Axis Mundi

I have a rock. The Alaska State Park Service holds title to it, but it’s mine. Squatter’s rights. Anthropologists talk about the primal human intuition of connectedness – the axis mundi – the centerpoint of the earth. Axis mundi, the path along which the sacred and the secular, the infinite and the temporal play like interlocking, cosmic spirals of DNA. Life. Universal and specific. The axis mundi exists at the most sacred place on earth. There are many such places. I have a rock.

The Eagle River valley is a glacial gash in the Chugach Mountains just north of Anchorage. Rolling high ground precedes the abrupt terrestrial assertion of the mountains themselves. A community of thirty thousand or so has congregated on the west end, at the mouth of the valley. From the high ground of Eagle River it’s easy to see Cook Inlet and the newly-formed peaks of the Talkeetna and Alaska ranges. West, across the inlet, is the reposing monolith locally referred to as the Sleeping Lady. The vast expanses of light and texture echo the laughter of creation. Facing west takes you into the outward, sensual, exterior world. My rock is east of here. It resides in the realm of solitude and contemplation and peace. The interior, natural world. Like the journey to many sacred places, this one begins at the end of the road.

The end of the road is a parking lot twelve miles from the community of Eagle River. The last two miles of road leading here were finally paved a couple of years ago. The parking lot was paved last summer. The Park Service maintains a Visitors’ Center here. The building is a log cabin. Inside are wonderful displays describing the wildlife and habitat of the valley. A split-rail, cedar fence encloses two sides of the open area behind and on the south side of the cabin. There is a large cedar deck appended to the rear of the building. Later in the summer there will be telescopes on tripods, so that visitors can watch groups of Dall sheep high on the sides of the adjacent mountains.

For the more adventurous, guided tours with pack llamas traverse the route from here across the ridges to the north. At the end of the rail fence, beyond the deck, is the beginning of the visitor’s trail. It was also paved three or four years ago. Foot traffic on the nature loop trail is heavy. The asphalt is an improvement for this short segment. Like the portico to many sacred spaces, the loop trail is a transition area….

Around the end of the cabin, coarse gravel grating and crunching under my feet. Sunlight. Running children. Laughter. Past the bird feeders to the end of the rail fence. Beginning the descent toward the valley floor. Moderately steep incline. The kind that retired folks will use to stop and admire the scenery two or three times on their way up. Alder and birch provide the ground cover. To the right, half way down the hill, stands a lone cottonwood tree. Its top was blown out several years back. New growth has reemerged, twisting and extending toward the sky like a gnarled deciduous arm.

The trail splits just as it bends right. Hard right is the Rodak Trail. It continues, as an asphalt walkway, past interesting and informative signboards to the large bridge, deck and boardwalk built over the salmon stream. This nature trail is very popular with visitors and families with small children. The salmon won’t be spawning in the stream until August or so. The water is so clear now, though, that it’s easy to see trout darting around. The view eastward from the stream is magnificent. Mountains. Sky. Snow, Avalanche chutes. Waterfalls. Alaska.

The other alternative, here at the trail intersection, is to step off of the asphalt onto the hard packed, dirt trail. White arrows painted on a brown signboard point this way. Crow Pass/River Trail it says. I follow the arrows. The trail continues to descend. down through oak and ferns and wild roses. A half a mile out I pass a landscape painter headed back to the parking lot. Canvas in his left hand. Tackle box full of supplies in his right. The smell of acrylics lingers on the trail like an industrial cologne. At the point where the trail bends right again a reminder of reality is posted. The sign is straightforward: Bears present in area, take proper precautions.” I have and I am. Solitude requires attention, not passivity.

A quarter of a mile farther and the trail is again intersected at right angles. To the right is the River Trail. An easy walk to the Eagle River itself. There’s a damp, sandy stream bed down that way. I take my daughters there to teach them about tracking and see what animals are ambling about. It’s fun.

This intersection is the demarcation point between transition zone and wilderness. Beyond is a portion of the Iditarod Trail. This section runs from Eagle River to Girdwood. About nine miles east and south, past The Perch, Dishwater Creek, Icicle Creek, Mt. Yukla, Twin Falls and Thunder Gorge is the fording site for the Eagle River. The trail then moves south, generally along Raven Creek, for another fifteen miles or so through Raven Gorge and Crow Pass. The Eagle Glacier is the source for the Eagle River. The glacier extends for miles beyond the headwaters of the river. Wilderness.

Curious. In all the time I’ve spent out here I’ve never seen bear scat on the transition zone portion of the trail. On a number of occasions, though, fresh, even steaming scat has lain in the center of the trail within fifty meters after embarking on the Iditarod Trail. It’s as if a primal courtesy is being extended. Caution - You are now entering reality. Those interested only in information turn back here.”

Copyright © 2007 Kenneth W. Jones, all rights reserved. Web design by Art Spirit Webs.