Bushwhacking through Willows in Denali National Park

Bushwhacking through Willows in Denali National Park

DAY 4 — If only I was a moose.

For a few hours anyway. We’re in Denali National Park which is a “trail-less” park, slowly making our way up a gully, bushwhacking our way through willow and poplar. Moose, our Camp Denali guide Brian McCormick told us, easily made their way up—just recently. We’d seen fox tracks as well as moose, caribou and bear in the mud at the edge of the Thoroughfare River as we near the terminus of the 30-mile-long Muldrow Glacier.

What people don’t realize, said Simon Hamm, who with his wife Jenna now runs Camp Denali and North Face Lodge, which Jenna’s parents ran for more than two decades, is that only these two lodges can  provide guided hikes in the wilderness areas of  Denali  because when they were established, they were outside the boundaries of the park. Today, they are inside the 6 million acre park.

What people also don’t realize is that hiking here is far different than hiking in Yosemite or Yellowstone or most other places. There are no defined trails, and no trail signs. You either need to be experienced in the backcountry and know how to use a compass and map or be fortunate enough to be hiking with someone like Brian McCormick who has been guiding visitors for years.

Hamm says Camp Denali requires its naturalist staff to commit to at least three summers and many have been here a lot longer than that. Their enthusiasm and knowledge shows in every step.

But even the so called moderate hike is challenging—making our way across a stream, down to a river, pushing our way through stands of Alder, scrambling over loose rocks and up the gully.  Not exactly a walk in the park but it’s not supposed to be. It is an adventure in America’s last great wilderness.

Simon and Jenna Hamm, the parents of two young children, in their 30s are committed to continuing the stewardship begun by the Camp Denali founders 60 years ago this month—Celia Hunter and Ginny and Morton Wood—who had a vision of a place where people could enjoy this wilderness and learn about the land at the same time. “We want to provide the opportunity for people to learn,” said Jenna Hamm, who has a master’s degree in environmental studies. “We want everyone to. We want to instill curiosity in the national world.”

L-R Simon Hamm, Wally and Jerryne Cole, Morton (Woody) Wood, Jenna Hamm

Simon Hamm says that to make sure what people know what they are getting into at camp—outhouses and communal shower as well as the unique adventure—they don’t do online bookings. “We want to talk to every guest to set correct expectations,” he said. They can also stay less than a mile up the road at North Face Lodge which does have indoor plumbing.  (Hamm explains that the reason the camp lacks sewer line is the permafrost, which is both fragile and tough on piping).

The place also offers a lesson in sustainability. There is a greenhouse, and food bought from local farmers. The scraps from our table feed the compost pile, which is warmed by waste heat from the North Face generator.  And the sled dogs at the end of the road get leftovers as well. There is a solar system to provide hot water for the kitchen.  They produce their own water from a local stream and make all of their own baked goods (which are delicious).

Certainly the earlier generations of owners had their own challenges not the least of which was carving out this place in the wilderness.  Jenna Hamm’s parents, Wally and Jerryne Cole, owners for more than 30 years, had their own challenges  first expanding Camp Denali and taking over North Face Lodge in 1987—in part to prevent a big hotel from being built on the site and with the last-minute financial help of former guests. “He spent 36 hours on the phone with deep pocketed former guests to secure the needed funds,” Simon Hamm said.

But the Hamm’s challenges are different—to continue the tradition and foster concern for this wild untamed wilderness shared with bears, caribou, moose, fox wolves and all varieties of birds. They also must convince first-time visitors that a place with outhouses and communal showers where you must bring your own alcoholic drinks is worth over $500 a night (slightly less for kids) . There is no internet or cell service. The fee does, of course, cover your ride in and out of the park, your meals, your guided hikes and even gear you might need (trekking poles, rubber boots, backpacks…)

They don’t take online reservations because, Simon Hamm says, “We want to talk to everyone to set the right expectations. It doesn’t help if guests are in the wrong setting.”

But they must be doing something right.  They are pretty much booked this season, with people booking this spring and summer for next year.  Camp Denali is only open from early June until the second week in September.

“We wanted to bring our kids to the real wilderness,” said Barbara Schoenly, here with her husband and two college-aged sons from Connecticut. “To see Mt. Denali after midnight when the moon went by was unbelievable. ”

Nor do the kids complain about being unplugged “ because it is such an amazing place,” added Kari Gardey, who has been here many times with her husband and two children.

Our last night, after a spectacular dinner that included  salad from the greenhouse,  wild salmon, homemade bread  and a  just-baked berry desert,  Jerryne Cole  told us, “You are all part of us now.”

It’s a privilege.