Shop Sundance Catalog

icon icon

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Robert Glenn Ketchum: My Fav Places: Camp Denali


"Denali From the Road Within 5-Miles of Camp Denali". Photograph © 2010 Robert Glenn Ketchum
For Display Use Only, No Permission to Reproduce in Any Form

Most of you know that since the mid-1980's I have spent some part of every year in Alaska, ­sometimes as much as half the year. I love Alaska, and in my life it is the greatest wilderness experience I have ever had. It is bigger and wilder than most of us can imagine. That is the beauty of it, but also the factor that intimidates many potential visitors. If you do not book some lame cruise or excursion packed with clients that want complete luxury and protection, how do you experience the best Alaska has to offer, mixing the wild with the civil?

There are two choices for me, the incomparable CAMP DENALI in Denali National Park and The Boat Company in the Tongass rainforest. I address The Boat Company/Tongass in another post on this blog, so for now I hope to turn your attention to CAMP DENALI.

It hard to imagine the scale of Denali National Park and the experience it provides. At more than 6,000,000 acres! and containing North America's highest summit, Denali park is unparalleled in our National Park system ­ it is the crown among the jewels. It is also VERY big and VERY wild!

Photograph ©2010 Michael DeYoung
For Display Use Only, No Permission to Reproduce in Any Form

If you come to Denali as part of tour group, you will discover (to the surprise of many) that you will stay in lodges outside the park, you will NOT see the summit on a daily basis, and to really see anything, you will have to take an all-day bus ride from your lodge EVERY day. That bus ride likely won't take you much more than 1/2 way into the park! You will see animals, but you will have little time to enjoy the experience because you are on a schedule.

Photograph Courtesy of Camp Denali
For Display Use Only, No Permission to Reproduce in Any Form

There is ONLY ONE WAY to truly "get" this amazing wild place ­CAMP DENALI!

Photograph Courtesy of Camp Denali
For Display Use Only, No Permission to Reproduce in Any Form

CAMP DENALI is a "rustic" camp located in the center of the park, and it has been constructed on ridgeline FACING the summit so that all cabins have windows with a view of the peak --­ this is important as the summit is only visible an average of 40 days out of the year. (Inside the park there are a few other small lodges, however they have no view of Denali.)

CAMP DENALI was homesteaded and founded in 1951 by two Alaskan Pioneer women Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood, and they knew what they were doing! Constructed and added to over many years, CAMP DENALI features cozy, hand-built log cabins warmed by classic wood stoves and lit by propane lamps. Each cabin is separate from the others by some distance, and each has a spring fed water source plumbed to a spigot immediately outside with a discreet privy quite close by. The cabins have been designed for the view, so they feature huge glass windows facing Mt. McKinley and on a cold night under a full moon, should the summit emerge from it's cloud cap, you can enjoy the sight from your snuggly, quilt-covered bed.

Photograph ©2010 Michael DeYoung
For Display Use Only, No Permission to Reproduce in Any Form

There are several "commons" facilities that include very comfortable men's and women's showers, a natural history room with a piano, a "library" and gathering room where evening programs are held, and a spectacular new dining room. The dining room windows also face the summit and look over a nearby pond into which a moose and calf wander on the 1st breakfast of my most recent visit. My two children went crazy, as did the many others kids that were there (adults included in this category). The moose/calf were un-threatening, enjoying their breakfast from the lake greens, and VERY close for all to see. Needless to say, the photographers among us were quite happy as well. Meals in the dining room feature organic gourmet cooking, often with regional items and there is always a vegetarian plate.

My two children consulting with one of the Camp Denali naturalists about "stuff" they found.
Photograph © 2010 Robert Glenn Ketchum
For Display Use Only, No Permission to Reproduce in Any Form


