AT DENALI WILDERNESS LODGE - Wild Animals Take Center Stage

by Geri Anderson

"Two moose and a grizzly, two moose and a grizzly," yells a young man running along the path in front of my cabin. For a moment, I thought he was announcing the evening slide show here at Denali Wilderness Lodge.

Denali from the plane, on the flight in.


Then, responding to his cries, guests pour out of the theater, the main lodge, and nearby cabins. They follow the excited staff member like mice behind the Pied Piper. At the observation platform, which overlooks the rolling meadows along the Woods River, they peer through telescopes. Like Peeping Toms, they watch the pageantry across the way.

A moose and her calf saunter through the meadow, lighted by the muted orange hue of Alaska's evening sun. Trailing behind, a grizzly bear, nibbling berries from low-growing bushes, pays no attention whatsoever to the antlered family who share his billing this evening. All are unaware of the peepers across the river. Wildlife doing what they do in their native habitat is a rare sight in most places. At Denali Wilderness Lodge, it's common fare.

Surrounded by 2,000 square miles of wilderness, the lodge is probably the most remote tourist accommodation in the U.S. Visitors can't drive or take a bus because the nearest road is 30 miles away. Instead, guests fly in by bush plane from an airstrip near Denali National Park. The 30-minute trip gives a close-up view of snowcapped mountains, and ofglaciers inching their way downslope.

This rustic resort is a haven for wildlife and human life. It was always so -- but for different reasons. The history of what is now Denali Wilderness Lodge capsulizes the changes of man's relationship to nature during the 20th century. When it was built in the 1890s, the lodge was merely a small cabin in the woods. It was headquarters for hunters who killed sheep, moose, and caribou. Their catch of the day supplied gold miners in Fairbanks and nearby mining camps. Survival was what big game hunting was all about during Alaska's gold rush and early development.

Then in 1960, outdoorsman Lynn Castle purchased the rustic hunting cabin. Using horses and sled dog teams, he cut and hauled logs from the surrounding woods. He added guest cabins, the main lodge, and several outbuildings. For three decades, Castle hosted hunters from all over the world. Drawn by his reputation as Alaska's foremost wildlife guide, they killed big game for sport and trophies.

Today, the living room of the lodge is a museum of wild animals. It contains more than 100 stuffed specimens from around the world, Castle's private collection. Wide-eyed caribou, Dall sheep, polar bears, rhinos, lynx, lions, and bears surround guests as they nibble hors'd oevres and sip wine before the evening meal.

Castle had a reputation for being as wild as the game he stalked. Surviving more than a dozen bush plane accidents, he died in a plane crash the way he lived -- in the wild.

Wilderness comfort at Denali Lodge.


Three years ago, Dave and Danielle Thompson bought Denali Wilderness Lodge, and turned it into a resort where guests observe and learn about nature. The wild animals that roam the area are still the main reasons for visiting here. However, the only shooting guests do is with cameras. They take aim only through telescopes.

A typical day at the lodge might start with a greeting from the chef as he cuts rhubarb growing next to the veranda. After a breakfast of homemade biscuits, eggs, bacon, and fruit, guests select from a menu of daily activities. These range from trail rides and educational nature hikes to art workshops and slide shows.

Active hikers are challenged by guided expeditions to the summit of snowcapped Mt. Anderson, looming high above the lodge. From here, they may see a herd of caribou at the river's edge far below.

Because the sun is slow in setting during Alaskan summers, it's possible to begin an evening hike at 9 or 10 p.m. Wearing high boots and heavy socks borrowed from the stash in the lodge's mud room, guests can walk through a boggy meadow to a lake filled with ducks basking in the midnight sun. Others may choose an evening trail ride and sip schnapps by a toasty campfire.

The accommodations in this remote setting include electricity and private baths in cabins for two, four, or six people. The cabins, made of dark logs lined with white canvas, have lively decors -- from African safari to sensual Asian. Lanes, with romantic names such as Vienna and Salzburg, wind between the buildings. Tiny wildlowers poke up bravely among rocks and tree roots along the paths.

At Denali Wilderness Lodge, guests straddle two different worlds. The contrast between the rawness of the surrounding territory and the comfortable resort atmosphere is ever present. Deep in this wilderness, cheechakos (tourists) are far away from computers, television, and video games. Instead, moose, bear, caribou, wolves, and grizzlies provide the entertainment.

Rates start at $275 per person, double occupany. This includes the fly-in, all meals, guided walks by naturalists, and some horseback programs. Beginning this season, May 1, the lodge is offering day fly-in horseback programs, as well as fly-in lunch and dinner options. For information: 1-800-541-9779.

Geri Anderson bar