The Dawn of Camp Denali
This post is about 2 hardy ladies, legendary in their time, fulfilling roles during World War II most of us could not even fathom. After the war, these women had a vision to create what is probably one of the first Eco Lodges in North America, maybe even the world. If this grabs you...read on.
You may remember through previous blog posts that the iconic Denali National Park was founded in 1917, but how about the famous Camp Denali? How did this iconic institution come to be? And when? And whose idea was it to build a wilderness lodge out in the middle of nowhere? These were questions I asked myself upon my arrival at the camp. In this post, I’ll share with you some interesting facts I learned about this extraordinary place.
Two women, Ginny Hill and Celia Hunter, grew up in the Pacific Northwest - each with an appetite for adventure. They met during WWII when they joined WASP, Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, and shuttled planes to specific destinations around the United States. Big planes, small planes…it didn’t matter. They flew whatever needed to go and often acted as test pilots as well.
After the war, Ginny and Celia continued to work as pilots, delivering planes and ferrying cargo in the Northwest. Commissioned to fly two Stinson aircraft between Seattle and Fairbanks, they arrived in Fairbanks on New Year's Day 1947 after an arduous journey.
After their arrival, they stayed in Fairbanks flying cargo and decided their next adventure should be Europe so off they went on holiday. As they cycled through Europe they witnessed the ravages left by the war. Dismayed by the devastation, Ginny and Celia returned to Alaska, a place they considered a refuge, untainted by man’s egregious nature, and made it their permanent home.
Ginny with her airplane
Ginny on Denali Park Road
A Dream Becomes Reality
Between 1948 and 1950, the women refined a vision they both shared - to have a place where tourists could visit, stay, play and commune in the natural world. Where would this haven be? The vast territory of Alaska was open to consideration and soon the women began traveling the wilderness in search of the perfect location. Along the journey, they added a third party when Ginny married Morton Wood, or Woody as he was affectionately called. Woody, a park ranger in Denali National Park, was keen on the idea as well of introducing the wildness of Alaska to city folk. Acting upon the advice of a friend, they hiked to a ridge which offered a view of Mount Denali, but to their chagrin, the mountain peak was swathed in clouds which is often a common scene. Disappointed, they returned home, only to receive a postcard from a park ranger friend, Leslie Viereck, who returned to the same spot and checked the view for them on a clear day. The postcard had but one word on it, “Wow!” Thus began their 25-year camp project when Celia homesteaded 67 acres in 1951.
Celia at Camp Denali entrance
Original food cache built by Woody in 1951 still stands today
The trio set to work, clearing and building Camp Denali - not an easy task back in the day. All materials and tools had to be delivered by train because the Denali Highway was not completed until 1957. Once the shipment arrived at the Denali Depot, it then had to be transported 90 long miles on the winding Denali Park Road. Local timber was felled, then hewn by hand. Tent frame cabins were gradually erected for their guests and a wooden, elevated food cache was built to preserve provisions much to the local bears’ disappointment. These structures remain standing on the property today with the tent frame cabins still in use by the camp employees - a testament to the incredible handiwork of these three hardy people. Sometimes friends would show up to help for a few days and the entrepreneurs greatly appreciated the extra hands. Slowly the camp began to take shape and the first guests, 3 women from Juneau arrived in 1952. An interview with Ginny by Alaska Magazine in 2002 revealed that they hadn’t thought of feeding people and were unprepared when tummies began to rumble. Quick improvisation with a camp stove solved the first of future dilemmas to come. Life wasn’t easy out in the wilderness, but the trio thrived on the challenges and loved nothing more than sharing their lives with others who wanted their own piece of the great outdoors.
As the years passed, Camp Denali grew and the three business partners hired staff to assist them with the everyday activities the lodge demanded. Woody continued to build new structures while Ginny and Celia led interpretive hikes. Mingling with the guests was something they all enjoyed immensely.
As life evolved, Ginny and Woody had a daughter, but later divorced and remained friends. Ginny and Celia lived in Fairbanks in the offseason where they were active, well-known and loved in their community.
Ginny and Celia in front of the warehouse
All vintage photos are used with permission from Camp Denali, courtesy of Camp Denali.
Handing Over the Reins
In 1975, after running the camp for 25 years, Ginny and Celia sold the business to Wally and Jerryne Cole, confident that the couple would propel their mission of Camp Denali. By this time, Ginny and Celia were passionately engaged as wildlife and wilderness advocates for all of Alaska. They were co-founders of the Alaska Conservation Society, the state’s first conservation organization, but their presence continued at the camp as well. They could often be found leading hikes and educating guests.
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 educating guests about the wilderness and managing details of both lodges. The lodges continued to flourish as did their children. Now retired, their daughter, Jenna along with her husband Simon Hamm have assumed the role as guardians of this magnificent venture, started by two remarkable women, 67 years ago.