Alaska’s Savage River
Inside Denali National Park and Preserve
By Valerie Winans
A Writer for Readers of All Ages
Chapter Eleven (B)
People of the Past – Frances Sheldon Erickson
Frances Sheldon’s childhood was exceptional because she spent her summers at Savage River Campground from 1924 to 1941.
Little Miss Frances Sheldon, who has lived all summer with her parents in Mt. McKinley National Park, has had as a playmate a little black Teddy Bear to pet and romp with, and the only difference between this Teddy Bear and the most numerous kind is that this one will eat most anything little Frances will give it, and has a mouth full of great big teeth. Last Sunday while Frances was feeding this Teddy a tidbit it put four great big teeth through her hand and made it bleed. Now, this Teddy Bear has dark, gloomy days ahead but doesn’t know it yet. The hand is healing nicely and only a few little scars will remain to remind her of what her Teddy Bear went and done.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,
Park Notes, August 27, 1931
With few exceptions, Frances Sheldon was the only child at Savage Camp. When asked who was the person that you really liked the best at Savage Camp, her response was, “Besides my father? Oh, I don’t know – I think probably Lou Corbley. When I look back at it, I always thought Lou was kind of special. Lou took care of the horses. If there was any repair work that had to be done on a tent or anything, why he took care of it.”
Louis Corbley, formerly associated with the Alaska Transfer of Cordova, was an arrival here on the 11th. Mr. Corbley intends to put all his energy into the development of the transportation Company in the park and will supervise the activities of the saddle and packhorse accommodations. There will be about 40 fine head of stock here this summer to take care of those desiring to travel horseback into the farther reaches of the park. Pending the establishment of the Savage River Camp, Mr. Corbley is stating at Moreno’s Roadhouse.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Mt. McKinley Park,
(Special Correspondence) May 25, 1926
Frances was a small child when Count Ilia Tolstoy was at the park, but she remembers that he was “a very fine man,” and recalls a picture of the workers in the park including the count. Another of her favorite people was Grant Pearson, who she remembers was a good guy. “He was – he was just different you know. He was a rough guy, but he was good. He was very tolerant of me. I followed the guys around. Grant said I was a handy gadget to have around.”
Another fine man she met there was a horse wrangler from Montana, Carl Anderson, whom she married. Although Carl and Frances later parted ways, and Frances married somebody else, Frances and Carl are one of several love stories that took place near the Savage – from Lena and Johnny Howard, who also married while working at Savage Camp, to Amy and Mike O’Connor, who married in 2008 at the current Savage River Campground.
Frances’ mother, Anna, worked as a cook and driver, along with sundry other duties as needs arose. “You had some people that made up the tents when the tourists came in and you needed somebody to wait on tables – they (the staff) did that, and then they helped clean up and whatever. I mean, you didn’t just have one job – you came and did whatever was necessary… When they needed any extra help some of the rangers would come up and help – when we were putting out the big meals for the tourists.”
When asked what she did at camp, Frances said, “Well, it’s hard to explain to people who have never lived in a tent or out in the wilderness. We had little camp stoves inside the tents, and we had to have kindling for those. You had sawdust with kerosene in it to start your fire – I’d fill up those cans. I’d also follow behind the people who were making up the tents, with Lena for instance…our tent cabins were very adequate with a wooden floor, and a tent over the top and a metal roof, and two cots. In one corner there was a little washstand and slop bucket. We had twenty-four-hour people [guests] and forty-eight-hour people, so as soon as they left somebody had to go in and strip the beds, sweep out the cabins, empty the slop buckets and all that to get ready for the next group to come in.”
“We would take the tourists on a trip up Savage River for lunch. We’d take them there in a stagecoach.” There was no road from Savage Camp to the headwaters. It was more of a path. The head of the Savage is where Olaus Murie did his caribou studies, but to Frances’ knowledge, nothing was left of the corral Olaus built for the caribou.
Old-Fashioned stagecoaches drawn by four lively horses now pull up frequently before the tent camp of the McKinley Park Transportation Company, load on passengers, and dash away through the big game country to the head of savage River, nine miles distant, past caribou, mountain sheep, and bear, according to George Lingo, Assistant General Manager of the Company.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Old Style Stage
Coaches In Park Dash by Caribou (Tourists Given
A Touch of the Primitive in Drive Through Game
Country To Head of Savage River) August 11, 1926
Frances reflected about other excursions, “When the road was developed beyond Savage and went up to Mt. Margaret (they would take the tourists there), you kept going a little farther all the time. Whenever it was developed, we took them on to Igloo and they had lunch there, and then they went on to East Fork, and then they went on to Polychrome, and finally ended up at 66 Mile which was Eielson. So it went in stages…when the road commission would get the road fixed.”
Frances liked to fish in Jenny Creek. She never worried about bears when she left the camp, but she knew they were around because they would often be seen at the garbage dump next to the camp. A hole was dug for garbage with a fence placed around it, but bears came in and someone had to chase them out. She said her dad once shot a wolf that came into camp. At that time the shooting of wolves was allowed. After Bobby Sheldon shot the wolf, the rest of the pack left the area.
Frances did not have her own horse, but there was one she always rode. There were places her horse would not go because he would sense that bears were near or he’d smell them. The horses “came up from Montana, and they were mustangs. They were not farm horses or anything like that. They didn’t come from a riding academy…We used them for pulling and for hunting trips – for packing back into the park.34 On the hunting trips they would go to Lignite and Healy and then up into the woods. In 1941, Frances rode a horse from Lignite, where it wintered, to Savage Camp through the Savage River Valley. “It was a narrow trail…quite a ride – I think it’s twenty-six miles. It was a very rough ride though.”
As Frances told me about riding a horse through the valley, I thought how impossible that seemed to me because I have hiked the trail and know how narrow and rocky it is.
When she was young, Frances did not realize what a special childhood she had; she “just enjoyed it.” Today, in retrospect, she knows it was a special and magical place.