FAIRBANKS - Longtime Fairbanksan Ginny Hill Wood has traveled much of the world, served her country, pioneered northern tourism, cofounded one of the first backcountry lodges in the state, played a pivotal role in many contentious conservation battles and still found time to garden. The one thing she hasn’t done is write an autobiography.
To fill this void, Karen Brewster, a research associate with the Oral History Program at UAF, has drawn together a book based on her own exhaustive interviews with Wood, along with other interviews, writings from Wood herself, and the observations of friends and associates that Wood met along the way. “Boots, Bikes, and Bombers: Adventures of Alaska Conservationist Ginny Hill Wood” is an extensive, detailed portrait that takes some dedication to get through, but the end result is worth the effort.
After a brief introduction the book is given over to Wood, whose stories Brewster has organized into more or less linear fashion.
Born Virginia Hill in 1917, she spent her childhood in eastern Washington and Oregon where her father worked for the federal government assisting with agricultural development. She describes an active and heavily outdoors oriented childhood that was fairly idyllic despite the Depression. What the nation’s economic collapse did teach her was to live within her means rather than going into debt to afford a presumably better lifestyle. This tendency would serve her well in adulthood as she built her business and home.
As a young lady, Hill was adventurous, taking work as a horseback guide in summer camps, buying a sail boat, learning to ski, and more. As she tells Brewster, she never gave much thought to the idea that what she was doing was, in those days, unusual for women: “I was not a feminist. I just did what I wanted to do and I happened to be a woman. I was lucky that I never had any trouble.”
That same spirit would compel her to tour Europe by bicycle in 1938 on the eve of the Second World War. Her stories of that period are enchanting and her memories of Germany under Hitler at the zenith of Naziism are chilling.
Once war broke out, Hill joined what would become the WASPs (Women’s Air Service Pilots) obtaining her pilot’s license and spending the remainder of the conflict ferrying military planes around the country. She would continue flying for decades to come.
After the war she quickly found other work as a pilot and began her lifelong friendship with Celia Hunter, anther WASP veteran. The two often flew together and within short order arrived in Alaska where they helped launch an early tourism venture, flying passengers from Fairbanks to Kotzebue for brief visits.
Alaska became Hill’s home base, but like many residents she drifted in and out before finally settling down for good. As the 1940s wound down, she again toured Europe, this time with Hunter, and shortly thereafter married Morton “Woody” Wood.
As Ginny Wood, she returned to Alaska with her new husband and embarked on an even more adventurous life than the one she had already known. The couple spent a summer exploring Katmai for the Park Service, but it was Denali (then known as Mt. McKinley National Park) that drew them most strongly. They soon bought land near Kantishna, and in partnership with Hunter, established Camp Denali.
Initially a primitive lodge with canvas covered cabins, the idea of Camp Denali was to offer guests an intensive backcountry experience geared toward long visits with hikes, camping trips, and an emphasis on exploring the natural history of the area. The business partners were offering ecotourism at a time when there was no name for such a thing, making them among the first anywhere in the world to conceive of the idea.
During this part of the book Wood paints a vivid picture of life in the park at a time when visitors were few and there were no transportation limitations or camping regulations to contend with. While she speaks affectionately of the time, she fully supports the need for these restrictions today as a means of protecting the Park’s wilderness value.
During these same years the Woods settled down into Fairbanks during winters, building a cabin in the Dogpatch neighborhood and becoming active in the community. Much as she does with Denali, Wood gives readers glimpses of Fairbanks in the 1950s and 1960s when it was still a small town.
Although today regarded as a conservationist, Wood’s work in this area is heavily explored in only one chapter. Despite her own accomplishments, she is always quick to credit others more than herself for successes in this area. Readers get insightful — albeit one-sided — looks at the Rampart Dam controversy, Project Chariot, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and other conflicts.
The book as a whole is extensive and wide ranging, much like Wood’s life, and the final quarter is a hodgepodge of topics missed elsewhere in the text that lacks the narrative drive of the earlier sections. While it’s probably a bit much for general readers, people with a deep interest in Alaska history — even those who oppose Wood on conservation issues — will find much to chew on here.
Wood is forever looking outward, so this never bogs down into a navel-gazing memoir of the type so prevalent these days. She also has a wonderful sense of humor that surfaces frequently. As an oral account, the tone is conversational. Friends of Wood will treasure it as a written version of the stories she’s famous for telling.
Ginny Wood has lived a remarkable life, even if she never intended to. It’s good to have it in print.
“Boots, Bikes, and Bombers: Adventures of Alaska Conservationist Ginny Hill Wood”
Karen Brewster, editor
University of Alaska Press
2012 • $29.95
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.