It was the summer of 1994, and after a 10.5-mile bike ride around Eklutna Lake and nearly three miles of hiking along the East Fork (Eklutna River) trail, my then 16-year-old son and I came upon an exquisite lake that I had spotted a year earlier on my first ascent of Bold Peak.
The foliage of trees surrounding the approximately two-acre body of water turned it a deep green, thus I dubbed it “Emerald Lake.” I am sure the name is not official on any map or hiking book. But sometimes if people use a name enough, it seems to stick.
Most folks familiar with the East Fork trail are either climbers headed for Stivers Gully – one of the main routes up 7,522-foot Bold Peak – or those headed for Tulchina Falls, a five-mile round-trip hike from the East Fork Bridge trailhead.
Climbers, hikers and hunters can also travel farther into East Fork valley on the primitive trail that continues for another four miles. The trail ends at a prominent feature called “The Knob.” At this point, for those wishing to access Baleful Creek and its hanging valley, it is best to climb upward about 1,200 feet on the left or east side of the valley and join sheep trails that gradually angle farther upward and south. From this beautiful area one can begin to catch glimpses of Whiteout Glacier, farther to the south, and another of the Chugach mountain giants, 7,990-foot Baleful peak.
While resting peacefully on the lake’s shore with a picnic lunch, we noticed disturbances across the lake’s surface, as if there were small fish rising. We watched intently, but never saw any silvery evidence of fish. The ripples seemed too large, however, to be made by insects.
I returned to the small lake about six years later and there was no evidence of any life dimpling or breaking the surface.
East Fork River runs very close to this small lake. Is it possible that during a flood event, the stream could have spilled into the lake and brought with it some small fish? Were any fish present in East Fork, which runs quite rapid during spring, summer and fall?
I took these questions recently to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. A veteran sports fish biologist, Dan Bosch, noted that sub-species of the Dolly Varden, or “Golden Fin” trout, have been found in many remote locations in Southcentral Alaska. Since Dolly Varden trout have been present for many years in Eklutna Lake and a drainage at the south end of the lake – 8-Mile Creek, it is possible some could have traveled upstream via East Fork?
Also, there are still rainbow trout in Eklutna Lake as a result of ADF&G stocking programs from 1992-96. My son and I caught some of those trout, not only from Yuditna and Bold Creek’s confluence with the lake, but also on the far (west) side where small streams enter the lake. Perhaps some of those fish could have migrated up the East Fork stream.
Kokanee, or landlocked sockeye salmon, have also inhabited Eklutna Lake. Bosch mentions that it was discovered those small salmon were carrying a virus that could infect Rainbow trout populations. Thus, the Rainbow stocking program was discontinued.
It is believed that sockeye salmon from Cook Inlet migrated into Eklutna River and swam up to the lake to spawn before 1929, when the first dam was built on Eklutna River as part of a federal power project. But according to some sources, it has not been proven conclusively. A major project currently underway to remove the dam (resuming this spring) could result in the future re-introduction of salmon populations to the Eklutna river system.
Nature as change agent
I am always interested in natural changes that occur over time, even in humans’ relatively brief time span. In my lifetime I’ve seen the glaciers retreat; the tree line move up hill; ravages to conifer trees beginning in the 1970s by the Spruce Bark Beetle; winters generally warmer; channel changes on the Knik and Matanuska rivers; a moth infestation that made blueberries disappear near Eagle River for two years; and mowed-down bushes and trees indicating new avalanche pathways, particularly the gigantic avalanche that came off Bold Peak in February 2000. Signs of that landmark event can still be seen today at the south end of Eklutna Lake.
I am no bird expert, but I think in recent decades I’ve observed a greater variety of songbirds in Southcentral Alaska – perhaps more Jensen’s Warblers than before.
Transformations are occurring in nature all the time. Some of these changes are obvious, while others are quite subtle. We busy humans are not out in the backcountry far enough or long enough to note many of the changes – for example, a Dall sheep population dramatically shifting the location of its summer or winter range. Another small observation: I do not hear Great Horned owls calling from Eklutna Lake’s western side nearly as much as I did only 10 years ago.
I have always fancied the idea of having a video camera set up at a strategic location in the backcountry for many years, maybe even decades. What kinds of wildlife activity would we see when finally playing it back? What changes to the vegetation would we observe? What would we learn about weather and climate?
Whether dramatic or minute, we know that changes are always underway – definitely on a different time scale than ours. And within those changes, the most intriguing thing is that no matter what the obstacles, harsh conditions and disruptions caused by adverse weather or natural disasters, life always seems to find a way.
Maybe what my son and I saw in ”Emerald Lake” back in 1994 were not fish at all.
But it was some kind of life…life that was there briefly for one summer… 23 years ago…and then gone not long afterward.
Editor’s Note; Frank E. Baker is a member of the ECHO News team, an avid outdoorsman and a freelance writing living in Eagle River with his wife, Rebekah, who is a retired Anchorage School District teacher.