Thursday, May 27, 2010

Barefoot in Hatcher Pass

Author's note: This is actually from several years ago, when the dogs I had were Kenzie and Finn - both still with me - and also my beloved and, sadly, departed Borderline collie, Buddy. My friend JK had with her Deshka and Keetna, Finn's parents. This story is from early July, not late May... but the recent gorgeous weather had me thinking of it. So Just pretend it's the 4th of July, a beautiful day out, and you live in Alaska...

So today JK and I took the dogs up to Archangel Falls for a hike. Gorgeous day, and not too crowded for the 4th of July, at least not when we got there... by the time we left four(+) hours later the place was jammed. But at the start it was cool and pleasant under blue skies with nary a cloud, a light breeze flirting in our hair and keeping the bugs off.

The road in is a bit bumpy (and here you should be thinking the movie "Deliverance" bumpy). I was feeling like I was back in Africa as we rattled and bounced and crept along, all limbs braced against any available stationary object. There are a couple of places where you have to get out and scout to see what your best option is for proceeding with your vehicle intact - but it's like purgatory before paradise. Once you get in there and let the dogs loose, it quickly becomes almost surrealistically gorgeous.

Finn started the day out by having some confusion as to which group of hikers was his. He went haring up the trail (as is his wont) and hooked up with a spaniel mix and five hikers. He was out of sight in moments, even with the switchbacks because the alder scrub is high enough that all you can see is people from the waist up, and the occasional flash of white tail-tip flagging above the greenery. We called for him but either he couldn't hear us or couldn't orient, because I could track him going back and forth on the trail, evidently searching for us. No success there until one of the hikers turned around and started walking him back down (bless them). Finn learns fast, though: Once we were reunited, he orbited our own group and didn't try to catch up with his new spaniel pal.

Meanwhile the rest of the dogs were racing joyfully over the hills, bounding like stags up the steep slopes, leaping like deer down the gullies, fording streams and nosing into burrows, racing up and down the trail, demented with joy and freedom. JK and I proceeded a bit more leisurely (having her three-year-old son L along), setting our pace in deference to L's short little legs. He came stumping up the trail behind us, happily playing with his blue rubber band and pointing out flowers to us with little piping squeals and crows of delight.

The trail switches back a bit along the first length of it, and then you get to a stretch where a little cataract comes bounding down the slope, sending tributaries across the trail and splitting them off to run weblike down into the gorge. You have to walk for a bit by stepping on the rocks, since the trail is basically IN the water. After that it's more up/down wandering. The dogs ran all over creation, and JK and I took turns handing L over the rough spots. He's a sturdy little guy, but it is a bit of a hike for someone whose entire body is about the length of our legs. After a while he wanted to go in the backpack, so we hoiked him up and picked up our pace a bit. JK is very fit, so the addition of 40 or so pounds of child to her back seemed to make little difference to her.

There is a bend in the trail with a little lake to pause at, where all the dogs went wading. We dawdled there for a few minutes listening to the marmots whistle sharply amongst the rocks and watching the dogs digging into burrows and loping along the shores of the lake. Buddy lost all sense of decorum about here, sliding repeatedly down the hill on his back (like ravens do). This is hilarious; his mouth is open wide in a grin of canine joy, and his eyes are white-walled with excitement. He is balanced on his narrow knife-blade spine, legs kicking to propel himself down the slope. After each pass he leaps to his feet and shakes the vegetation from his long silky coat, running back up the hill to fling himself down and go again. When he has had enough he sneezes twice - evidently as punctuation - and then goes racing around in his bounding sight-hound lope. This is beautiful to behold but silly as all hell, because he tends to bark shrilly as he does it, eyes wild with delight and gleaming with some insane inner joy that makes him look as if he is possessed.

This was all very well and good (although Buddy's sharp high-pitched barking was echoing off the rocks and could have shattered glass) but JK was eager to get around the bend. I didn't know why, having never been up this trail before, but I found out soon enough.

