The Eklutna Valley: A Lesson in Life
There are many places that have special meaning to me. Some are places where I played a lot as a child, some are places where important events in my life have taken place, and some are places where I could just get away from everything. The most special place to me, however, is none other than where I go to be alone, recreate, and learn about life. The most special place to me is Eklutna Lake.
A trip to Eklutna Lake involves more than just going there. First, there is the long and arduous drive; 13 miles of windy road that traverses many hills. Dangerously close to both sides of the road, an eroding rock face eats away at the mountain side. One wrong move and you will end up at the bottom of it! For the risks, however, it does offer some very rewarding views. Through a scattering of trees, you can see sunlit valleys, majestic mountains, and an abundance of wildlife! The end of the road is the trail head that takes you to and around Eklutna Lake.
A walk along the trail is a true adventure. Through the summer and fall, squirrels run to and fro while squirreling away food for winter. Eagles and hawks circle above, looking for their next meal. In the fall and through the winter, moose and bear will frequent the trail, leaving their tell tail markings behind. The trail itself is rather foreboding.
Along with watching for predatory animals such as wolves, bears, and foxes, one has to be careful where they walk. The trail is nothing more than loosely packed dirt mixed with a detritus of vegetation that’s been smashed into the ground by heavy footsteps. Whether it’s the melting snow of the spring or the rainy days of summer, water mixes with that loosely packed dirt to make mud which acts like a lubricant on the crushed vegetation. It’s very easy to slip and fall. The trail climbs sharp ridges and descends steep hills; slipping and falling will bruise more than just your pride!
At the end of the trail, all of the danger and toil makes itself worth it. The trail opens up to a gorgeous view of the lake, surrounded by mountains and trees. With the long drive and the walk through the woods, most sounds of civilization can’t make it to the mountains. The mountains deflect most of what does make it, and the trees absorb the rest. What you hear depends on the season; in spring, the air is full of the chirping of newly born birds and the chattering of squirrels poking out for the first time this year; in the summer, the leaves are all aflutter in a constant breeze; in fall, the sounds of moose munching on bark and the occasional cry of an Eagle fill the air. My favorite is in winter when all the animals are asleep or gone for the year and the air is deathly still. In winter, Eklutna Lake is completely silent.
It’s wrapped in this silence that I find solitude; I’m not expected to be doing anything. Relieved of the burdens of everyday life, my mind is free to wander. My wanderings always start with the same memory. In 1998, I hiked up to the lake in late October. Half-way down the trail, I thought I heard, very faintly, sounds of people talking and laughing. I asked myself, “who are these people who are interrupting my solitude?” Near the end of the trail, the sound was still barely audible and I was eager to see who it was. I hurried along, taking more daring chances with my footing on the trail, and when I got to the end, my eyes scanned for these intruders. Imagine my amazement when I found that it was not people talking and laughing but rather Canadian Geese honking at each other while talking a swim in the water! I watched as they floated softly along in the water that I knew was close to freezing. They floated all the way around to the other side of the lake and disappeared from sight. I spent the night there and the water was frozen across the surface when I awoke and didn’t thaw again until summer.
My mind tends to wander along what it was those geese were honking about. Were they discussing their plans for moving south for the winter? Were they gossiping about the latest drama in the wolf packs? Maybe they already had their plans in order and were telling each other jokes, laughing away the remaining few hours before traveling onward.
Everything around Eklutna Lake has a lesson to tell about the world, about life, and about how to live. The glacier pushes incessantly forward, never looking back. It grabs anything near or in its path, picks it up, and carries it forward as if it’s helping everything along. And help it does; all of the organics that it picks up are deposited in the water shed where it decomposes and turns the silt fertile. Glacial melt and snow melt run down the water shed and to the lake, keeping it plenty full. The lake itself not only provides water for the surrounding wildlife but also the 350,000 people who live in a city about 30 miles west. In this way, the glacier advances everything around it.
The mountains protect the Eklutna Valley. They reach high into the sky on both sides of the valley, preventing the strong winter winds from making their way into it. Massive storms tend to deposit the bulk of their rain or snow on the outer sides of the mountains, keeping the snow pack inside the valley reasonable. Above all, they protect the life giving Eklutna Glacier. Even in summer when the sun is at it’s highest, these mountains prevent the bulk of the sunlight from reaching the glacial ice. These mountains also demand respect; they have rough and jagged ridges, steep slopes, and many loose boulders and rocks. They will punish anyone who disrespects them, but they offer incredible rewards to those are know how to treat them!
On top of the mountains, you can see for hundreds of miles around. To the west, Anchorage and the Cook Inlet sit on the horizon, offering a magnificent sunset view if you’re lucky enough to be there at the right time. To the north, you can see Eklutna Lake, reflecting the summer sun like a mirror. To the south and east, mountains and forest stretch as far as the eye can see. In the fall, when the sun reaches lower and lower each day, the sun shines a nice golden light across the tops of all these trees, making their yellow, gold, and red leaves glow as if they’re on fire.
The forest itself drinks the water from the lake and provides food for the wild life. A myriad of berries provide fruit and the bark on the spruce trees provide the primary source of fiber in every ones diet. In the fall when moose have eaten all the bark off of all the trees, the pine cones begin to fall. This is the forests way of telling every one, “here is one last meal, now hurry up before winter sets in.”
Everything in the Eklutna Valley is different, but despite all these differences, they all work together in a concert that could not work if any single piece was missing. Without the mountains, the sun would take the glacier. Without the glacier, the lake would dry. Without the lake, the forest would perish. Without the forest, the wind would erode the mountain sides and take them away. It’s a giant circle and if even just one piece is missing, the whole thing will fall apart.
Standing on the coast of the lake, I think about all these things and the Eklutna Valley tells me about my problems. The glacier tells me when I’m spending too much time worrying and not enough time moving forward. The mountains tell me if I’m being too weak and need to stand tall against the ills of society or if I’m being too bullheaded and need to stop fighting. The forest lets me know when I am confused and need to pay more attention to the needs of those around me rather than my own. Eklutna Lake reflects my own image at me, showing me whether I’m on a path of good or evil.
There are many dangers involved in getting to Eklutna Lake and the journey itself has another important lesson to teach. Always keep your objective in mind and do not let difficulties stop you from reaching them. Life is dangerous; one wrong move and you could fall. If you allow the fear of falling from the path to stop you from taking it, you’ll never see what life has to offer you. Then, perhaps, you are not living.