Blog: The Little Mulchatna Lodge

Alaska Landscape Photography by Rory Young. (C) Rypix.com

The Little Mulchatna Lodge

-as told and photographed by Rory Young.
(Photo credit for the "barge photo" goes to Peterson Brothers Photography.)
The Little Mulchatna River. (C) Rypix.com
The Little Muchatna Lodge, along Fishtrap Lake and the Little Mulchatna River, Alaska.

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.

Little Mulchatna River, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska.
The Little Muchatna Lodge, along Fishtrap Lake and the Little Mulchatna River, Alaska.

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.

Grizzly Bear looking at flower fire weed, alaska. (C) Rypix.com
Grizzly Bear, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska..


Alaskan Rainbow Over Little Mulchatna Lodge. The John Denver Cabin. (C) Rypix.com
Under a rainbow, the cabin on the Little Mulchatna River sits in the Alaskan sunlight. Singer John Denver was working to purchase the property at the time of his death.


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The Little Muchatna Lodge, from the air. Three cabins, the main lodge, the bath house, boat house and an outhouse comprise this remote Alaskan fishing lodge in the outback.

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.

The Mount Redoubt Volcano rises prominently in the Alaskan landscape. Passengers on their way to and from Lake Clark’s Port Alsworth may be lucky enough to see this on a [mostly] clear day.

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).

Grizzly and other animals can be found in Lake Clark.

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.

Here, a group of LML visitors examine the wreckage of Stu Ramstad’s plane that crash landed near the shoreline of Fishtrap Lake.

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.

Originally two cabins, the Main lodge now contains a kitchen, front living room, “Whitehorse Saloon” bar, and dining area. The kitchen is a prime location for viewing the lake.

Dining table at the Little Mulchatna main lodge.

Rebuilding the deck on John’s front cabin, Little Mulchatna Lodge.
A float plane owned by Lake Clark Air out of Port Alsworth, Alaska, lands on Fishtrap Lake as it arrives at the Little Mulchatna Lodge. This same view of the lake is featured in John Denver’s 1976 concert program.

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:

  • one next to and overlooking the lake, called “John’s cabin”,
  • one behind it, overlooking the Little Mulchatna River,
  • and one closer to the main lodge, called the “Boar’s nest”.
  • the main lodge,
  • a log-built bath house with shower and flush toilet,
  • generator building ( in back of the lodge ) and
  • boat house ( to hold fishing tackle and equipment ).

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.

Bear viewing can be very easy and relaxing, within the main lodge.

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 work, he was awarded possession of the Little Mulchatna Lodge. Thus, the lodge and its history were preserved.

Beyond the wind chimes ( featured in the documentary “Let This Be A Voice” ), an eagle sits above the Little Mulchatna Lodge.

The view out the main lodge window, Little Mulchatna Lodge.

Speaking of John Denver, he first became interested in the lodge while working on his film, “American Child” (A recent possible photo, placing Denver at the cabin in 1973 has surfaced but has not yet been verified). Two years earlier while putting together the movie segments, Denver happened upon Ramstad and his bush piloting skills through a mutual acquaintance named Red [ word of mouth source, would like to verify ]. The 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.

The cabin that John Denver loved, stayed in whenever he visited the Little Mulchatna Lodge. This is the cabin that he sang about in “Alaska and Me”.

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.

Photo of the author, seated at the piano that singer/songwriter John Denver had flown in to Little Mulchatna.

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.

The “Cabin on Little Mulchatna”, immortalized in the song “Alaska and Me”, by singer/songwriter John Denver.

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:

  • “Alaska and Me”
  • “The Wrangle Mountain Song”
  • “American Child”
  • “Whispering Jesse”
  •  His last song, “Yellowstone” was even worked on at the lodge, although it was composed while he was on the Colorado River.

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.

The “Cabin on Little Mulchatna”, immortalized in the song “Alaska and Me”, by singer/songwriter John Denver.

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.

Fishtrap Lake thawing from the cold winter. Amazingly enough, this was photographed on June 1st.

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.

Current Owner of the Little Mulchatna Lodge, Jeff Schendel. Photograph taken at the headwaters of Fishtrap Lake, Lake Clark, Alaska.

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.

The eagle, readying for flight, above the Little Mulchatna Lodge.

 

Bald Eagle Above Little Mulchatna. (C) Rypix

A majestic bald eagle watches over the Little Mulchatna river and lodge, near Fishtrap Lake.

Above, some of the original members of the “Little Mulchatna Midnight Fishing Club”, who would gather to fish at midnight on the longest day of the year.

Photographing the Little Mulchatna: Photographer Rory Young works the image down near the lake.

Eli (named from a certain John Denver song) takes an evening break by the fire pit.

Above John’s cabin sits the eagle.
Some of our little “Little Mulchatna Midnight Fishing Club” group; we would gather together to fish at midnight on Fishtrap Lake, at Little Mulchatna.
This photograph of Fishtrap Lake taken from the front of the Little Mulchatna Lodge has the same view as the photo featured in John Denver’s 1976 Concert Program.
It rains a lot, in this area of Alaska. We’ve been here and seen rain for days at a time. And then, the rain stops, and the weather raises, and the day becomes magical.

