PALMER — Hatcher Pass Lodge, a rustic outpost in the Talkeetna Mountains that usually draws early season skiers this time of year, is closed just as the first big snowfall blankets the high country.
Lodge owner and founder Karl Albert “Hap” Wurlitzer would have loved it.
Wurlitzer died early Saturday morning at the age of 83.
The man who developed an international following for his tales, outdoors spirit and welcoming nature stayed at the lodge he built until early Friday afternoon before making the trip down the hill to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, according to longtime friend Ralph Baldwin, a mountaineer who maintains the snow stake at the lodge for the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center.
“He had been in poor health for a while but his decision, which he made known to the community and his workers, was he wanted to be at the lodge," Baldwin said. "So he ran it out, he ran his time out at the lodge.”
Baldwin and the lodge caretaker both say the Hatcher Pass community hopes the lodge can stay open though no decisions have been made.
Set in a scenic mountain bowl high above the treeline, the lodge and its distinctive ocher-colored A-frame cabins dot the tundra just below Independence Mine State Historical Park. The place for decades has drawn summer and winter fans with its home-cooked food, mountain views and comfortable vibe.
Wurlitzer was always there, it seemed, an adventurous athlete who came from Massachusetts but forged his own uniquely Alaskan story at the lodge. He answered phones, worked the restaurant, groomed trails.
Wurlitzer didn’t find much reason to leave often. Amy O’Connor, who worked as a state parks ranger at Independence Mine for about six years until 2015, used to pick up cat food and prescriptions for him on her way up to work.
Wurlitzer offered her a warm place to pump milk when she was a nursing mother. Sometimes as the machine droned, he’d even stick a mug of coffee through the set of swinging doors nearby and hold a conversation with O’Connor, a captive audience.
Wurlitzer also helped pull out O’Connor, at the time a fairly inexperienced snowmachiner with a job that demanded travel in deep snow, when she got stuck.
“Hap more times than I’d like to count came to my rescue,” she said. “Got me unstuck while grumbling and yelling about my inability to drive a snowmachine many times.”
The lodge opened in 1967.
An avid hiker, skier and snowmachiner, Wurlitzer first found the property as a potential alpine resort site in 1963 on a ski trip, according to a 2004 story by Margaret Bauman in the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He set about staking out the ground at the U.S. Department of Interior office in Anchorage.
“After much negotiating, extensive paperwork and a great deal of help from Sen. Ted Stevens, he staked his claim on 10 acres for 10 bucks,” Bauman wrote. He had five years to improve the property. Wurlitzer said he waited until the last minute, and built the original 28-foot-by-48-foot A-frame lodge.
The first winter featured Mylar-covered front windows, a bar without liquor, and bunk beds, according to the story. Over the years, Wurlitzer enlarged the lodge and built the cabins. The venue attracted a movie crew for the filming of “Avalanche" and apparently Rev. Billy Graham, who came to film his own movie.
Wurlitzer told harrowing tales of his ski runs down local slopes.
He also helped thousands of others enjoy the snow which sometimes fell so fast and heavy, Wurlitzer once said, if he didn’t put a bamboo pole next to his snowmachine at night, he couldn’t find it in the morning.
The lodge in the 1970s hosted a raucous telemark-skiing scene where patrons could pay $10 to sleep on the floor and get lessons. Members of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, including Baldwin, trained at the mine but would take over the lodge for Saturday night spaghetti feeds.
“Rest in peace Hap. The skiing and outdoor community will miss, but always remember, you and your gateway to happiness in the outdoors,” longtime Hatcher Pass groomer and ski coach Ed Strabel wrote in a Facebook comment after the lodge announced Wurlitzer’s death, thanking him for his support of trail grooming efforts. “You brightened up our lives."