Alaska’s Savage River – Chapter 8

Alaska’s Savage River

Inside Denali National Park and Preserve

By Valerie Winans

A Writer for Readers of All Ages

Chapter Eight

People of the Present


Campground hosting in Denali Park and Preserve is an opportunity to meet people from across the globe while they stop briefly to encounter the wild. The most important duty of a campground host is to be out in the park talking with people and thereby avoiding problems that may arise later. While chatting with the campers about the importance of securing their food supply, making sure campfires are out, and other rules, they often offer up their own stories about where they are from and what brought them to this location. Visitors to the park remark that they feel an energy and aura that draws them back. The park was established to protect the environment and the animals so that visitors to the area could enjoy the experience offered by this place.


We first met Reiner when he came to the campground-host site asking where he could leave his car while he went backpacking out in the bush for a while. As Dave and I were not aware at the time that the rule was for backpackers to park their vehicles near Riley Creek and take the camper bus out into the park, we said he could park his car on our site. Dave took pictures of Reiner as he headed out for the backcountry, and wrote down Reiner’s day of return so that if something happened and he did not return someone would search for him. Returning to our campsite one day, we found a note: “Dear hosts, Thank you for your great hospitality! Reiner.” How nice it was for him to leave a note. He was leaving to return to his home near Munich, Germany.

Mr. and Mrs. Jerry O. Were from Montreal, Canada. They shoveled snow off roofs in Montreal the previous winter to earn money to visit Alaska. They flew to Anchorage and rented a van. His goal was to see a grizzly bear, and she wanted to see a wolf. They saw both before they left Savage River Campground. They told us to look them up if we were ever in Montreal.

Carlos and his wife stopped by our campfire to chat. She had climbed to the summit of Mt. McKinley (now Denali) in the 1990s, so they came to the park every year to camp on the anniversary of her climb. Ten people started up the mountain with her, but only seven made it to the summit. She experienced swelling of her hands and the roof of her mouth was burned by the reflection of the sun bouncing off of the snow, but other than that she had no problems. It took two weeks to reach the top, and only two days to return. On the way to the summit, you have to allow time for your body to acclimate to the higher elevations.

The same day we said good-buy to Carlos and his wife, we learned that two Japanese climbers were lost on the mountain and the search for them was called off. The view of the mountain changed for me then. It was no longer just beautiful and awe-inspiring, it was imposing, unforgiving, hard, and cold.


Mayumi is backpack camping at Savage River Campground where the moose and the grizzly bears roam. She carries her tent, all of her food, utensils, and clothing on her back. It is cold at night; so the campfire that is kept burning at the campground-host site is a welcome beacon to campers. The food storage locker is located near the host site, and when Mayumi arrives to store her food she is greeted by Remington Beagle and invited to sit by the fire awhile. She describes herself as an ordinary office worker from Kawasaki, Japan. Mayumi is anything but ordinary. She has come to Alaska alone to take part in a potlatch ceremony. Mayumi asks, “Do you know what a potlatch is?”

“I have heard the term before – isn’t it some kind of native ceremony?”

“Yes. The Tlingits in Sitka built a totem pole in honor of Michio Hoshino, and the potlatch was the ceremony celebrating the raising of the totem. Do you know Michio Hoshino?”

“No, who is he?”

“He is a famous Japanese photographer. He is famous for his photographs of Alaska. Some of his photographs are displayed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum. I admire him a great deal, and so I wanted to come to his potlatch, and then visit all of the places in Alaska he photographed. He was recently killed in Russia while photographing grizzly bears in Siberia. After the totem raising, I was also invited to take part in a sweat lodge ceremony which is a spiritual experience.”

“Tell us more about your journey. Where did it start, and where have you been?”

“I flew from Japan to Vancouver, Canada; from there to Prince Rupert Sound and then to Sitka for the ceremonies. Then I went to Juneau, Skagway, Whitehorse, Fairbanks, and now I am here in Denali.”

