Insider’s Alaska: An Interview with Fritz Wittwer

07 Jan Insider’s Alaska: An Interview with Fritz Wittwer

Adventure Collection member Off the Beaten Path recently sat down for a chat with Fritz Wittwer, who owns a bed & breakfast near Denali National Park, about what it’s like to live in “The Last Frontier” and the North to Alaska adventure he’ll be guiding this summer.

It had been 38 degrees below zero for three days, but Fritz Wittwer was feeling good when we talked to him because it was only 20 below that day. Of course he may have also been feeling good because he and his wife Marianne were heading to Hawaii’s Big Island soon for a little R&R. For most of the winter Fritz keeps busy as a finish carpenter and in the summer, along with guiding for Off the Beaten Path (this will be his 12th year!), he and Marianne operate a bed and breakfast at their home just ten miles from Denali National Park. Talk about an insider’s perspective! We asked Fritz about his life and the North to Alaska trip he’ll be leading this summer.

denali off the beaten path
courtesy of Off the Beaten Path

OBP: You and Marianne are from Switzerland. How did you end up in Alaska?
FW: We came here on vacation in the summer, but decided we wanted to experience the winter too, so we came back. It opened our eyes and we figured moving here could change our lives in an exciting way. Marianne worked in the Swiss capital, and I managed a woodworking shop and it was a very stressful life. We met the owners of Camp Denali that first winter and they offered us jobs. I worked there for over 20 years, and still help with season opening and closing.

OBP: Guests on this trip will stay at Camp Denali. What’s it like?
FW: The Camp Denali family is very welcoming. [The lodge is on a homesteaded in-holding deep inside Denali National Park, and has been owned by the same family for more than 30 years.] It’s not luxurious — they don’t want that. What they do want is for people to have the chance to be close to the land and learn about the ecology and history of Denali’s wilderness. The cabins are warm and comfortable and the lodge is beautiful. And the food is excellent! Home grown and Alaska-local, as much as possible.

OBP: There’s an unequaled view of Mount McKinley (Denali) from there too, right?
FW: Yes! The sheer size of the mountain is incredible.

OBP: The hiking around the lodge sounds amazing.
FW: It is. We hike out across the open tundra — there are no trails — and it can feel like you’re the first person to see that view, or explore that part of the park. Sometimes we hike along a ridgeline and all you see around you are mountains and tundra. No sign of humans. It’s a really powerful feeling, and there are so few places to experience that. One of the great things about our time in Camp Denali is that people can choose their own activity levels. The Camp Denali naturalists offer three levels of outings every day. So you can take a hike that gains 2,000 feet in elevation, or you can opt for a vehicle-based naturalist foray through the park to look for wildlife. It’s up to you.

OBP: And after Camp Denali?
FW: We drive south to the coast, which is stunning. It’s interesting to see the landscape and vegetation change so completely. Closer to the coast we’re suddenly in Sitka spruce—big trees, very lush vegetation. We only get about 18 inches of precipitation where I live, but they can get many times that amount along the coast. So you start out in Alaska’s interior, with wide open tundra and caribou, then find yourself in the northernmost temperate rainforest. This trip gives you a great sense of Alaska’s tremendous diversity!

Kenai Fjords Off the Beaten Path
courtesy of Off the Beaten Path

OBP: What do you see and do on the coast?
FW: The boat trip into Kenai Fjords National Park is a real highlight. We might see tidal glaciers calving into the ocean and nesting seabirds such as puffins along the steep cliffs, with a good chance to see Steller sea lions, harbor seals, and humpback whales. The scenery is spectacular, with fjords cutting deeply into the mountainous landscape. We also take a leisurely float on the turquoise-colored waters of the Kenai River in the National Wildlife Refuge, and have the chance to walk right up to the terminus of Exit Glacier.

OBP: What have you discovered about Off the Beaten Path travelers in your years of guiding in Alaska?
FW: I’ve noticed that they really like to get to know people who live in this place — Alaskans, like myself, but everybody else along the road too. People like Mary Shields in Fairbanks, a pioneer woman musher. She shares her life story, how she copes with the winter, and introduces us to her sled dogs. Life up here is so different from people’s lives in the Lower 48. Guests like connecting on that level. I’ve also seen that OBP visitors are very well traveled and well educated. They like learning new things. I really enjoy their keen interest so I try to help them learn new things throughout the trip. They might forget the Latin names of flowers, but there are other things they will always remember. Like how glaciers behave, for instance.

Off the Beaten Path Travelers
courtesy of Off the Beaten Path

OBP: So you would recommend North to Alaska to smart, well-traveled people who are curious about the Great Land?
FW: Of course! I would like to extend my personal invitation to please join me this summer on a fantastic trip. It will be wonderful.

• • •

Trip dates: June 12-19, June 26-July 3, July 10-17, and August 7-14.

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