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Story Last modified at 9:12 p.m. on Wednesday, June 1, 2011

After 30 years, it's great to see an old friend
Mountain Echoes

Frank E. Baker


Frank Baker enjoys the view at the toe of Eklutna Glacier during a trek there on May 14.
Photo courtesy Brent Voorhees

A spring bike-hike May 14 on the Eklutna lakeside trail and up the west fork of Eklutna River reacquainted me with an old friend I hadn't seen in about 30 years: the face of Eklutna Glacier.

When I was a teenager back in the early 1960s, my family used to drive our car around Eklutna Lake to the edge of the west fork canyon, and from there we would hike about a half a mile to get a glimpse of the glacier's toe, which even then was starting to retreat around the corner. Over the past half a century it has receded way around the corner – at least a mile from where we used to see it – according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Over the years I've seen Eklutna Glacier from other mountains, but this day would be the first time in roughly three decades that I came face to face with its gnarled, time-worn terminus.

After stashing our bicycles at the Mile 12.7 mile marker, Brent Voorhees and I began our hike deeper into the canyon. A solo hiker, an Arizona engineer currently based in Alaska, joined us on this phase of our journey.

Just after starting, three young guys came trekking briskly along the trail with their colorful skis, sleds and other equipment. They had traversed the glacier from Girdwood. I offered my regrets for not having a cold, congratulatory beer for each of them. Not long after that, two other adventurers shuffled through. They said they had "cheated;" in other words, they had been dropped off by helicopter part-way across the glacier. Regardless, we also tendered our congratulations to this hearty duo.

The river was still low and bridged by hard-packed snow, so it was easy to cross and pick up the trail around the left side of the canyon. The trail took us around the steep, glacier-polished cliffs and out onto a huge gravel plateau that was pocked with small, blue-green pools. Brent remarked that it looked like we were somewhere in the Himalayas.

We turned south around the corner of the cliffs and suddenly, there it was – a towering mass of blue ice pinnacles and prominences – shimmering in the sun.

I'm not exaggerating when I say it took my breath away. We started popping photos like madmen and then spotted a big rock closer to the glacier's toe where we could get out of the chilling wind for a lunch break.

Ravenously downing a sandwich, I noticed smooth snow-covered ice on the right of the glacier, and footprints. Some of the people we saw earlier must have come down that way. We concluded it would be safe to make our ascent there. Our engineer friend was only wearing tennis shoes, so we bid farewell and promised to exchange photos.

On the ice

Brent and I hiked up about 400 feet to get right next to the seracs and jumbled, cracked, ice terraces at the glacier's terminus. This particular spot reminded me of the Khumbu Ice Fall at the base of Mount Everest that I'd seen so many times in movies. We knew that without roping up and having a clear route in mind, it would be unsafe to venture farther. Lounging in the warm afternoon sun and looking back down the canyon, we admired the precipitously steep mountains looming above us: Benign Peak on our left and the Mitre on our right. Two large goats grazed on the ledges, seemingly safe from any predator that might pass this way.

We then followed our footprints back down the snow-covered ice and followed the same trail back down to the river and finally, out to our bicycles. A couple of hours later we were back at the parking lot – 31 miles in all.

Over the past 50 years I'd hiked into that canyon at least 20 times and always wondered what it looked like around the corner, always thinking it was beyond my ability to climb up there. How wrong I was.

I was reminded of how often we deny ourselves things that might broaden our horizons – that art class, music lessons, a college course, even a job, simply because we think we can't do it. Most of our limits, I've concluded, are those we place upon ourselves.

I'm glad that with the help of my friend Brent, I summoned the grit to do something I've wanted to do for a very long time. And I'm glad the mountain let me see that old friend, face to face, one more time.

Frank E. Baker is a lifetime Alaskan and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, June 1, 2011.