“And you did all of this by yourself. Aren’t you scared staying in a tent with bears all around?”

“Yes, I am somewhat scared, but I went through the backpack training at the Wilderness Access Center. I am very careful to follow the rules, and I believe I will be alright.”

Passing Mayumi’s campsite the next day, the neatness of the site is noticeable and causes me to reflect that Mayumi is as precisely manicured as her campsite. She is pretty and petite and looks about twenty years old although she says she is forty. She is not at her campsite during the day because she is out in the park hiking or exploring, getting the best out of every moment of her great adventure. At the end of the day, Mayumi appears again at the campfire to tell us what she has seen. “I saw a wolf on my bus trip, and when I got back to camp I saw a marmot. I was able to get a view of the mountain, and I just had a wonderful day.”

Since Mayumi has sparked our interest, I do a little research on Michio Hoshino and am lucky enough to find a copy of Hoshino’s Alaska at a local gift shop. Just as Mayumi is no ordinary office worker, Michio Hoshino is no ordinary photographer. His photographs are compelling because each one tells a story. White on white polar bears on pack ice, and an aerial view of migrating caribou showing well-worn routes of travel, cotton grass near a pond with reflected cotton clouds above, a tiny ground squirrel in wildflowers against a background of a massive valley and mountains.

A day later, Mayumi appeared, ready to depart. “I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye, and to thank you once again for the warm cookies you brought me. I have something for you – it is a piece of the rope used to raise Michio’s totem pole.

“Oh, my! What a lovely thought – but I cannot possibly take this from you.”

“No. You must take it. You must.”

“Mayumi, you have already given us a gift by introducing us to Michio Hoshino and his work. He is amazing and wonderful and I would never have known about him if not for you.”

“Please, take it. Please.”

“I am very honored by this gift. Each time I look at this, I will think of Michio Hoshino and you. Thank you.”

“Here comes my bus. I must go.”

“Goodbye Mayumi.”



We met a lovely lady named Margaret who was supervising a group of students. She had a problem. When she checked in at the mercantile she was told they had group site B, but that site was already occupied. Checking the group site schedule, I saw that they should actually be on group site A.

“We come here with a school group every year, and we hate site A. It is just too rocky.”

“How do you feel about group site C?”

“We would love C! Can you do that for us?


Problem solved.

A couple of hours later, we saw Margaret again. “One of my girls left her hiking boots where we stayed last night. The only shoes she has are some flimsy canvas ones that will not do for hiking. Do you know where there is a place nearby we could go to find hiking boots?”

“What size does she wear? I twisted my knee in the spongy tundra and will not be using my hiking boots anytime soon.”

The boots fit. Problem solved.

A short time later, two of the girls from group site C approached our campfire and told Dave that on their way back from the bathroom they saw something to into the woods so they followed it. When it stopped and stood on its hind legs they realized it was a bear. Yikes! Dave took this opportunity to reinforce what one is supposed to do when you see a bear, and more importantly what to do when the bear sees you. Problem avoided.

The next night, Dave decided to stir things up at C camp. He tells the kids about a lynx we often see late at night and early in the morning. So, a lynx hunt it is! Off they went with cameras, binoculars, and walkie-talkies. What they found were two Boreal owls. Margaret and one of the girls returned to the host site to share their find. On their way back, they see the elusive lynx and get an awesome photo before the lynx decides to leave. When they knock on the campground-host door, Dave is out somewhere in the park and I am in my pajamas with wet hair.

“Would you like to come see some Boreal owls?” they ask.

“Sure. I’ll just throw on a jacket over my pajamas and be right with you.”

Nearing midnight, I find myself walking back to the trailer alone. I breathe deeply, taking in the woodsy smells. I look at the mountains that circle the camp and pause to recollect:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

Henry David Thoreau

There was a knock on the door at 7 a.m. Campers had locked their keys in the car and they had tickets for the Eielson Bus at 8 a.m. A radio call is made to dispatch for vehicle lockout assistance. The campers decided to catch the bus even though their cameras, binoculars, and sunscreen are in the car. The lockout-assistance crew arrives about 2 p.m. proving that everything takes longer in Alaska. When the campers returned around suppertime they were very happy because they thought they would have to call Fairbanks for a wrecker and that would be pricey.