Given this lodge's historic status and long relationship with the National Park Service, it can provide for the public like no other facility in the park and that is what makes the experience so rich. NO other lodge, in or out of the park is licensed to offer daily guide service in the designated Wilderness region of the park, the most scenic, wild, pristine and mountainous areas. At CAMP DENALI there are excursions EVERYDAY, led by highly experienced guide/naturalists. These trips are offered at differing levels of exertion so that everyone can participate. Often guests will ride out in a bus to spot animals, do a hike, have lunch along the route, watch more animals, and return late. Did I say, "watch animals!?!" You had better believe it! In my many years of staying at CAMP DENALI I have seen countless Dall's sheep, and caribou; my children and I watched two bull moose battle it out until one backed the other into a nearby pond and nearly drowned it; also with my kids, a moose and calf strolled through camp at twilight to the delight of numerous guests -- in their pajamas -- that followed them around at a safe distance; my photography class came upon a lone white wolf, sunning itself within 50-yards; a black, yellowed-eyed wolf digging for squirrels within 50FEET of the bus (one student using a telephoto got a full-frame shot of JUST the eye); a grizzly bear with two cubs that emerged from the bush onto the road, SO close that those with big lenses could NOT get the shot; and, a truly unique experience at some distance, a pack of wolves attacked a grizzly bear and drove it off, defending their territory. You will NEVER have experiences like this from such a safe position anywhere else in the world, period!

Photograph © 2010 Robert Glenn Ketchum
For Display Use Only, No Permission to Reproduce in Any Form

All of this happens because the guide staff is so good. They are great 'people-people', always interacting well with the guests and placing the guests first. Most are naturalists and park historians who always have interesting information to relate, and they connect with both adults and children. In the shot above, my group had taken a lunch break after the morning hike, and to aid digestion we are now "tundra-rolling" -- ­ going head-over-heals down a spongy tundra slope. The silliness of this became so infectious, that with the guides cajoling, even the adults participated ­-- THAT was funny!

Along the Trail at Wonder Lake. Photograph © 2010 Robert Glenn Ketchum
For Display Use Only, No Permission to Reproduce in Any Form.

As a photographer, don't even get me going about the astounding -- albeit very brief -- fall color. The tundra may not be the same as the trees of New England, but the show is easily as good.

Photograph Courtesy of Camp Denali
For Display Use Only, No Permission to Reproduce in Any Form

CAMP DENALI has canoes for paddling about on nearby Wonder Lake in full view of the summit and its supportive range, and there are mountain bikes as well. One great trip is to depart on the bus to the National Park's Eielson Visitor Center, offload at the visitor's center, and bicycle back to CAMP DENALI. There is also flight seeing offered from nearby Kantishna Air Taxi (link: www.katiar.com), whose van will pick you up at CAMP DENALI and deliver you back. Owner Greg LaHaie and his crew are knowledgeable pilots who have flown this area SAFELY most of their careers, so even for the flight-timid, this is a "must" recommendation. If you are a photographer, these pilots are also photo-savvy, so this will be an experience unlike anything else you have ever done, and they will help you get THE shot.

The Twin Summits of 'The Great One', Taken From Greg's Plane. Photograph © 2010 Robert Glenn Ketchum
For Display Use Only, No Permission to Reproduce in Any Form.

Lastly, but not least, are the evening programs that are held in the common library. I have spoken there many times during my numerous visits, but there are always multiple presentations during any one stay, and they are all memorable. Most of the presentations are given by staff naturalists, however Camp Denali's 'Special Emphasis Series' also brings in visiting speakers.

Trapline Twins © 2005 Vanessapress, Fairbanks.

My last visit included a presentation from the twin sisters Miki and Julie Collins who live at the remote edge of the park and are known for their authentic subsistence lifestyle. The pictures and presentation were Alaskan humor at its best, and the photograph of them in their relatively small, hand-built cabin, sleeping with their ENTIRE dog team of 15+ huskies would be viral if posted on the net. These evenings are not to be missed.

Photograph Courtesy of Camp Denali
For Display Use Only, No Permission to Reproduce in Any Form

For my money and time, CAMP DENALI is one of THE best Alaskans experiences you could ever hope for. Follow the links to learn more, see price packages, and lengths of stay. There are other ways to encounter this park, but CAMP DENALI provides a combination of elements ­ comfort, guidance, learning programs, a point of view, camp camaraderie, and a hot shower/great meal at the end of the day ­ that the others cannot touch. If you only get to Alaska once in your life, and you are willing to "rough-it" just a little (very little) this is the trip!

When you book a trip at CAMP DENALI, be sure to let them know you read about it here on my blog!

~ Robert Glenn Ketchum

#rgk
#lbp