In a black and white photo that I borrowed from Celia Hunter in 2001, four young women in crisp white shirts and dark slacks stand beneath the cowling of a P-47 Thunderbolt on the tarmac at Republic Airport, gazing skyward. One of them is Hunter, who grew up in a Marysville, Washington logging family. After learning to fly at her local airport, she jumped at the chance to fly military airplanes for the U.S. Army Air Forces, graduating with WASP class 43-5 on September 11, 1943.
Assigned to the 2nd Ferrying Group at New Castle AAB in Wilmington, DE, Celia became qualified to fly fighters after completing pursuit school at Brownsville, Texas in June 1944. She then became one of about 19 WASP at Wilmington to ferry the Republic Aviation Corp. P-47, the largest and heaviest WWII pursuit powered by a single reciprocating engine. When Celia flew military aircraft from factory to training bases and ports of embarkation throughout the lower 48 states, the military would not let women deliver planes to Alaska, and that always piqued her curiosity to one day, “See what the fellows had been talking about.”
After the WASP were disbanded, Celia, who always exemplified an enduring can-do spirit, sought adventure. So, she and her good friend and fellow WASP, Virginia ‘Ginny’ Hill (Wood), class 43-4, decided that they would fly to Alaska on their own. One day she and Ginny made a deal with an Alaskan pilot who was in Seattle purchasing airplanes, needing them to be flown and delivered to Fairbanks. Taking off in early December, the flight to Alaska took the two women 27 days to complete from Seattle to Fairbanks. Celia recalled, “Ginny’s plane had unairworthy fabric and no heat – we nicknamed it ‘Lil’ Igloo. In Alaska, they found work as flight attendants and flew tourist trips to the remote coastal towns of Nome and Kotzebue.
But then their yearning for adventure brought them, to Sweden where they then attended a semester of school. After the semester ended they spent 10 months bicycling throughout Europe and eventually hitched a ride back across the Atlantic Ocean on a tanker to America. Upon their arrival they bought a jeep and drove it cross-country to Seattle, subsequently heading back to Alaska.
Instead of returning to the type of work they did flying tourist trips to remote towns prior to their voyage to Sweden
and Europe, Celia and Ginny looked for a wilderness setting where they could offer simple accommodations for those who wished to experience nature with outdoor activities, without modern conveniences, such as television.
In 1952, the pair, along with Ginny’s new husband, “Woody” Wood, a Denali park ranger, found land along the western boundary of Mt. McKinley National Park (later named Denali National Park) and filed a Homestead Act claim on land with a magnificent view of Mt. McKinley. They named it Camp Denali, which opened for business that year and was one of the first ecotourism lodges in the country. As the business grew, so did their deep respect of nature and the Alaskan wildlands they loved. Then, Celia and Ginny found themselves becoming increasingly involved in Alaska’s issues.
Celia Hunter’s transformation into a conservation activist and environmentalist began after she met two biologists, Olaus and Mardy Murie, who had been exploring the foothills of Alaska’s Brooks Range. Hunter ended up spending a lifetime in her beloved Alaska, leaving behind a treasure of well-protected natural wonders and a stalwart movement to defend and expand them.
Amongst her many extraordinary achievements, which are too many to describe in a blog, are how in 1960 she helped create the first statewide conservation organization, the Alaska Conservation Society through her successful effort to establish the Artic National Wildlife Range. On the national stage, she served on the Joint Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission, and in 1977, Celia became the first woman to head a national environmental movement, The Wilderness Society. Together, Celia and Ginny supported and helped pass the 1980 Alaska Interest Lands Conservation Act; a piece of legislation that preserved 100 million acres of Alaskan wilderness.
In 1991, Celia Hunter and lifelong friend, Virginia ‘Ginny’ Wood received the Sierra Club’s highest honor, the John Muir Award , and in 2001 they received the Alaska Conservation Foundation’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award. Today, both are credited as the creators of the conservation movement in Alaska.
On December 1, 2001 Celia was up late writing letters to Congress insisting that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge be protected from oil drilling. It was Celia’s final act in a life dedicated to protecting the land that she so loved. Living an adventuresome and inspiring life, Celia Hunter was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2009.
Written by: Julia Lauria-Blum
Photos courtesy of: The Collection of Celia Hunter and The American Airpower Museum at Republic, 2001
About Julia Lauria-Blum:
Julia Lauria-Blum earned a degree in the Visual Arts at SUNY New Paltz. An early interest in women aviation pioneers led her to research the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII. In 2001 she curated the permanent WASP exhibit at the American Airpower Museum (AAM) in Farmingdale, NY, and later curated ‘Women Who Brought the War Home, Women War Correspondents, WWII’ at the AAM. She is the former curatorial assistant & collections registrar at the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island and is currently editor-in-chief for Metropolitan Airport News.
Julia is the proud mother of two daughters and a rescued Boxer. Her many interests include swimming, painting, traveling, aviation history, cooking, and storytelling.