The gang goes North: Part 5- Hatcher Pass, Eklutna Lake, Anchorage

July 6-10

We grabbed breakfast in Talkeetna the morning after our flightseeing tour.  We talked with Nguyen, Jim’s wife, before leaving the Homestead cabin, as their home was on the same property.

“I used to live in Anchorage. Too many people, and no peace. There’s always noise. Here I’m happy. I hear the birds and the chickens and no people. I work hard on the gardens and house, and it’s long days. But I’m happy here. And now I’m thin! Always moving. When I lived in Anchorage, I was too heavy!”

We chuckled together, and she wished us well on our trip. Charley gave her some sniffs and Nguyen reciprocated with pets.

Denali was in clouds that day. It made us even more grateful to have seen her the prior day. We set out towards Wasila, down in the valley, taking the Parks Highway south again. Groceries and laundry. By now we’re at our most efficient getting errands done. I drop Jamie at the market, and head to the laundromat (in most towns we’ve come across, the two are quite proximal). Charley lays in bed in Archie.

Speaking of Arch, the old boy was dirty. 135 miles on the Old Denali Highway’s thirsty dirt, and several days of bug massacre along the way from Canada, it was time we took him to the spa. Well-deserved, even if it’ll just get beaten to hell again over the next stretch.

We met Gary at our car as we were folding clothes, getting ready to head to the car wash.

“You from Massachusetts?”

“Yep, and you’re from Texas looks like?” Jamie replied.

“That’s right. Just so you know, they’ve got showers here at the laundromat, six bucks for 12 minutes.”

One traveler helping another. We’ve run into this a lot, and it warms my heart. Everyone just friendly from the jump.

“Good to know! We’re heading to Hatcher Pass today, maybe we’ll come back here on our way through after.”

Gary let us in on his plans, up here in Alaska. “My ex-wife is crazy. When we split up, I got the house, only to have it burn down shortly after. And I just can’t be near her, so I’m about as far off as I can get. Bought 8 acres along the Parks highway.”

He showed us the stack of thick boards of insulation in his van. He’d be lining a couple shipping containers and living in them, while building his remote Alaska cabin.

“And I’ll be here til I die.”

We wished Gary good luck and set out to wash the car, and make our way to Hatcher Pass.

North of Wasila and Palmer, Hatcher Pass is named after a former resident of the area, who’d held several successful gold claims among its rocky cradle.

Again, we’d skip camping, living lavishly for a day in our little red cabin among the lower slopes of the pass. No plumbing, but at least it had a real roof! It didn’t matter- the landscape took our breath away. One of 7 or 8 cabins at the Hatcher Pass Lodge, “Hatcher” had a loft fitted with a king size bed and valley-facing windows that looked out over Palmer and Wasila.

That evening we had dinner at the Hatcher Pass Lodge, salmon burger for me and personal pizza for Jamie. 

“Excuse me,” Jamie hailed the waitress, “you mentioned a sauna when I was checking in earlier- is it still available?”

Brooklyn smiled, “it is, but we only have 11pm open, for an hour. Is that ok?”

We booked it.

Situated in a small cabin above muttering Fishhook creek, beside the lodge, was the sauna. A pale gray dusk had settled in for the late evening, but it’d last until well after midnight. Plenty of light to walk over to the sauna without headlamps.

What a neat experience. We bounced back and forth from the sauna to the icy creek, cooling off when we needed a break from the heat. To my surprise, Jamie got in the creek and sat down right there. I was impressed!

The following morning came, a gentle fog filling Indpendence bowl about a mile to our north. I went for a run up to Independence mine and Gold Cord Lake, taking in the history of the mining Boomtown, as it was once referred. 

We took Archangel Road, just a couple miles down the pass from where we stayed, into a green cut in the mountain, carved once by glaciers, now by Reed Creek. Filling our packs, we set out to the source of the creek, Reed Lakes. The route was longer than expected, but immensely fun and scenic. Boulder hopping kept our minds sharp as we moved delicately among the heaps of rock, and above the stone-dwelling marmots and pika. They made their presence known periodically with high squeaks from the pika, and startling screams from the marmots. They weren’t fans of Charley, but Charley sure loved them.

10 miles out and back took us up to the lakes along the creek and its cascades. Carpets of mounded green and wildflowers of every color lined the trail above the timberline. Boulder deposits from ancient glacial flows were strewn about as if giants had built their own hiking cairns. A chilled rain enveloped us for most of the walk, but it was gentle enough to be no bother.

Marmots continued to watch Charley skeptically throughout the hike, as they no doubt have lost friends to Charley’s cousins, the wolves and foxes. We hustled back down in retracing our route to the trailhead as rains began to intensify, and our legs grew weary. We arrived back at the car close to 8pm.

Finding a free campsite in Hatcher Pass that night, it was a late dinner and bed for the three of us tired pups.

