John and Eleanor Claus

A pilot and a marathon runner built the first log cabin on the site of Ultima Thule Lodge.

In 1958, John Claus was a schoolteacher living in Anchorage. But his eyes were set on the horizon. "I came to this land to climb mountains," he recalls. "But how to get out there?"

Then a very trusting friend gave John a chance to climb into the cockpit of his 90-horsepower Piper Cub. John roared up the airstrip and moments later he was in the air. It was like a revelation. In that moment, soaring over the sandbars, following a moose along the river, he thought to himself, "I'm getting me one of these!"

Now free to leave the city and immerse himself in nature, John found himself flying every chance he got. He practiced daring landings on sandbars and grassy plains where no one had landed before. Then a friend told him about the Alaskan Homestead Act.

Under the Homestead Act, John was able to stake his claim to a patch of land deep in the wilderness. His wife Eleanor joined him and along with two Eskimo companions the young couple built the first log cabin in this magical spot beside the Chitina River. The flew back and forth from John's job in Anchorage to the little log cabin in the mountains, but their hearts were in the wilderness.

Federal protection came to the Wrangells and for a time it wasn't clear if the young family would be able to stay. But in the end the cabin was grandfathered in -- even their airstrip was granted a special exemption because this strip of gravel, a hundred miles from the nearest road, is the family's driveway. As a result of that unique history, Ultima Thule is one of only a handful of privatly owned properties in the National Park.

The lodge has grown over the years and now offers the comforts and amenities of modern hospitality in the heart of the wilderness -- but those same, hand-hewn logs still form a wing of the main lodge, the primal heart beating at Ultima Thule.


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