The chinking used on the outer walls of Savage Cabin is a material locally referred to as oakum. Basically it is hemp rope, a nautical rope also used for sealing boats and plumbing joints. It was brought up from Anchorage by rail or dogsled, unraveled, and the individual strands pushed into the cracks between logs using a wooden tool similar to a large chisel. In addition, sphagnum moss was also used.
There are strips of oakum noticeably newer than others. It has to be repaired from time to time because birds and red squirrels love taking it for nesting material, especially the latter. There are grey squirrels here in the southeast, but I have never seen one of them so persistent and vocal as the red squirrels in Denali.
One of the wildlife techs told me they are very territorial and live in home ranges with family members. If a squirrel they do not know wanders in, there is a possibility it could be accepted, but more often than not, it is chased out and sometimes killed. One morning at the cabin, I witnessed the full brunt of their attitude and chatter.
If there was time between tours, I passed it by walking around, splitting wood, cutting kindling, or reading. This particular morning, I was sitting in a chair inside the cabin enjoying the heat from the wood stove when I heard a noise on the porch. Not knowing exactly what it might be, I peered cautiously out the door.
As part of the display outside the cabin, I always placed a large wad of the oakum on a table so when guests asked what was used to fill the cracks, I could not only tell them but actually show and allow them to feel the material. When I looked out the door, this oakum was completely off the table and on its way off the porch, trailing behind a red squirrel.
I grabbed the strand of oakum and halted its slide off the porch, but he did not let go. Spinning around to face me, his vocal chatter spewed out around his cheeks stuffed with a big piece of the strand. His legs leaned backwards, fully prepared for a tug-of-war he was destined to lose.
Gently pulling on the oakum, I told the little guy he was not going to have it. His chatter continued and he refused to let go. With a firm yank, I pulled it out of his mouth. Upon losing his prize, the squirrel stood up on hind legs and let loose this long, loud chatter. Basically, he was cussing me up one wall and down another. He thought he had his whole nest in one shot.
Looking rather silly, seeing as how it was a squirrel I was talking to, I pointed at him and firmly told him he was not going to have it, after which he scampered off to the nearest spruce tree.
Replacing the oakum on the table, I stepped inside to stoke the wood stove and returned to the doorway. It had been only a matter of a couple minutes, but there he was on the table, mouth open to grab it again. His head shot in my direction, gave a quick chatter and ran up the corner joints of the cabin, where he perched to watch me.
A few minutes later, a tour group walked up, increasing the odds apparently to his dissatisfaction. He disappeared into the fireweed around the spruce trees.
Red squirrels were very common in the area around the cabin, but I know which one the “thief” was. In his ramblings, he stopped, rose up on his hind legs and just stared, sometimes accompanied with chatter. With his little sailor mouth, I can imagine the names I was being called.