From the rocky bowl to the right, a marmot's whistle of warning split the muffled, cloudy afternoon. Looking up from scrambling below the 200-foot rock tower that blocked the ridge, I scanned the slope. I could not see any movement. Still, it had seen me, and I had heard it -- a result of mere chance.
When I first began hiking up Hatcher Pass Road from Independence Mine, I had lots of options -- a common and welcome dilemma in the Hatcher Pass area.
I could circle back to the mine by way of Skyscraper Mountain on the north side of the pass or by climbing the Willow Creek valley to Friendship Pass. I even considered circling around by way of Craigie Creek Trail. As the day unfolded, one option that I had only considered in passing led me to that encounter with a lone marmot on the ridge leading to Government Peak.
This meeting began with the first drops of rain that fell as I still climbed Hatcher Pass Road. Upon reaching the pass, I chanced upon many people walking and wandering over the nearby hillocks and along Summit Lake's shore. I also confronted a wall of clouds blocking the way down to Willow and Craigie creeks. Suddenly those choices did not seem like very good choices.
Then just over the crest of the pass I reached April Bowl Trail. Climbing south and west out of the pass, it led to partly clear skies. It also led, after more than three miles of ridge-walking, to the summit of Government Peak.
That trail suddenly seemed like a good choice. So, abandoning all previous options, I started up the switchbacks leading south from the pass. I passed one couple at the beginning of the trail. Less than one mile later I passed a family that had just started down from the bowl. Not until climbing over the guardrail onto Hatcher Pass Road some five hours and 10-plus miles later would I see any other people. But I would chance upon a marmot.
Under still spitting rain I followed the trail along the shore of the first tarn in April Bowl. The rain let up for a few moments as I started up the ridge toward the summit of Hatch Peak silhouetted against the gray sky above the uppermost end of the bowl.
When I reached that summit (4,811 feet), the rain became even more sporadic. The entire length of the Willow Creek valley extending westward toward the Susitna River had even appeared from beneath the lifting clouds.
When the last hint of a trail petered out just beyond Hatch Peak, I left most vestiges of humanity behind me. I passed two miners' claim markers and a few rusted tin cans, but they came from other days with other desires.
As I clambered up the steep rock and wet tundra along the 100-foot pinnacle where the ridge formed a T with the front ridge of the range, the marmot's whistle broke the spell of silence. As I continued across the final saddle leading to the summit of Government Peak, an eagle dipped over the ridge below to the left.
Upon reaching the summit I looked out upon the entire Matanuska-Knik River valley. Dappled sunlight dotted the checkerboard of roads, farms, towns, creeks, fields and forests from the Matanuska Valley to the Chugach Mountains. Off to the right you could make out Anchorage and the sun-brazened waters of Prince William Sound.
Choosing a more direct route back to the car, I descended the ridge that dropped down to where the sporadic procession of cars and campers wound around the base of Marmot Mountain into the Independence Mine valley. Fording Fishhook Creek, I climbed the old trail that led past an abandoned miner's cabin to the road beyond.
As I stepped onto the pavement, I had a number of options on how to get back up to the mine and my car. I first thought about hitch-hiking. I could have also gotten back to the car by climbing Marmot Mountain. I could have even returned the way I'd come. Instead I chose the way with which I started the day: I merely walked up the road.
April Bowl Trail begins 2.2 miles up Hatcher Pass Road from Hatcher Pass Lodge. To get there, take the Glenn Highway to Palmer. Just past Palmer, turn left onto Hatcher Pass Road. Follow that for 19 miles and go a few hundred feet past the crest of Hatcher Pass. On the right-hand side of the road is a parking area, and April Bowl Trail begins just across the road from the parking area. Getting from the parking area to April Bowl requires approximately 3/4 mile of hiking, followed by 3/4 mile to the summit of Hatch Peak and 3 1/2 miles to Government Peak.