There are magical places in the world that call out to the soul through their simplicity and rugged beauty. Chancing upon them offers discovery and a rejuvenation of the spirit. Visiting and actually spending time at them offers a chance to return to the simpler ways of life. Where things are not so hurried, where the cares of the world are for naught, and the beauty of living transcends everything else. We seek these magical places because they renew our hearts with beauty. They restore our minds with calmness and reason. They offer a victory in our spirits. They are still waters and a safe harbor in a world of busyness. Rhythmically, we seek these places out and make pilgrimages to them in the hope of reviving our inner being, returning things and events that are spinning too fast back to a sense of normalcy and calmness.
One such magical place is located in the state of Alaska, 170 miles southwest of Anchorage, 14 miles north of Port Alsworth. Nestled in Lake Clark National Preserve and Park. It's called the Little Mulchatna Lodge, or LML, or just "Little Mulchatna". It's so named because it sits at the beginning of the Little Mulchatna River exactly where Fishtrap Lake flows into the mouth of the river. From there, the river winds northwest some 17 miles before eventually flowing into the Chilikadrotna river. The area is tundra, ranging from low mountains with brushy hillsides and cliffs to gentle hills and valleys with streams and lakes. There are various plants such as blueberry, crowberry, fireweed, and monkshood, and at any moment one can chance upon bear, moose, caribou, porcupine or any of the other various creatures that frequent the area. That there are also mosquitos goes without saying, and one had better be prepared to deal with the little intruders.
To say that the lodge at Little Mulchatna is a magical place may need a bit of explanation. On paper, it could seem like one more among the many wonderful lodges that grace Alaska. However, when you consider its colorful history and the fact that it’s the only lodge on remote Fishtrap Lake and one of the few lodges in Lake Clark’s vast four million acre preserve, the point begins to become clear. It’s accessible only by float plane. The flight from Anchorage takes you westward across the Cook inlet, within sight of two volcanoes (Illiamna and Redoubt), numerous glaciers and rivers and untold mountains and wild places. The flight alone is an adventure of a lifetime; at any point you’ll travel close beside mountains, glaciers and waterfalls, over rivers and streams, or above eagles, bear and moose.
Spectacular views are everywhere. This area of the Preserve is more remote, and you can feel it. In any given year, more visitors travel to Lake Clark NP to visit the more popular areas such as Twin Lakes and the historic cabin that Dick Proenneke built and lived in. That has led the area in and around Little Mulchatna to still be remote, wild and untamed as it ever was.
About as wild as when 22 year old bush pilot Stuart “Stu” Ramstad crashed onto the lake’s shoreline less than three years after the land had become a state. Stuart Ramstad was a pilot and third generation gold miner who supposedly had dealt with more than one airplane fire while in the air. He had become a pilot at age 14 (Source: APRN).
On Christmas Day, 1962, Stu’s Piper Cub caught fire and he was forced to land near the shore of the lake. His family sent out a search, and he was found, two days later. Ramstad made a homestead claim upon the land consisting of 80 acres and returned to the location, whereupon he built the first cabin ( later to be identified as the cabin that John Denver loved and sang about) five years later, in 1967.
Stu then built more cabins using local pine trees from the surrounding area and operated the place as an Alaskan fly-in lodge for decades. The current main lodge was originally two separate cabins; Ramstad realized he could tear down some of the walls and build upon it to make a larger, main lodge in order to better accommodate both living conditions and clients.
Today, there are a total of seven original cabin structures on the property, plus a three-sided outhouse that does not have a door. There are three log-built cabins, a main lodge, and side buildings:
Additionally, there are two docks that give service to Fishtrap Lake, as well as a platform in front of the bath house that was built to accommodate the wood-heated hot tub that singer-songwriter John Denver had flown in.
In 1968, Ramstad received notice from the Bureau of Land Management that his land claim was not valid. He was ordered to cease the use of the land, and remove all improvements, thereby returning the land to its natural state. Ramstad responded, and a series of give and take ensued, which included his being charged with trespass, among other items. Ramstad appealed the initiative to remove the lodge, and after several years of heartfelt, hard work, he was awarded possession of the Little Mulchatna Lodge. Thus, the lodge and its history were preserved.
Speaking of John Denver, he first became interested in the lodge while working on his film, “American Child”. Two years earlier while putting together the movie segments, Denver happened upon Ramstad and his bush piloting skills through a mutual acquaintance named Earl “Red” Dodge. Red was also an Alaskan legend, also a bush pilot, and was featured in the film. A thank you, here, to Red’s grand-daughter, who graciously helped to fill in some of this story concerning Red and his connection to John. John spent many summers visiting the Dodge family in Anchorage in between trips to Little Mulchatna. The lodge has always been a special place to the Dodge family, and they forever share a legacy with the land, as the ashes of Mike Dodge ( Red’s son ) are buried there. She also writes that she still cherishes the videos that she has, of John and Cassie at the lodge. It features them singing as well as other fun times; she hopes to someday finish editing them. When she does, she hopes to share them with the Lodge, so the current lodge owner and others there can enjoy the special moments.