Pancakes and fruit for breakfast the following morning, and we moved sluggishly. Legs a bit tired, and a poor night’s sleep, the cool air perked us up a bit.

April Bowl was just up the road, at the crest of Hatcher Pass, and we climbed the ridge of the bowl that morning. Short, steep, rocky. A panoramic view awaited us as the top, and the summit had cleared out when we arrived. We enjoyed peace at the top, finding it difficult to leave, as we gazed out on the Alaska Range to the north, Chugach mountains southward, and peeks of water inlets hugging the Chugach.

That afternoon, the tiredness set in. After only a short hike that morning, it was time to rest. The sun was out, and we relaxed at camp, reading and taking naps. No rush, nowhere to be. Let rest happen, we need it! 

In the evening, we popped back up to Hatcher Pass lodge, just for a drink. We met some other travel RNs and physical therapists, from the east coast as well. They were working in Anchorage, and gave us plenty in the way of recommendations and tips for our upcoming days in south-central Alaska. We thanked them, exchanged a few stories, and our dogs mingled for a bit. 

When we’d returned to our camp, it was flooded with families and big rigs, firing their generators, and someone had swiped our site, despite our camp gear that laid in plain sight. No bother, we packed up quick, and moved down the road a couple miles to another spot, set up and enjoyed some chili Mac and cheese for supper, enjoying the quiet of our new site.

Eklutna Lake, in the Chugach, is across the Matanuska-Susitna Valley from Hatcher Pass, and we made our way down there the following morning. Again, we heeded our own advice, after learning the hard way, and got to the campground around check-out time. We found several sites vacated when we arrived, scoped out a proper spot, and called it home. 

The day use area was quite busy, with folks from Anchorage and the Mat-Su valley making their way out on a nice Saturday. We hiked up the Twin Peaks trail a bit, to the first lookout, with a sensational view of Eklutna Lake from above.

When it was decided that we were all content with turning back at that point, we descended down and back to camp. We threw up the hammock and hung out, taking walks out to the lake. We spotted a moose off in the fescue-like flats at the lake’s shore, maybe 3-400 yards away. As is the unwritten rule, we let other people know as well, loaning out our binoculars to those interested.

“Thank you so much! That was my first moose experience, and I’m from Alberta. That was really awesome,” one person remarked. Happy to do it, lord knows we’ve been helped out plenty in the past.

A nap that evening on the lakeside had Jamie and I feeling like we were at the ocean. Gentle waves slipped up the shore, clouds gathered and dissolved. The breeze whispered. We returned to camp for dinner, a fire, and shuteye.

“Should we blow up the kayak?” It was calmer on the lake the following morning. I went for a run down the lakeside, getting away from most people after only a couple miles. It was peaceful, and quiet. Jamie ad Charley walked the shore near camp, and we met back up, deciding it was worth a shot to go float for a bit.

We met Joe and Ana, and their kids, in the parking lot of the day use area.

“Can you fit anything else in your 4Runner?!” Joe laughed.

“We actually dropped quite a bit off in Seattle before the drive up!”

We talked with them for a bit, and having traveled much themselves, Joe and Ana offered us to camp at their home or grab a shower when we’d pass through their town. We declined, but felt it was so gracious and kind to have extended that invitation. Our hearts were warmed.

We floated on the lake for a bit, but as the winds picked up, our desire to stay on the water diminished. I could feel us getting pushed from shore, and our cheap inflatable is more akin to a sail than an aerodynamic watercraft. We cut it short, packed it up.

Running into Joe again, we exchanged phone numbers, and he said to keep in touch if we had any questions or needed any tips for the area. I thanked him again, and we were on our way to Eagle River campground, just 20 minutes from Anchorage.

We set up camp, got the bear safety tutorial from Melissa the camp host (“This strip of land along the river is the bear highway” she said), and we hopped into town for errands. REI for camp soap, Petco for dog food, grocery store for, well, groceries.

I don’t have much to say about Anchorage. Our time there was limited. We had drinks at Anchorage Cider House, and dinner at 49th state Brewery (along with every other tourist coming through Anchorage). Other than that, the city had no appeal to us. Though to be fair, we hardly tried. Most everyone we spoke to said Anchorage is good because it’s close to the mountains, and that’s it.

I texted Joe that evening, to say thanks again for the kindness they showed to us. I told him we’d be near Girdwood, where they live, over the next couple days, if he had any recommendations for hikes or places to go.

“Would you and Jamie like to come for dinner tomorrow evening? I’ve got mountain goat, blacktail deer backstrap, rockfish, PWS (Prince William Sound) shrimp.”

Blown away by their generosity, we accepted. It’d be neat to meet new people, try new foods, and there was a warmness to them and their wonderful kids. We’d bring a salad and some drinks to contribute.

Next time: Turnagain Arm: Girdwood, Portage Valley, Hope.

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