Around the bend the trail opened out into an enchanted valley. The lake we had just paused at was fed by a series of pools that chained together and serpentined across a green-gold meadow. The water there was a delicate translucent shade of teal, running crystalline over a bed of sand that rippled black and white under the water. We stopped and took our shoes and socks off and dangled our toes in the water. It's just come off the glacier and is only a few degrees above freezing, so while this feels incredibly good and refreshing, you can't keep your feet in for more than a few moments at a time. Your bones begin to ache almost immediately and you have to get your tootsies out of there before they go completely numb. But you can stay and dip them in and out for a while, which is lovely.

Meanwhile, the dogs - who seemed impervious to the sharp bite of the cold - are wading chest-deep in the water. Deshka, who likes to lie down in streams to cool off, wallowed in a little eddy pool. Finn and Kenzie dashed heedlessly in and out, drinking some and shaking quite a lot more all over us. Keetna was off industriously investigating the hummocks, evidently looking (without apparent success) for ground squirrels to dig out. Buddy went wading with the others, but soon developed an odd hunch to his back, stepping gingerly along with his spine raised as high as he could curve it. He's mightily deep-chested, our Buddy, with a tiny little wasp-waist that many a whippet would be envious of. All I can think is that he was trying to keep his little wanker out of the icy water. At any rate, he looked ridiculous, but as this is a particular talent of Buddy's, it was barely cause for remark.

The falls were maybe 3/4 of a mile on, above us. We picked up our shoes and wandered barefoot up the valley. If someone had told me I'd spend the day hiking barefoot in the mountains in Alaska, I'd have thought them nuts. Hiking, yes. Mountains, yes. Alaska, most definitely. But barefoot? No. Not something I associate with the wilderness here as a general thing, most especially not in mountainous terrain. But the ground was densely covered in mosses and sedges and little low-growing plants thickly scattered with red and white flowers. It was turfy underfoot, soft and springy and completely delightful on the bottoms of our feet. In some places the ground was sodden with the meltwater - much warmer amongst the plants than in the streams and pools - and it made lovely squelching noises as we walked on it. There were nice patches of mud to squish between our toes and little puddles in which to rinse them off again. The places we had to cross over the streamlets all had nice big rocks to step across on, some covered in moss and lichen, none especially sharp.

We walked up to the falls and lay down on our backs in the springy turf. JK had brought some cheese and crackers and we nibbled a bit, chatting for a while over the roar of the falls, then falling into a companionable silence. It's stunningly gorgeous up here under the deep blue sky. The foaming water of the falls is brilliantly white, against the dappled rock of the mountain. The varied green of the turf is comfortable for sitting and even more comfortable when we lie back upon it, looking at the little white puffs of cloud that have begun to scatter across the sky, letting the sun gild our faces while the breeze washes sweet and cool over our skin. It is really rather lovely up here, peaceful and still, with only a few other hikers around. It reminded me of photos I've seen of the Scottish Highlands, actually; maybe that makes sense, given the similarity of latitude and altitude. I wonder if there is the same sense of the wildness of the land there; the same feeling that if you are just a little quieter, you can hear the voice of the Earth.

Eventually it is time to pack up and go back down the trail. There is little darkness at this time of year, but L is, after all, a toddler, and while he is cheerful and pliant on our hike, there is a limit to his energies. Accordingly we gather our water and the baggies for the snacks, call the dogs - because Finn and Kenzie are still running around like maniacs - and head down the mountain. We are still carrying our shoes and socks, loath to put them back on. Part of the magic of this place transmits up through our bare soles... or maybe that should read our bare souls. Up here, there is something about the one that ties directly to the other.

Finn did have one more bout of civil disobedience when a tiny lab-cross puppy came skittering along the ridge and lolloped into our dog pack. Eventually we corralled Finn, which he took with good grace, and we gave the other hikers a head start before heading down ourselves, hoping to discourage further indiscretions on his part.

