An Adventure in Hatcher Pass
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. After that, although the accuracy of my memory could be called into question, there was light and darkness, some water, a few billion plants, and too many animals involved to count. At the end of it all, God made humans, whom preachers like to call “the crown of His creation.” What they don’t know is that on the 7th day, when everyone thinks God was resting, He decided with a content-but-not-quite-complete sigh — He could do better by creating one final masterpiece. And that’s how Hatcher Pass came to be.
The first time I ever skinny-dipped was with my brothers and dad in a creek near Independence Mine. I fell into a hole near that same stream in the winter while we were cross-country skiing, and for the first and only time in my life a search party was sent out to find me. And find me they did, stuck upside down, staring at the sky with my skis securing me half-way down the bank toward the water.
Each time we made the return journey down the road toward Palmer, Dad would shift the car into neutral and coast the entire way. We always prayed hard that ours would be the only vehicle approaching the one-lane bridge as we crossed the Little Su in hopes of setting a new record for distance gone without gas. (An old hunched-over birch tree halfway up the hill past Turner’s Store still marks the standing world record.)
We used to rent out the since-burned-down Motherlode Lodge with a few other families over Christmas vacation, taking turns at the karaoke machine in between sled runs down 16 Mile Hill. We eventually turned to sledding the road from the upper parking lot to the 180-degree turn, which led to my first broken knee when I was in middle school.
I once painted over the graffiti covering thumb rock and added a new message for my girlfriend who worked at Hatcher Pass Lodge (known better as “the A-frame”) and would see my affection on display as she drove by on the way back from her afternoon shift.
Reed Lakes remains (in my expert opinion) the quintessential Alaskan hike, even if the secret of the blueberries that line the start of the trail has long since gone public.
Yes, the fondest moments of my childhood took place in Hatcher Pass, and as the years go by I realize just how fortunate I was to have a back yard like this. But just like all childhood memories, after enough repetition, stories become legends and the strict line that separates truth and tall tale becomes a blurred one at best. Whatever the case, these accounts take us back to a time and an age when life was simpler and—as tends to be the case when details of the past get murky—better.
. . .
Such is the memory of that early June evening when my friends and I settled into our familiar camping spot along the base of Hatchers, a few miles up from the end of the pavement. I’m not sure how these sorts of places get established, but it was our spot all right—we didn’t need to clarify to one another when we’d say, “Let’s go camping tonight.” I’m unsure how the tradition got established, but we started as soon as the oldest of us could drive, camping at “our spot” the night before the final day of school each May. Something about showing up to Geometry smelling like smoke and looking slightly homeless made us feel like we had something to be proud of.
Supplies were scattered around the campfire: some holey tarps, sleeping bags, a few Carrs grocery bags with an arrangement of Fritos, beans, and Oreos, and backpacks full of a variety of knives, clothing, and other fundamentals. We were all so excited to explore the riverside that we didn’t take the time to properly set up camp. Instead we all dispersed in the same scattered fashion as our belongings around the fire pit.
Casey and I went rock-hopping downriver, racing the current and squealing with delight like the adolescents we were. We alternated leading, non-verbally daring each other to jump a little farther between the stones, laughing as a stray shoelace glazed the surface of the water and led a shoe into temporary submersion. Eventually we paused to relieve ourselves, doing our best to catch our breath and recount the glories of our route. Then, as young boys often do, we asked each other a series of rhetorical “what-if” questions:
“What if you tripped and split your head open on that huge boulder over there?”
“What if a salmon jumped up out of the water and hit you in the stomach?”
“What if there was a professional rock-hopping circuit we could join after high school, and we’d travel all over the country and sponsors would pay our way and we’d have special soft-grip shoes, and…”
Well, you get the idea. And if you’ve ever eavesdropped on a conversation of two boys between the ages of 7 and 17, you’ve probably heard a similar exchange.
After a while we began the trip back up river toward camp, this time on the bank, lost in our what-ifs. But just as we neared the fire pit, we heard some of the other boys yelling. Casey and I gave each other a quick glance and started sprinting toward the incoherent shouts. When we got there, we realized their eyes and shouts were fixated on something in the river.
At first it looked like a German shepherd floating downstream, but then it bumped a rock and its body emerged for a moment, revealing long, bony legs. Its high-pitched shriek confirmed the creature’s identity as a baby moose. It was quite literally swimming for its life in the frigid waters of the Little Su.
Perhaps this was my moment … the one where a boy has the grand chance to prove himself a man. It might have been some kind of Rousseau-ian inspiration that only comes in the context of nature’s wild. There’s a good chance it was simply an act of instinct over intellect, a battle that becomes more difficult to win as young men become older.
Whatever it was, something inside me spotted a large boulder that started on the bank and extended over the river at its deepest part. I ran directly off that rock and plunged in.
Yes, snow-melt water is cold, even for a teenager full of burgeoning manhood. My head reached the surface and I drew in a deep breath, my body was doing its darndest to catch up with my rash decision.
I shook my head and blinked rapidly, managing to locate the moose drifting downstream about 30 yards ahead of me. Now I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a great swimmer. (In fact, ten years prior, I ran in a panic out of the pool during swim lessons and straight into the parking lot where my dad and brothers were trying out a homemade go-cart, but that’s another story for another day.)
