Mountain High: the Allure of the Country's Grandest Peak
We cross the creek and begin to climb, sidestepping ripe stands of cranberries and crowberries down at boot-sole level, and soon gain the rhythm of the trail and our own heartbeats. In the mud beneath a cover of willows, we pause to observe the recent imprints of grizzly bear feet, a notable discovery and a reminder of our place in the wild world. We take our lunch (sandwiches we made ourselves with the best homemade bread I’ve had in years, fresh from the camp’s oven) on a knoll near the ridgetop on the lush red tundra among the single blossoms of tiny violet-blue mountain harebells, poking their heads three inches above the rocky soil. Aside from the sound of our voices, all is quiet. We look across the way to the Kantishna Hills and down the local creeks of miners’ dreams a century ago. The rufous meadows are steepled with solemn spruce and sprinkled with the promised gold of autumn aspen. A mile or so north of us, front and center, we see our humble string of little cottages in the scattered timber above Moose Creek.
One rainy summer afternoon in 1951, three adventuresome souls had wandered there, searching for a piece of land with a view of The Mountain. Celia Hunter and Ginny Hill, both Women’s Air Force service pilots in World War II, and Morton (Woody) Wood, a pilot, mountaineer, and McKinley Park ranger who married Ginny in 1950, had hiked the Alps in Austria and Switzerland, sleeping in huts built along the trails. When they found themselves in Alaska they pondered the idea of opening a backcountry camp where other adventurous travelers could rest in comfort and easily set out to see the country. That cloud-ridden day the trio left wondering whether there was a view of The Mountain from Nugget Pond. They asked the local park ranger to check it out when the weather cleared, and to let them know. His postcard reply read simply, “Wow!” That September they staked their claim here for a trade and manufacturing site under the Homestead Act, which included a provision that made it possible for them to build a “resort” within a mile of what was then the boundary of the park, which was created in 1917. Before snowfall they had built two tent-cabins. Camp Denali accepted its first guests in the spring of 1952.
Now 90 and living in her longtime cabin in Fairbanks, Ginny recounts, “The land told us what it wanted to be—and what we shouldn’t do.” She and her companions listened. They kept the camp small, so as not to overtax the wilderness. “We wanted to offer a quality experience as opposed to mass production,” Woody, 84, told me from his home in Seattle, where he still splits his own firewood. Seventeen cabins seemed enough, and camp simply stopped growing at that point.
After 11 years Woody ventured off. By 1975 Ginny and Celia were busy with conservation work and decided to sell Camp Denali. One interested buyer shared his plans for a 200-room hotel on the site. But when he came to visit and experienced the close-to-the-earth spirit, he told Ginny and Celia, “If I were you, I wouldn’t sell to me either.”
Fortunately, there was a young family interested in running Camp Denali in its traditional way. Wally Cole, a solid man with a ready smile and an appreciation for conservation values, had worked at the park hotel and frequently hitchhiked out to camp to help out. He and his wife, Jerri, a nurse and naturalist with a similar love of the wild, had tea with the owners in 1975 and discussed their interest. The Coles had few assets at the time, so Ginny and Celia accepted two of Wally’s handmade rocking chairs as a down payment.
Today Camp Denali is run by the Coles’ daughter and son-in-law, Jenna and Simon Hamm. Simon, a mountaineer with Christopher Reeve handsomeness who has summited The Mountain, is now general manager. (He also serves on the board of Audubon Alaska.) While continuing as a strong force in the family business, Jenna devotes most of her time to raising the couple’s 16-month-old daughter.
Camp has changed little in spirit over the years. Guest lodging is now comprised of wooden cabins (the tents were moved upslope for staff housing)—but there are only 18 of them, housing the same maximum number of guests as in the early days. Every cottage has a striking, unblemished vista of The High One, as well as its own private detached outhouse, which also has a view of Denali through a strategically placed heart-shaped cutout in the door. Each cabin has a woodstove (temperatures can range from 30 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer day); if you want heat, you kindle your own fire. An endless supply of dry spruce in the wood box, along with a tin of magic fire starter, make the job easier. Water for tea or coffee must be carried in from a spigot outside.
In the spirit of its founders, Camp Denali is reducing its impact on the wilderness it celebrates. Since the early 1980s the Coles have used a hot-tub-sized impoundment on No Name Creek for everything from small-scale hydropower to water for drinking, laundry, and even a modest shower house with flush commodes. Today, under the Hamms’ direction, even more environment-friendly features have been added. All camp buses and generators now run on biodiesel. The hydroelectric generator has been fine-tuned and supplemented with solar panels that are used to power fluorescent and LED lighting. Solar energy also runs a heat exchanger in the shower that turns 45-degree groundwater into comfortable shower temperatures. Beneath the solar cells, the Potlatch, a brand-new dining hall, serves fresh baked goods and epicurean breakfasts and dinners. Lettuce, herbs, as well as many lovely daisies, snapdragons, sunflowers, and nasturtium blossoms are grown in the camp greenhouse, which is warmed by waste heat from the generators.