Chugach State Park offers spiritual refuge

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 - 19:00
The author enjoying Chugach State Park.

With nearly one-half million acres, our big back yard called Chugach State Park is more than a recreationist wonderland. It is a spiritual refuge, or what I like to call a “sanctuary for the soul.”

On a hike several years ago to one of the park’s more remote locations, Grizzly Bear Lake, I thought about how removed this place was from events, both past and present. Except for the fact you might see or hear an airplane once in a while, you get the feeling you are outside time and removed from the mayhem of the world.

Grizzly Bear Lake is located at the headwaters of the North Fork of Ship Creek. Sitting alongside the lake in the warm July sun, I thought that if someone had somehow remained at this single spot for a century, they would know nothing about world wars, natural disasters, disease or other human catastrophes.

At the same time, the person would be oblivious to human triumphs over the past 100 years, such as scaling Mt. Everest, going to the moon, discovering DNA and mapping the genome. If ‘ignorance is bliss,’ as poet Thomas Gray observed, it would be a rather quiet, unfettered existence. One would begin to focus on simpler things, like the different kinds of snow, movements of wildlife, changes of the seasons and positions of the stars.

“Dick” Proenneke (1916-2003) lived alone for 30 years in a cabin on Twin Lakes, within Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, located in western Alaska. While he wasn’t totally isolated from humanity during that time, he experienced a kind of solitude and peace most of us will never know. Because he received little if any news from the outside world, his inner world — the natural world around him — became his focus, along with keeping a journal and documenting his life on film.

I haven’t made very many extended backpacking trips into Chugach State Park, but when I have ventured into the backcountry for several days or nearly a week, I’ve noticed that all of my senses start to become heightened. One begins to see and hear more things. Everything in the natural environment — the growth of vegetation or the movements of wildlife — seem to take on greater importance.

On some elemental level, I think we really need a continuing connection with the land and respite from the travail of 21st century life. Just as church offers spiritual comfort and sustenance, places like Grizzly Bear Lake or areas even closer, like Eklutna Lake or South Fork Valley, also soothe the restless soul.

When I began this column several years ago, I told readers that I’d often be telling them things they already know — and in this case, I think it really applies. When I see people out hiking, climbing and skiing, I’m certain that in some way they are doing just what I’m doing. They’re disengaging from their busy, work-a-day world and connecting with that quieter, uncluttered world. Kids live mostly in that world, and it’s great to see adults there too.

We really need this connection, and we’re fortunate to have endless miles to explore within Chugach State Park. We have to careful about avalanches during winter, but frozen rivers and lakes within wide open valleys offer great expanses for us to stretch our legs and rejuvenate our spirits, especially after the long period of darkness.

It’s a new year and the sun is swiftly coming back. The best time for cross-country skiing is ahead of us!


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: [email protected].

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