A Brutal Storm Over Savage Valley

When caution runs amok in the backcountry


Lone caribou runs through tundra. No escape from invisible predators. Warble fly is common in Denali National Park. They lay their eggs in the nose and throat of the caribou. Larvae hatch and bury themselves underneath the caribou’s skin or into the lining of the stomach or intestines. Without opposable thumbs, little can be done once an infestation has taken hold. Warble fly have also been known to make homes in humans.

The bridge over Savage River affords a perfect line of sight along Savage Valley. At the other end of the gorge the sky writhes amidst the beginnings of a storm. Horizon dissected by means of lightning. A gurgle of thunder belches through the hills. My secretary and I watch the distant insurgency for a while, our current location still bathed in sunlight.

Despite the width of the creek, Savage River is a small, braided stream meandering around the centre, changing direction as glacial rock flour deposits build up and the stream self-dams, forcing water to find a new path of least resistance. A lattice of former channels sculpt the creek floor into tiny labyrinths of dizzying cliffs and terrifying chasms on the most macro of scales.

Eastwise along Park Road. Away from the shutter fiends who stray from their cars around the parking lot at Savage River. An unnamed dry creek intersects the asphalt. Dry creek beds make great hiking routes into the wilderness and this one looks as good as any. We drop down the embankment and into the creek. We follow the deceased river as it undulates down from the mountains of the Outer Range and into the plains of the valley south of Park Road. A perfect bypass through the dense scrub surrounding us.

The sun is still burning high in the sky and the heat is beginning to get to my secretary. The light coloured glacial till below our boots reflects the heat right back into our faces for a second dose of UV battery. She looks like she is going to collapse or puke at any given moment.

Soon, the road is out of sight and we suddenly feel very isolated. My secretary insists that she’s ok and wants to continue. Bear prints. Not so alone after all.

Despite the oppressive heat, the thunderstorm from earlier has moved south through Savage Valley and is now drowning the mountains a few miles northwest of us. It’s moving closer, but it looks like it will run north of us and spare us a drenching.

Around another corner. Deeper into the wilderness. The Alaskan Range mountains are dead ahead. The creek bed widens to a huge clearing. Animal tracks everywhere. Moose, caribou, wolf, others which we cannot identify. Looks like this is the place to be. The Denali Wilderness Secret Social; where all the coolest quadrupeds hang out. A couple of beers on a Friday night and a few laughs.

‘Two humans walk into a bar…’

I have a bad feeling that I cannot pin down. Maybe it’s my secretary’s sickface, maybe it’s the bear prints in the creek. But there is something very wrong here. Some unseen malevolence resonating.

Another burst of lightning tears the sky in two. That’s when it dawns on me. The storm may miss us, but it is going straight for the headwaters of the creek we are standing in. The same creek that is running downhill through a floodplain in an area known for flash flooding. Even if there is no flooding, any water that reaches us it will turn the glacial sediment underfoot into an impassable bog of clay bolus. Dense brush lines the creek, sealing us in.

Time to go. Now.

We race back towards the road as tidal waves of thunder shake our bones. Electricity lights up the sky, burning iridescent fracture lines into our retinas. My secretary struggles through her dizzy haze, but keeps a good pace. The road is miles away and the storm is almost over the mountains upstream of us. We will never make it. Will we? How long does a flood take to flash?

The mountains north of us disappear into an edacious tempest of our impending doom.

Goodbye cruel world…

Like many things in life, this story ends in anticlimax. Despite the downpour, there was no flood. There was no impassable pit of clay. Not even close. We ran back for nothing. Stupid tourists. Our time was squandered and our destination will remain unknown. What truths lay around that next bend of the river? What revelations will we now never know?

We sat around at the side of the road waiting for the park’s shuttle bus for half an hour while my secretary vomited over a small corner of the Denali wilderness. We stank of sweat and sick and embarrassment.

Nobody wanted to sit next to us on the bus.