Hello again! And welcome to my final blog post on Camp Denali.
In my previous blogs, I delved into the history of Denali National Park and Camp Denali and presented some ideas one might use to plan a trip into the interior of Alaska. In this post, I include my experience staying at the end of the road. Let's go!
It was one o'clock in the afternoon on an absolutely perfect day. Blue skies complimented a slight crisp breeze that ruffled my hair as I made my way towards Pipit, my assigned bus. Before boarding, I hesitated, held my face up to the warmth of the sun and breathed in the freshness of Alaska. "I'm really here," I said to myself as I stepped inside, mentally prepared for the 7 hour, 90 mile journey that would end at Camp Denali.
As we head out on our journey to Camp Denali, a lone wolf trots down the road.
“There is no bad seat, so pick one and have your cameras ready,” advised Ryan, our driver. “We will most likely see wildlife on our way in”. After a loud snort from the air brakes, the bus rolled forward, and we were on our way. We hadn’t gone far when the bus slowed, then stopped. A lone black wolf commandeered the road as he nonchalantly trotted along, stopping to sniff the brush, unfazed by the gawkers with their cameras - faces and lenses consuming the windows - desperate for their first wolf photo. Our first lesson of the day - animals rule and guests drool in Denali National Park. No one gets into a hurry when a critter is near. The drivers do their best to accommodate photographers but warn us that no animal will be pressured for the benefit of a photo. Soon enough, the canine vanished into the brush, and we continued on to our scheduled picnic at the East Fork of the Toklat River…the half-way mark of our journey to the camp.
At mile mark 15, the pavement ends, and Denali Park Road becomes a narrow dirt and gravel drive with breathtaking, undulating landscape demanding a skillful hand at the wheel. The drivers are professional, navigating hairpin turns with the tires using every precious inch, the valley sometimes far below. I marvel how they can educate us about the park, answer our many questions and wave to the oncoming buses. For guests with severe acrophobia, I must warn you that this may not be an enjoyable trip. A charter flight to Kantishna airport may be the ticket for you instead. For me, the drive was ok, but my husband did not fare as well. The steep cliffs are only part of the drive-in, so we traded seats at times so that he would not be by the window.
Each curve in the road was like turning pages in a coffee table book - every bend bringing a new picture followed by a profound sense of awe as we zigged and zagged. Hours evaporated to minutes as the giant, rocky mountain necklace of Denali came into view. We stopped for a photo op and waited as the clouds scurried about relentlessly polishing the majestic centerpiece, unwilling to reveal the mountain’s famous peak until mother nature deemed the time perfect. As the gap closed on our tedious journey deep into the park, my visual senses exploded with the raw, primal beauty - vivid fall colors of burnished reds, yellows, and oranges juxtaposed against vast, craggy tundra - each organism alive and thriving, a cherished gift to the world compliments of wild Alaska.
Stewardship Yields Success
The longstanding success of Camp Denali lies within the stewardship of successive owners going back to the founders, Ginny and Morton Wood, and Cecilia Hunter. Having carefully crafted their legacy, the trio sought to ensure their vision upon their retirement by choosing Wally and Jerryne Cole to follow their lead of providing a wilderness experience amenable for all who venture here. Camp Denali, now in the capable hands of the third and current owners Simon and Jenna Hamm, continues to amaze all who visit. An interview with Simon revealed a bit of insight into the nuts and bolts of prosperity the camp continues to experience. One of my questions to Simon was, “What is the hardest part of your job?’. His response, “Starting a new season. Opening the camp after a long winter can bring unexpected surprises, but together with our dedicated employees, Camp Denali is always ready for the first guests. Our staff, whom we never take for granted, is our single greatest resource. Our turnover rate is low - many staff come back every season and we are so thankful for that.”
