R.I.P. Ginny Wood, 1917-2013

WC is an unabashed, unapologetic conservationist. WC is sad to report that one of the founders of the conservation movement in Alaska has died.

Ginny Wood with a Camp Denali Truck

Ginny Wood with a Camp Denali Truck, Photo from NAEC

It was, WC believes, in the early summer of 1969 or so. WC was at Eielson Visitor Center. A group of tourists, 3-4 people, were out in front of the Center in the bright sunlight, feeding scraps of their lunches to Stony, a young, male grizzly bear. An older woman, dressed in a bright flannel shirt and an Aussie hat with the brim up on one side, appeared. She clapped her hands loudly, yelled and spooked Stony, sending him galloping down the hill. “Don’t do that, don’t feed the bears,” she scolded the tourists. “It will end badly for you and for the bear.” That was Ginny.

Fast forward to probably the summer of 1973. WC and a buddy were driving along the Richardson Highway in Black Rapids Canyon, coming back from bouldering in Flood Creek Canyon. A helicopter swooped out of the sky in front of my buddy’s very distinctive yellow Volkswagen Beetle and a woman leaped out. “I’m helping identify potential hiking trails,” she told WC’s buddy. “Want to help?” So WC wound up driving back to Fairbanks in the Beetle by himself. That was Ginny, too.

Still later, at some reception or other at the University of Alaska Museum, probably in the mid-1980s. Someone tried to introduce WC to Ginny. “Wait,” she said, “I know you, you were with Tim when I kidnapped him. I’ve always felt bad about leaving you.” That was Ginny.

Still later, at some reception or other at Alaska Bird Observatory, some time in the mid- to late-1990s. Ginny was standing with Brina Kessel, the grand dame of Alaska birds and her friend and Camp Denali partner, Celia Hunter.  They were laughing their heads off, sharing some joke. It was a sight to see, probably two and a half centuries of amazing life experiences, guffawing like children. It makes WC smile now to think about it. And that was Ginny, too.

A powerful, long time voice for Alaska conservation has been lost. With Denny Wilcher and Celia Hunter, she pretty much created the Alaska conservation movement. She led an extraordinary life. As a teenager, she worked on dude ranches, and later dropped out of college to become a pilot with the Women’s Air Force Service Pilot program, ferrying military aircraft around the country during World War II. After the war, she visited Alaska with friend and fellow pilot Celia Hunter and decided to stay.

In 1952 the pair, along with Ginny’s new husband Morton “Woody” Wood, established Camp Denali, a wilderness lodge north of Mount McKinley. Eight years later, along with a small group of Fairbanks conservationists, the two women founded Alaska’s first statewide environmental organization, the Alaskan Conservation Society. They helped establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, worked to defeat projects threatening Alaska’s pristine wilderness areas, and were instrumental in the passage of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected over 100 million acres of federal lands.

In 1991, both Celia and Ginny were given the John Muir Award, the Sierra Club’s highest honor, and Great Old Broads for Wilderness honored them as Canyon Crones in 1995. In 2001, they were awarded lifetime achievement awards by the Alaska Conservation Foundation. Hunter passed away later that year, at the age of 82.

There’s a very good biography of Ginny, Boots, Bikes and Bombers, available from the University of Alaska Press if you want to read more about this truly remarkable woman.

And now Ginny has died. The torch has truly been passed. We will try to do you proud, Ginny.