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Taking the Kids: to Alaska's Camp Denali and celebrating a special anniversary

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Media Services on

Is it dinnertime already? The two Alaskan grizzly bear cubs chowing down on an Eskimo Potato root ( certainly think so. They are oblivious to the bus full of shutterbugs a few feet away.

Only one road leads into Denali National Park's ( 6 million acres and after mile 15, the road is restricted to buses. Because we are staying 95 miles deep in the park at Camp Denali (, one of the park's few remote lodges, we are on a special Camp Denali bus driven by naturalist Drew McCarthy, who engages us the whole way as we look out the window at Dall Sheep, roaming so close we can see how they are losing their winter coats, Caribou (check out those huge antlers) and even a gigantic grizzly.

We're not here just for the wildlife, as spectacular as it is, or even the hiking, in this "trail less" park where you can follow a moose's trail (there are no trails designated for humans).

We're on our way to a very special celebration in the wilderness -- Camp Denali's 60th anniversary, which has brought back one of its founders and many who have helped make this small, 18-cabin enclave one of the most iconic National Park lodges anywhere.

"Sixty years may not seem like much," says Simon Hamm, co-owner of the camp and himself a New Englander, "but consider that if you are on the East Coast, you can't sit down and have dinner or breakfast with the Pilgrims."

Hamm and his wife, Jenna, have recently taken over the camp from her parents, Wally and Jerryne Cole, who bought it from the three founders -- Celia Hunter, Ginny Wood and Ginny's then-husband Morton "Woody" Wood -- in the mid-1970s. The Hamms also operate the 17-room North Face Lodge ( nearby. The Woods and Hunter built the camp log by log by hand and, according to Cole, were not only "hardcore pioneers" by Alaska standards, but pioneers in the ecotourism movement.

Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood met as young women ferrying World War II aircraft and wanted to start a back-country lodge like they had experienced in the Alps and Scandinavia. Hiking up an untracked ridge on a tip from the park superintendent, they discovered what they decided was the ideal spot, with spectacular views of the mountain, a rocky ridge and small pond.

In the fall of 1951, Hunter homesteaded 67 acres centered on Nugget Pond and the duo, along with Woody, built Camp Denali, hauling logs to build cabins with army surplus vehicles, sawing huge trees with hand saws. There weren't even roads into the park yet.

"We must have had a lot of energy and not much in the way of brains," chuckled Wood.

"To see a moose and her baby walk into our pond. ... To stop on the Park Road as a herd of caribou pass by. It is a thrilling experience to explain this world to visitor," observed 88-year-old Woody Wood, the only one able to be here this weekend. (Ginny Wood, 94, was too frail and Celia Hunter died more than a decade ago.)


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