Living every day like the first or the last one… having boat races on Fishtrap Lake. The barge is monitoring the home made boats. The winner receives bragging rights.

 

Hauling gravel, Alaskan-style. Photograph by my friend, Harlean Peterson (That’s us on the barge.).
Rory
Rory
Rory Young is the owner of RyPix and a photographer around Denver, Colorado, and the majestic Rocky Mountains. Whether photographing the Eiffel on the Seine, or evading 1,100lb Alaskan grizzlies to capture rugged mountain vistas, he strives to carry quality and passion from the lens to the print. His unique style shows, whether in portraiture, landscape, or event photography.

19 Comments

  1. Willa says:

    Thanks for posting this Rory! Will miss your familiar face this week.

  2. Susie Miller says:

    This is great Rory, and the photos are spectacular. Thanks.

  3. Marty says:

    Time for a very colorful book Rory . This place is very magical and JD fans around the world would love to see a hardcover book of LM.

  4. Robin Song says:

    This is a wonderful story. Thank you so very much for sharing with all of us who love John and Alaska.
    Robin in Talkeetna

  5. Great article and amazing pictures. I live in bordering Yukon… and Alaska is my second home as it was my favorite singer’s second home….perhaps some day on one of my many visits I will come and play on that piano he played and soak in that same hot tub and sleep in the same bed he once did just because. Thank you very much for sharing all this with us.

  6. Beverley Tucker Patten says:

    The photos are wonderful, the scenery majestic and your skill at photography is amazing. I thank you for sharing. May I share too? I enjoyed your narrative so much, made me miss John Denver and I would love to visit the lake too. I agree that it would make a wo derful book!

  7. Cathie Marx says:

    WOW!! This is so AWESOME!!!! Thank you so much for doing this. This is the most I have ever read in one place on the subject. You are such a blessing Rory. THanks for all you do!!

  8. Larry Werner says:

    Rory, Thank you for sharing such a great story. I was fortunate to be living in Colorado in the 70’s and have been a fan of JD ever since.
    Your evening shot (blue) of the cabin and captioned, “The “Cabin on Little Mulchatna”, immortalized in the song “Alaska and Me”, by singer/songwriter John Denver”, is proof of heaven on earth, if there ever was. How may I get a copy to use as wallpaper on my laptop? Thanks again, Larry W.

    • Rory says:

      Thank you, Larry! Colorado in the 70’s was so idyllic! I visited several times, then, but of course was too young to make a decision on living there! Thanks for your wonderful and kind compliment! I saw the scene… the moon coming up is sort of uncommon.. even rare… for two main reasons: 1.) If one visits near the solstice, you won’t see nightfall… and 2.) If you’re lucky enough to visit later in the year, the clouds are fairly common, limiting the view of the night sky. So, this photo was lucky… when I saw the moon coming up, I ran out and shot it… Had to use a tripod to get the lighting right. As for the image, please check and see if you can right-click the image and save it… on my iPad I can long-press the image, and a “Save” dialog opens… so please try that and if not, let me know… I’d be happy to email it to you! 🙂

  9. Rich Nevitt says:

    I do so so thank you for this blog which I just discovered today when yesterday I discovered that my long-unseen friend and bush-pilot had passed just this year. Stu was our main pilot during the 1970’s when my little family homesteaded on the Stony River and I worked part-time off and on at Sparevohn Air Force Base just a very short flight from the Stony. I helped him out a few times here and there at his Lake Hood tie-down and with his brown striped Cessna 180 (think it was a 180) so in reality he was way more a friend to us then us to him. In 2015 I ran across his name and phone number to discover he also now lived in Wasilla so I thought I’d call him up as I was in the process of contacting several of some of the most important people in my life to personally thank them so they’d know how grateful I remained thru the years to have known them. BUT thru that Stu I contact I never got around to making, kept putting it off till “tomorrow”; learned a very valuable lesson – NEVER put off giving thanks cause you never know when you might miss your chance to do so personally. So fly-on Stu in your new home and many many thanks for the existence of THIS BLOG.

    • Rory says:

      Thank you, Rich. It’s so wonderful to meet someone who was there in the early days. I only met Stu later in life ( both in Colorado and several times in Alaska.) You always knew where you stood with Stu, as he made no small talk, and he kept the main thing the main thing. He wasn’t perfect, but he loved his family and friends and worked so hard for their quality of life. I’m so glad to be able to make this a place where your voice, Stu’s memory, and the love of the Alaskan land can be available for people to see what was and what still is. And, hopefully, we can work together to keep the beauty of what we have, for those who come after us. My small part in that is to preserve the beauty through photography, and to tell the story in some small part. Thank you, again, for sharing your memories of Alaska and your friend, Stu Ramstad. I, and so many others, cherish and appreciate you.

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