Alaska’s Savage River – Chapter 11D

Alaska’s Savage River

Inside Denali National Park and Preserve

By Valerie Winans

A Writer for Readers of All Ages

Chapter Eleven (D)

People of the Past – Lena Howard

Helena Lentz and a friend came to Alaska in 1922 as tourists. It was rainy and they were not able to see Mt. McKinley; so Lena returned in 1933 and made a “life job of it.”52 She worked at Savage River Campground in 1933 and 1934; then again from 1936 until the camp closed in 1941. While working there, she met Johnny Howard. They were married in 1937 at McKinley Park Station by a magistrate.53

Lena and Johnny worked many different jobs at Savage Camp. Johnny was a horse wrangler and a teamster by training but would do whatever needed doing. Lena described an average day at camp: “We were short of help; ordinarily, when we had small tourist groups we had plenty of help but when we had a big crowd, why we all worked. The horse wranglers would help wash the dishes and they’d help with the tents, whatever. Everybody did whatever there was to be done. When there wasn’t anybody, we’d have free time, but we’d have to get ready for the crowd that was coming… nobody ever asked for any time off. Nobody came to town unless they had to unless it was an emergency, but never for just coming to town. We were all happy to stay right there.”54

The visitors to the park were mostly elderly, I.e., “retired people and school teachers and doctors and very few young people at that time, because the young people couldn’t afford it. And it was practically an all-summer trip at that time. Because you came down the river from Dawson, some of them, and then went out over the railroad. That would take at least six weeks or two months to make that trip.”55

Most were twenty-four-hour people (they stayed for one night) and some were forty-eight-hour people (they stayed for two nights). The twenty-four-hour people took a trip “up Savage,” and the forty-eight-hour people “went to the end of the road, as far as construction went at that time. First, it was Igloo, then it was Sable Pass, and then afterward they went as far as Polychrome. And as the road progressed into the park, why the transportation did too. At that time, the road wasn’t what it is now. It was a single road with turnouts to meet different cars, especially on the passes. Sable Pass, that was a sinner. With a lot of rain, it would be slippery, and people would hold their breath going down that hill.”56

Going up Savage was called “The Big Game Drive.”57 The guests would nearly always see sheep, caribou, moose, and fox. They normally drove stagecoaches up there, but would sometimes take cars if they had more tourists than the stagecoaches could hold. A tent was set up there where they served lunch. “When we’d see them coming we would start the bacon frying and the coffee cooking and by the time they got there they’d be pretty hungry from smelling it.”58

Visitors wanted to see the mountain and big-game animals. Large animals were plentiful, but the mountain could be temperamental. People would complain if they couldn’t see the mountain. So Lena started to keep track of when the mountain was visible. The season was approximately 105 days, and there were only sixty-five to sixty-seven days each year when the mountain was out. “If it was cloudy, someone would stay up at night, and if the mountain came out, they would awaken the guests so they could see the mountain.”59

The camp used to winter its horses in Matanuska; they had to ship them by train. Beginning in 1934, Johnny Howard took care of the horses in the off-season at nearby Lignite, where he and Lena had a home. Johnny built a barn for the horses. In the spring, they would ride the horses from Lignite to the camp, and then back in the fall through the Savage River canyon.

Lena and Johnny Howard’s love of the area was demonstrated by their commitment to serving visitors as well as the people they worked with. Their lives changed when the government bought out the Mt. McKinley Tourist and Transportation Company, but their legacy remains in the history of the first place where people came to experience the wild and view the mountain.

About Valerie Winans
We like to camp because it’s easy to take our best friend with us. When we were hired as campground hosts in Denali National Park and Preserve Remington Beagle was only about a year old. Since that first trip up the Alaska Highway we have been in love with not only all things Alaska, but also the adventure in getting there each time with our truck and trailer.