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Alaska State Parks Blog
Eklutna Lake, Chugach State Park - and the Benefits of Cabin Camping - Matt Dickerson, November, 2023
The rain was falling again. Not quite pounding, but more soaking than a mist. Like it had through much of Alaska's summer. I pulled my raincoat hood over my head, hunched over the smoke and flames, warmed my hands momentarily on the heat emanating from the metal fire ring, and proceeded to adjust the PFDs (personal foil dinners) cooking in the coals inside the fire ring. Five of six foil-wrapped packages had expanded nicely, indicating we had successfully folded them accordion style to avoid leaks while still allowing the steam to expand and cook the potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, and pieces of steak contained within. Satisfied with the progress of our dinner, I stepped out of the rain and back into the cabin.
"Back into the cabin" was the key phrase. It had been a cool, damp, September day. Early Alaska Autumn. Though the precipitation was still of the liquid variety, the peaks on the far side of Eklutna Lake were gathering their first layer of snow: the "termination dust" that marks the end of summer.
My wife Deborah and I, and our three sons, had met Israel 20 years earlier through a non-profit program called the Fresh Air Fund, which brings kids from New York City out into small towns and rural areas of Vermont (where we live) as well as to upstate New York and Pennsylvania so they can experience the quiet and different pace of non-city life for a week or two. Over the next two decades, Israel had become our "bonus son".
When Israel moved to the Seattle area, I began conspiring how to get him to join me in Alaska and experience not just rural life, but wilderness. Or at least the edge of the wilderness. Someplace like Chugach State Park, where I had spent considerable time over the past 15 years.
The plan finally came together in September of 2023 when Israel, along with his girlfriend Violetta, joined my wife Deborah and me. I had (only half jokingly) promised the two of them an "Alaska experience." We had started the previous day (also a cool, damp, autumnal morning) walking through the city park along Campbell Creek hoping to see a moose. Or maybe a bear. Or some spawning salmon. Any of these would have been part of the Alaska experience.
"Are there any mountains around?" Violetta had asked at the start of our walk. "In Seattle, we can always see Mount Rainier. But I don't see any mountains around here."
Deborah and I almost laughed. Had the clouds not been so low and thick, we could have looked in almost any direction and seen peaks rising several thousand feet above sea level. But with all the rain, Violetta and Israel had been in Anchorage for almost 24 hours and not yet seen a single mountain. So much for an Alaska experience. Fortunately, the clouds had lifted by mid-morning, and the mountains lining the eastern edge of the city had revealed themselves in their glory.
But no moose had. Nor any bear. And the creek had been too high and turbid (from all the rain!) to spot any fish. So, since wild animals could not be counted on to appear at our whims, we drove down the Turnagain Arm and spent a couple hours walking around the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and saw both moose (up close) and brown bear as well as black bear, woodland bison, caribou, deer, musk ox, elk, lynx, and fox. A worthwhile stop.
Next stop was mountains. And wilderness. And camping. The potential for danger and misery, which also seemed important to an Alaska experience.
Except I wanted Israel to come back again, so I didn't want any actual misery. Which is why for our overnight "camping trip" on the boundaries of wilderness I had eschewed tents and instead reserved a cabin at the Eklutna Lake campground in Chugach State Park. The Dolly Varden cabin (which can be rented and reserved through Alaska State Parks) is "primitive" in the sense of having no electricity, no running water, and no mattresses on the wooden bunks. But it is quite spacious. (My thought was that it could easily slept eight in the bunks and several more up in a loft.) It was also dry. And warm (especially after we got the wood stove going). Unlike a tent, it also offered solid wooden walls, meaning we could eat and store our food inside without having to worry about bears. All in all, quite luxurious. A good way to experience the beauty of the place. Did I mention warm and dry?
Which may be why when my nephew Michael, a resident of Anchorage—who had recently returned from a caribou hunt in the Arctic, involving both tents and a long hike with a lot of gear, definitely some risk of danger, and certainly some misery—drove up from Anchorage after work and joined us for the evening, he proclaimed quite definitively, "This isn't camping."
And that was okay with me. Because the truth is, I reserved the cabin as much for myself as for Israel and Violetta. Although Deborah and I both enjoy sleeping in tents—and do so every summer in various state parks—we are also happy at times, especially during shoulder season, and during the sort of constantly rainy summer that has plagued many parts of Alaska, to enjoy the luxury of a state park cabin.
And the stay didn't disappoint. The hike along Eklutna Lake was stunning in its beauty. The lake, despite being flooded well above its usual banks, was remarkable calm, mirroring the distant peaks. Views opened in all directions, with the magnificence being magnified rather than hindered by the clouds and fog clinging to the slopes. On the drive in, we even saw a herd of a dozen wild Dahl's sheep. Somehow we even managed to get in several miles of hiking before the rain started to fall (again). We slept in late in cozy sleeping bags in the comfort of a state park cabin. Drank instant coffee (the closest I came to suffering) and ate instant oatmeal.
And only one of the six foil meals burned. Just enough to make us feel like we were roughing it, but not such much that we didn't want to return.