Mr. and Mrs. Nord C have traveled from Connecticut on a motorcycle. They were in Haines Junction last week and woke up to six inches of snow one morning.

Lately, it has been rain, rain, and more rain. Add to those cold temperatures at higher elevations and the rain is white. Some Aussie tourists tell us that this is not cold. In Brisbane, Australia, it’s cold.

“You know it is cold when you step out of doors, hug yourself with your arms while shifting from one foot to the other and shivering.” They demonstrate.

I said, “That must be the Brisbane shuffle.”

We love the Aussies. They are so genuine. They are making fun of the way we talk.

“Hey, we don’t talk funny – you talk funny.”

They tell us they came to Alaska because it is summer here. Amazing!


Jennifer and Bonnie are school teachers in a little Yup’ik Eskimo village called Kwigillinogok. On the map, it looks as if it is right on the ocean, but it is actually a mile or two inland on the Kwigillingok River. You can get there only by plane or boat.

Jennifer teaches math and science to junior high and high school students. Bonnie teaches third and fourth graders language development and academics. When Jennifer completed her college degree, there were no jobs in places where she had always wanted to visit. Bonnie was in a transition in her life; she didn’t want to work in a big city, so Alaska became her choice. However, the question is not why they came – rather it is why do they stay?

There is snow on the ground today and the ladies are preparing their breakfast on a butane camp stove. It is like cooking on an aerosol can with four little wings protruding from the top to set your pan on. They are having biscuits and gravy. Bonnie works on the gravy and Jennifer is stirring up the biscuits. When Bonnie gets the gravy boiling, they drop the biscuit batter into it; so it is more like dumplings than biscuits. Before they started to cook the main course, they heated water and made coffee and tea. They are drinking that while they are waiting for their biscuits and gravy. They have to drink it in a hurry if they want it hot because the air is so cold. Bonnie is sipping tea and scraping snow off the table to clear a place for eating.

What remarkable people they are; and I am sure they are remarkable teachers because they know that a key to facilitating learning is building relationships. These ladies obviously care a great deal for their students as demonstrated by the sacrifices they willingly make for them and the loving way they talk about them. They stay because they love what they do, and they love who they do it for. They are loading their backpacks for a hike up Mt. Margaret to see if they can watch any Dall sheep up close. What else can you do in the snow? I’m thinking maybe browsing at gift stores.

Jen and Bob are from Cambridge, England. They are retired and have traveled ever since. They spent two and a half years in Australia and have visited New Zealand, South Africa, Antarctica, Europe, and much of the U.S. Their perspective and worldview make them interesting to talk with. They like the British royalty and system of government and believe it is preferable to ours. They respect the queen, and they like Prince Charles, William, and Harry. Diana was approved of at first, but later she became a “loose cannon.” Fergie is a tart, but she never pretended to be anything but a tart.

Planning for this trip took time. They booked their rental motorhome a year ago online. They paid for it ahead of time and thought they had a pretty good deal – until they actually got to Alaska and picked it up. When they rented the motorhome that’s what they got and nothing else. No dishes, pots and pans, sheets on the bed, or towels. So, the first stop was to pick up the necessities. The toilet leaks and Bob is hoping they can return the vehicle before other problems surface. Our good wishes go with them as they leave.

Luca and Stefania are from Rome, Italy. Luca works in the travel business and Stefania works for a company that advises the Italian government on environmental issues. They kayaked in Prince William Sound and a whale swam under their kayak. Yikes. They come to our campfire every night and share their daily adventures with us. When they leave we feel a loss.

