With no wind, Eklutna Lake was glass, mirroring the snow-capped mountains and the emerging green on their lower flanks.
Peddling my bike along the Lakeside Trail on that brilliant sunny day, I felt as if I were traveling back in time.
For more than half a century, the seven-mile-long lake and its surrounding area have provided me, and sometimes my family, a wondrous recreational haven. Replaying all of the picnics, biking, hiking, skiing, skating and camping trips over so many years, my mind was moving faster than my bike in a stream of consciousness.
I’ll only touch on the area’s early historical events that go back to the establishment of Eklutna village more than 800 years ago; which is the oldest inhabited location in the Anchorage area. Rather, I’d prefer to recall events within my personal memory chain–events that made Eklutna Lake, or what the Dena’ina Indians call Idlu Bena, (Plural Objects Lake) such a special place.
Back in the day my family certainly wouldn’t have been able to reach Eklutna Lake without a road, which was built in the late 1920s by Frank I. Reed’s Anchorage Light and Power Company.
The primitive road was first used by horses to support the construction of the original dam at the outlet of Eklutna Lake. The lower dam in Eklutna Valley (currently under de-construction for a salmon rehabilitation project) was needed for the first hydroelectric project.
The 10-mile road was improved in the mid-1950s to support the new and improved dam and tunnel under Twin Peaks for the second hydroelectric project (federal), completed in 1954. The gravel road to Eklutna Lake was paved in 2003.
Our first trip to the lake was in the late 1950s, where we found a small parking area. When Alaska became a state, a small campground was put in, quite modest compared to today’s facility. The campground was significantly expanded after Chugach State Park’s establishment in 1970.
Drive-to picnics: To the best of my knowledge, the primitive road around the eastern side of Eklutna Lake was built in the 1940s by the U.S. Army and eventually became the basis for today’s 12.7-mile Lakeside Trail.
While the road was used extensively for U.S. Army training exercises, it was open to the public by the early 1960s, when my sister and I would occasionally drive her Buick sedan to the end of the lake for picnics.
The Bold Airstrip at Mile 8 of the Lakeside Trail was already there when we made these forays, and I believe it was built at least 20 years earlier by private parties.
I recall being able to drive to the East Fork bridge at Mile 10-1/2 of the road, but Army 4 x 4 vehicles went a couple of miles farther up to Eklutna Glacier for training. Despite such easy access, we seldom saw other people. On those early forays we could easily hike to the glacier toe, which has receded about 2-1/2 miles in the past 100 years.
Before 1988, when Eklutna Lake began providing most of Anchorage’s drinking water, the state allowed outboard motors on the lake. On a calm June morning much like the one on my recent bike trip, the kids and I loaded our camping gear in my small boat and motored across the lake, finding a camping spot at its south end.
We thoroughly explored the area, which included visiting the old Eklutna Alex cabin. Built in 1927, the small dwelling had a wood stove and offered a great shelter until the early 1990s, when it succumbed to river bank erosion and literally fell into the river.
Surviving the storm: We planned to return by boat the following day, but the wind came up and whipped the lake into a frenzy.
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 to the parking lot.
The next day winds subsided, so I biked back to the camp spot, packed up the tent and other camping gear and loaded it all into the boat, along with my bike. I then noticed the sand castles my son David and daughter Emily had built the day before, 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,
voices of builders,
sculptors who slowed time
for one whose
Absent their creators,
the fortresses repose
quietly in the sun,
defying all dangers
alive for today,
constructions held together
by grains of memory.
Backyard playground: In those days my family lived in Thunderbird Heights subdivision, so the Eklutna Lake area was like our backyard.
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 (Melanoplus bruneri). The buzzing grasshoppers seemed to be the only thing that kept the kids entertained as we made the long and tiring ascent.
In subsequent years my friends and I climbed most of the ridges and peaks surrounding the lake – enjoying the peace and serenity of the mountains. In the 1990s we sometimes caught rainbow trout at the mouth of Yuditnu and Bold Creeks, the result of ADF&G stocking programs; the latest in 1996.
We’ve marked our journals with notable human activities, but sometimes natural events eclipse those recollections – such as the huge avalanche that thundered off Bold Peak in February 2000. It stretched all the way to the Bold Airstrip, knocking down large trees and everything in its path, creating a wide swath that can still be seen today near Mile 8 of the Lakeside Trail.
A wildfire at the south end of Eklutna Lake in 2010 consumed about 1,300 acres before it was brought under control. The fire was reported to be human-caused. Remnants from that fire can still be seen today.
Seeing the changes: On this recent bike ride, a Friday, there were quite a few people at the south end of the lake–more than I’ve ever seen on a weekday.
A plane had landed at the airstrip, and there were bicycles everywhere. I rode past everyone on a small road that leads toward the lake – the same road my sister and I once traveled in her car–and found a quiet spot for lunch atop an old sun-bleached log.
The lake was quite low – as it often is early in the summer before warmer temperatures bring glacial runoff. The low lake level created an exceptionally large mud flat where the glacial river (combination of East Fork and West Fork) drains into the lake. I suddenly noticed a grizzly bear meandering around on the flats.
With interest, I observed the bear for about 15 minutes while eating my sandwich. He was at least 500 yards away, but with binoculars, I could clearly see him dip down into the river channels—perhaps for a cooling bath. When he started moving my direction, I packed up and prepared to mount my bike. After a few more minutes he started moving even closer, and for some reason began to run in my general direction. Knowing how much ground they can cover in a hurry, I got on my bike and was quickly out of there.
I’ve witnessed changes in the area over time – mostly seeing more people around the lake.
But on this day–from this vantage point–the inspiring scenery was the same as it was 55 years ago, including the sight of a grizzly bear.
It is inevitable that more and more people will come to enjoy this area as I have over all the years, and that is fine. I learned long ago from a noted Athabascan storyteller named Shem Pete that there is “plenty of time in Alaska, and lots of room.”
We can always find our own places and spaces. On this beautiful June day, I left nostalgia on an old bleached log and rode my bike back into today. A moose and two young calves crossed the trail—an immutable part of the land outside of time that’s reckoned by we humans.
Frank E. Baker is an Echo team member and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired school teacher.