For Simon and Jenna, interviewing prospective seasonal employees and hiring the right ones is crucial. A select group of 43 young people is invited to join the 7 full-time, year-round staff and become part of the Camp Denali family. Of the diverse group, the majority are naturalists with, in the words of Jenna Hamm, "a talent to inspire curiosity and cultivate personal growth in each guest". They are the drivers and trail guides, the educators and caretakers - simultaneously wearing many hats and fulfilling many roles, approaching each day with zest - no job is too small. Their commitment to the environment is extraordinary. A perfect example is the many hours spent tediously harvesting by hand the wild blueberries and cranberries that become the homemade jams and syrups we see at the table each day - not a job requirement but very much appreciated. To live at the end of the road requires resourcefulness most of us could never contemplate, but is daily life at the lodge.
Arriving At The Camp
The beautiful, sunny day evolved into a clear, cool evening as we turned into the camp. The buses chugged up the hill arriving at the newest addition - a grand, timber frame dining hall aptly named Potlatch which stands proudly before the egis of Mt. Denali. A welcoming committee stood outside on the stairs to greet us.
After dessert and coffee, we were given a brief orientation into camp life followed by our cabin assignment. Each guest was then accompanied by a staff member who helped us maneuver our bags down the hill to our home away from home. At this point, I’m wishing I had packed lighter.
Entering our quaint cabin, Mallory struck a match to light one of several propane lamps while instructing us on the proper way to build a successful fire in the woodstove. A quick survey found homemade quilts on the bed, plenty of matches and firewood, a hot plate for heating water, a tea box with an assortment to please every taste, a storage bench at the foot of the bed, and a sink with an old-fashioned pitcher, basin and matching tin cups. Fresh, ice-cold water from our private spigot is a few steps away from the porch. Each cabin comes with a private outhouse complete with a view of Mt. Denali. Private showers boasting plenty of hot water are just up the hill.
90 miles from the nearest power grid, the camp remains self-sufficient using a hydroelectric system and solar energy panels. One can charge cell phones, computers and camera batteries in the Riffles cabin. A bit of advice - one might consider bringing a charging strip as there could be daily competition for access to the outlets.
We stayed in a somewhat rustic but comfortable cabin at Camp Denali, but there is also North Face Lodge which is also part of the Camp Denali family. North Face Lodge might be the place for you if vacationing without creature comforts is not your idea of fun. North Face Lodge has central heat, electricity and private bathrooms. What it doesn't have is the view of Mount Denali from the individual rooms. Prices for both North Face Lodge and Camp Denali are the same and both include amenities such as daily hikes with a naturalist guide, use of fishing and other outdoor gear, canoes, and bikes. Also included in the daily price is round trip transportation to and from the entrance of Denali National Park, the national park entrance fee, and all meals. For more information about lodging, go to http://campdenali.com
You won't go hungry at Camp Denali. Bountiful breakfasts are served every morning and include homemade breads and pastries along with syrups and jams to accompany. During the breakfast hour, announcements are made as to the events of the day. With a variety of activities to choose from, it’s hard to be bored at Camp Denali. Guided day hikes led by naturalists leave after breakfast. Canoes are available to enjoy Wonder Lake along with bikes to get there. Flightseeing might be an option on a clear day, or one might choose to hang out at the lodge and read a book - the days are yours to create. We were with a photography group, so our days were spent seeking wildlife and landscapes, but I must say, some of the hikers came back with very good pictures of wildlife that we missed!
After breakfast, sack lunch options are displayed on the table and everyone prepares their personal knapsack for later.
As dinner time nears, guests congregate at Potlatch, comparing stories of the day. When the dinner bell rings, it's time to find your assigned seat by looking for your personalized napkin pin. All meals are served at large family-style tables which promotes camaraderie among the guests and provides interesting conversation.
The food at Camp Denali is fresh and organic. What isn't grown in the North Face Lodge garden or harvested from the nearby tundra is sourced locally. Desserts are homemade as well and are hard to refuse.
You may recall in my previous blog that Celia Hunter along with Ginny and Morton Wood founded the Camp Denali we visit today. In 1975, after running the camp for 25 years, Ginny and Celia sold the camp to Wally and Jerryne Cole, confident that the couple would propel their mission of Camp Denali.
