Creative Journeyat Tonglen Lake Lodge

A lodge, borne of art

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By Kris Capps
Fairbanks Daily News Miner
DENALI-Tonglen Lake Lodge is a work of art.
From the hand-hewn logs to the carefully crafted stained glass windows, this new resort at Denali is a window to its community – which happens to be a very talented and artistic one.
Donna Gates is the owner and creator of this new high-end business, which will open for its first season this summer, just a few miles south of the entrance to Denali National Park.
The resort itself is like a gallery.
‘It’s a nice showcase of talents,” said Gates, who is a longtime Alaska artist herself. She has lived in Alaska for 33 years and Tonglen Lake Lodge is built on the same property where she raised her three daughters.
“I’m at a point in my life where I want to do something to give back to my community,” she said. “I wanted to create something beautiful that people could come and enjoy and touch the real Alaska.”
She didn’t have to look very far for inspiration. Her neighbors fill the bill.
Ken Wilbert lives up the hill and has a small carpentry shop attached to his home. He built all the furniture for the 10 cabins and for the Artisan’s Café from local spruce.
Michelle Turk, local stained glass artist, created the stained glass windows in the lodge building and made all the glassware for the Artisan’s Café, out of recycled wine bottles.
Woodworker Juliette Boselli built a door that highlights a tree branch, right up to where the stained glass chickadee perches in the window.
Gates designed the lodge railings as panels of fireweed and spruce trees and rose hips. Then she and Rudi Santana, a seasonal park employee, spent days cutting out the designs on sheet metal with a plasma cutter.
They also made signs for the lodge and sculptures are next.
Potter Toni Kaufman made all the pottery for the Artisan’s Café.
Of course the lodge itself is a work of art, due to Will and Kim Blair, longtime log builders. They are the same duo who built the log building in Healy that houses the Denali Chamber of Commerce.
Her goal is to achieve eco-lodge status, so she placed strong emphasis on using local materials that were sustainable and recycled.
“The countertops in the cabins are made from recycled paper, called Paperstone,” she said. “It’s all local birch flooring milled in Fairbanks and Wasilla. And all local labor.”
All the paper goods used are recyclable and compostable.
The lodge and cafe officially open today but it has already been plenty busy.
Gates, who is a longtime serious dog agility competitor, also boards dogs and occasionally hosts dog agility seminars and workshops.
She has a classroom in a separate building where experts teach iPhone and iPad classes. Dance classes are scheduled for the summer and Jazzercise started every Thursday night this month. Yoga is on the schedule regularly.
Tonglen Lake has already partnered with The Fairbanks Folk School and will offer a week of folk school classes this summer.
Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival is partnering with Tonglen Lake to provide an outreach performance on July 21 by two popular musicians,  bluegrass legend Raymond McLain and harmonica virtuoso Mike Stevens.
Instructor/artist Gayle Weisfield will teach a three-day watercolor class there on July 15, 16, 17. Her classes were filled at Festival in 2012.
“This will be a place where people can come and create, and tap into their passions,” said Gates. “It’s not just come and sit and look. It’s come and be part of it. And create.”
Locals eagerly anticipate opening of the Artisan Café, featuring baker Ann Beaulaurier. A longtime local resident, she trained at both Fire Island Bakery in Anchorage and the San Francisco Bakery Institute.
The Artisan Café will offer a weekly CSB – community supported bakery – similar to what farmers offer with produce. Only with a CSB, you get a weekly delivery of freshly baked goods.
“Food is very creative,” said Gates. “There are a lot of ways to experience life and your environment. Some is visual, some is through taste. Sometimes it is relaxing over a cup of coffee and freshly baked scone or artisan bread.  This is all part of what creates the experience of being here.”
Gates views the lodge itself as a creation.
“This is a beautiful five-acre piece of property that deserves to become a work of art for people to come and enjoy,” she said. “It’s one of the most beautiful  pieces of private property in the area of Denali.”
“This needs to be a place to promote the arts, because that’s part of what makes us humans special on the planet,” she said. “Our ability to create.”

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