We cut to the other side of the descending pools, fording the streams without difficulty, but eventually we did have to put our shoes back on. As we went down the trail we met quite a few more hikers going up than we'd seen on our own way up, including one guy in a kilt (grey cammo - I wonder what clan has THAT pattern?) The dogs were amazingly good; all of them but Finn and Kenzie were maybe a little tired - perhaps not a surprise, given that they ran the entire time we were walking. Finn and Kenzie had the most excuse for being tired, since they bounced around like Tigger while everyone else lolled around on the comfy turf - and maybe they were a little tired, come to that, because they behaved perfectly on the trail, mannerly and obedient, if still noticeably energetic.

Well, at least they were good until we got back to the road where we had parked the car. There we re-encountered the little lab pup, upon whom Finn had evidently developed a bit of a crush - which affection he proceeded to demonstrate rather graphically. (Sigh.) Deshka, Finn's father, gave him a look of such profound disgust that you could almost hear him thinking: These young punks. No class, no style, no judgement. (Deshka, an experienced stud dog, is FAR too dignified to attempt to hump a 3-month old puppy at any time, much less in the middle of a dirt road.)

I'd estimate that hike is about a 4 or 5 mile round-trip, probably not over 4000 feet where we went. Above timberline, certainly, but up here that's 2500 feet, so that's not a good guide for altitude. It's my new favorite hike (hanging with JK has been quite an education for good places to go with the dogs... or without them, although why anyone would want to do that I have no idea.)

So that was 4th of July in Hatcher pass. In retrospect, I think there's some risk going barefoot up there... because if you set your soles bare and unprotected on that ground, something comes through them that alters your souls forever, and you can never get rid of it.

Not that you'd want to.


Holly said...

wonderful, it almost felt like I was there.

I, too, have a place that is enchanted but it is quiet and shrouded by huge old trees that tower above us as we walk the path littered with last years leaves. It is a path on one of the state gamelands and you can encounter all sorts of critters there from Canadian geese to frogs and salamanders. Hmmmm, perhaps tomorrow I will take the Young Heathen dog and get some photos.....

Dragon43 said...

Very well told. Carry a 40# kid, no thank you, I am not that tough. LOL

I really like the fact that you had the bugs gone. Tough to do up there I hear.

Loved the story.....


MaskedMan said...


What a perfect day. And lovely prose to convey it. Reminds me of Pingree Park, CO. Mind you, when I was there, we had no dogs with us, and my shoes stayed on.


a said...

Thanks for posting this. The memories and joy of such times never go old and are always fresh to share with others.

AKDD said...

Glad you guys could go up the Pass with me! Excellent day. Totally great hike. Took my mom, my nieces and nephews, my cousins and my sibs up when they visited five-ish years ago. They liked it too. No cammo-kilt that day, though.

Gus, I may have to lie down. I can't believe you didn't shoot me for not posting photos! :D :D

Marlies said...

Oohhhh... what a wonderful Saturday morning read.

Reminds me to listen to myself and "take off those shoes" once in a while when the mood strikes.

Lovely, lovely writing.

Best wishes,

(a mostly secret reader) :)

Dragon43 said...

I am mellowing in my old age. Also the windage is a real bear from here.

he he he

Anonymous said...

You are inspiring me to get back up there this summer - thanks. Your day sounded glorious, and I think you might be on to something with those bare soles/souls tying you to the land.

Della said...

I love your descriptions of Buddy! LOL What a character. Reminds me of several hikes in the hills, but not the same as any. I could almost feel the turf underfoot. :)

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Sophia Katt said...

Haven't seen any postings for several months--is all well in Alaska?

AKDD said...

Hi, Sophia!

Not dead - just a crazy-busy summer. I'm trying to catch up now... sorry about radio silence!

AKDD said...

Hi, Sophia!

Not dead - just a crazy-busy summer. I'm trying to catch up now... sorry about radio silence!