On the Camp Ridge trail above Camp Denali

On the Camp Ridge trail above Camp Denali

“You have many lives and this is my best life” –Martha Wood, wife of one of the founders of Camp Denali.

DAY TWO — Foray , Moderate or Strenuous?

That is our only decision this morning at Camp Denali, more than 90 miles—at the end of the road in Denali National Park  in Alaska.

We dig into a sumptuous breakfast of breakfast burritos and the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever tasted. We have to decide if we want to go off on a wildlife foray spent more talking and looking than walking. Or there’s a moderate hike—think 3-5 miles with 1000 feet of elevation—the equivalent of climbing and descending 100 flights of stairs—or a strenuous hike—steep uphill, 4-7 miles, very little stopping.

What the heck… They said the views from the ridge at the top of the Tiga Trail are spectacular. We ask can we do a “moderate-slash-strenuous” hike (translation: slower). Everyone laughs and the six of us in our family—three nursing bad knees—head off with naturalists Drew McCarthy and Laura Beebe, originally from Alabama  but now finishing  a graduate degree in  Polar geography  and here for the first summer after leading teen girls wilderness trips in the Brooks Range.

Before we set out, we make sack lunches—my daughters would be glad to see reusable sacks with homemade bread, ham and cheese, fruit and homemade cookies. I squirrel away some chocolate to share.

I think we’re pumped by all of the adventures we heard about at breakfast—starting with the creation of this place 60 years ago.  Two young women, Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood, met in the WASPS in World War II and came back from Europe nursing a dream to start a back country lodge like they’d experienced in Europe. With Ginny‘s then husband, Morton “Woody” Wood.  They homesteaded land on what was then just outside the north entrance of Mt. McKinley National Park in view of the tallest peak in North America. When the park was enlarged to six million acres re-named Denali in 1980, they now were inside the park (as was North Face Lodge which the owners who followed them ultimately bought). This gave them rights no one else here has to lead guided hikes in this part of the park.

Camp Denali staff and alums gather for 60th anniversary

Camp Denali staff and alums gather for 60th anniversary

One after another, former staff got up and shared their experiences here in the fifties, sixties, seventies eighties and today. They have gone on to be therapists and authors, teachers, artists and many other things.  One, Jane Bryant, is the Denali National Park Historian.   Another, Anore Jones, was the second woman to summit Mt. McKinley. Others are the children of original staffers.  Woody Wood, now 88, was on hand as was his and Ginny’s daughter. (Celia Hunter has died and Ginny Wood, who lives in Fairbanks, was too frail to make the trip.) 

Kari Gardey, here from Anchorage with her husband, kids and sister, recounted how her dad proposed to her mom here after he submitted Mt. McKinley in 1954. Her mom, Jill Gardey, spent that summer working as a cook at Camp Denali, Gardey said.  “To me this is a magical place,” she said. “It is part of our family tradition.”

In the old days, there was no electricity and a fridge ran on propane. Today, we have propane lamps in our comfortable cabins, home made quilts on our bed and gourmet food (I love the Camp Denali cookbook that is a complimentary gift to each guest) that in part comes from local purveyors and the extensive organic garden down the road at North Face Lodge.

We meet the Schoenly family from Connecticut here to celebrate a son’s college graduation.  Why are they here? They hosted a Vermont boy last winter during a ski jump competition  whose mom had worked here (He’s now a staffer too)  and their interest was piqued.

We’re out on the hiking trail this morning, swatting away mosquitoes (thank goodness for my InsectShield shirt  and the bandanas we all have around our necks that are treated with repellant as well

We pass tiny wildflowers—blue, purple, white and yellow– the Purple Frigid Shooting Star are my favorites.  We stop to listen to different birds—the Varied Thrush, the Yellow warbler, the Ruby- crowned Kinglet.

The climb is steep but the view from the ridge is worth it—the Alaska Range spread out below us in all its glory, Wonder Lake looking like a mirror and the tundra dotted with wildflowers. We sprawl on the ridge and eat our lunch that we packed in the morning at Camp Denali, a ground squirrel coming close as if she expects us to hand over crumbs (we don’t).  The excellent cookies are the perfect treat.

Going down is steep… It starts raining—hard! . But this is Alaska so we just put on our rain gear (I’m loving my new STOWAWAY L.L. Bean rain pants that are made with Gortex so they breathe   and keep going.

Now as I write this, I’m drying off in our cozy Camp Denali cabin wondering when it will stop long enough for me to venture up the hill for a shower at the communal shower house.  

But what’s the rush? After all, it’s about the journey not the destination. Especially here.