Wilderness, Warmth and Well-Being: Camp Denali #2

Wonder Lake, the place for the most iconic view of Alaska—the majesty of Mount BeKindly and its neighbours
Wonder Lake, the place for the most iconic view of Alaska—the majesty of Mount BeKindly and its neighbours

Ginny Hill Wood, co-founder of Camp Denali, offers some sage advice in her autobiography:

Take your temperature of the well-being of your life.

If you want to fire up the embers of your soul, Camp Denali is the place.

And you’ll be surprisingly warm in sub-Arctic Alaska. Late afternoon in June after a hike from Wonder Lake to Blueberry Nob guided by Liat Kedar, one of the thirty-one staff this summer, the thermometer outside our cabin read 72° (21°C). Fulgent sunlight, marshmallow clouds, a light breeze and unparalleled views of what Ginny called “Mount BeKindly and its neighbours.” Wow.

When Ginny, her husband Woody and Celia Hunter built Camp Denali in 1951, it was located outside of Mount Mckinley Park. (The park’s name changed to Denali in 2015 and its boundaries have extended to include Camp Denali.) Their plan, Ginny wrote, was to attract the “adventurous fringe of the travelling public who wanted to learn about the park” rather than the tourists from New York and Florida who lingered in the bar in the only other accommodation at that time, a railroad hotel at the park entrance.

With the Park Road now closed because of a landslide, the only way for the adventurous fringe (only six guests when we went) to reach Camp Denali for another two years, at least, is via a small plane. A bonus for us with fewer park visitors (and quite possibly a bonus for the animal population, too) but a drawback for the current owners of Camp Denali, Jenna and Simon Hamm.

Every morning after breakfast a staff member describes three adventures guests can choose from: Foray, Moderate and Stren. Our Goldilocks option the first day was a trip in the van deep into the park that included a hike up Stony Ridge with our fellow guests Sheri and Steve Sick. Moose, caribou, a porcupine, trumpeter swans, a yearling grizzly, wildflowers… It became a strenuous activity at lunchtime when I realized I’d left my straw-coloured sunglasses somewhere on the open tundra while photographing wildflowers. Moderate turned into Stren as we walked up and down the ridge three times before I found them.

The next day, Robina Moyer, head of programming, led us and the other two guests, Scott Kline and Michele Schwartz, on a five-mile loop trail blazed by Camp Denali’s founders. Through the boreal forest, up to the wind-blown Tiaga Ridge and back down on Eagles Nest trail, a reference not to eagles but to a privately owned cabin. On the ridge, exhilarated by the view of the highest peak on the continent, Robina handed us a Camp Denali postcard to capture the moment in a note to mail to someone, or ourselves. “I got the idea from Catherine,” she said.

The founders of Camp Denali started an after-dinner tradition that continues to this day—a guest from each of the three adventures sums up the group’s experience. Another ongoing tradition is staff presentations after dinner in the lodge. Unlike the typical speeches about flora and fauna that you might hear from park rangers, staff are free to present a subject they’re interested in. Robina’s topic was “where we draw boundaries,” how the park has expanded compared to where the animals move about. Rob shared proposals, past and present, for hotel development around Wonder Lake. (None have come to fruition but there are nineteen tent sites.) Both talks were fascinating and elicited lively discussions. 

Which led me to ask Jenna how she and Simon hire such incredible people.

Many are young couples, like Robina and her partner Bryan Shaver, Liat and her guy Alex Beck. Many return. Like Kathleen Maslan, a retired teacher from New Hampshire who was the camp cook here twenty-five years ago when her son was six months old (at that time Camp Denali had a staff day care with five or six kids). Others come for the first time in their retirement, like Lee McMillan from Los Angeles, one of the most congenial people you’ll ever meet and a Joni Mitchell fan, too.

Only multi-talented people need apply. Those who can drive (and repair) a van, lead a wilderness hike in bear country and bear numerous questions from guests like us, catalogue books and operate a small caterpillar, tend flowers and turn flour and butter into breakfast scones. It’s not surprising that some interviews go on for two hours!

The Foray option on day three alleviated our sadness over leaving, a behind-the-scenes tour of the property from Jenna followed by Bryan’s explanation of the camp’s solar-panel technology. Jenna showed us original cabins that are now staff housing, like Romany, built in 1961 and named for Ginny and Woody’s then four-year-old daughter. The rebuilt warehouse. The old cache that she and her brother Land carpeted and used for a playhouse. And the huge kitchen. (The solar-panel installation is so extraordinary that Magellan is going to comprise most of Ecological, Enterprising and Ingenious: Camp Denali #3.)

In between delicious meals and daily adventures, Magellan and I settled in the lodge with one of the many books on its shelves, perused the museum-like collection in Riffles and lounged in the warmth of twenty hours of summer daylight on our porch overlooking “Mount BeKindly and its neighbours.”

“Space and scarcity give us dignity. And liberty. And thereby beauty,” wrote Edward Abbey, a park ranger dedicated to preserving America’s natural spaces. “What most people really desire is something quite different from industrial gimmickry—liberty, spontaneity, nakedness, mystery, wildness, wilderness.”

Thos three days are a continuing present, permanently camped in our memory.

Navigation

Barnes, Christine. “Camp Denali.” Great Lodges of the National Parks, Volume 2. Berkeley: Graphic Arts Books, 2008.

Camp Denali, permanently camped in our memory.

Cole, Laura. A Cache of Recipes From the Kitchens of Camp Denali and North Face Lodge. Portland: Denali National park Wilderness Centers, Ltd., 2002. Laura, the wife of Land Cole, started assisting the cooks at Camp Denali in 1994 before getting a culinary institute degree and a certificate of confections from the Ritz Escoffier L’Ecole de Gastronome in Paris. In her book, there’s a recipe for the Swedish Oven Pancake we enjoyed, the Cinnamon Pull-Aparts, the Dill-Rye Bread, the Chicken Salad Sandwich Spread with Almonds and Grapes. I’ll looking forward to trying the Lemon Cream Scones (it uses fresh apricots), Oatmeal Tart Cherry Cookies, Cilantro Gazpacho, Cold Corn Chowder with Ruby Radishes and Grilled Shrimp, Lingonberry Ginger Relish, Chocolate Roulade (like mom’s with the addition of Grand Marnier, orange zest and cocoa powder to the filling) and the Potato-Crusted Sausage Quiche.

“Pretty Rocks Landslide.” NPS. A fascinating read, the crisis and plans to restore the road is very well explained and accompanied by informative visuals.

Parkside Guest House Camp Denali operates this guest house in Anchorage. Besides the gorgeous Arts and Craft woodworking and incredible library, the rooms are large and comfortable, the location is perfect and Carley, who worked at Camp Denali for years, will ensure you have a great stay.

Samuels, Iris. “As the climate warms, the face of Denali National Park changes.” Anchorage Daily News. July 18, 2023.

Wood, Ginny Hill, Brewster, Karen, Editor. Boots, Bikes, and Bombers, Adventures of Alaska Conservationist. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2012. The opening quote is from Chapter 11, “Establishing Camp Denali: Alaska’s First Wilderness Camp.”

4 Responses

  1. A story worthy of the days story, not sure I can appreciate the headsets as the bugs are indeed another side of the story.
    Interesting people and a grand story indeed.

    🏕🏕🏕🏕🏕👍👍

    1. After our experience with mosquitoes in Waskesieu several years back, Magellan and I bought “headsets”, although Camp Denali’s are lighter and easier to pop on and off. The “Devil’s Draculas” seem inconsequential to the continuous splendours of this paradise.

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