The “American Child” film eventually aired its premier on Tuesday, May 9, 1978, and would serve Alaska’s H-39 Bill well in it’s attempt to set aside 95 million acres of Alaskan land as parks and refuges, and helped in the creation of Lake Clark National Preserve and Park.
In the course of events, John Denver was introduced to the lodge. He visited, and fell in love with both the land and the lodge. He was so in love with the place, in fact, that he made a deal with Ramstad to purchase the property and buildings. The deal was both as an intent to keep the property true to its humble origins and to serve as John’s retreat from the world and its constant needs upon the public figure that he represented.
Denver loved the place, and made many trips to the lodge. He brought family members, fished, spent quiet time, and relaxed. He designed a wood-burning hot tub and had it flown in (for both the “wow” effect and for the enjoyment of it); being a fun-loving prankster, he couldn’t wait to see Stuart’s face when the plane arrived with the hot tub. He had a piano flown in and is said to have composed a few songs while playing it. To this day, the piano still sits in the main lodge, and is there for any loving hands who wish to gift it with a melody.
In fact, Denver used the photography of the Little Mulchatna and other Alaskan areas to grace the pages of his 1976 “Spirit” tour program. The photo of Denver with a group of men was taken in the cabin behind “John’s cabin”, and the mirror-lake image with the float plane appears to have been taken sometime between late June to August, judging from the lack of snow on the mountains. Numerous other photos exist of Denver at the lodge, ranging from him relaxing in the hot tub to spending quiet family time at the table with second wife, Cassandra, and daughter Jesse Bell. There are also photos of him fishing in both Fishtrap Lake and the Little Mulchatna River. And, humorously, there’s a photo of him skinny dipping in Fishtrap Lake! Sometimes comical and candid but always the human, John opened himself and his heart while spending time at Little Mulchatna, and a part of him endearingly called it home.
To date, John Denver visited the lodge at least twenty-six times during his lifetime, and he had planned on many more. During his time there, he wrote many notable songs, including:
The famous lines in the song “Alaska and Me”, in which we hear Denver telling the story of being a bush pilot’s wife, are written about Wendy, Stuart Ramstad’s wife. The couple spent many hours together with John ( and family and friends, when present ) at the cabin, and John felt that the song flowed in a natural order with Wendy’s natural association with the cabin. It embraced and immortalized her history of flying the Alaskan bush with her husband, Stu. Later in life, the couple established a main residence in Wasilla, Alaska. Stuart Ramstad passed away March 3, 2018, but will forever leave a legacy as one of Alaska’s notable and colorful bush pilots.
In 1997, Denver was filming an episode of the Nature series, entitled “Let This Be A Voice”. The film also recorded heartwarming scenes of John with two of his children, which fittingly showed a beautiful side of the singer at the end of his life. Stu Ramstad also plays a wonderful part in the film, as does the Little Mulchatna Lodge. Altogether, it’s an entirely fresh and poignant look at the singer and some of the places that he loved dearly.
Quite unexpectedly, things took a turn for the worse when Denver’s plane crashed off the coast of Monterey, California, in October of 1997. As John hadn’t finalized the Little Mulchatna sale, the property was still owned by the Ramstads. But, fate has a strange way of stepping into stories, and such was the case, here.
PBS began airing “Let This Be A Voice” over their different stations across the United States, and it was seen by many people. Jeff Schendel (who resided in Wisconsin), happened to enjoy the music and legacy that the singer had left, saw the program being aired. Interested in the lodge, he called the local PBS station that had aired the segment, found Stu’s information, and contacted him. After a general introduction, the conversation progressed, and Stuart invited Jeff out to the lodge. Jeff, like John, fell in love with the land and the lodge. He knew that he had the spirit and fortitude that it would take to keep the place and land in order. Within him, the dream to continue the lodge’s legacy was born. Jeff purchased the Little Mulchatna Lodge from Stuart, and the lodge continues under his care and support to this day.
The current lodge owner has done much in keeping Little Mulchatna Lodge true to its Alaskan heritage, both in deed and in spirit. The cabins are kept well, and the land is clean and reflects the true feeling of the Alaskan spirit. Above the wash house door hangs a familiar quotation by Richard Proenneke, that begs an important question for humanity to consider:
“Is it proper that the wilderness and its creatures should suffer because we came?”
Indeed, we should do well to heed to the voice that calls us to tend the earth and to preserve it’s beauty. There are few causes more noble.