I was right where I wanted to be on a cold but clear January day: a good trail, bathed in the bright sunshine and encircled by mountains.
As I drew closer to the old mining buildings and ruins of Independence Mine, I tried to imagine what it felt like for miner Robert L. Hatcher to explore here more than 100 years ago – and in 1906 to make the Willow Creek Mining District’s first hard rock gold strike.
If he were alive today, what would he think about the thousands of recreationists who flock to Hatcher Pass, his namesake, to ski, snowboard, hike, mountain climb, parasail, run snow machines, camp and simply sight-see?
My father, who tried his hand at gold prospecting near Seward in the late 1940s, often mentioned “Bob” Hatcher as Alaska’s ultimate authority in hard rock (lode) mining. Expanding from the Talkeetna Mountains to the Kenai Peninsula in the 1930s, Hatcher was one of the most prominent figures in Alaska’s mining history. He died in 1950 in the Seward Hospital at age 83 following what was believed complications from a stroke.
Ditching the skis
On the uphill slog in Independence Bowl, I hiked on a packed trail that was bordered by a skate-skiing track on one one side and a bomb-proof classic ski trail on the other. The groomed trail is part of a loop system that extends for several miles around hilly Independence Bowl.
I ditched my skis and opted to hike because I could see that the return downhill run would be too fast for this semi-skilled cross country skier. And with joint replacement surgery only weeks away, I didn’t want to risk messing up my knee any more than it was.
It was the first time I’d been back to Hatcher Pass in about 17 years, and I was immediately struck by how much I’d missed the Talkeetna Mountains, save for a couple of recent climbs up Matanuska Peak and annual sojourns up Gunsight Mountain.
Back in the late 1990s I hiked the Reed Lakes trail via Archangel Valley – all the way past the Fern Mine up to the Lane Hut, which I hear is in very poor shape today, or as one visitor described: “In need of some love.”
On a couple of occasions, we hiked past Upper Reed Lake, over the ridge to the Bomber Glacier where there is wreckage of a B-29 bomber that crashed in 1957, killing six of the 10 Air Force crewmen.
With the help of John Cloe, a military historian who recently passed away, I wrote a history of the bomber several years ago that can be found online at http://chugachpics.tripod.com/Bomber.html
On an extended hike (about 25 miles) in the same area, a friend and I hiked to Upper Reed Lake, climbed over the ridge to the Bomber Glacier and travelled down the Bomber Glacier to the Mountaineering Club of Alaska’s Bomber Hut, where we overnighted. The next day we climbed up Penny Royale Glacier, popped over a rocky pass, or what is called “Backdoor Gap,” and then down to the Mint Hut, one of the nicer and more popular huts. From there it was another nine miles on the Gold Mint trail down to the Mother Lode Lodge, which in 2015 was destroyed by fire.
Many of these memories came flooding back to me as I stopped for lunch and enjoyed the day’s last rays of sunlight. On the drive down from the pass I noticed that most of the cars were parked at the Archangel Valley trailhead.
We’re abound with outdoor recreational opportunities near Eagle River and Chugiak, but it’s really worthwhile sometimes to range a bit farther to a place like Hatcher Pass, which generally receives snow early and keeps it later than many other areas. In the Lane Hut log book, for example, I read a report from a guy who skied every month of one year on the Hatcher Pass glaciers.
Much of the area in Hatcher Pass is in steep terrain and there are times when avalanche danger is high. The State Department of Natural Resources has a website that describes snow and avalanche conditions in this and other popular areas: http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/asp/curevnts.htm
In summer, guided tours of the mining buildings and ruins are available at Independence Mine State Historical Park. The drive up to Summit Lake and perhaps all the way (22 miles) to the Willow side are rewarding experiences in themselves. The road generally opens after July 4.
If you journey to Hatcher Pass, summer or winter, you might feel its magical pull. It has some kind of power that draws you in and beckons you upward. Perhaps miner Robert B. Hatcher felt it more than a century ago when he first probed the area.
Editor’s Note: Frank E. Baker is an Echo News team member, an avid outdoorsman and a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife, Becky, a retired school teacher.