Ptarmigan Tracks

The Newsletter of Camp Denali,
North Face Lodge & Parkside Guest House

Online Version 2019

Looking Back - 60 Years Ago


1959 was statehood year for Alaska, and notable for the arrival of my dad, Wally Cole, to then Mount McKinley National Park. Having worked in hospitality for a few summers along the Maine Coast near his family's many-generation Saco River dairy farm, he was hired by the Mt. McKinley National Park Company as one of two bellhops for the park's hotel. For $225 per month, less tax deductions and less $60 monthly room and board, he worked seven days a week.

Wally's bread-and-butter was meeting visitors off the Alaska Railroad. Amid the daily hustle-bustle of the train depot, he got acquainted with Camp Denali's founders, Celia, Woody, and Ginny during their busy roundtrips to the depot. One mid-summer evening as Wally was anticipating his second day off of the season, a young German couple arrived looking for gas, groceries and dinner, at closing time for the gas pump, commissary and restaurant. Having the vertiable keys to his workplace, Wally befriended the couple with a deal: he'd pump them some gas, open up the commissary and sell them camping food, and feed them leftovers in the staff room - in exchange for a ride through the park to the end of the road.

At two in the morning, after a drizzly 90-mile drive, the weary travelers drove up the Camp Denali driveway and parked in the muddy yard. Embers in the lodge's hearth lured them in, and they bunked for the rest of the night. Wally describes awakening to bluebird skies and unobstructed mountain views. Upon recognizing Wally, Woody invited the vagabonds into Potlatch for breakfast. Dad was hooked.

1959 was a turning point at Camp Denali for Celia, Woody, and Ginny. Weary of every-other-day round trips to the rail depot, they decided by summer's end to extend guests' stay to three and four nights, transporting to and from the depot twice a week, the same schedule we use now. Ginny writes in the 1959 Tundra Telegram newsletter:

"Camp Denali is out of step with the current trend and we hope to keep it so. While so much of Alaskan enterprise is devoted to making exteriors gaudier and interiors shiner and more like Las Vegas, we intend to maintain the rustic simplicity of log lodge and cabins. We hope to encourage people to come for longer stays, so that they may savor the vigor and freshness of this young country, and at the same time, absorb some of its spacious tranquility."

Consistent with this vision, Camp's founders began promoting in-depth "special sessions." These included 10-day Wilderness Workshops, 12-day Tundra Treks backcountry explorations from various basecamps along the park road, and weeklong Shutter Safaris for the "serious amateur photographer." These sessions morphed into the active learning experiences and guest speaker series that have become the hallmarks of our natural history program.

With the closing of North Face Lodge at the end of 2020, we echo what Ginny and Celia wrote 51 years ago: "we don't know whether Camp Denali is an anachronism or a prototype. Camp Denali just 'is."

~ Jenna Hamm

Back to Online Version 2019

Camp Denali Staff, 1959