Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Eklutna Lake Trail

Well, it’s finally summer here in Alaska.

It doesn’t last long and you really need to taken advantage of what nice days you get.

Saturday we went to see Terminator Salvation in Anchorage (Woohoo! Awesome! More on that later) and then I spent most of the afternoon doing spring maintenance on our ATV’s, figuring that if Sunday was decent we’d get out and do some exploring.

I even demonstrated my optimism by loaded the ATV’s onto the trailer, coupling up the truck and parking the whole rig in the shop in preparation for an early start the next morning.

Sunday dawned clear and beautiful with temperatures in the low 60’s.

So, we loaded our day packs and the rest of our equipment and set out for the Eklutna Glacier Trailhead in Chugach State Park.


(Just for the record, we made the kid ride inside the truck)

The trail starts at the Eklutna Lake State Park camp grounds, and follows the edge of the lake roughly ten miles to the Bold wilderness airstrip. Then the trail continues on, following the Eklutna river another three miles up into a deep valley, a mile or so short of the glacier. If you want to explore the ice, you have to do the last mile on foot over very difficult and dangerous terrain, even rugged 4x4 ATV’s like ours can’t navigate that climb.

The trail itself is an improved jeep trail, though vehicles larger than an ATV are not allowed. Speeds are limited to 15MPH and there is a lot of bicycle and foot traffic so you need to pay attention and observe basic trail courtesy. There are some rough spots, but nothing difficult and it’s an easy trail for a beginner and a good place to refresh your riding skills after the long winter. There are two remote wilderness campsites along the trail, one at 8.8 miles and one at mile 11. There is also a wilderness cabin at mile 12 that you can rent.

The views are spectacular.

Lake Pan 1

Eklutna lake is a seven mile long, deep, fresh water lake that fills a valley carved by the retreating glacier. Several large streams feed into the lake…


…but its primary input comes from the Eklutna River which is in turn fed by glacial melt. Because of this, the lake’s water level can change by as much as sixty feet, depending on season. The Eklutna glacier itself grinds over the bedrock and its weight powders the stone into fine talc, called glacial flour. That flour washes down the river and into the lake, which is what gives the water that otherworldly opalescent milky-blue glow.


You wouldn’t think so, but fish live in the lake, Dolly Varden mostly. They eat bugs and algae and crap cement.

The picture above is the far end of the lake, which we reached in about an hour, then we turned to follow the river towards the glacier, which you can just see nestled in that deep valley in the center of the picture below.


The trail crosses the river several times. The state has built bridges, while this isn’t as exciting a fording a glacially cold, fast moving river on an ATV, it’s a lot safer and more importantly has a lot less impact on the environment. All traffic is limited to the trail and the bridges, this eliminates random damage by idiots on ATVs and prevents erosion (It also has the added side benefit of eliminating most of the idiots, as they think the trail is too tame and they look for adventure elsewhere leaving the traffic here mostly well mannered and well behaved).


Note: You might notice in the upper picture, that my son’s hair is cut short in a high and tight military style. I bribed him into to it. The day before this trip I was so damned sick of that mop he usually sports that I offered to buy him a very nice model rocket - if he’d get his hair cut military style for the summer. He agreed. Bawahahahaha! You have no idea how much this tickles me. Maybe he’ll grow to like it. I told him it makes him look older. Also, chicks dig Marines. He said it was a lot more comfortable inside his helmet. I consider that a promising sign.

Several miles past the lake we came to Serenity Falls.


It doesn’t look like much, but later in the year when the melt is in full gear and the water is really flowing, it’s pretty spectacular.

And finally, we came to the end of the trail, about a mile below the glacier. We ate our lunch and decided not to climb on foot to the ice field itself. It’s pretty treacherous up that way, vertical in some spots, muddy and wet.

And in addition, the bears were out in force.

We could see two black bears stalking mountain goats across the valley, which we watched with binoculars for about an hour.

ATV 10

The goats seemed most unconcerned. I had no doubt that unless the bears were armed with rifles, they weren’t going to be eating goat for dinner. That’s them circled in the picture below. Hard to see in the picture, but hey what do you want? They were damned near a mile away, and a thousand feet up the side of a cliff.


Eventually, one of the bears got tired of the stalk and went off to find better pickings. We watched him cross an ice patch and disappear into the alder scrub. That’s him, that little black dot in the picture below.

ATV 11

On the trail back, we got a much better and much closer view of a black bear.

ATV 12

That’s him, that black blob in the picture above, crossing a stream about 50 yards away. Let me tell you something, getting a picture of a pitch black bear in blinding sun is a royal pain in the ass, especially when he’s moving. Out the ten shots I took, that’s the only one that’s even vaguely bear shaped. He’s a young male, maybe 120 to 160 pounds. We came around a blind corner and caught him in the middle of the road twenty yards ahead of us. My wife and I were on the lead machine, with my son following. I braked hard, and my wife signaled my son to stop. Both my wife and I were armed, me with the large frame .44Mag, and my wife with a .45ACP auto. Either weapon was more than a match a small black bear. We believe in prudence when it comes to Alaskan wildlife however and we have no desire to shoot a bear – well, other than with a camera. We knew there were bears on the trail, the rangers had warned us before we set out, and we’d seen bear scat along the way, and we were prepared for the encounter.