About the Author: Matthew Dickerson (www.matthewdickerson.net) was an artist-in-residence for Alaska State Parks in 2022. His creative non-fiction writing about Alaska has been published in various journals, magazines, and newspapers as well as in the books 'The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild' (published by Homebound Publications in 2019) and the forthcoming book 'The Salvelinus, the Sockeye, and the Egg-Sucking Leech'. Matthew Dickerson lives in Vermont and teaches at Middlebury College. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America
Exploring the Grewingk Glacier Trails and Hand Tram - Kate Ayers, August, 2023
Alaska is an amazing place and I look forward to showing off its glory when we have out of state visitors. Therefore, when we heard our family from Washington and Michigan would be visiting, we booked a trip to Kachemak Bay, near Homer, Alaska. Kachemak Bay State Park became Alaska's first state park in 1970. Kachemak Bay State Park, along with the adjoining Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park to the south, encompasses nearly 400,000 acres of fun and adventure. Normally, I would have snagged one or two of the six public use cabins (PUC) that Alaska State Parks has made available in Kachemak Bay State Park. However, since we had a large party of ten, and we wanted land access to the Grewingk Glacier Trails, we opted to forgo the PUCs and splurge on local accommodations near the trailhead.
(Photo Courtesy of Katie Petrin)
The first night, we took our kayaks on a high tide paddle into Halibut Cove. The area is a place of natural beauty, solitude, and diverse wildlife; from bald eagles flying overhead to jellyfish gliding below. As soon as we launched our kayak from the shore, we were startled by a black bear climbing fallen trees in front of us on the beach. As we made our way into the cove, the calm waters were disturbed by a mama Dall's porpoise and her calf playing around us. Their triangular dorsal fin appeared and disappeared in the water as if they were performing a synchronized swimming routine. As we took paddling breaks the hypnotic sounds of a paddle entering and exiting the water was replaced with ad hoc bursts of crunching sounds made by otters nibbling on hard-shelled snacks, or huffs of breath from seals, or from a loud splash of a fish securing an impressive bellyflop as it re-entered into the water after its attempt to reach the clouds.
The next morning, our group hiked the Grewingk Glacier Lake Trail. For those doing a day hike, with water taxi pick up and drop offs, it's common to start at the Glacier Spit Trailhead and finish at the Saddle Trailhead. Due to the location of our accommodations, we did an out and back from the Saddle Trailhead side. Starting the hike from the Saddle Trailhead has more elevation gain at the start, but also offers a shorter route to get to the glacier lake. During this kid-friendly trek, we tiptoed around a fair amount of bear and moose scat along the trail. Our hiking breaks were short lived because the pesky mosquitos were always able to find us quicker than we anticipated. Luckily, once we arrived at the glacier the mosquitos were less dense, and the sun and wind kept them away.
The last time I was at Grewingk Glacier was nearly ten years ago. The landscape, to my eye, hadn't changed much over the last decade; however, the amount the glacier had retreated was visually shocking. The trail is sprinkled with informational signs showing the retreat overtime, as well as illustrating the harrowing realization that a rockslide splashing into the lake would likely create a destructive tsunami. In 1967, there was a major avalanche into the lake that created a wall of water over 200 feet high. Today, the slope surrounding the lake is much steeper, which would result in an even higher wall of water.
In the meantime, the area presents a beautiful playground for young and old alike. We spent a few hours at the lake throwing rocks, breaking ice, polar plunging, and paddle boarding around icebergs. We headed back down the trail late afternoon. Near the end of the hike, I heard a loud and irritated huff coming from dense vegetation just beyond the trail. The next day, a group of hikers saw a sow and three cubs in the same spot - be bear aware.
Although the glacier lake was amazing, my husband and I still wanted to check out the hand tram over Grewingk Creek, which leads to the less popular Blue Ice and Emerald Lake Loop Trails, both on the north side of the Grewingk Glacier. Our family was kind enough to take our kiddos for the morning while we kayaked to the Glacier Spit Trailhead. We pulled our kayaks up on the shore and then started on the popular trail, spotted with cottonwood and Sitka spruce overhead. Not long after we started, we came to an intersection. Hikers wanting to go to the glacier stay straight, we took a left turn and headed to the hand tram.
The hand-operated cable car pulley system, or hand tram, is best operated by at least two people. Ideally, one person crosses at a time, so the other person can stay behind and assist in pulling the other across from the land platform. There is a maximum weight of about 500 pounds, so ensure you know the weight of you and your belongings. It is also recommended to bring your own gloves. I was beyond excited that there was an open bag of work gloves available for use at the base of the tram, these came in very 'handy' since I had accidentally left my gloves in the cabin. As you cross Grewingk Creek it becomes hard to hear anything besides the raging river below your feet, it's a thrilling experience. We explored the creek and surrounding areas then headed back to the family.
I sure hope I don't wait nearly another decade to visit this amazing spot.
About the Author: Kate Ayers has hiked, biked, skied, canoed, kayaked and water-taxied to more than 40 distinct Alaska Public Use Cabins. She developed her love of the great outdoors at a young age, while growing up in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Now she aims to introduce her children to the same adventures, beauty, and appreciation for the awe-inspiring Alaskan outdoors.
