Camp Denali offers a learning adventure

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If you go to Camp Denali

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — It was the Camp Denali version of show and tell, after supper, and lanky, bearded Johan Wulfers was as excited as a grizzly cub in a blueberry patch.

One of three guides who had led outings that June day for the camp's 24 guests, he took a few hardy souls on the day's most difficult hike — Eagle's Nest Trail — and it was time to report back.

His group's tell-about-it trophy: a rare face-to-face meeting with a wolverine.

"They have a really nice set of teeth, and a jaw kind of like a pit bull," Wulfers said, beaming. "It was a real highlight, probably of any summer."

Up next, guide Luke Lohmuller, a young, chiseled-jawed wag — Brad Pitt minus 15 years — dourly considered what to report about his outing, which mostly found wildflowers.

"Well, after the sixth or seventh wolverine, we stopped counting," he said steely-eyed, drawing hoots from guests.

Outdoor education, not competition, is more the point of Camp Denali. But put together a guide staff wearing that much polar fleece in a wild place where competition means survival, and there's a little good-natured one-upmanship.

Ninety miles inside Denali National Park, Camp Denali is hard to define. It's not a campground. It's not a fancy resort, though its rates occupy the same stratosphere. Try this: It's what you'd get if L.L. Bean and Henry David Thoreau opened a summer camp for grown-ups, with Julia Child at the cookstove.

There may, in fact, be a psychic connection to Bean, the venerable Freeport, Maine, outfitter. One of the camp's founders, Morton Wood, came from Freeport. His wife, Ginny Wood, from Oregon, and friend Celia Hunter, from Arlington, Wash., came to Alaska as pilots after ferrying planes during World War II.

They started Camp Denali on homesteaded property originally outside the park, later taken in when the park tripled in size, making theirs one of very few lodgings inside the park. The camp welcomed its first paying guests 50 years ago. Special events will mark the anniversary this summer.

In 1975, the founders sold to current owners Wally and Jerri Cole (she's a Mount Vernon, Wash., native). They've made it a family-run labor of love, with a summer staff of 45.

Hard to peg

Lacking an easy label for the place, the Coles offer an "active-learning adventure center."

"It's likely the original ecotourism lodge in America — maybe the world," said Wally Cole, who serves on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, a watchdog for America's national parks.

Whatever the label, it's a user-friendly base from which to learn about what its founders called "the spell of the North."

Seventeen immaculate little cabins sprinkle an open hillside. Weather permitting, all command clear Mount McKinley views — the only park lodging that does — even from each cabin's private outhouse.

Heat is from tiny wood stoves. Propane lanterns provide light; a gas burner comes with a teakettle filled from a tap outside. After washing up in a porcelain basin — or in hot showers a short walk away — at night you snuggle under quilts made by camp employees.

Guests dine family-style on gourmet meals, including produce from the camp's greenhouse. Menu? Think pork tenderloins, with lemon mousse for dessert.

For social gatherings and evening programs, walk up the hill to the edge of Nugget Pond and a little log lodge with a well-stocked lending library of Alaskana. Hear talks by visiting renowned naturalists or camp employees. Guide Simon Hamm captivated us with tales and a slide show of climbing McKinley.

The whole place is marvelously thought out. A resource center has a large topographic relief map, touch-me exhibits of animal bones and skins, grizzly-footprint casts, a binocular microscope, even scores of dried plant specimens, some cataloged by the camp's founders dating back to the '50s.

I opened the labeled "Mystery Drawer" and found — surprise! — dung samples.

Beyond a dude ranch

Most of my fellow guests seemed delighted with Camp Denali (though some who had hoped for memorable fishing were disappointed). An undeniable advantage: Staying here, you can wake up and 10 minutes later be in wilderness.

I chose to join the daily naturalist-led hikes, which include most guests. You can go it on your own if you wish. The supply room has boots, rain gear, even gold pans. Everything's on the honor system. Not even the cabins have locks.

"It's a large houseguest facility," Wally Cole said. "If it were in the Southwest or Montana, it would be a dude ranch. But different from the dude ranch is the learning opportunity, to learn about all aspects of being in the subarctic."

For its owners, Camp Denali is also a values statement. Among other reasons for its steep rates — small size, short visitor season, high maintenance in a harsh environment — the Coles pay their employees better than the industry standard.

"We could put hundreds of hotel rooms here and go be on a sailboat in Tahiti," Jerri Cole said. "I think we both have a sense of social responsibility that is reflected here." They live it, too, filling in when needed as hike leaders, speakers, even driving the bus.

Contact Brian Cantwell at 206-748-5724 or