Alaskans and conservationists around the world are mourning the passing of Ginny Wood, who died Friday at age 95. A memorial service will be held early next month for the Alaskan pioneer, aviator, world traveler and environmentalist.
The many tributes that have been written about Ginny Wood routinely include a long list of her many adventures and accomplishments, usually with such descriptors as Alaskan pioneer, aviator, naturalist and, of course, environmentalist.
Longtime friend and fellow traveler Susan Grace says good luck to those trying to summarize a life as fully lived as Wood’s.
“It’s overwhelming,” Grace said. “It’s really impossible to sum up Ginny Wood.”
Karen Brewster has done about as good as job as anyone in defining Wood’s life. Brewster is a oral history researcher with UAF’s Rasmusson Library who spent two years chronicling Wood’s life and recounting it in a book released last spring. “Boots, Bikes and Bombers: Adventures of Alaska Conservationist Ginny Hill Wood” recounts how the farmgirl from Oregon first came to Alaska on Jan. 1, 1947 with her fellow female flyer and friend Celia Hunter, both of whom were piloting surplus military aircraft, like those they flew during in World War II while serving in the women’s auxiliary corps.
“They said, ‘Oh, this will be a great adventure,’ ” Brewster said. “ ‘We’ll get to see Alaska. Spend a few days flying up and hang out for a few days, and take a commercial flight back.’ Well, it took them a month.”
It took that long for the 60-below cold snap in Fairbanks to break, but by then Wood and Hunter had both been hired to fly supplies to the Bush. They both found the Last Frontier to their liking, and the rest as they say is history.
In 1951, Wood and her husband built Camp Denali, a guest lodge on their homestead just outside the big mountain’s national park. Her love of wilderness grew over the next several decades as she flew, hiked, kayaked, floated and guided tours throughout the state, until, Brewster says, the years finally caught up with her, forcing her to slow down.
“By around (age) 90 – late 80s, 90s – is when she was slowing down,” Brewster said. “She skiied until her mid-80s.”
Throughout it all, Wood’s love of wilderness grew, moving her to lead and join causes to protect it.
Wood was among the first to call for preservation of the area now known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, beginning in earnest with her testimony in 1958 in a congressional subcommittee hearing in Fairbanks presided over by Sen. Bob Bartlett.
In 1960, Wood helped found the Alaska Conservation Society, the state’s first environmental organization, formed to oppose Project Chariot, a Cold War-driven proposal to use nuclear weapons to blast and gouge out a harbor in northwestern Alaska.
Inspired by the likes of Aldo Leopold and H.D. Thoreau, Wood worked tirelessly to conserve Alaska’s wild places – and Brewster says, in turn inspired a new generation of environmental-minded Alaskans.
Despite all that Wood accomplished, Grace says she remained humble.
“She was always very humble about who she was and what she did,” Grace said. “It’s was just what you do – it was who she was.”
In her final few years, Grace says Wood stayed close to home, welcoming friends to her little cabin in Fairbanks and tending her garden.
Grace, a local singer-songwriter who was with Wood when she passed away, says that’s how she’ll remember her friend –and how she’d sum up the life of Ginny Wood.
“I would walk down the trail to her house,” Grace said, “And I would look out in the garden first. Often, she would be on her hands and knees, with her rain pants on and her sun hat on, and turning the entire garden with a hand trowel.
“And she’d look up – she’d have some smudge of dirt on her face – and she’d have this grin on her face that was as wide as the Tanana Valley. And it was just the most wonderful thing.”