Of Rain, Glaciers, Salt Chucks and Silver Salmon: An Alaskan Arts Residency - Matthew Dickerson, July, 2023
On mid-September day in 2022, I sat near my daughter-in-law McKenna and her sister Sophie on the second-floor balcony alcove of Resurrect Art, a wonderful little cafe in Seward Alaska a few miles from the trailhead to Caines Head State Recreation Area. McKenna—who works as a Youth Art Instructor for Davis Studio (in South Burlington, Vermont) while also continuing her own art practice—had graduated a year earlier from Saint Michael's College in Vermont where she studied fine arts and environmental studies. She and I had been selected for a collaborate arts residency for Alaska State Parks. Our residency in two Juneau area state parks had just ended. (You can see some of McKenna work including paintings inspired by Juneau area state parks at her website: www.mckennadickerson.com/)
I would soon be traveling to Port Alsworth in the middle of Lake Clark National Park to teach creative writing at the Tanalian School for a few days and then to spend a few days at The Farm Lodge (my favorite location in all of Alaska for a fishing and wildlife-viewing adventure) while McKenna was getting ready to head back to Vermont. This was our last day together in Alaska. We had planned to visit Caines Head State Recreation Area and hike down to Tonsina Creek to see the beautiful views from there—an excursion I had enjoyed back in July with other family members. But it was pouring in Seward with rain predicted to continue for the next forty-eight hours accumulating up to five inches. The National Weather Service has issued a warning about possible stream flooding. The famous glaciers and the mountaintops surrounding us were invisible. Even the bases of the mountains surrounding Resurrection Bay were just faint shadows in the gray. Having experienced plenty of rain over the previous week and a half, I was not even tempted to go outside and look for sea otters or seals. So instead, we sat at Resurrect Art enjoying a mocha and a delicious lemon lavender scone and staying dry. Not a bad consolation. Also a good opportunity to start turning pages of notes about our stay at two state parks into some sort of coherent narrative.
One of those parks—the one where we spent the majority of our time—was Ernest Gruening State Historic Park where we stayed at Eaglerock cabin. The cabin was built for Ernest and Dorothy Gruening, the former of whom served as a governor of the territory of Alaska and then as senator of the state of Alaska after playing a significant role in the territory becoming the 49th state. The cabin sits on the coast with a deck looking over Amalga Bay and beyond to Lynn Canal and the distant peaks of Glacier Bay National Park and Tongass National Park.
The cabin's name was not a misnomer. Numerous bald eagles were, indeed, around the cabin almost constantly, often sitting on rocks right below—though they also made use of the tall hemlocks atop the bluffs. Guests of the Gruenings at the same cabin where we stayed included Earl Warren, Adlai Stevenson, and John F. Kennedy (when he was a senator). It was at the cabin that Gruening wrote many of the magazine articles as well as the book The State of Alaska that helped lead to the territory becoming the 49th state (for which Gruening then served as senator for two terms.)
The history of the place was inspiring and I soaked in as much as I could. Yet it was the surrounding scenery and landscape that moved me the most. Looking out the front deck of the cabin across Lynn Canal we could see in the distance the 4000-foot snow-capped peaks of Tongass National Forest and Glacier Bay National Park. Behind us on the same shore rose the 6000-foot peaks of the Juneau Ice Field and its numerous glacier arms: Herbert, Eagle, and the more famous Mendenhall Glaciers.
Closer in front of us was the calm water of Amalga Bay. During our stay, we had regular visits from a seal, a passing raft of otters, and more bald eagles than we could count. We even had a brief sighting of a humpback whale and a longer sighting of a pair of minke whales. (We also had several sightings at low tide of large rocks out in the bay pretending to be whales and eliciting at least one excited cry of "whale".) A sea lion also passed by one day when I was inside writing, but I missed it. I could see why Gruening fell in love with the place and could be so inspired to argue for Alaska's statehood.
But if it had been me arguing for statehood, I might have devoted even more words to the "salt chuck" lagoon on other side of the cabin (and not only because I had never heard of a "salt chuck" before), and to the Peterson Creek flowing into it. Because that was not only where I saw the tundra swans and the family of river otters, but also where I caught a lot of silver salmon, coastal cutthroat trout, and sea-run Dolly Varden char.
So what exactly is a Salt Chuck? That was one of the questions I had when McKenna and I arrived at Eaglerock for ten days as the Rie Muñoz and Dorothy Gruening Artists-in-Residence. On the other side of the cabin from the bay is a serene pond known as the Peterson Salt Chuck, which spills through a narrow gap in the trees over a waterfall down into the saltwater. Or, rather, it usually spills over a waterfall, the height of which depends on the height of the tide. Sometimes, however, the water flows in the other direction.
