Alaska’s Savage River
Inside Denali National Park and Preserve
By Valerie Winans
A Writer for Readers of All Ages
First Days at Savage River
The gate was closed and padlocked. The lane on the other side of the gate still had patches of snow – even though it was mid-May. This is where Dave and I would live for the next four months. We wanted a better look.
Leaving our dog, Remington Beagle, in the truck, we walked through snow and around the gate into Savage River Campground. Soon we came to a bend in the road that obliterated our view of the park road and the truck. We were alone in the park, and I was anxious. Then we noticed some tracks in the snow and animal feces in the road – and we knew we were not alone. My anxiety increased and I felt the need to make noise to give notice to any nearby animal that humans had entered their habitat. Dave, on the other hand, wanted quiet. He wanted to see a big grizzly bear, or a wolf, or a moose – something on this walk in the park. I only wanted to see those animals from inside the safety of the truck.
The first signs of civilization we found were two buildings, one on each side of the road. The one on the left was an “SST,” which stands for “sweet-smelling toilet.” It was, in fact, a pit toilet. Although it didn’t smell as bad as some pit toilets, I would not say it was sweet smelling. The building on the right side was a restroom with running cold water and flush toilets. It was built in 1955 to serve the new campground. Beyond those buildings, we saw a sig that read Campground Host Site. There it was: home at last. Still covered in snow.
“Okay, I’m good. Let’s go back to the truck.”
“No, I want to snoop around some more. We should go down this road and see what is at the end,” said Dave. Only with persistent urging did he consent to returning to the truck and safety.
If a small hike scared me, how was I going to I’ve here for the next four months? I wondered. A couple days later, we moved into our campsite in the wild, away from the main camp at Riley Creek. There was no running water yet at Savage River and everything was still frozen. We would have to get by with the water we had in the tank of our trailer and bottled water. The gate was open, guests were on their way to the park, and we needed to be ready for business.
Dave was antsy to explore more of the park before people arrived; so off we went. This time, I was prepared for the hike with some warm clothes, wool socks, gloves, and a camera around my neck. I was not yet brave enough to head out over the tundra, so we stuck to the road system in the park. We didn’t get far before we came to a bend with two trails heading off in opposite directions. We took the fork to the far left. I stepped on every stick and talked loudly to my husband, hoping once again to ward off danger. Dave shushed me and walked a bit ahead. As he turned a bend in the road, he stopped, motioned with his arm for me to come along; then he put his index finger to his lips, signaling me to be quiet. He urged me forward. Probably a rabbit or a caribou, I thought. Yikes! It was three grizzly bears! They were about fifty feet ahead, and one looked right at us. I froze momentarily – until my extensive campground-host training clicked in. I slowly backed up. I kept walking backward until I could no longer see the bears, while at the same time reminding myself to breathe. I now had an approximate sixty-foot head start, but bears can run very fast. The problem was that once my feet started to move fast they would not slow down again. It was the old fight-or-flight response, and flight was the only option. Having been warned not to run from bears, I justified running faster than I had since I was in grade school because the bears could not see me. Was I sure? I slowed down long enough to look back. No bears. No Dave. Where in the hell is Dave? The trailer was in sight – thank you, God. I was going to make it. Where was Dave? When I reached the end of the campsite, only feet from the door and safety, I saw Dave strolling up the lane. Are you kidding me?! Well, you are on your own buddy, I thought. I stepped inside the trailer, where I felt much safer and where I could finally breathe again at a normal rhythm. After what seemed like an eternity, Dave came inside. The first thing he said is, “Did you get a picture?”
“Did I get a picture? Are you crazy? I was happy to get away from there with my life!”
“You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill. Those bears had no interest in us at all. It was a big mother with two cubs. The cubs were last year’s cubs, I’m sure.”
It’s going to be one long, scary summer, I thought. How in the world can I be a campground host if I don’t get out and about and know what’s going on in the park? But it will be easier to be outside once there are other people around. I assured myself. There was safety in numbers.
Days went by without seeing any bears. We saw snowshoe hares every day, and lots of birds, but few bears and no wolves. Most of the time, the campground was full; so there were people to talk with, problems to solve, and work to do. I was more confident each day that I would be able to do this job. Dave, on the other hand, needed no confidence building. He as the quintessential Boy Scout and loved every minute. He as in his element. His experience and his love of the outdoors made him the perfect campground host.
I finally built up enough courage to walk the whole campground by myself or with Remington Beagle. I even went down to the bluff overlooking the river at the edge of the campground. As I walked the lonely lane to the end of the bluff my senses were on alert. My eyes searched for signs of danger, and my ears strained to hear every sound. Seeing the valley unfold its mysteries helped me suppress my fear of danger. From the bluff, the view was breathtaking. Everything was bigger here, with mountains all around. The valley was so large that we could see for miles Soon, I could identify some of the mountains. To the south was Fang, and to the north was Mt. Margaret. The spot at the end of the bluff called to me, tugged at me, talked to me. Each time I returned to the siren’s call it looked different. One day, there was Mt. McKinley sharp and clear against a bright blue sky. Across the river from the bluff was a small herd of caribou, and the white-crowned sparrow provided a symphony for my pleasure. I was no longer afraid.
“There I sat on a downed tree, watching, listening, absorbing the sounds, sights, and feelings of the land. I was content and fulfilled, one with the land. I didn’t feel as if I owned it – I was, simply, a part of it, and it was beautiful and wonderful.” Sidney Huntington
Note: At the time the book was written the name of the mountain was still McKinley. Appropriately, in the author’s opinion, it has now been changed to Denali.