He wanted nothing to do with us, he turned and ran into the woods and I snatched the big camera out of the saddlebag and snapped that shot as he crossed a stream and disappeared into the brush.

A large group of hikers came up the trail then, and another group from the other direction, we warned them about the bear danger and continued on.

River Pan 1

We crossed the final river and hit a muddy patch of the trail. My son had been pestering us the whole way for us to allow him to plow through the water at speed. So when we came to a flooded portion of the trail, we let him have his wish.

Eklutna Glacier Trip 062

He was quite happy with the results.

Eklutna Glacier Trip 063

Until he learned that he would be washing the muddy machines when we got home, that is.

Round trip, we covered just under 30 miles (we took a couple of detours to check out the Bold Airstrip and the campsites). The smaller Arctic Cat performed perfectly, but the big Polaris 700 gave me some grief. It lost power several times and stalled – for all the world like it wasn’t getting gas. I popped off the engine covers, figuring it was a clogged fuel filter, but when I vented the fuel injection bar at the relief value gasoline squired two feet sideways under pressure. Plenty of gas. Probably a wet or dirty electrical connector then. The Cat is fully manual, there’s not much to go wrong with it, but the Polaris is a computerized electronic fuel injected monster, it’s an excellent machine but the more complicated you make them, the more that can go wrong. I carry two full tool kits on each machine, and there’s not much I can’t fix on the trail, and so I fiddled around a bit until I got it running again. Worked fine for the rest of the trip. But if necessary I could have towed it back with the other machine. This afternoon I’ll strip it down in the shop, run the diagnostics, and find the problem.

We were filthy dirty and dead tired by the time we got home. But a hot shower and a hot dinner fixed most of that.

It was a great day.

What adventure did you find this weekend?


  1. Hah, I noticed the other high and tight, and I wondered if you had a fourth person along. Good on you.

    But you better make sure he doesn't put a first stage rocket in the model and fill the rest with black powder. Not that I've ever done anything like that when I was 12. :D

  2. Not that I've ever done anything like that when I was 12.Me neither, John, me neither. Ever. And you can't prove it.

  3. Chicks dig Marines.

    Indeed we do, indeed we do. But we also dig men with long hair. Just sayin'...

  4. I tore a large chunk out of my thumb trying to change my wife's wiper blades (and no, that isn't a euphemism for something naughty). Not nearly as picturesque as your day, Jim, but at least I got out in the sun.

  5. I was up to nothing quite so adventurous. I didn't really have the kind of energy it would take for a trip anywhere, so I just sort of loitered here in Anchorage.

    Well, we did walk more than halfway to Earthquake park from midtown, but that was it.

    Mostly, just sat around drawin' with the gf and noodling with watercolors.

    (And working on something else, too.)

  6. I had several adventuresome naps.

    And they were GOOD naps too.

  7. We had 5 days off and went from here to Homer and back - right by your neck of the woods a couple times... Checked out part of the wooden boat festival, some yurts, checked out livestock for the farm (sheep and goats), and grooved on the idea that we went down and back for $50 in gas testing out Cat's new Honda Insight (2010 model) :)

  8. $50 in gas, from Fairbanks to Homer and back?

    Holy freakin' crap. That's awesome.

    Too bad I didn't know you were around, you could have stopped by for a shop tour and a beer.

  9. On Saturday I sold shrimp. Also, fish, crabs, and spiced conch. Some low country boils too.

    On Sunday I did nothing of any note.

  10. Yep - between 47 and 64 MPG :)

    We'll be back that way to pick up the critters prob'ly mid-July ish. I'll give a holler when we're headed that way - might have some wood lumps to bring you for your stash. And beer. :)

  11. My friends and I used to mountain bike that trail - it's super gorgeous. And we'd get quite annoyed at breathing ATV dust. ;)

    The campground is very nice for a close-to-home weekend outing, too, until it gets too buggy late in the season.

    Glad you got out and enjoyed the early summer!

  12. Nice pics. Summer in Alaska? Again you and all other Alaskans have decided to keep it hidden until after I left. Let me guess it was one maybe two days long and all the wildlife came out to parade around in front of the ATVs with clear instructions to pose for pictures. All the trails were perfectly groomed and all the clouds were placed perfectly for photographs. Selfish #$%^&*#s.

  13. Jeri, about half the week the trail is closed to ATV's, so you can bike and hike without dust (we do that to). And I'm a stickler for trail etiquette, i.e. give warning, slow down to a crawl when passing hikers or bikers and people with dogs, keep the dust down, stay on the trail.

    Beastly, well, today is more your kind of Alaska day, rainy and gray.


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