Before reading the name "Peterson Salt Chuck", I had seen that pond described as a lagoon: a small body of water separated from saltwater by a shallow gravel bar so that the pond and the sea are connected only at high tides. That is, a lagoon is both connected to and separated from the saltwater depending on the tide. A river lagoon, as the name suggests, is a lagoon fed by a freshwater river; thus the saltwater and freshwater mix forming an estuary. Estuaries are particularly rich in nutrients, and are unique and vibrant ecosystems where saltwater and freshwater meet. The Peterson Salt Chuck is a unique river lagoon in that saltwater can only flow in at very high tides, perhaps a couple times a month. Over the course of our stay, we never had a tide high enough to reverse the direction of the waterfall and allow saltwater to flow into the chuck (unless we missed one in the middle of the night.) The result of this unique geologic configuration is a pond that is layered like a parfait. The bottom layer of the pond is saltwater, and contains some of the creatures you might find in a tidal pool. But the constant inflow of Peterson Creek contrasted with the much rarer influx of satwater leaves a layer of freshwater atop the pond, making it very welcoming to species like cutthroat trout and trumpeter swans. Illustrating that interesting mix, one day I saw a family of river otters swimming down Peterson Creek toward the salt chuck from above, and another day I saw a raft of sea otters swimming through the saltwater in front of the cabin toward the bottom end of the waterfall.
I also caught Dolly Varden Char, coastal cutthroat trout, and silver salmon in the salt chuck. Most cutthroat and Dollies spend their whole lives in freshwater, but both species are capable of adapting to saltwater life and can move back and forth between saltwater and fresh. Dollies are especially prone to this diadromous life history, and the members of their species that do this are called "coastal Dolly Varden" or "sea-run Dolly Varden"; they have a much more silvery sheen than their purely freshwater relatives . Both cutthroat and Dollies in the Salt Chuck benefit from the nutrient rich estuarial waters. Though both McKenna and I caught a few dollies, the cutthroat fishing proved especially enjoyable and productive. When we took breaks from our artistic endeavors—which for Mckenna was primarily landscape painting in acrylics and for me was creative non-fiction nature, environmental, and outdoor writing—and wandered out to the lower end of the chuck or made our way to the upper end of the tidal water on Peterson Creek above the chuck, we had very good action fly fishing for the cutthroat, catching them on both dry flies and streamers.
For most local anglers, however, silver salmon were the main attraction there. Most of the day we could see anglers casting for silvers at the inlet to the chuck, and sometimes at the outlet hoping to catch them at the narrow gap as they worked up the falls from the ocean. Some cast directly into saltwater from shore, and one day an angler came across the bay on a standup paddleboard to cast flies into the outlet of the waterfalls. (I didn’t see him land one, but a large silver did grab his fly and manage to break his line.)
Though I only targeted silver salmon with my salmon fly rod once, I still managed to catch several silvers while casting for trout with my lighter-weight fly rod. They were smaller silvers—only a little bigger than the cutthroat trout I was catching, and not likely to break my line—but were still fun to catch. So I was surprised one morning when I walked out to the chuck at sunrise to take photos of the wildlife and the sun rising over the snow-covered peaks to the east, and found the chuck devoid of anglers. I soon learned that the state had closed the water to salmon fishing due to low numbers of returning salmon. Given the decline of many species of salmon in many waters of the north Pacific, I was curious (and concerned) about the reasons, and interested in following up on the story. [See the note below.] The shortage of returning silver salmon was likely the reason we didn’t see many seals or sea lions feeding around the mouth of the Peterson Salt Chuck.
But in the meanwhile, I was content to keep writing while McKenna painted, to keep an eye (and a camera lens) on the ocean for passing whales, seals, sea lions, eagles, and sea otters, and to keep gazing at the Salt Chuck for glimpses of river otters, trumpeter swans, and reflections of snow-covered peaks. And occasionally to toss flies into the darker estuarial waters in hopes of getting the attention of the resident trout.
Hiking trails along the bluff over the ocean and good views of the Salt Chuck, along with the historical significance of the cabin, make the park a beautiful place to visit. I hope I can return some day. And whether I return or not, I hope the silver salmon come back.
Addendum: After the residency, I was able to contact ADFG fisheries biologists Dan Teske and Dave Love and had a very enjoyable and informative conversation with them about both the excellent fisheries on many Juneau area rivers (including Peterson Creek), and also the decline in silver salmon on Peterson Creek. Some of that decline might be attributed to increased fishing pressure. A 2020 avalanche damaged a fish hatchery in Juneau wiping out 80% of the hatchery fish which supported some of the rivers close to town. Although Peterson Creek silver salmon are wild (not hatchery fish), more anglers moved north from Juneau due to the loss of hatchery fish. The bigger impact, however, has been a decrease in marine survival of silver salmon due to environmental reasons. Silver salmon fishing is therefore likely to be closed or poor in Peterson Creek in the near future. ADFG will be keeping a close watch, and they have many decades of data to use in their decisions. Thankfully, the cutthroat fishing is still excellent on Peterson and there are other good rivers in the Juneau area for silver salmon fishing including Cowee Creek which flows along the east side of Point Bridget State Park, within walking distance of the state park cabin on Cowee Meadow. But that is another story.
Disabilities are everywhere; some invisible and some not - Helen Michaelson, June, 2023
Living with a physical disability, but loving outdoor adventures is certainly not the most ideal combination; but for me it is a necessity for my physical as well as mental health! Accessibility and inclusiveness are constantly growing themes in today's world; maybe not fast enough, but growth nevertheless.
My favorite place to bike, swim, kayak, run and hike in the Mat-Su Valley is Matanuska Lake Recreational Area which touches the Mat-Su Green Belt and Experimental Farm. There are many trails that connect all these places. My Great Grandpa, Grandpa and Uncle all worked at the Experimental Farm, so there is always an extra sweet connection to these trails for me.
