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 the benefit of electric lights. Heat and hot water were courtesy of the wood she and her family chopped. To prepare for the long winter, they'd grow hundreds of pounds of potatoes and preserve hundreds of fish. Their nearest neighbor was 60 miles away, and the pediatrician a 90-minute helicopter ride distant. Her kids' best friends were their dozen sled dogs.
"I was too busy to be lonely. I never thought our life was hard," insists Schlentner, as she leads a group of decidedly suburban parents and kids on an energetic hike in Denali National Park.
We walk through blueberry-laden bushes to a stream where the kids splash in icy water. Snow-covered Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak, looms over them. As we hike, Schlentner keeps us entertained by rattling off tidbits about her extraordinary life.
"I always loved the outdoors," the 53-year-old Schlentner says airily as if that explains her decision to move to Alaska from Poughkeepsie, New York, to teach middle school 31 years ago. Ultimately, this meant forsaking all modern conveniences to raise her family in the Alaskan bush. The mothers in the group just look at each other. Could we do that?
The kids, of course, are less fascinated by Carol's stories than by her dogs. They spend every possible minute playing with the dozen 100-pound-plus animals sporting names such as Screamer, Deezo, Miso, Porky, and Cyprus. The dogs, chained to wooden doghouses, clearly like the attention. The kids don't want to leave. Schlentner demonstrates how the dogs are trained to pull her sled. Watching her in action, it's clear she's not like any other middle-school teacher we know.
Yet Alaska is full of parents with interesting stories like Carol's. And the chance to meet them turns out to be one of the highlights of our visit to the remote Kantishna Roadhouse lodge, nestled in a 5-acre clearing, 95 miles inside Denali National Park. Kantishna Roadhouse, which began in the early 1900's as a gold miners' tent camp, is one of only four small lodges inside this 6-million-acre park. It's located at the end of a long, bumpy road, accessible only by bush plane or bus. There are 27 one-room cabins with a central dining room, where we try reindeer sausage for breakfast and fresh-caught halibut for dinner. There's a library stocked with board games and a cozy bar named for Smokey Joe, a sled dog buried out back. The atmosphere is relaxed, and by our second night we're trading stories over dinner with other families. 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, such as elusive Dall sheep and bear cubs.
Many families like ours are bringing their kids and grandkids here to the end of the road in America's last great wilderness-so many that Kantishna manager Marie Monroe was prompted this summer to provide kid-size fishing poles, mountain bikes, helmets, rubber boots, and family-oriented hikes like the one we persuaded Carol to lead. One-third of the guests now are families with children, Monroe said. Other Denali lodges also report seeing more families and multi-generational groups led by grandparents. That's despite hefty all-inclusive rates that can run more than US$850 a night for a family of four.
Schlentner, one of the resident naturalists, is delighted to see so many children. She's determined to make us all love and appreciate this untamed place as much as she does. On one hike, she urges each child to assume the identity of a native animal looking for food. Even the teens get into it, becoming eagles and bears. She explains that, although Denali National Park may be the state's top tourist attraction, most visitors don't go much farther than the developed areas near 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 mountain bikes or riding horseback. Fifteen-year-old Matt and my husband Andy go on a rigorous 15-mile hike and report 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 and up Eldorado Creek's narrow ravines. We reach an abandoned miner's shack about 25 miles north of the base of Mount McKinley. Our guide is Kathy Lenniger, who grew up in a tiny Connecticut town and now leads dog-mushing trips in winter. That night, 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.
Gear: Don't leave home without good rain gear and rubber boots for everyone in the family.
There are only four lodges with a total of 89 cabins inside Denali National Park, accessible by a 5-hour bus ride or charter flight. The advantage to the long drive is the chance to see a lot of wildlife along the way. You can also fly in to Kantishna Roadhouse via small plane, as we did--a spectacular flight, ending on a small airstrip. It's necessary to book months ahead. Rates include all meals, bus transportation to and from the Denali Park Rail Station 180 miles away, park entrance, and most activities.