Savage River

The river changes here. This is an inflection point, a shift from one form to another. A braided stream becomes a single torrent, a u-shaped glacial valley leads to a v-shaped water-cut gorge. It’s a grand place to spend the morning.

The Savage River isn’t Denali’s largest, longest, or most impressive. In this land of mountains there are numerous streams that emanate from the glaciers and snowfields on high. The Savage is just one of many, but I love it nonetheless. As day breaks in that slow, methodical, Alaska-summer way (sunrise was hours ago but morning hasn’t arrived in every valley yet), I stand on the banks and enjoy the sweet serenade of water and wings.


White-crowned sparrows are singing in the spruces. Perched on the highest branches, right at my eye level, they throw their heads back and their voices into the morning air. Their vocalizations are mixed with those of the mew gulls nesting down on the gravel bars. The mews have been a fixture of our Alaskan travels thus far, and it’s a treat to see why they’ve come to the taiga and tundra. Just moments ago, I saw two of the newest generation of mew gulls, poking around in the rocks behind a watchful parent. Never seen baby gulls before. They’re darling.

There’s a stirring in the brush now. My apologies, gulls, but I must look away from your familial bliss, for here now are four willow ptarmigan (the “p” is silent, in case this is your first encounter with Alaska’s state bird). We acknowledge each other. They agree not to immediately bolt for cover as long as I maintain a respectful distance. Picking and pecking their way across the gravel, they soon fade into the low forest and continue their progressive breakfast undercover once more. A Wilson’s warbler sings behind me. Sunlight still hasn’t hit the river here, nor have the footsteps of any other people trod this trail today. I am the sole representative of my species here for now. This is the reward of the early riser: solitude.

The sun is on the other side of the sky now. A day has elapsed, and I have returned to the Savage River. This time, I’m not alone. A group of five, we walk downstream and into shadow. During my absence, the sun provided all the light it could to the Savage, but the mountains have hidden the star once again. Blue tones pervade the scene, where gray water laden with glacial till is cascading in the channel it’s carved through the equally-gray bedrock of the Yukon-Tanana Terrane. Mats of moss campion grant flashes of purple to the otherwise green blanket of vegetation that covers the gentler slopes. Dwarf birch extend their deciduous leaves as a reminder that the real show here comes in autumn. I wish I could stay. I’ll have to settle for a return, someday.


Walking back upstream now, the difference between here and there is doubly evident. Our narrow canyon is widening up to the grand valley above where the shadows we now occupy are replaced with golden evening sunlight. The stream’s work is shaded, but the absent glacier’s is illuminated. Late buses returning over the bridge ahead and the few others we passed on the trail remind us that we are not alone here now, but the audience for this display of light, geology, and hydrology is sparse to say the least.

Where has everyone gone? Thousands passed through here today, but only a handful remain. Is the hustle and bustle of Glitter Gulch really more enticing than this? Does your dinner indoors taste better than the mountain air? Does the hum of traffic and the audio from the TV over the bar sound anywhere near as sweet as the sparrow still singing in the spruce? You came all this way to see Denali, but after the bus ride you retreated to your accommodations. Come back out! There’s enough wonder here for all of us.

Or don’t. I prefer the stillness, anyway. Solitude is returning here in the long, late light.


Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer