TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > "Four Star Outhouse" Is Not an Oxymoron
Denali National Park & Preserve, AK 09/08-10/06 (Day 136-138)
"Four Star Outhouse" Is Not an Oxymoron
We are so anxious to get out to Camp Denali & North Face Lodge that we show up an hour early for the bus that’s taking us, and a couple dozen other lucky guests, from the entrance on the east side of Denali National Park & Preserve over to the west side to Camp Denali & North Face Lodge—one of only three privately-operated lodges allowed to exist in the park (don’t believe parks department literature that still, erroneously, says that they operate the only approved accommodations in the park).
It’s a five hour drive, turned into a nearly seven hour journey by a delightful lunch stop where the staff of Camp Denali & North Face Lodge lay out decadent chunks of smoked salmon and smoked halibut from 10th and M Seafoods in Anchorage along with dried fruit and nuts, pasta salad, fresh-baked bread, cold cuts and cheese, hot beverages of every stripe and homemade blueberry jam made from berries picked in the park. It would have been impressive in a backyard but here, deep inside one of America’s largest and most remote parks, the meal is nothing less than stunning.
Back in the bus, we continue west, entering what local rangers, guides and Denali addicts all refer to as the “real” park. It’s here that the A-list animals begin to show themselves. Sure, we saw a very cool Boreal owl, some Dall sheep and a moose during the first part of the drive in, but after lunch I spot a red fox in the tundra and we see at least three grizzlies before driving past stunning Wonder Lake and reaching our destination near sunset.
But the animal spotting doesn’t end when our commute does. As we are walking from Camp Denali’s main lodge down a dirt road to our cabin a giant bull moose meanders across the tundra a few hundreds yards in the distance, on his way to who knows where. It’s rutting season, so you be the judge.
We can’t wait to check out the handmade quilts found in every one of the Camp Denali’s 17 hand crafted cabins, not to mention the gourmet meals, unrivaled views of Mt. McKinley and what are rumored to be some truly luxe outhouses.
But it wasn’t always that way. Back in the 1950s, two plucky broads named Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood found themselves working as WASPs (Women Air Force Service Pilots). During layover after fights to Europe, they were impressed with how lodges were run there and decided to try to find a place in the US to do the same. They did and along with Ginny’s husband, Morton (who somehow also found the time and energy to climb Mt. McKinley in 1954), struggled through the muskeg (a goopy, all but impenetrable mess that results when frozen tundra melts in the warmer months) to build the first few basic cabins and welcome the first few guests.
In 1975, Celia and Ginny sold the place to Wallace and Jerynne Cole for little more than pocket change and one of Wallace’s handmade chairs--they simply wanted the place to go to a good home, and it has. Generations of the Cole family have stayed true to Celia and Ginny’s original idea of rustic hospitality.
Celia has passed away, but Ginny still lives in Fairbanks and, no doubt, has a story or two to tell. She even keeps an A-frame cabin at Camp Denali and comes up whenever she can—unfortunately not when we are there.
Today Camp Denali & North Face Lodge is the only operator in the park that’s allowed to take guests beyond Wonder Lake, so we get the chance to explore miles and miles of trail-free tundra lead by Camp Denali’s intrepid guides who are all naturalists and whose enthusiasm for the area is only outdone by their energy and expertise.
These are folks who do not hesitate to break apart scat with their fingers in order to show us what it had for dinner or to try a new route out of a region just because it looks promising.
It builds a powerful hunger that’s more than sated by the really terrific and really plentiful meals—inventive salads using ingredients grown in their own hothouse, beef kabobs, wild salmon, homemade bread, flourless chocolate cake. Even the pack-‘em-yourself picnic lunch fixings that are set up every day after breakfast are pretty gourmet (salmon wrap anyone?). Camp Denali doesn’t have a liquor license (though their sister place, the15 room North Face Lodge just down the hill, does), so don’t forget to pack your own poison.
One morning as all assemble for another fantastic breakfast (the French Toast was outstanding), one of the guests burst into the main lodge looking both flushed with excitement and blanched with fear. We’d all been warned that a mother bear and her cubs had been making themselves a bit too much at home around Camp Denali and we’d all been keeping an eye out for them and as this guest made her way from her cabin to the main building she was doing the same. Then an oncoming guest told her to turn around and there was the grizzly trio. They’d been silently following her up the hill for who knows how long.
Oh, and those four star outhouses we mentioned? They totally exist at Camp Denali—spotlessly clean, odor-free, just steps from each cabin, well-stocked with ample plush toilet paper and each one has a heart-shaped window cut into the door at just the right height and angle to give you a view of Mt. McKinley from the toilet seat. Makes you wonder why they bothered to put in two boring old flush toilets up in the shower house near the main building.