Luckily the current carried me straight toward the moose, now stuck on a rock. All I had to do was steer toward it. I barely caught the edge of the rock and bumped into one of the moose’s legs, which seemed significantly longer than they should be for a newborn. As I did, the moose startled and jarred itself loose, and started drifting down the river once again.
Eventually I caught up with the wiry animal in the midst of another collection of boulders. This time it was too tired to fight me off.
My friends, I came to realize, had all been scampering down the side of the bank, stumbling over each other and barking instructions I couldn’t previously hear. Someone told me to take off my shirt and cover the moose’s eyes, which I suppose was intended to have a calming affect on the confused animal. By this time, Gabe, my future brother-in-law, had crossed the river and joined me on the opposite bank. Faking confidence and composure, I picked up the moose under its belly and began shuffling across the river. Gabe walked behind me and supported my back defiantly against the current.
By this time there was a small fire going back at camp. We covered the baby in new blankets and laid him near the warmth of the flame where, after a few minutes, it started showing some signs of normalcy.
We began talking about our next move, none of us having exactly experienced a moment like this before (and sort of wondering how many people actually had). After a number of outlandish ideas, we settled on what seemed to us to be the most practical: Gabe’s family lived about 20 minutes away, and behind their house was a barn and horse corral that had been sitting empty since they moved in.
This was our chance to raise a moose… We’d be legends!
I drove my mom’s GMC Safari minivan at the time, which also served as the tour bus for our garage band that played around the area on the weekends. That van had encountered a number of hitchhikers and strange smells and unusual blemishes, but never had it experienced something like a moose sitting on the passenger seat with a fellow on either side.
When we got to Gabe’s house and set the moose in the corral, all seemed to be in its right place. In our boyish imagination it was easy to picture the moose growing over time, with a trip to senior prom aboard the lanky animal, a beautiful girl holding on tight to its antlers for the ride… Those dreams were quickly squelched by the blunt yet wise counsel of Gabe’s dad (my future father-in-law) who explained: (1) it was illegal to house and raise a moose like this, and (2) its mom would be looking for it.
By this point we had decided the most likely story was that a cow (an adult female moose) had crossed the river and her baby attempted to follow before being swept into the rushing current. Perhaps there was indeed a worrying mother somewhere upstream searching desperately for her child. How could we deprive mother and child from reunion?
We snapped a few photos for sentimentality’s sake and loaded back into the van, moose and boys as one.
When we pulled over on the side of the road near our camping spot and let the moose out, it stopped and stared at us. We gave it a nudge in the direction of the dense forest and it took a couple steps before returning to the side of the van where we stood. I’m pretty sure it had genuinely bonded to us.
After a few attempts, a car came speeding around the corner and honked its horn. Well that was enough to spook the moose, which took off running into the shrubbery and out of sight.
We dusted our hands off and returned to the fire, where the remaining members of our small group had fresh steak bits waiting (I will neither confirm nor deny that they were moose steaks out of someone’s freezer, stocked from a previous fall’s hunt). We sat around and shook our heads in disbelief, recalling the story from beginning to end and picking up with fresh “what-if” points of conversation.
Eventually the discussion topic changed and we were well invested in a new direction of conversation altogether. Perhaps an hour passed. Suddenly, there was a rustling in the bushes.
We all stood and instinctively backed up slowly. This was the climactic moment in all the ghost stories we’d ever heard. Either we were about to die or be relieved; at least that’s the way these stories seem to usually play out.
Instead, we encountered a complete moment of awe. Each jaw dropped and not a word was uttered as a cow moose emerged into the clearing by the fire, with a baby moose—our baby moose—following close behind. It was as if the cow was offering a simple “thank you” before disappearing forevermore.
It took some time after the duo was gone before anyone dared to break the silence with a laugh, giving way to an explosion of exclamations tumbling over one another. We somehow knew we had just experienced childhood at its greatest.
. . .
These days Hatcher Pass has specific parking lots people are expected to use. They cost $5, an annual State Parks sticker, or an ethical dilemma, depending on who you are. It’s odd how often, in our attempts to effectively protect the pristine environment of a wonderland like Hatchers, more development actually occurs.
I am pleased that the paved road allows me to drive up to Independence Mine twice as quickly as before, but part of me misses the way we used to memorize the potholes and be forced to slow down to navigate them. The trail up to Gold Cord Mine is now clearly marked, and there are rock steps near the rim of the amphitheater that make it easier for increasingly weak knees to climb; I think I enjoyed the route being a little more secretive and a little more rugged like it was when we were young.
In the spirit of conservation, I question how much has actually been conserved. How many young boys growing up in the Matanuska Valley today venture up to their favorite camping spot in Hatcher Pass as soon as the oldest among them earns their driver’s license?
I tried to visit our old camping spot this past summer, but it’s been almost two decades since anyone was there, and the overgrowth was too significant to even clearly make out the exact location. Still, every time I drive up Hatcher Pass and round that corner, I slow down and peek over the trees in case there is a moose wandering along the banks of the river, whispering to me of a childhood preserved.
Nathan Chud is proud to have been born and raised in the Mat-Su Valley where he learned the art of awe and wonder without much difficulty. He and his family currently live in Beirut, Lebanon where they are dreaming and plotting how to offer the same opportunities to children from war-torn countries. Learn more at www.nathanchud.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.