Alaska’s Savage River
Inside Denali National Park and Preserve
By Valerie Winans
A Writer for Readers of All Ages
Working With Law Enforcement
Amy O’Connor, a law enforcement officer in Denali National Park and Preserve, is connected in spirit to those who passed this way many years ago. Amy and Mike O’Connor met while working in the park, fell in love, and were married in the amphitheater in Savage River Campground in August 2008. The Mike and Amy love story is reminiscent of Lena and Johnny Howard (see chapter eleven) who also fell in love while working together at Savage Camp. Frances Erickson (chapter eleven) believes the spot where Jenny Creek meets Savage Fork is a special place where magical things can happen because that is where she met her husband while he was a wrangler at Savage Camp.
Mike and Amy live in one of the historic houses built by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in 1938.1 I found an old photo of a park ranger in front of the same house with his dog. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of Amy in the same spot with her dog Yetti.
…Under the able leadership of Franklin G. Fox, project manager, the CCC Camp in Mt. McKinley National Park is making splendid progress. In less than four weeks’ time, a tent village has been erected near Park Headquarters, consisting of 60 tents housing 210 men. Portable buildings were erected and are used for the dining room, infirmary, office, and the like.
Two basements have been excavated and concrete is ready to pour for one of the residences to be constructed at park headquarters. A new road had been built leading to the proposed site of the new dog kennel location. Over four miles of roadside, clean-up work has been accomplished in which dead trees and shrubbery have been removed. Twelve hundred feet of four-inch pipe have been laid for the water system.
Every effort will be made to carry out the proposed working program this season in spite of the fact that the CCC contingent did not arrive at the park until May 29.
…Two air flights in Hakon Christensen’s plane were made by visitors on Sunday evening. The trips were made from Savage River airfield toward the mountain and around the park.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
“CCC Camp at M’McKinley Pk. August 1”
July 1, 1937
One of my first contacts with Amy involved some campers who broke the rules. Early one morning, as I was doing my rounds, I heard people having a very good time. Turning the corner and getting a view of the happy campers I saw a campsite cluttered with coolers, camp chairs, dishes, food, and women. They were busy having breakfast and the smells were heavenly. After wishing them a good morning, I moved on. They were not breaking any rules at that time because, although there were coolers and food around, the campers were there in possession of them. In an effort to protect both visitors and animals, campground hosts must keep constant vigilance to make sure that food is not where animals have access to it. Animals should not look to visitors for food – or as food!
About an hour later, there was a knock on the door of our trailer.
“Hi, Val. What do you know about site twenty-one?”
“I know when I walked bother about an hour ago they were having a good time eating breakfast and the site was a cluttered mess.”
“I need you to come with me now.”
The site looked pretty much as it had earlier – except minus people. The campfire was still burning. Yikes!
“Will you get some water to put out this fire?” said Amy.
“Yes,” I said, even as I wondered where I’s find any water since there was no running water in the park yet and our trailer was out of water. Well, Aquafina it is. I grabbed a large bottle of water and ran back to the site. Thankfully, one Aquafina was enough to extinguish the fire.
“We have to confiscate this stuff. Will you help me load the coolers into the back of the patrol car?” said Amy.
The coolers were the large plastic ones and they were full of food and alcohol. With each of us taking one end, we could lift and carry them okay, but hoisting them into the back of the car took muscle. When both coolers were in the back of the vehicle, Amy looked down at her uniform pants and saw they had crime from the bottom of the coolers on them.
“Look at my pants! And I just got them back from the cleaners.”
Brushing them off didn’t do much, and we still had work to do; so we finished confiscating the remaining goods.
Amy said, “I think we will store this stuff in the food locker, where it should have been in the first place. I am going to leave them a note to notify them their things have been confiscated, and that they need to contact law enforcement, and law enforcement will return their things.”
“Okay, got it.”
Much later that day, tired and hungry campers returned to their campsite after a full day of rafting the Nenana River. Much to their surprise, they had no food or beverages to relieve their hunger and thirst. They came right to the campground host site.
“We just got back to our campsite and found this not saying that our things have been confiscated.”
“I’ll contact law enforcement and let them know that you’re back.”
An hour or so later – about 8 o’clock in the evening, the campers returned to our trailer. “Where is law enforcement? We want our stuff back. We have nothing to eat or drink.”
Dave and I hesitated to contact dispatch again. “Law enforcement will be here as soon as they can. They are probably busy on another call. We notified them; they’ll be here soon.”
By 9 o’clock, the campers were very angry. They had had no supper. So, we contacted dispatch again.
When law enforcement finally met with the campers, it was 10 o’clock and it as not a pleasant experience. The campers finally did get their food back, along with about $300 worth of tickets. The biggest violation was leaving the campfire burning.
The next day, the park-cleaning crew came to our site to tell us they had just seen some grizzly bears heading into the campground. We rushed out to inform the campers so they were aware of the potential danger. Dave said, “I think our violators are down by the river. I’m going down there to be sure they are okay.”
As I waited for Dave to return, a truck pulled into our host site. The people were very excited as they reported, “Some bears just walked onto our site. We left our picnic table and got into our truck. The bears walked past our truck and headed down the road toward the river.
I was worried about Dave and the women, but soon my fears were relieved when I saw them walking up the road from the river. They didn’t even see the bears. The ladies had had enough of fines and bears and they soon packed up and left. I hurried down to check their site, and it was spotlessly clean.
When Amy is on duty, she drives through Savage River Campground and stops by our site for a campground update. Walking from our campsite toward the park road one day, I saw Amy driving into the campground. She stopped the car and rolled down her window.
“You are white as a sheet. What’s the matter?”
“I just had a very unusual traffic stop.”
“Well, I came up behind a car headed out into the park. The car was weaving back and forth, so I followed it. It stopped suddenly and I almost rear-ended it because the brake lights did not come on. I thought maybe the driver was drunk or on drugs or something, so I lit her up and pulled her over. When I got to the driver’s door, the woman seemed extremely nervous as she searched for her driver’s license and registration. She was fumbling around without much success in finding her documents; so I finally asked her why she was so nervous.
“There’s a grizzly bear right behind you,” she said.
“I slowly turned and, sure enough, there was a grizzly bear just a few feet away. The bear seemed to be sizing me up, so I pulled out my service revolver because I thought I might have to shoot it. The lady asked if I wanted to get in her car. I told her that normally I would not get in someone’s car but this was an unusual situation. So, avoiding any sudden moves, I slowly moved to the back door of the car and got in. Eventually, the bear wandered off. I told the lady to get her brake lights fixed, and we both move on – but I guess I am still a little shaken. I have never been that close to a bear before.”
“Wow!” I guess you can chalk that one up on your list of experiences. I wonder why the lady didn’t tell you right away about the bear, instead of fooling around for her documentation.”
“I don’t know what she was thinking, but I am relieved the bear didn’t decide to have me for lunch,” said Amy.
Mike and Amy demonstrated their love for the park, the people, and the wildlife by their devotion to their duties. Working with them helped build our knowledge and enhanced our experience. They built a relationship with us as coworkers and as park conservators and always made us feel as though we were an important part of a bigger picture of dedication to the safety of all concerned.