Williwaw Lakes Trail, Chugach State Park
Saturday, July 16th
61*, Clear blue sky
… in these coast landscapes there is such indefinite, on-leading expansiveness, such a multitude of features without apparent redundance, their lines graduating delicately into one another in endless succession, while the whole is so fine, so tender, so ethereal, that all penwork seems hopelessly unavailing. Tracing shining ways through fiord and sound, past forests and waterfalls, islands and mountains and far azure headlands, it seems as if we surely must at length reach the very paradise of the poets, the abode of the blessed.
A hot early spring brought Alaska to full flower by the time I arrived in mid-July. In these hazy summer days, hot flares of fireweed dart along the roads and up the hillsides, early blueberries are bursting ripe from their stems, the familiar trails around Anchorage’s surrounding Chugach State Park are fretted with lush green overgrowth.
Soft white lichens crunch underfoot, the blazing midnight sun high in the sky as we crest around O’Malley Peak at 9:04 PM, nearly 4000 ft above sea level. My mom, her partner and I are hiking Williwaw Lakes Trail, a day-hike loop that wends through a long valley and around lakes for about 13 miles, crossing a high plateau of soft mosses lichens, where millennia-old glacial movement has studded the field with a rocky trail of granite and quartz litter. Sleek marmots with a blaze down their faces dart between their fairy-huts, pika and ground squirrels chitter out unseen from their mossy nests.
From far across the plateau, which is known unofficially as the “football field” for its unusual flatness, we can see a pair of tent campers leaning into each other, tucked beside a small glacier as the sun makes its lateral swing around the northeastern ridge. Tenting together at that high altitude, so close to the sun, seems incredibly intimate in the largeness of the natural scope, claiming a light-filled expansive evening together.
By 10 PM we start our descent down Little O’Malley Peak, the sky vividly blue and clear as we trot down toward the tree line and the sun-flushed yellow green grasses below. The weather is eerily good, windless and cloudless, the kind that makes Anchorageites suspicious. For an outdoorsy people accustomed to pushing through weeks of rain and cloudy days, this hot clear July evokes Pleasantville,or perhaps the Twilight Zone: a creepily perfect suburban ’60s movie set, filmic and mild. Fellow hikers unilaterally agree as we pass them, the early blueberries and sunny days bringing a shadow of untrustworthy gentleness, a wrinkle to the forehead as we disbelievingly praise the beautiful weather.
While at a favorite local bookstore, I discovered a volume unknown to me from Modern Library: Travels in Alaska by John Muir, the famed naturalist, geologist, and American Transcendentalist essayist, the first naturalist philosopher of the West Coast. I had no idea that he had come to Alaska at all, much less in the mid-1870s, not even ten years after it had been purchased from Russia at a pittance by Secretary of State William H. Seward. Muir came to my homeland at a time when being an Alaskan still mostly meant inheriting a millennia-old cultural and regional heritage as a member of one of our indigenous peoples, a time when the bigness of Alaskan nature was just being opened to unchecked exploration and exploitation by Westerners seeking gold, religion, adventure in the new territory, a time when the weather was as yet an unpolitical and relatively untroubled subject.
I’ve carried Muir’s slim collection with me everywhere–along with my notebook and pens–in my small hiking backpack that doubles as a purse while I’m home. Returning home means daily outdoor adventures: marathon hikes, long bike rides along the coast, trail runs and downtown scavenger hunts for local businesses, sometimes more than one a day. Muir’s essays help me reimagine the familiar world around me during these activities–the gigantic scope of the mountain contours and the endless stretch of the silty gray inlet to the hazy horizon, the vastness that I feel inscribed within me and can recall when cloistered in my small New York apartment, my lifelong memory of mountains waiting to be projected outwards by my imagination. Where I feel the boundlessness of space, Muir clearly feels longitudinal time: vast glacial pressures over thousands upon thousands of years, the cutting and shaping of these mountains and inlets by the steady, slow, inevitable movement of ice.
Reading his essays, I recognize immediately that we share an escapist tendency of immersive “imagining-feelings”, relishing in the pleasurable feelings of uncomfortable impossibility, surrendering to an attempt to conceptualize the inconceivably large and interconnected and multifaceted. These imagining-feelings–my attempt to have a direct personal relationship with a Mortonian hyperobject–are my private salvation from urban claustrophobia and indoors life.
Penwork fails, as Muir says, and I wonder at the unwritable scope of his temporal experience of an Alaskan glacial coast, his network of associated perceptual experiences–refined by a lifetime of geological and naturalistic imagining.
In their relations to each other the individual members of a group have evidently been derived from the same general rock-mass, yet they never seem broken or abridged in any way as to their contour lines, however abruptly they may dip their sides. Viewed one by one, they seem detached beauties, like extracts from a poem, while, from the completeness of their lines and the way that their trees are arranged, each seems a finished stanza in itself.
Williwaw Lakes Trail is a soft green walk through a river valley for about three and a half hours, followed by a nearly vertical scramble up a scree-covered rock face, up to the plateau known unofficially as the “football field”.
Halfway up the rock climb–for which I used hands and feet nearly equally, the face being closer to a 90* than 45* angle–we come to the alpine tarn known as Black Lake. Tucked under a rumpled granite face, Black Lake’s surface is often nearly lightless, though its color is closer to a rich turquoise rather than a true black and its water is clear enough to see straight to the rocky base.
Lichens sprayed across the rich orange crumbling rocks as we continue the climb, neon yellow, creamy slate green, burnt sienna, like the cleanup after a toddler’s siege on the walls with a box of oils. We stop only to sip water and pick berries, the rich crop of early blueberries, summer-sweet black crowberries on their piney stems, clear bright lingonberries. My mother is unreservedly delighted with every newfound berry-patch, her voice clear and childlike as she sings out earnestly, “The berries are so blue! And so round! They are calling to me. I think I should listen.”
We collect a water bottle full of berries along the way before descending back to the Glen Alps trailhead.
Through the afternoon, all the way down to the sunset, the day grows in beauty. The light seems to thicken and become yet more generously fruitful without losing its soft mellow brightness. Everything seems to settle into conscious repose. The winds breathe gently… and the sky, land, and water meet and blend in one inseparable scene of enchantment. Then comes the sunset with its purple and gold, not a narrow arch on the horizon, but oftentimes filling all the sky… Soft, mellow purple flushes the sky to the zenith and fills the air, fairly steeping and transfiguring the islands and making all the water look like wine. After the sun goes down, the glowing gold vanishes, but because it descends on a curve nearly in the same plane with the horizon, the glowing portion of the display lasts much longer in the more southern latitudes, while the upper colors with gradually lessening intensity of tone sweep around to the north, gradually increase to the eastward, and unite with those of the morning.