Archangel Valley is richly decorated with extraordinary low-to-the-ground, colored vegetation, intermittent with tough green bushes on a stony landscape. This encapsulated mountain environment is remarkable for its unique plant variety, rich texture and vibrant earth tones (not a misnomer, earth tones can be bright!) Located in Hatcher Pass, Alaska not far from Anchorage near Wasilla, this valley is luxurious in its mountain plant growth and exhilarating panoramic scenic vistas.
Tumble down boulders line the valley hillsides, brought down by earthquakes and after shocks, earth vibrations and crust movement. From boulder to boulder, a soft flora blanket offers secure footing as each footstep settles on nature’s granite staircase with thick carpet cover, each trod a surprise of softness on a solid base.
The variety of rock-covering plants causes the mind to almost tremble as it attempts to correlate this mountain environment with others these feet have walked upon. This is a fairyland, denser than any grassy knolls I can recall, firmer than dirt mounds, solid as felt covered marble. There are no tripping branches or toe-tying roots lying about. Instead, the plants are soft as princess pine, a joy to tread upon.
Tiny white-greenish mushrooms protrude like golf tees in grass, like tiny white Shrek ears that bugle out
through the gray-green lichen, up through the narrow, tiny leaves of tundra plants: crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), bog blueberry (vaccinium uliginosum) and lingonberry (vaccinium vitis-idaea,)* multi-green plants that cling to the granite surface awaiting your next step. (*Thanks to Betty Charnon, Kenai Peninsula Zone Ecologist for your indispensable help identifying the plants.)
No green mosses embrace these arctic boulders. Our shoes sink-in through
the foot covering softness of alpine plants to the underlying strength of granite upon granite, a millennia worth. There are deep, dark holes between the boulders. Could there be Maurice Sendakian “Wild Things” peeking and giggling at a wanderer whose foot treads upon their secret place?
A cauliflower of white flowers—no not flowers, lichen, decorates the boulders like off-white frosting or perhaps creamy toupees. Tiny pink flowers wink amidst the ground covering plethora of unknown plants. No common grass grows here. This is a Christmas carpet of plants, fawning delicate, but heartily decorating like ornamental wreaths draping a landslide of fallen boulders torn by avalanches from the craggy mountains above.
Icy blue-green glacial streams caress the stone as they bubble and wrestle their way over piled rocks creating tiny waterfalls and gushing arches of white water against clear running water undercurrents. Miniature leaf-boats, afloat on rivulets, glide by making voyages to unknown, faraway valley places where greater river currents run strong and swift and huge salmon fight their way upstream seeking the little watery glens of their birth. Tiny tributaries, awash with spring moisture, are seeking the path gravity and geography have laid out for them, tributaries leading to streams leading to rivers and the sea. Clear water, cascading through such valleys as this, is nature’s gift to earth, flowing tumbling spring water through each little glen. The water opportunes to be water source to plants of multiple greens, mellow yellows, fiery reds, and sunset oranges of the alpine landscape, delivering nurturing spring water to assure this valley remains the wonder that it is.
From the road edge down to the canyon floor, one feels like Fred Astaire dancing with the grace of a gazelle, gliding down a long, curving movie staircase. Flowing briskly at the bottom are the crisp clear waters of a mountain stream. A bank lined with plants like milkweed and thistle; peppered with a mixed packet of short and tall wildflowers, small dells of cotton grass decorate bog surfaces along with lower growing, almost ripe, wild blueberries. Large mushrooms break through in brown or tan or yellow-red, providing shady spots for elves and leprechauns of the north to rest.
Shiny, smooth ponds are formed by beaver industry: beaver dams woven from sticks, ragged brush and water plants entwined, hold back the tide. The water surfaces are slightly higher than the adjacent stream. These dammed up ponds are surrounded by stick walls and higher ground. Water teeters at a tipping point on the brink, a hair’s breadth below the woven edge. One pool feeds into the next, then another; like wide, watery rain-soaked steps on a patio. Strangely, there are almost no visible waterfalls yet, sight unseen, one knows that somehow these pools flow into each other following the course of the stream.
A nearby ptarmigan, the Alaska state bird, passes, clucking her peculiar call. Her chicks follow slowly behind with bursts of running as if uncertain or afraid. Behind them, the cock follows his family, nudging stragglers along with his orange breast and feathered feet. Feathered feet make walking on snow an easier feat. Some, not all, ptarmigans turn completely white for the winter months as a protection against predators.
High-pitched calls of bald eagles are heard in the distance, life-mates flying in concentric circles, studying the canyon below with an eye that causes each shrew to shudder. Flight shadows speed by sending tiny mice diving for cover, causing bunnies to pause in stone-like paralysis with only noses twitching, eyes rolling as marbles, ever searching the clouds for signs of danger. Small wildlife is subject to many earth-bound predators, but cold winters mean no snakes slither through the Edens of Alaska.
Here and there a path of flattened brush and plants indicates the passing of a bear or a moose on the way to fresh water and tender young shoots or tasty berries at the water’s edge. Sometimes there is a shady, tamped down spot in deep grass where an animal has lain down to rest and observe the valley before it.
The sky rolls by in gray, misty clouds huddling tightly around craggy peaks like puffy white wreaths encircling Santa’s cap. The rain drizzles down spattering leaves and stream surfaces, turning paths to sandy mud where a misstep can sink ankle-deep in thawed permafrost.
There is a rich, musty plant odor in the air, a pleasant smelling cool draft of nostril-filling wildness. Under rich, thick cover, small streamlets of water occur around pools one must jump, hump to hump, to preserve dry feet. Imagine this place in winter snow, covered in deep, white coldness, where a snowshoed person can pass and never be wise to plant life awaiting spring to burst from the rich earth below. One looks about here in the summer months watching sharply for waving bushes indicating where large, predatory animals might march along their marked territory edges searching for sustenance and guarding against intruders like me.
My eye follows the road edge above me at the top of the valley. Reassuringly I spy Kate, head and shoulders protruding out of the truck sunroof, binoculars in hand and a steady eye to be sure that if trouble comes she can warn me. If I should fall she can rescue me. Or perhaps admiring from a distance the joy in my heart at visiting such a remarkable place as Archangel Valley beneath nature’s sculpting of an Archangel on a cliff wall above.