Remembering Celia Hunter

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(Host) Commentator Will Curtis remembers Celia Hunter, a pioneer in the conservation movement.

(Curtis) Word came to us this summer from Alaska of Celia Hunter’s death. Celia Hunter was a pioneer not only in exploring Alaska’s wilderness, but in its preservation. She invented a new kind of Alaska, fighting nationally for wilderness, for untamed rivers, for unspoiled meadows. With her friend, Ginny Wood, Celia created Alaska’s conservation movement.

We knew her and Ginny through our connection with Camp Denali, situated in the heart of Denali National Park. Camp Denali, founded by the two women, is one of the world’s first ecotourist camps.

Celia and Ginny’s life together went back a long way, when both joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots to ferry fighter planes during the Second World War. They met after the war, heading north to deliver two Stinsons from Seattle to Fairbanks, a 30-hour trip stretched by winter into 27 days. After landing on January 1, 1947, they remained to fly cargo and work for a budding tourist agency. In 1948 they traveled to Europe and saw first hand the devastation and hunger. Alaska seemed to be a refuge and the two settled permanently and began their exploration of the state’s backcountry. One of the trips was beyond the western boundary of Denali National Park where they hiked along a high ridge facing Mt McKinley. Since the mountain was clouded they asked a friend to go back on a clear day and report. Wow, was the answer. Celia and Ginny bought the ridge and Camp Denali was born in 1952.

In 1975 Celia and Ginny decided to turn the camp over to others with similar ideals, in order that they might devote themselves to protecting wilderness. Back then the conservation movement was not something you joined, it was something you started, said Ginny Wood. The pair founded the Alaska Conservation Society which fought the use of nuclear power to blast out harbors, fought dams that would have flooded native villages and helped to shape the Alaska National Lands Conservation Act. Celia was a director of the Wilderness Society and a member of the Joint Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission. For years they testified and published widely. Ginny has an ecotourist award named after her.

In a radio interview a few days before her death, Celia made a bequest to the next generation; I want to leave with you the idea that change is possible, but you’re going to have to put your energy into it. Just before Camp Denali closed for the fall, her friends climbed to that high ridge and placed her ashes under a cairn. Celia Hunter will not be forgotten.

This is Will Curtis of Woodstock, Vermont.

Will Curtis is an author and naturalist.

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