The view of Pioneer Peak and Matanuska Lake on one side, Lazy Mountain and Matanuska Peak on one, the flats leading towards the inlet and Hatcher Pass on the other is unreal; it seems like I can never get enough of them. This place for me holds many memories and miles for me; from high school cross country running practice, time spent hiking with my best friend, mountain biking, long runs, lake days with my family and so much more in between. As I get older, I crave more time alone to process and reflect on life; and this spot is my all-time favorite place to do so.
Living in the Mat-Su; we have so many options that are conducive to different abilities! Winter, Spring, Fall or Summer; getting out in the wonderful array of state parks to exercise is good for mind, body and soul for everyone regardless of your abilities! I hope to see all abilities out on the trails and strive to advocate for an increase of access for all.
K'esugi Ken: Denali Public Use Cabin - Kate Ayers,
In late-May, our family of four headed north from Anchorage to the Denali Public Use Cabin (PUC) within the K'esugi Ken Campground, located in Denali State Park. This was our family's second time staying in one of the three awesome K'esugi Ken cabins, and our first time without snow on the ground.
The Denali cabin is a drive-up cabin, built to ADA standards, and is the one of the largest PUCs I've stayed in. It includes a woodstove, loft that is assessible by a spiral staircase, a downstairs bedroom, and electricity – yes lights! The back door opens out to a good-sized porch that has a peek-a-boo view through the trees of the Alaska Range on clear days. This spacious and well-lit PUC was originally only available to rent during the winter and occupied by a campground host during the summer. However, in recent years the cabin has been open to rent in the summer while the campground host RV parking spot is directly next to the cabin (roughly 10 feet). Therefore, if you're looking for seclusion in the summer, you may want to find another PUC.
Once we arrived, and after the kids played a few rounds of hide-and-seek, we ventured out to the West Hoodoos Trail, just feet from the back door. As you follow the beautiful views of the Alaska Range, the trail brings you to the Moose Flats Loop Trail. The Moose Flats Loop Trail is just over half a mile long and is wheelchair accessible. It leads you to a few small ponds and over a wooden bridge. Watch out for wildlife, including the local ducks and frogs. There is a viewpoint near some large rocks which provides an amazing view of Mt. Denali on a clear day. Unfortunately, we didn't have any luck seeing the Great One during this trip, but still remember the view from the last time we were there with clear skies. We finished the loop walk right before the raindrops fell from the sky. That night we munched on smores, played more hide-in-seek and finished a puzzle.
The next morning, we filled our day pack with snacks and water, and headed out to the Curry Ridge Trail. Given it was our first family hike of the season, we didn't know how far we'd get. Since I was not interested in carrying our four-year-old, my goal was to hike two miles out of the 6.5-mile out-and-back trail, with a 1,100-foot assent.
The cloud coverage kept us cool as we hiked up the wide meandering path. There were hardly any bugs, and the birds were serenading us along the way. Jumping on each large rock found in, or near, the trail was the motivating factor for our children to keep going. The rocks became their on-land surfboards and after they were done riding the dirt wave, they would get off to catch the next one along the path. After about a half mile on the well-maintained gravel trail, we reached a small footbridge with a creek underneath. Beyond the bridge, the trail remained in good condition with just a few muddy spots and small water crossings, mostly from trickling snow melt from above. Our pace was slow and exploratory, yet we kept moving in the right direction – up. Although the clouds covered Denali, the trail still offered great views of the lower Alaska Range. After we were above the tree line it became cool, and our bellies started grumbling. We found a large rock to take a break before we headed back down. As the kids and I munched on our trail mix, my husband took the trail a little further up and reached the loop signs within two minutes.
As we headed back down, the kids entertained us by selecting sticks and using them as band instruments. We later passed a few hikers that mistook the unique trumpet and flute sounds as an odd moose call. As the parking lot came into view, the rain started, or as my four-year old would say, "the clouds released their full bellies." Not sure how we made it to the top, or how we missed the rain during the hike, but I was impressed with the trail, the view, and the overall experience.
Heading to K'esugi Ken soon? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Late May was the perfect time for us, as the swarms of mosquitos were not out yet. I have heard horror stories of people being chased all the way back to Anchorage in prior years given the amount of uninvited mosquitos that joined them.
- Ironically, the K'esugi Ken Ridge Trail does not start from the K'esugi Ken Campground.
- The campground has a large Interpretive Center that contains information about Denali State Park and the Alaska Range. There are hikes and other interpretive programs provided most summer days. We found the Ranger Programs schedule on the bathroom door.
- There was a little library (take one, leave one) at the campground pay area.
- Fiddleheads, fiddleheads, fiddleheads! We enjoyed harvesting and cooking them as a side for our dinner.
Ernest Gruening State Park - Matthew Dickerson, September, 2022.
Morning. Peterson Salt Chuck.
The morning air is thick and brooding. The world feels muted. Reflected on the still surface of the Peterson Salt Chuck, spruce trees blur together, and clouds appear more green than gray. On the far shore, above the water, a waiting world unfolds in layers of hues: the softer yellow-green of shoreline grasses giving way to the darker spruce whose spires point skyward toward the taller and more distant peaks of Mount Ernest Gruening where last winter's snow still clings to gray slopes beneath a heavy slate sky.
