Alaska’s Savage River
Inside Denali National Park and Preserve
By Valerie Winans
A Writer for Readers of All Ages
Some Days in the Campground
There was a knock on our trailer door. “Just wanted to let you know there are some bears down by the river.”
“Grab the camera and get the telephoto lens,” said Dave.
“Yeah, well, I sure hope we will need a telephoto lens!” I said.
Grabbing the camera, the telephoto lens, and the bear spray, I charged out of the door with my arms full. “I don’t believe I’m doing this.”
When we reached the bluff, I was relieved to see that the bears were the required three football fields away. (There were no down markers or anything, I was just estimating the distance.) Soon there were twenty or more people watching the sow and her two cubs dig for the roots of a plant called the Eskimo Potato.
Dave decided he needed to get closer for a better picture – I reminded him that was totally against the rules. He said he would follow the rules, but just get a little bit closer. This made me very anxious, but off he went. The other people soon filtered back to the campground. I thought, if they waited for a bit they would be able to get pictures of the bears eating a man and his camera. Fortunately that did not happen (it was a really nice camera) and Dave did take some good pictures.
We learned that two young women were missing. They were employed in the canyon town of Denali Park and did not report for work. They were dropped off in the Savage River area, either at the bridge or at the campground, and then spent the night at Savage River Campground with some friends before they left on foot the next morning. The girls have been missing for several days and officials are concerned for their welfare. We have seen helicopters and fixed-wing planes every day searching the area. There are also groups searching for them on foot that organized their search at Savage Campground. Soon their parents have arrived from the lower forty-eight. Finally, one of the parents received a cell phone call from her daughter; the women are in an area called Dry Creek. This is the first place where they could obtain a signal enabling her to call for help. The young ladies are located and picked up. They are surprisingly well, and don’t seem to have suffered much from lack of food and exposure to the elements.
Later, we learned that the girls were not lost in Savage River Canyon – they were in Fairbanks. They made up the story about being lost. Of course we were relieved that they were alright while at the same time outraged at the waste of time and money.
Dave was doing a morning walk-about, making a list of dead trees that needed to be removed for safety reasons. Stopping to look at a tree, he heard a huffing noise behind him – and turned to face to grizzly bears only twenty feet away. Dave raised his clipboard and shouted, “Get out! Get out of here, bears!” They did not move. They stood there, sizing him up. (So much for the theory that the human voice will repel bears because they are not used to hearing it.) At that moment, a park service employee drove into the park in his Jeep, which encouraged the bears to move on. They walked past Dave into the campground. Dave asked the guy in the Jeep to go to the end of the campground and alert a group of scouts there that bears are in the park. Then Dave shouted to warn the other campers. When Dave returned to our host site, the bears were coming right down the road behind our trailer. The bears snooped around for a bit and then walked on down to the river. They stayed in the park just long enough to get everyone’s adrenaline pumping.
At the host-site campfire and storytelling night, a camper told of his bus ride into the park. At Teklanika they saw a mother moose and her baby being chased by a bear. The mother moose ran into a stream with her calf thing to avoid the bear. Then, along came another mother moose and baby being chased by a different bear. The first bear stopped and joined the second bear and together they were successful in having baby moose for lunch. It seems brutal, and although I prefer not to witness such a scene, I can appreciate it is just the circle of life.
One day, Dave and I encountered our friend Russ, the photographer. He told us there was a baby moose across the river that had been abandoned by its mother. The mother moose had come to the river with her twins but crossed the river with only one calf because one refused to cross. The mother finally left it on the ban and continued on her way. She had not been seen since.
Later, as we stood on the banks of the river watching the baby moose, we met a bus driver who had been watching it for a while. He said the bleats of the calf were getting weaker. I took some pictures of the baby moose before we continued on down the trail. Our goal was to see some Dall sheep in the heights; but no luck. We were, however, rewarded with the sound of water tumbling over rock and the melodies of various birds as we enjoyed the amazing view.