Wally and Jerryne nurtured the mission of Camp Denali from 1976 - 2008 and acquired North Face Lodge in 1986. They started a family and raised their children while leading hikes and attending to the everyday details of both lodges. The business continued to grow as did their children.
Daughter, Jenna who spent her summers growing up at Camp Denali, met her future husband, Simon Hamm, in 1998 while working together as field technicians in the California Sierra Mountains. Jenna and Simon married and returned to Camp Denali in 2000, each having completed college degrees with a focus on environmental study and policy.
Jenna’s wish was to raise their children with the values and experiences imparted to her as a child. Under Wally and Jerryne's tutelage, Jenna and Simon learned the business from the ground up, advancing to managers of the camp in 2005. In 2009 Wally and Jerryne retired, handing over the reins of both lodges to Jenna and Simon with great confidence.
I was so impressed by Camp Denali, that I asked Simon if I could interview him and he graciously agreed. During the interview, Simon revealed their intense dedication to the great institution created by Ginny, Woody, and Celia by saying, “We are riding the coattails of our predecessors and feel fortunate to have inherited five decades of hard work”.
When asked what a typical day entailed for him, Simon replied, “Every day is different according to the needs of the camp. Jenna and I do whatever the day requires of us. It might be working in the office, leading a hiking group on an expedition, or fixing a broken pipe.”
His favorite job is driving guests to the depot on Friday morning and picking up a new busload of visitors giving him time to chat with his guests. Simon and Jenna mingle as much as possible with their guests, but Simon emphasized that their commitment to the camp comes first. “Jenna and I take the mission of Camp Denali very seriously and work diligently towards that goal.”
My thoughts are that Cecilia, who died in 2001, Ginny in 2013 and most recently Woody who passed away August 16, 2018, would have been very proud to see the traditions passed down through the years.
Having been a guest at this iconic wilderness institution, I caught myself asking some important questions: Will the Hamms continue their mission at the camp? Can they imagine themselves involved in any other business endeavor? What about climate change - how will it impact this valuable resource? I asked Simon these questions during our interview, and his answers gave me insight into the near future. First and foremost, Simon and Jenna can’t think of any better place to raise their children, Danika, age 12 and Silas, age 10 than at Camp Denali. I asked Simon if he thought that they might, one day take the reins when he and Jenna retire. His answer, “Maybe? If they want to, but hopefully they will take with them the values gleaned from being raised at the camp as their mother was”.
My second question builds upon question one. Simon assured me that Camp Denali has become a way of life for the Hamm family. They love what they do and are dedicated to fostering the mission and goals of the camp. With their educational backgrounds concentrated in the environmental realm, they feel committed to help others learn and care about the sub-arctic ecology, geology, history and changing landscape the wilderness provides.
In regards to climate change, both Simon and Jenna see the impact on the environment in distinct ways. There are changes in the tree line - spruce are moving to higher elevations and willows are now seen in the open tundra. The permafrost has been warming over the last 50years with a frost-free season now extended almost by a month. Summers have more lightning and thunderstorms with fewer snow days and less summer snow is sticking around. Animals such as the snowshoe hare and ptarmigan, dependent upon camouflage for their survival, are jeopardized due to premature snowmelt making them easier targets for their predators. The state's entire ecosystem has been altered affecting the ocean, the land, and the animals from squirrels to bears.
The Denali Wilderness is not alone in its transformation - the effects of climate change are global. For the naturalists of Denali, there is an imperative now more than ever to inspire others to champion their own personal brand of stewardship upon their return home.
In retrospection the mantra, “everything changes, nothing stays the same” is true. Our world is continuously evolving and Camp Denali is not immune, but the watch will continue under the Hamms’ skillful guidance. To visit this wilderness paradise is to experience a slice of the untouched world - protected from the effects of the mass population and treated with careful intention. It is an environment, which evokes reverence and awe. The naturalists have done their job well. I arrived an eager but ignorant visitor. I leave as an advocate for our planet. We have only one, and her future is in our hands.