We take tremendous delight and satisfaction in sharing Denali with visitors. At the core of our enterprise, our mission includes providing learning experiences, fostering stewardship of the natural world, and cultivating bonds of community.From the Cockpit, Simon Hamm, co-owner of Camp Denali
But three years ago, the remote Camp was struck by two catastrophes that closed guest operations for the first time in 69 years.
COVID hit in early 2020, closing Camp Denali and all other world-wide destinations to tourists.
Plus, COVID collided with the indefinite closure of the only road into the park, a 92-mile artery with Camp Denali sitting at Mile 89. In August 2019, a major landslide at Pretty Rocks (Mile 45) closed the road. During 2020 and 2021, tons of gravel were dumped to temporarily keep the road open. The NPS finally gave up in August 2021. Federal funding was secured to build a 475-foot steel truss bridge over the Pretty Rocks landslide. Its current budget is $150 million, with reopening of the road pushed back until 2026.
While problems caused by the Pretty Rocks Landslide could have been solved by small repairs in the past, climate change has exacerbated the issue, according to park officials. Increasing temperatures and rainfall are thought to cause permafrost thaw, which is speeding up several landslides in the park.
The rate of road movement within the landslide evolved from inches per year prior to 2014, to inches per month in 2017, inches per week in 2018, inches per day in 2019, and up to 0.65 inches per hour in 2021.Anchorage Daily News, April 20, 2022
Between the August 2021 closure and an inspection in April 2022, the road dropped about 40 feet, more than double its plunge the previous year.
In addition to food supplies, Camp Denali has depended on the road for the delivery of propane and fuel and the removal of septic waste and trash. Historically, Camp Denali used 5,000 gallons of fuel each summer to generate electricity.
With the road closure, the only transportation link is by air. Denali Air transports everything from guests to milk. But when delivered by air, a gallon of diesel costs US$20!
Fortunately, Camp Denali had started a solar array project in 2018 and completed it in 2020, finishing the installation with family help and a skeleton staff. The cost, prior to grants, was approximately US$600,000.
Being an engineer, one of the highlights of our trip was a tour of the solar array project led by Bryan Shaver, the Camp’s brilliant head of maintenance. For a fascinating look at what they’ve done up here, listen to Bryan’s explanation in my video.
Camp Denali now has 288 solar panels in 18 arrays with a capacity of 90 kilowatts. The project was described in its annual newsletter, Ptarmigan Tracks, in February 2020.
A mobile rig from Denali Drilling out of Anchorage came to the site to drill 18 holes for the support stands that hold the arrays. But bringing a piece of heavy equipment to the wilderness took some planning and a lot of hand-work.
We made things harder on ourselves, in the stewardship piece. We didn’t want the tundra all ripped up. Back-breaking effort by our staff, our crew of Camp Denali, to lay protective mat on top of tundra, replace tundra manually, by hand any time that it got disturbed in the slightest. Proud to say that it’s hard to tell that there’s been a drill rig out there.KTOO, Robyn, KUAC Fairbanks February 23, 2021
To complement our on-site power generation, 18,000 pounds of nickel-iron batteries sit here at our winter office on pallets, awaiting the opening of the park road this spring. This tried-and-true battery technology can withstand being left dormant for seven months each year when winter temperatures may drop to minus 60°F. They’re resilient, have a projected 30-year lifespan and can be drawn down to within 20% of their storage capacity, but they’re heavy—150 pounds each.Ptarmigan Tracks, in February 2020
Abundant electrical energy has enabled the Camp to add a new walk-in refrigerator, induction range tops and an electric proofing oven. In the spring of 2022, they converted all the propane-fuelled light fixtures in the 19 guest cabins to LED bulbs powered with rechargeable batteries.
Additional fuel savings have resulted from using passive solar heat collectors to generate hot water. And when the road reopens, electric vehicles will replace the aging vehicles that were wisely left behind to support the Camp when the evacuation occurred in August 21. (Imagine the cost of flying in a van!)
The Hamm’s are philosophical as they wait for the NPS to complete the Pretty Rocks bridge:
A friend of ours, Kim Heacox, has a great book, Rhythm of the Wild, about Denali and a wonderful line in it. He says,
“Relax, the river has been here for 10,000 years.”AlaskaPublic.org interview with Casey Grove April 15, 2020
From Camp Denali publications:
From other media:
Denali lodge owner weighs economics and ethics of late opening amid coronavirus uncertainty | Alaska Public Media – Anchorage | Casey Grove April 15, 2020
The Denali Park Road landslide made ‘shocking’ progress this winter, reinforcing the need for a fix | Anchorage Daily News. | Morgan Krakow| Updated: April 20, 2022