Deadfall crisscrossing the forest floor was like someone had played an epic game of pickup sticks.
Fallen trees – with limbs sticking straight up – made stepping over them nearly impossible. And these trees were stacked upon other trees. They are victims of violent windstorms in the Eklutna drainage that had claimed all but those with the deepest, strongest roots.
It was late Sept. 1995 and my Newfoundland dog “Charlie” and I had earlier crossed the dam at the outlet of Eklutna Lake at its south end. It was a bright, sunny day and the forecast for the next few days was promising. There was no discernible trail as we headed due west toward a mountain pass that would take over the ridge and down to Thunderbird Creek, where I planned to camp for a night or two.
My pack was about 40 lbs., including a ridiculously heavy tent. Charlie was fitted with a backpack that contained his food. My 140-lb.companion, however, was also having a difficult time getting over, under and around the scattered deadfall. When trying to crawl under the trees, he would scrape the top of his pack, loosen it and make it shift around to his side. This was definitely one of those “are we having fun yet?” moments that I’ll never forget.
Ascending above the tree line, we were greeted by thick, impenetrable alders – nature’s pernicious barrier to human interlopers.
Drenched with sweat that all members of the insect kingdom seemed to love, we pushed, dodged and weaved our way through as generous spurts of expletive deleted on my part to stimulate the adrenaline glands. I tightened and re-tightened Charlie’s pack several times as we agonizingly inched our way upward. As I’ve noted before, no king in any country could construct a more formidable barrier to guard his castle against enemies than a hillside of devilishly thick, downward-sloping alder bushes.
We stopped for a rest and my pack was missing something.
It was a new Gortex raincoat that my wife had recently bought me. Then I noticed something else: my hunting knife was not in its sheath.
“I hate to do this do us,” I said breathlessly to Charlie, who was panting heavily, “but we have to go down and retrace our steps. I’ve gotta find those things.”
We fought our way downward through the alders. After about 15 minutes, I was amazed to find my bone-handled hunting knife. It was stuck in the ground to its hilt! If it had fallen out of the sheath on my belt, there is no way that it could have struck the ground with enough force to plunge it all the way into the ground!
Puzzled over that, we continued downhill for another 10 minutes in search of the coat, which was not to be found. I looked around for a sign of human activity. “If a person had come upon the knife, why did he or she stick it in the ground and not take it?”
Not to be deterred, we again moved determinedly uphill. In about an hour we were above the alders and into a hiker’s nirvana of open, alpine tundra. Mercifully, a cool breeze blew mosquitoes and other pests away. We spooked some ptarmigan as we ascended to the pass at about 3,700 feet. We then crossed over and found a surprisingly good trail taking us down into Thunderbird Valley. The valley is roughly at 2,000 feet where we came down and above tree line – considerably higher than Eklutna Lake’s average elevation of about 860 feet.
Early in the evening the sky was still clear as I set up camp and prepared a freeze-dried dinner. Charlie, only about four years old at the time and in his prime, was not the worse for wear from the trip, but he was noticeably hungry.
I brought a lightweight mountain adventure book, but sleep came quickly. Charlie remained outdoors. A Newfoundland’s heavy coat not only keeps them warm, but for all practical purposes, it is waterproof. As darkness fell, Charlie’s single, low-pitched “woof” stirred me from my quasi-slumber. I poked my head out of the tent: “What’s going on out here? Go to sleep, Charlie.” It was quiet for the rest of the night.
I slept well, but in the morning I could hear something lightly tapping the top of the tent. It wasn’t rain – something much lighter, like a soft brushing. I peered outside of the tent flap and a huge white creature was staring back at me: my black dog Charlie was completely covered in snow!
“Some weather forecast,” I grumbled, as I immediately begin packing up my gear. “If the snow is three inches deep here, what will it be like crossing over the pass!?”
In two hours, Charlie and I were lumbering up and over the pass.
About six inches of snow covered ground that was bare the day before. I was not looking forward to our smash and dash through the alders. The alders, however, weren’t nearly as taxing as the pickup-stick deadfall lower down. In a few more hours we were crossing the dam and headed for the car. Charlie wasn’t soaking wet, like me, but I could tell he was tired.
In succeeding years, travelling much lighter, I’ve been into Thunderbird Valley from different directions. To this day there is still not a viable trail on the west side of Eklutna Lake over into Thunderbird.
I’ve always wondered about the knife that I almost lost – how it had been forcefully stuck deep into the ground. Had someone been following us? If so, did they take my coat and not my knife, thinking it was more essential?
One is able answer a lot of questions about life when venturing outdoors. But along the way, you are bound to stumble upon questions. And sometimes, those questions can become mysteries.
Editor’s Note: Frank E. Baker is an ECHO News member, freelance writer and outdoor adventurer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher.