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Celia Hunter

January 13, 1919 – December 1, 2001

A Brief Biography

She was born in Arlington, Snohomish County, Washington, heart of logging country between the two World Wars. She graduated from high school in Marysville, Washington, and worked in the lumber industry, including Weyerhaeuser industries. A crucial developmental opportunity in her life came when she learned to fly at the tiny Everett Airport, which was on her way to work, for only $75.

Her first solo flight was in April 1940. This started a period of flight training, which led to a private pilot license and to civil pilot training in 1941. She entered the Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) training in March 1943 and was stationed at the Ferrying Division, the Air Transport Command, New Castle Army Base in Wilmington, Delaware until WASP was disbanded in 1944.

She was hired to deliver a war-surplus Gull-Wing Stinson airplane from Seattle to Fairbanks, Alaska along with her friend, Ginny Hill who was flying a Stinson L-5. It took them 27 days to fly 30 hours via the Northwest Staging Route: Edmonton, Ft. Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, Northway, and Fairbanks, landing on Jan. 1, 1947. Because it was a seriously hard winter that year with long periods of minus 50 degrees or colder weather, they actually ended getting jobs and spent the summer in Fairbanks as flight instructors, working for Chuck West, who later founded Westours, a major tourist operation in Alaska.

In 1951, together with Ginny Hill Wood and Woody Wood, they began building Camp Denali, a wilderness vacation camp in the Kantishna mining district, adjacent to Denali National Park. Camp Denali offered special programs in wildlife photography, back country hiking and camping, and wilderness workshops combined with a camping and study program on ecology.

In 1960, with a small group of Fairbanks conservationists, she helped found the Alaska Conservation Society, the first state-wide conservation organization in Alaska, which eventually had chapters in other Alaskan communities. It was a strong voice for conservation and stemmed out of a period of activism and interest promulgated by the attempt by the Atomic Energy Commission and Dr. Edward Tellar to use the program of Atoms for Peace to explode atomic bombs on the Northwest Chukchi Sea Coast of Alaska at a place called Cape Thompson, in order to establish a port.

Along with other aspects of this project, which are described in an excellent book by Dan O’Neill called “The Firecracker Boys”, Ginny? (Celia?) merged with a group of particularly Fairbanks based, environmentally aware, scientists and concerned citizens, which formed the nucleus of people who created the Alaska Conservation Society. The society was actually disbanded because other environmental groups took the reins and it stepped out of the way and let them have center stage in the Alaska environmental movement. But most of them are actually off-shoots of the Alaska Conservation Society.

In 1975 they sold Camp Denali but in addition to these personal aspects, in 1972 Celia was appointed to Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission for Alaska to study and analyze potential additions to existing conservation units and to create wilderness areas in Alaska. That Commission sunsetted in 1979 and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was passed in 1980.

She helped found in 1980 then, the Alaska Conservation Foundation and served as its first Board Chairperson and she’s been a member of the Board ever since. She has written an environmental column in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and is probably the only person of standing and charisma that would be capable of doing so in a rather environmentally counter poised community and she has done this since 1979. She has done many, many other writing stints along these lines for Alaska Magazine and other publications.

During the late 60s to 1978, she was also a member of the Governing Council of The Wilderness Society and served as an interim Executive Director for the Society in 1977 and 78. During the late 80s and early 90s she served on the Board of the Alaska Natural History Association and for several years was the Chair.

During the 90s she was honored, together with Ginny Hill Wood, by being given the John Muir Award, the highest honor of the Sierra Club. In 1998 she was given The Wilderness Society, Robert Marshall Award for contributions to the preservation of wilderness.

An excellent article with photographs and historical vignettes of her experience is contained in Countryside Magazine, Volume 3, Number 3, the July 1992 issue, page 114 through 117. Personally I have to say that I am most impressed by the wit, the good humor, and the personal writing style, which is very articulate and very compelling that Celia uses in her writing. She has single-handedly provided a bellwether of environmental awareness in the Fairbanks community with her articles in that newspaper. If assembled into a book, they would be a major tome in conservation ethics and progressive thinking about the environment. There is hardly a woman in the state that can match the contribution, dogged perseverance, and simple good humor and friendship of Celia Hunter.

In an article in the All Alaska Weekly from Dec. 24th 1982, there are several quotes and reflections by Celia on her life. She says that her favorite quote has always been: “Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans”, and that’s how things happen to me, even the decision to come to Alaska was based primarily on the adventure of getting here by flying a plane up the Alcan Highway in the middle of winter. I never intended to stay, just came up to look around and see what was like, and here I am 36 years later, it’s acually now more than half a century later with roots still firmly down in the soil of Alaska. She feels that the achievement of her years in Alaska that she values most, is being a partner and creating Camp Denali, The Wilderness vacation camp in the Kantishna district, north of Wonder Lake.

Camp Denali was a means of expressing her feelings about the need for being good stewards of the land and they carried out that by maintaining a small operation, which her personal involvement was a part of every aspect. What I like about her too, is she is every bit as much at home in the national scene as she is in the local scene. She’s a dedicated Alaskan with a great love of place and a great sense of protection and joy in her life.

Important to me personally also is the fact that Celia as a woman, the only woman executive director of a national environmental organization, was drawn to Alaska to build a life for herself by herself. Here’s a quote from her: “Alaska has been good to me and many other women, gender doesn’t make that much difference if you have the skills and abilities, you can do anything. In the Bush, Rural Alaska, no one tells you, you can’t, the laws of the wilds dictate your parameters. Rewards come from personally confronting and working through challenges, the Alaska pioneer life style offers.”

by Richard D. Seifert
Professor
University of Alaska Fairbanks