When we returned to the parking lot, we saw that the baby moose had made its way to the river for a drink. Dave and I took more pictures and videos of him. There were also several photographers lined up with their tripods and cameras, all set to photograph the calf and his fate. Since it was highly likely that he would come to a bad end, and I did not want to witness whatever happened, we left. About a half mile down the road, we saw buses stopped in the road – and a bear. The bear was headed toward the bridge. It is park policy that nothing be done to interfere with the wildlife, so nothing could be done to intervene for the baby moose. Filled with anxiety for the calf, we returned to our camp. The next day we learned that no one at the bridge ever saw the bear, and no one knows what happened to the baby moose. It was just gone. Maybe the mother came back for it, or maybe it wandered off. I hope he is well.
We were sitting by our campfire when we hear, “Bear! It’s a bear!” Dave hurried to the road to see a lady standing on a rock on the opposite side of the road. “I was walking down the road when I heard a sound behind me and there was a bear,” she said. “I was so startled that I jumped up on this rock. The bear looked right at me, but just kept on walking down the road.”
I have a picture in my mind of the bar sauntering down the road chuckling to himself about scaring that lady – and how silly she was to jump up on that little rock.
Bus driver to another bus driver: “See anything interesting today?”
“No, only some stone sheep.”
“Were they moving very much?”
“Not since the Ice Age.”
When searching mountain tops for white Dall sheep, it is easy to mistake white rocks for sheep. Although there is such a thing as Stone sheep, they are not found in Denali Park. Bus drivers tell their riders if they see wildlife to shout out and they will stop the bus. I’m sure after a number of stops for white rocks it gets tiresome.
I was by the road in front of our trailer talking to some people in a motorhome when a pickup truck pulled up behind them. The people in the truck were straining to look around the motorhome so I thought they were just anxious to get by. When the motorhome left, the truck pulled up to where I was standing. I recognized them as the campers in the site next to ours. “There’s a bear on our campsite!”
“Great! We charge extra for sites with bears.”
“No really! We were sitting at our picnic table, and a bear walked right up to us. We jumped in our pickup and left.”
Soon after we heard from campers on the next loop that a bear walked through their campsite and into the woods. Chalk up another one for a grizzly bear that gets kicks out of scaring the crap out of people and then chuckling under his breath about funny humans.
“Oh, look Dave. There’s a moose and her baby right next to our trailer. She is looking in our window as though she is visiting a human zoo. How funny.”
I woke up one morning to find that our vistas had collapsed; I could only see as far as the tallest trees around Savage River Campground. The monotone gray of the sky has eased its way down the sides of the mountains and covered everything with a white/gray ethereal blanket. When I took a closer look, I realized it was raining pretty hard – and I had rounds to do.
After waiting for a while to see if the rain would let up, I decided I must prepare and head out – rain or no. First I put on long underwear and socks. Next came blue jeans, a turtleneck, rain pants, and my heavy campground-host jacket. A rain hat and stretch gloves completed the ensemble. I grabbed a plastic grocery sack for expired permits and a clear plastic bag to cover the clipboard. I was ready to go.
Once outside, the rain was not so bad. I was dry under all my gear, and it was strangely pleasant. A rainy day meant a quiet campground. The campers would stay inside their campers or leave the park for other adventures.
We saw bear prints going up the outside wall of one of the bathrooms. It looked as though the bear “walked” up the wall with his front paws and looked in the window. This was no cub as the window was quite hight on the wall. I guess we had a Peeping Tom in the park.
Depending on which way the wind blows, from time to time a smoky haze covers everything in Denali Park. The haze is from wild fires eighty miles or more away. The bulletin board in the EDR (employee’s dining room) reports that there are two substantial fires. The closer one is at Bear Creek, about eighty miles from us. The Bear Creek fire has burned more than 15,847 acres. The other fire is at Zitziana, which is about fifty miles southeast of Tanana. It has burned 8,800 acres. The policy is not to fight the fires unless buildings are in danger. Some days have been so smoky that we can hardly see the mountains surrounding the campground. The smoke causes the sun to appear red in the sky; the sunsets are eerily pretty.
Burls are a popular decor item found in Alaska. It is believed that burls form on trees due to acidity in the ground from naturally occurring arsenic in the soil. This causes cell blockage and new cells grow around the cells that are blocked. Those new cells become blocked, new cells grow around those, etc. Dave found a burl in a dead tree alongside the road on the way to Fairbanks. He has peeled off the bark. Next he will sand it and apply a coat of varnish or shellac. It may end up as a mailbox post, or a lamp stand, or who knows what.
Life in the park is different and nearly every day brings new challenges especially for me, as I am always just a little frightened.