Italians are so polite and cultured. Although it is true that they have had thousands of years to get the whole culture thing right, Americans often seem crude in contrast. Like the American guy in the net across from us with a device that makes a noise like someone expelling gas. He has the fart machine hung in a tree by the road. He evidently has a remote control for this and sits in a chair by his campsite waiting for the next victim. When people walk by they will abruptly be serenaded by sounds of expelled gas. Some stop and look around, some look with blame at each other, and others have no reaction. Actually, it is quite childish. I wonder if it counts as excessive noise after ten p.m.

Talk about excessive noise after ten…one night when Dave was walking around the campground, checking for any food that might have been left out, he heard some noises coming from a tent. He stopped because at first he thought the person was in pain due to all of the moaning he heard, but then he realized it was some kind of religious experience because the female kept shouting, “Oh, God! Oh, my God!” The campers at the end of the campground gave the couple a smile and a nod the next morning.

Jess is a marine biologist. She works out of Anchorage on fishing boats doing research. She is sometimes stationed in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Jess is camping by herself. She went for a hike today and fell in a bog. To make matters worse, it has been raining steadily ever since. As Dave walked by her campsite, he saw that she was trying to dry her clothes by her campfire; so now she has wet and smoky clothes. Dave had Jess bring her wet things to our trailer and we put them on drying racks for the night. We gave her some dry clothes to wear and a couple of dry blankets. Jess says she will be fine for the night.

Responding to a knock on the door, I find a lovely young woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. With a lilt in her voice, she inquires, “I was wondering if there is a ranger program in the park tonight, and if there is one, could you tell me where it is? I gladly give her the information and point her in the right direction. Roisin is from Spiddal, Ireland. Her family owns a caravan park there. (That’s what we call a campground in the U.S.)

After a very cold night, Roisin approaches again to ask if they sell warm clothing at the Wilderness Access Center. “We put every piece of clothing that we have with us on last night and we still nearly froze. We are going from here to Igloo and then to Wonder Lake, and we thought we would take the shuttle to the Wilderness Access Center, get some more warm clothes, and then take the bus to the Igloo Campground. Do you know how cold it got last night?”

“My thermometer said twenty-six degrees Fahrenheit at six this morning. Two young women backpacking alone in the wild – you are courageous.”

Pointing to her friend, Roisin said, “Sorcha is more courageous than me. Last night was her first night to sleep in a tent. We are teachers from Ireland, here on sabbatical in the United States. We have been in the state of Washington and decided that we should take the opportunity to see Alaska while we were so close. It is so expensive to get to Alaska from Ireland. They both wish they had planned better for cold weather.

Today is wedding day! We have been working with Amy and Mike O’Connor all season, and today they will be married in the park. Savage River Campground is the perfect place for their wedding. Pre-ceremony wine and cheese are served at group site A allowing the guests to mingle and view the mountain. Next, the guests walk to the amphitheater for the wedding ceremony. Bridesmaids are in variations of the same color dress and carry bouquets of fall flowers. The day would not be complete without Yetti and Sushi. Yetti is their white sled dog and Sushi is a Newfoundland – pure black and huge. Amy is beautiful out of uniform and in her wedding dress, and the groom is handsome and nervous. Perfect!


The National Park Service holds a road lottery every year. People buy chances to drive into the park in their private vehicles. Private vehicles are usually not allowed past the checkpoint at Savage River Bridge. If your ticket is lucky and you win, you are allowed a day to drive as far out on the park road as you wish.

This continues for four days, and some folks are lucky enough to win more than one day. Many of these people camp at Savage River because it gives them a 12.8-mile advantage into the park at the start of the day. Our boss says that we should encourage all campers to leave by check-out time on the last day; then Dave and I must leave and lock the gate behind us.

I think about the day we arrived at Savage River Campground, with its locked gate and snow on the ground. I remember how Dave and I invaded the space that had been the domain of the animals all winter; I thank the animals for graciously sharing their habitat with us all summer. And now, we return it to them…until next year.

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.