A pair of trumpeter swans rest in the stillness at the far side of the estuary, icons of grace and elegance, as solemn and majestic as the peaks behind them. At the first hint of disturbance in their throne room, they turn and disappear behind the grasses into their private chambers. A lone bald eagle remains behind, on guard, looking down on the Peterson Salt Chuck from atop a tall spruce near the falls where the brackish water pours down into the ocean.
Below the surface, invisible to the eagle's sharp eyes, silver salmon swim slowly across the chuck—a final journey that brings them from ocean brine up into the cool freshwater where their eggs will soon fall on river-bottom gravel. Sea-run Dolly Varden char with silvery green sides follow the salmon upstream to feast on any eggs that drift free.
I am raptured by the holiness of the moment, of the place, the sanctuary in which I now stand. Speech seems sacrilege. A family of river otters swims down Peterson Creek. Constantly diving and darting around and beneath one another, they are impossible to count. I give up trying, and simply delight in their presence. Even their play is holy. A sacred dance.
Afternoon. Amalga Harbor.
The heavy blanket of gray has lifted. The brooding ceiling has turned to a cheerful blue picnic ground where clouds, white and weightless, swim and dance across the sky like playful otters. The shoreline trees are brighter now. Their tops crisp and sharp against the azure backdrop as they soak in the midday light.
The tide is out. The waters of Peterson Creek have their last chance to play as they tumble down from the Salt Chuck and into Amalga Bay where they are swallowed up in the ocean's vastness, as blue and wide as the sky above. Gulls the color of the clouds hop on the rocks plucking food scraps out of the seaweed left behind by the receding tide. Some take to wing where they bob and flutter in the breeze while scanning the brine below for their next meal.
The bald eagle still waits on his tree, guarding the flowing path from ocean to lagoon, lagoon to ocean. A harbor seal patrols the water below, also waiting for another school of silver salmon as they start their final journey, ascending the falls, crossing the salt chuck, and swimming up Peterson Creek to some secret spot where male and female will pair up for the one and only time in their lives—to spawn and then to die, ending one generation, and starting another.
A raft of sea otters visits, bobbing and rolling like their smaller river otter cousins. The passing mergansers bob too, but in more orderly lines. A lone raven, black and yet as bright and shiny as the gulls, watches the drama from its perch nestled in the branches of a shoreline spruce.
Evening. Lynn Canal from Eagle Rock Cabin.
The water is pale blue in the late afternoon light, swirled in elusive patterns of wind and scattered rain. Out in the offing near the edge of Amalga Bay not far from where ferries and cruise ships pass up Lynn Canal, a pair of humpback whales breach. Their spouts reveal their presence to any fortunate passers-by watching from shore. Two magnificent pairs of flukes rise high in the air, one after another, and slip away.
Quiet returns. Wooded islands appear dark and mysterious. At low tide, rocks rise above the water far from shore, like passing humpbacks that never pass. Never spout. Never lift their flukes. Excited exclamations of "whale!" fade to embarrassed mumbles of "never mind."
When fog grows thick or rain rolls in hard and steady, the majestic heights on the far shore disappear behind the curtain. At those times, one might believe this water a mere canal as its name proclaims, and not one of the deepest and longest fjords in the continent. Today that does not happen. Although a cloud dome has once again spread across the sky above, the long row of mountains rising thousands of feet above sea level are still visible across the water. My eyes are drawn there now, to the heights and slopes of the Chilkat Range that divide Glacier Bay National Park and Tongass National Forest—iconic snow-capped peaks and white-splotched mountainsides guarding glaciers and deeper snowpacks in the valleys between. I look at the heights but only imagine the depths, carved by the slow and patient weight of time and glacier, directed by the invisible hand of the Great Sculptor.
The view from Ernest Gruening State Historic Park is magnificent. It can leave one wordless. Even breathless. Or, rather, full of breath. At once both sated and longing.
The Gift of Adventure - Kate Ayers
We all know that Alaska State Park Public Use Cabins (PUC) are a hot commodity these days. Therefore, what better holiday gift to give than a night or two at an Alaska State Park PUC? There is a cabin out there for everyone, who is on your list?
These cabins are for people who want to load the car, have a short drive, and unload gear at the front step of a cozy cabin. These cabins are perfect for families with little ones, or those that have mobility constraints.
- Bore Tide Cabin (Chugach State Park)
- Birch Lake Cabin (Northern Region)
- Rhein Lake Cabin (Nancy Lake State Recreation Area)
These cabins are for people who want to get away from the crowds, but at the same time can get back to the car quickly if needed. If you're just getting into backpacking and want to do a 'test run' these cabins may be for you.
- Tonsina Cabin (Caines Head State Recreation Area)
- Byers Lake Cabin #2 (Denali State Park)
- Nancy Lake Cabin #2 (Nancy Lake State Recreation Area)
These cabins are for people who are experienced in outdoor adventures and choose to explore beyond the most populated adventure spots. These cabins may require additional planning, such as water taxis, or a kayak or canoe rental.
