond grizzly walk right past me."

It isn't every 84-year-old grandmother who would consider a visit by a 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.

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.

The camp began with Ginny's love of flying. 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. She attended the University of Washington in Seattle where 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.

She joined the Women Airforce Service Pilot program and flew virtually every type of military airplane made.

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."

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.

So she and her husband Woody, a McKinley ranger whom she married in 1950, began talking over the idea of staking land beyond the park boundary for a small tourist resort.

Woody, Ginny and Celia claimed the property in the summer of '51 and began operations the next year.

Three women from Juneau were their first customers.

"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."

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