MOUNTAIN ECHOES: Stormy Eklutna Lake churns up a flood of memories

Thursday, September 8, 2016 - 12:14
  • The Bakers’ Eklutna Lake picnic spot, circa 2016, during stormy conditions. Photos by Frank E. Baker for the Star
  • Emily and David Baker, circa 2001, along Eklutna Lake. Photos by Frank E. Baker for the Star

The clouds were dark and a steady southeast wind was whipping up white caps on Eklutna Lake Aug. 24 of this year as I biked back to an old picnic spot where I took my children many years ago.

The lake level was high from August rains and waves lapped up close to the trail, threatening to wash it away as it has done several times over the years.

Earlier this summer the lake level was extremely low and the wide shoreline allowed me to hike around the west side of the lake to the new Chugach State Park cabin. Now, water was only about 10 feet away from the sandy spot where my kids and I enjoyed hanging out.

Signs of an early autumn were everywhere, from the trees’ changing colors to the red hues spreading out on the mountain slopes. But mostly, the emerging season could be felt in the air’s chillness.

Resting on a bleached-white log and sipping a cup of coffee from my thermos, memories came rushing back from those bygone days with my children. And we would often ride our bikes past this point to the end of the lake to camp.

Back before Eklutna Lake was Anchorage’s drinking water supply, the state allowed outboard motors on the lake. On a calm June morning we loaded our camping gear in my small boat and motored across the lake, finding a camping spot not far from the airstrip.

We thoroughly explored the area, which included visiting the old Eklutna Alex cabin. Built in 1927, the small dwelling once had a wood stove and offered a great shelter until the early 1990s, when it succumbed to riverbank erosion and literally fell into the Eklutna River.

Surviving the storm

We planned to return the following day, but the wind came up and whipped the lake into a frenzy, not unlike it was on this August day. We were low on food and I wanted to get the kids back, so we secured the boat, left the tent standing and walked the eight miles back out.

The next day winds subsided, so I biked back to the camp spot and packed up the tent and other camping gear. I then loaded it all into the boat, along with my bike. The sand castles my son David and daughter Emily had built the day before were still there, and it prompted me to later write a poem:

Eklutna Lake Sand Castles

Survivors of the storm,

my children’s sand castles

guard the lake shore

against age-old enemies:

fear, uncertainty, malaise.

A day ago the air sang

with their voices…

voices of sand shapers,

dream scapers,

voices of builders,

sculptors who slowed time

for one whose

time

sifts

through

cupped hands.

Absent their creators,

the fortresses repose

quietly in the sun,

defying all dangers

alive for today,

tomorrow’s storms;

constructions held together

by grains of memory.

Backyard playground

In those days we lived in Thundberbird Heights subdivision, so the Eklutna Lake area was like our backyard.

I recall one summer hike with my son on the Bold Valley trail from Mile 5 on the Eklutna Lakeside Trail.

We angled up to the ridge overlooking the lake and came upon a large brown, triangular-shaped object, made out of steel.

We had no idea what it was and sat down at the spot to take a break.

We both nearly jumped a foot when it suddenly spoke out in a squawky, indecipherable voice! We later learned that it was portable communication repeater installed by the State of Alaska.

It’s still there today, but I’m not sure if it’s operational.

When Emily was about nine and David was 12, we climbed 5,423-foot Pepper Peak off the Twin Peaks Trail, above Eklutna Lake.

It was one of those summers with an infestation of small grasshoppers (Menlanoplus bruneri).

The buzzing grasshoppers seemed to be the only thing that kept the kids entertained as we made the long ascent.

Today a similar infestation has been reported in the Matanuska Valley.

Summer or winter, on foot, bikes, skis or ice skates, Eklutna Lake was a fabulous playground for my children and their friends, as it is today for many others. For me, it was a place where precious memories were born…memories that will endure as long as I live.

I’ve mentioned “seizing the moments within moments” several times in this space, but I feel it’s something that merits repeating.

My children are grown now and living on their own, and we don’t share such experiences very often. Today I would gladly trade 100 of my current outdoor adventures for just one of those outings with my children back in the day.

We take photos and write poems and stories in an effort to put ourselves back there, to somehow connect with those moments in time.

But we know we can’t return. Yet, we do have the memories.

The southeast wind was still strong and churning up the lake as I walked slowly along the narrow and crumbling shoreline back to my bicycle.

It was a special day… a day about remembering.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

 

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