- Kokanee Cabin (Chugach State Park)
- China Poot Lake (Kachemak Bay State Park)
- Red Shirt Lake Cabins (Nancy Lake State Recreation Area)
Now is the time to book the adventure for your friends and family. The Alaska State Parks PUCs reservations system open 7 months prior to the booking date. Popular cabins often get snagged at 12:01 am exactly 7 months out. Plan ahead this holiday and give the gift the adventure at an Alaska State Parks PUC.
Caines Head Rainforest Loop - Kate Ayers
I was excited, and surprised, that I was able to snag the Callisto Public Use Cabin in the Caines Head State Recreation Area, without booking it six months ahead of time. I quickly realized why it was available. The only access to the cabin would be by water because the low tides were still not low enough to take the beach trail to the cabin. With this knowledge, we decided to get dropped off by a water taxi and bring a tandem kayak along for adventuring. As we drove down to Seward, the forecast showed 90% rain for the next five day, and it wasn't wrong. We arrived at the cabin the first night, got the fire started and got warm food in our bellies.
The next morning, the reddish-orange lion's mane jellyfish joined us as we kayaked along to North Beach to start our hiking adventure from the Fort Trail. The trail to the top of Caines Head, and to Fort McGivrary, is beautiful. We welcomed the trees that towered above our heads, as they caught a large amount of the continuous raindrops before they reached our brightly colored soaked hoods. The landscape along the trail proved that rain was not an unusual occurrence in the area. We walked through bright green moss and small streams braided throughout the trail. As the trail approached the Fort, it became peppered with World War II remnants; a bunker tucked into the woods here, and a twisted sheet of metal there. After a 650-foot climb and about two miles of hiking, we reached Fort McGivrary. This once lively strategic command center is now dark, cold, and eerie. Even with flashlights and a lantern I still didn't have the gumption to explore the dark corners. Following the small amount of natural light out to the other side, we were met looking down at a large circular platform. This moss-covered aged concrete was the location of the firing platforms that stood ready nearly 80 years ago protecting the Port of Seward.
From the platforms, the path brings you back to the fork in the trail where the decision to head North or South is made. Heading North will lead you back to North Beach where the trail starts. If South is chosen, the path descends through the trees to South Beach. As we made our way down to South Beach it was fun to imagine 500 military personnel making this landscape their home. How many rocks did they skip into the ocean, or how many naps did they take on the beach? Although I wasn't able to take a nap on this adventure, I tallied at least three skipping rocks. After the 1.5 miles of hiking down to South Beach the majority of visitors turn around and make their way right back up the hill and on to North Beach the way they came; what they may not know is that they're missing a wonderful loop trail that brings them into the woods to experience the rainforest, waterfalls, and plump blueberries.
These days it's hard to find a trail in Alaska that is not widely popular, but I'm here to say – they do exist! If you research "Rainforest Loop Trail" you won't find much. The last time I completed the Rainforest Loop Trail we hardly found the trailhead, we lost our way several times, and the trail was nearly being washed away from the elements. In fact, the only group of people that we encountered on the trail that day told us that they had heard of the loop trail, but they didn't want to get lost in the woods, something I could vaguely relate to from my prior experience. However, this time I was pleasantly surprised to see what appeared to be a brand-new sign, equipped with destination mileage, greeting us at the trailhead. The new sign set the stage to the rugged, yet surprisingly well-maintained trail. This time, the key to not getting lost was simple: follow the pink tape. Follow the tape through the trees, along waterfalls and through the running creek beds. The scenery is so beautiful that we were looking up, down, and all around throughout the entire trail so we were unlikely to miss the pink tape. At mile 1.7 we encountered what is likely an even less popular trail – the Alpine Trail. I've always wanted to explore this one but was given the advice to avoid the trail on a socked in day, as views would not be visible. Given I felt like I could reach out and touch the clouds hovering directly over our heads, we opted out of traversing the Alpine Trail. With the majority of the water features behind us, the last section of the loop down was quick. After another 1.4 miles we came to the Overland Trail intersection. Those staying at the Derby Cove cabin, or walking along the beach from Seward, would have taken this left. However, since we beached our kayak at the other trailhead, we took a right and made a quick 0.6 mile jaunt over to North Beach.
Although the raindrops on our coats had grown their own raindrops when we finished, we still had a terrific time. We had the entire Rainforest Loop Trail to ourselves, besides the unseen goat that was that was leaving its fresh tracks in the mud just ahead of us.
Mt. Eklutna trail to Bear Point at Peter's Creek - Ann Dougherty
Tonsina Cabin - Kate Ayers
Mini-backpacker - start them young
Our latest cabin adventure was a milestone for our family – our oldest (5 years old) was able to backpack not only her toys, but also her clothes and water the two miles into the Tonsina Public Use Cabin. The trail goes through maritime rainforest featuring vibrant green trees towering above, bridges that cross over salmon streams and ends at the picturesque Tonsina Point in Resurrection Bay. The landscape variety kept her, and the entire family, entertained throughout the hike. We won’t expect her to backpack in ten miles anytime soon, but it does start to shift our thinking into what is to come in the next stages of our adventures in just a few short years.
