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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.)
Now the third generation is continuing the tradition and stewardship of the land they started, teaching all of the guests about sustainability in the process. Lettuce and herbs come from the greenhouse and other veggies, meat and fish from local purveyors. A solar system heats the kitchen's water, which comes from a local stream.
Whether climbing the mountain, which at 20,300 feet is the tallest in North America (Denali, the high one, is the name the native Athabascan people gave the massive peak, though McKinley remains its legal name) or in the park, everyone who comes wants to challenge themselves somehow, even if it's just by forgoing cell service and creature comforts.
Did I mention the outhouses and communal showers at Camp Denali? (North Face Lodge has more conventional hotel-style rooms.) And the cost is more than $500 per person a night, less for kids.
Well worth it, we agree, for the standout ride and picnic into the park, the delicious locally-sourced meals and the guided hikes. The lack of modern amenities just adds to the adventure.
"To see Mt. Denali at 2 a.m. as the full moon rose was unbelievable," said Barbara Schoenly, here from Connecticut with her husband and two college-aged sons. An added plus, she says, was having her family off the grid together in such a spectacular locale.
And you can't get any more remote than here. Before we even got to the park entrance, we'd already traveled 237 miles from Anchorage by bus. You can also take a train or fly. We flew out -- a spectacular journey with Kantishna Air Taxi. Seattle-based Wildland Adventures helped me arrange this trip, as they arranged our first trip here 13 years earlier. And I found Lonely Planet's discover Alaska helpful.
Only 300,000 people visit Denali each summer -- just one-tenth the number who visit Yellowstone National Park, where we visited in 2011, and only a small percentage of those camp overnight in the park like we do.
Since the park was expanded in 1980, the camp is within park boundaries and we are thrilled to have Camp Denali naturalists guide us because without trail signs or trails, it's not easy to find your way. (Read my travel diaries for more about our stay in Denali).
Posey sniffers or gung-ho hikers? Translation: The naturalists want to know if we want to go off on a wilderness foray that is more talking than walking, a moderate hike or really push ourselves no matter what the weather. (I'm really glad for my LL Bean rain gear!)
"We want to help visitors to have an experience that is eye opening -- to connect between the natural world and their lives at home," says Jenna Hamm, who has a graduate degree in environmental studies. Her two young kids race around the place just as she and her brother once did.
On our steep hike that first morning, swatting mosquitoes, I think of all the hard work that went into building this place. The Alaska Range spreads out below us in all its glory, Wonder Lake looking like a giant mirror. Wildflowers dot the Tundra. We sprawl on the ridge and eat the lunch (sandwiches on homemade bread! Fresh baked cookies!) that we packed in the morning at Camp Denali.
"You are all part of us now," Jerryne Cole told us when we got back.
It's a privilege.
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(c) 2012 EILEEN OGINTZ DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.