By Richard Drebert ©
It was straight out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel – a hidden primeval world, uninhabited.
A pride of venerable granite faces scowled down at us from the rim of the Archangel Valley at Hatcher Pass, Alaska. From the top of the bowl, jagged lynx-like ears pricked toward our muffled footfalls as we marched along the muddy trail snaking through the muskeg. The gray-granite spires bore no resemblance to the rounded shoulders crowding Anchorage where we lived. Steep and craggy, the spires ringed the glacier-carved crater like a company of felines on the hunt.
Waterfalls cried from depressions in rocky clefts; tears streamed from puddles of clear snow water. Two dirty-white glaciers inched down distant gorges, awaiting cleansing snow to christen the treeless valley in September, only weeks away.
In the center of the valley, a turquoise jewel looked forward to icy adornment. Upper Reed Lake mirrored and multiplied peaks and clouds in its frigid depths; draining frantically from its shore, a crystal clear stream hastened westward.
My two sons and I pitched our two-man tent near Upper Reed Lake’s gravelly edge in a spacious clearing where house-sized boulders anchored the treeless muskeg like sleeping mammoths. Fat, furry, marmots whistled piercing warnings when we hiked past their front doors, under boulders or in hillsides. Each of their cries sounded like the tail-end of a wolf whistle, and hundreds of marmot dens catacombed the muskeg.
Clouds boiled over the rim of the bowl, vying for a chance to drizzle on intruders, but with our games of tag and wrestling atop and around the boulder giants we hardly noticed the intermittent sprinklings. When we paused for breath, I noticed that even the boys were enthralled by the stark contrasts in the primordial granite basin.
It was nearly 4 p.m. and my pre-teens stowed our backpacks under a rocky overhang shaped like a prehistoric turtle to protect our gear from a downpour that threatened. There wouldn’t be an inch to spare when the three of us climbed into our two-man tent.
On one shore of Upper Reed Lake a field of rocks lay at the base of steep cliffs like tons of oversized pea gravel. Marshy areas, so common in Alaska, bordered the south shore of the lake. Patches of crispy snow filled hollows and veins between endless mounds of the muskeg.
Evening closed in on us and a throbbing silence filled the bowl, deepened, and quieted my two boisterous youngsters for a time. During a supper of ham-in-pocket-bread, granola and snow-chilled root beer we contemplated a mountainous slide that poured from a 1,000-foot slant about a football field away from our campsite. As we watched, a small sound erupted, and turned to a riot of crackling. Boulders dislodged and chased one another down the incline.
At 9:00 p.m. the daylight hadn’t faded, and I was ready for my down-filled sleeping bag. But my two boys, emancipated from toothbrushes, pajamas and bedtime were ready for a night hike. Following a brief and unsuccessful argument, I relented. They pointed to a waterfall (inaccessible to almost anyone but mountain goats) and up we climbed.
We crested the high, rock ridge and meandered along the edge to peer cautiously over the cliff, back toward our tiny green tent. The three of us were at the end of Archangel Valley, in the silence, alone. At our backs the seemingly endless Talkeetna Mountains sprawled, and west through the gorge where we entered the valley past dots of blue lakes, the Knik Arm poured into the Cook Inlet, and out to sea.
Darkness began to dog our heels, and after taking our fill of the waterfall coursing down a smoothed stone face of the mountainside, we headed for camp, and, I hoped, a good night’s sleep. Unlike many campouts in Alaska, I slept like a baby the whole night through.
Morning found us breaking camp in brilliant sunshine. We left Archangel Valley, on paths winding past familiar waterfalls, and Lower Reed Lake where most campers dig in after a long hike from the trailhead. It felt fulfilling to climb into our waiting car at the end of our journey, and all three of us plotted on the drive home how we would get Mom on the trail that led to Upper Reed Lake in the land that time forgot.