Journal entries - a wealth of knowledge
One of the first things I do when I arrive at a public use cabin is search for the cabin journal, or logbook. The State of Alaska provides journals at each public use cabin for cabin attendees to share their cabin experiences and provide area insights. Reading the handwritten words from strangers on each page is a welcome replacement to scrolling through social media feeds. Each person has a unique story and own perspective about their cabin stay. Often the entries provide a wealth of knowledge, from directions to the nearest freshwater stream to the most recent wildlife to have made an appearance in the area (from baby otters to angry bears). On our trip to Tonsina Cabin, we would have never found the most incredible waterfall without the captivating journal entry and directions. You’ll also find humor, artistic masterpieces, and playing card scores scattered throughout most journals.
Cabin celebrations - celebrate in [rustic] style
Thinking of where to celebrate your next birthday? Although it may not be the first place to come to mind, consider booking a public use cabin for your next celebration or milestone - it’s bound to bring an extra ‘rustic’ flare to the festivities. For ease, book a drive-up cabin, close to town, to accommodate those that may not want to sleep on the cabin floor or in a nearby campground. If you are inviting people to stay, check the state website to confirm the cabin’s maximum occupancy. Alternatively, if that’s not your style, go big and hike in those 10 plus miles with your closest friends and enjoy the vista views through the cabin window. Each year I book one of the cabins at Eklutna Lake to celebrate fall-time birthdays, including my own. The fall colors at Eklutna get me every time. At our recent visit to the Tonsina cabin we presented our family member with a surprise birthday cupcake around the campfire – nothing tastes better than a surprise cupcake (squished or not) in the middle of nowhere. Don’t stop at birthday celebrations, others have used cabins for family reunions, retirement parties, marriage proposals and weddings. The only trick is to plan and book early!
About the Author: Kate Ayers has hiked, biked, skied, canoed, kayaked and water-taxied to more than 40 distinct Alaska Public Use Cabins. She developed her love of the great outdoors at a young age, while growing up in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Now she aims to introduce her children to the same adventures, beauty, and appreciation for the awe-inspiring Alaskan outdoors.
Nancy Lake Cabin #3 - Kate Ayers
Late February, early March, is a great time for a stay in a public use cabin in Southcentral Alaska. Lakes have frozen over, there is more daylight, and temperatures are (usually) warmer than in January. The Nancy Lake Recreation Area is our go-to spot since it's close to Anchorage and there are a lot of cabins to choose from. As always, we booked early and snagged Nancy Lake Cabin #3. This cabin is unique in that there is not a land trail to it because it is surrounded by private property. In the summer, cabin goers must travel by water, most often in a canoe, to the lakeside cabin. In the winter, you have the option to ski, snowmachine, snowshoe, or fat tire bike across the frozen lake. The mode of transportation is not only determined by the season, but also the lake conditions during your stay.
More often than not, public use cabins tend to be secluded, private, and off the beaten path. Cabins traditionally sleep 4-6 people, and at times up to 12 people. You can definitely travel with large groups, but if you prefer more privacy or a cabin of your own, it's difficult to find two cabins in close proximity (less than 1/8 mile) to one another. There are a few exceptions, such as the Byers Lake Cabin #1 and #2, K'esugi Ken cabins, and Bird Creek cabins (both located in campgrounds). Another exception was our experience with Nancy Lake Cabin #3 and Nancy Lake Cabin #4. Our "COVID-bubble" friends booked Nancy Lake Cabin #4 and it was great to hop back and forth between the cabins in less than a 5-minute ski.
Traveling with young kids always brings exciting and unpredictable adventures. It just so happened that this trip took place near the end of our toddler's potty training journey. He had been doing so well and we joked that we should bring his potty along. Soon the joke became reality and the next thing we knew we were placing his potty in the large sled. His "throne" acted as the perfect place for him to sit and enjoy the sled ride. It also came in handy for the middle of the night "nature calls" from our oldest. Overall, it was an unforeseen positive packing addition.
Out and Back
Since we knew our friends had cabin #4, we chose to park at the Trailhead to Nancy Lake Cabins #1-#4. We skied to cabin #4 and then over the lake to cabin #3. My husband had a backpack and a large sled (with a pulk system), filled with gear and our toddler. Our four-year-old skied in carrying her own 'activity' backpack. I had a backpack and a small sled filled with 4 bundles of wood. It didn't take long to realize that the small sled was not going to work. Not only was it tipping over in the new snow, but the thought of it running me over on the downhill (without a pulk system) was enough to ditch the sled with the understanding we'd come back to get it. The trail down to cabin #4 had just enough slope to it that we realized we would rather not ski up it with our heavy gear on the way out. Therefore, when my husband fetched the dropped sled, he also moved the car over to the canoe launch parking area. Although this was about 1/4 of a mile longer than going up and over, the flat approach across the lake made up for it. Heading out a different way than coming in was a nice change from the usual out and back, and presented another opportunity for the kids to be entertained by the new surroundings.
About the Author: Kate AyersKate has hiked, biked, skied, canoed, kayaked and water-taxied to more than 40 distinct Alaska Public Use Cabins. She developed her love of the great outdoors at a young age, while growing up in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Now she aims to introduce her children to the same adventures, beauty, and appreciation for the awe-inspiring Alaskan outdoors.