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Learning About Life in the Alaskan Bush

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska -- Talk about getting back to nature. When Carol Schlentner needed water to cook her kids' dinner, she'd go out in subzero weather and chip ice. She potty-trained her daughters in a freezing outhouse and home-schooled them without benefit of electric lights. Heat and hot water were courtesy of the wood she and her family chopped. To get through the long winter, they'd grow hundreds of pounds of potatoes and preserve hundreds of fish. Their nearest neighbor was 60 miles away, the pediatrician a 90-minute helicopter ride. Her kids' best friends were their dozen sled dogs.

``I was too busy to be lonely. I never thought our life was hard,'' insisted Schlentner as she led a group of decidedly suburban parents and kids on an energetic hike in Denali National Park -- through blueberry-laden bushes to a stream where the kids splashed in icy water with snow-covered Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak, looming over them.

Schlentner kept us entertained as we hiked by rattling off tidbits about her extraordinary life and those lived by ancient Alaskans.

``I always loved the outdoors,'' the 53-year-old Schlentner said airily as if that explained her choice to move to Alaska from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to teach middle school 31 years ago, ultimately forsaking all modern conveniences to raise her family in the Alaskan bush.

The mothers in the group just looked at each other. Could we do that?

``I don't think I'd last 20 minutes!'' said Denise Cornejo, a Northern Californian who nonetheless loves Alaska so much she hopes to move here when her two teens are out of high school.

The kids, of course, are less fascinated with Carol's stories than with her dogs. They spend every minute they can playing with the dozen 100-pound-plus animals sporting names like Screamer, Deezo, Miso, Porky and Cyprus. The kids are thrilled to help feed them (mostly scraps from the table mixed with some oatmeal) and comb their coats. The dogs, chained to little wooden dog houses, clearly like the attention. The kids don't want to leave.

Schlentner showed the kids how the dogs are trained to pull her sled, tugging on all the layers of clothes she'll wear in the arctic winter. Watching her in action, it's clear she's not like any middle-school teacher we know.

Yet Alaska is full of wonderful and quirky parents with stories like Carol's. And the chance to meet them turns out to be one of the highlights of our visit to the remote native-owned Kantishna Roadhouse lodge nestled in a five-acre clearing 95 miles inside Denali National Park.

Kantishna Roadhouse, which began in the early 1900s as a gold miners' tent camp, is one of only four small lodges inside this huge 600-million-acre park at the end of a long bumpy road, accessible only by bush plane (we flew in around Mount McKinley) or bus.

There are 27 one-room cabins with a central dining room (we try reindeer sausage for breakfast and fresh-caught halibut for dinner), a library stocked with board games and a cozy bar named for Smokey Joe, a sled dog buried out back.

The atmosphere is not only relaxed but conducive to getting to know the local Alaskans, like Carol, who work here as well as other visiting parents and kids from Washington, D.C., and Washington state, California and Massachusetts.

By our second night, we're trading stories over dinner with other families, like the Feinmanns, who are here with their two kids from suburban Boston. We tick off the animals some of us have seen on the bus ride through the park -- bear, caribou, moose, umpteen birds -- and those we still hope to spot, like elusive dall sheep and bear cubs.

So many more families like ours are bringing their kids and grandkids here to the end of the road in America's last great wilderness that Kantishna manager Marie Monroe was prompted this summer to provide kid-sized fishing poles, mountain bikes, helmets, rubber boots and family-oriented hikes like the one we persuade Carol to lead. A third of the guests now are families with children, Monroe said. The other Denali lodges also report seeing more families and multigenerational groups led by grandparents. That's despite hefty all-inclusive rates that can run more than $850 a night for a family of four.

Schlentner, one of the resident naturalists and delighted to see so many pint-sized guests, is determined to make us all love and appreciate this untamed place as much as she does. She urges each kid to assume the identity of a native animal on one hike, looking for food. Even the teens get into it, becoming eagles and bear. She explains that while Denali National Park may be the state's top tourist attraction, most visitors don't get much beyond the entrance. We feel privileged to be here.

The kids, of course, are just out to have fun -- gold panning in a stream so cold they can't keep their hands in the water more than a few minutes, playing with the dogs, tooling around on the mountain bikes or horseback. Fifteen-year-old Matt and my husband Andy went on a rigorous 15-mile all-day hike and reported getting up close and personal with a pair of caribou. The rain -- even when it pours -- doesn't slow anyone down.

Thirteen-year-old Reggie, 8-year-old Melanie and I go horseback riding, splashing through rocky streams, up Eldorado Creek's narrow ravines to an abandoned miner's shack about 25 miles north of the base of Mt. McKinley. Our guide is Kathy Lenniger, who grew up in a t1ny Connecticut town and now leads dog-mushing trips in the winter.

Melanie makes fast friends with Lenniger's 7-year-old daughter Maia, whose life couldn't be more different from Melanie's suburban routine. Maia lives in the tiny (population 500) town of Nenana, helping her mom care for the sled dogs. She tells Melanie it's no big deal to wait for the school bus when it's 50 below.

That night, while snuggled under my comforter, with the electric heater blasting, after a blissfully long shower, I can't stop thinking about Carol's life in her 16-by-20-foot cabin in the depth of winter. She's divorced now, her two daughters off at college, but she's a lot happier than many people I know.

``The dogs keep me company,'' she says. ``We live swell.''

IF YOU GO:

Don't leave home without good rain gear and hiking boots for everyone in the family. For general park information call 907-683-2294 or www.nps.gov/dena. For camping reservations, visit the Web site or call 800-622-7275.

Two good books for children: ``My Denali'' by Kimberly Corral with 12-year-old Hannah Corral (Alaska Northwest Books, $15.95) and ``Alaska's Three Bears'' by Shelley Gill (Sasquatch Books, $8.95).

Seattle-based Wildland Adventures arranged our stay at Denali, transportation and a three-day fishing charter in Prince William Sound. Call 800-345-4453 or www.wildland.com.

There are only four lodges with 89 cabins inside Denali National Park, accessible by a five-hour bus ride. The plus is the chance to see a lot of wildlife along the way. You can also fly in to Kantishna Roadhouse via small plane around Mt. McKinley, as we did -- a spectacular flight, landing on a small airstrip. It's necessary to book months ahead.

Rates at the native-owned Kantishna start at $280 per person per day, $200 for children under 12, including all meals, bus transportation the 180 miles to and from the Denali Park Rail Station, park entrance and most activities. There is a 10 percent discount for three or more sharing the one-room log cabins. Horseback riding is extra. Call 800-942-7420 or www.kantishnaroadhouse.com.

Prices are comparable at the other lodges, though Kantishna is the only one that offers riding and appears to have the most for kids: Call Camp Denali and North Face Lodge at 907-683-2290 or www.gorp.com/dnpwild/.

Call Denali Back Country Lodge at 800-841-0692 or www.denalilodge.com. There are no kids discounts here though Alaska Wildland Adventures (based in Girdwood, Alaska) will package back-country family trips, including a stay at this lodge, which they manage. Call 800-334-8730 or www.alaskawildland.com

Denali Wilderness Lodge is outside the park but the most remote of them all -- a 20-minute plane ride from Denali Park. Call 800-541-9779 or www.AlaskaOne.com/dwlodge

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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