MOUNTAIN ECHOES: POW/MIA Mountain is a place for contemplation
We must have spooked the Dall sheep below us, because almost in unison they bolted across the grassy slope and formed into a single line on the ridge to the south.
All lambs and ewes, they moved quickly toward Eklutna Lake, crossing over the next ridge and out of sight.
“It could have been something else below us that we can’t see,” offered my friend Pete Panarese, implying that it might have been a bear.
It was Aug. 1st of this year — one of the few nice days in the month — and we were only a few hundred feet below the summit of 4,314-foot POW/MIA Mountain, which lies in the Chugach Mountains above Eklutna Road and a few miles the northwest of Eklutna Lake.
Named in 1999 by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, the peak honors U.S. servicemen and women who have become prisoners of war or declared missing in action. According to the Wikipedia website, there are currently about 800,000 soldiers classified POW/MIA.
About 10 a.m. Pete and I left the car at a pull out at Mile 4.5 on the Eklutna Road, then walked to Mile 5, looking for power line pole 85. If you scramble up the bank you’ll find the beginning of the trail.
Although somewhat steep in places, it is a good trail that guides you through the trees and brush and into alpine terrain at about 2,500 feet.
Only minutes after starting our hike, we were startled by the piercing cries of a bird in a tree above us, which Pete quickly identified as Sharp-shinned hawk. An Accipiter related to the goshawk, most sharp-shins follow waves of migrating songbirds in the fall and spend the winter in warmer regions.
However, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game notes that some individuals overwinter in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska.
We wore raingear on the lower portion of the trail because the brush was wet from the previous day’s rain. I led the way and took the biggest soaking.
“I hope you appreciate me absorbing all the wetness,” I yelled to Pete.
“You probably needed a bath anyway,” he retorted.
It was a relief to finally break out onto the alpine tundra that was thick with blueberries. With clouds lifting, the sun came out and a breeze helped dry some of our clothing.
The trail led upward and climber’s right (south) to a saddle, and from there we continued gaining elevation as we climbed relatively gradual slopes to the southeast.
With good visibility, it was not difficult to stay on our route.
A large bird suddenly soared over the ridge and we later saw it was joined by another. We eventually identified them as immature Golden eagles.
After about two hours of hiking we finally came to an open area at about 4,000 feet that offered two ridges, or choices, to get to POW/MIA. We picked the ridge on our left, or west, that offered a view of the Matanuska-Susitna valleys. In about half an hour we approached the summit with the two flags flying high on an aluminum pole.
Befitting a monument dedicated to honoring our POW/MIA soldiers, it was quiet and peaceful at the site. The only disturbance came when a U.S Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, apparently on maneuvers, buzzed past us.
A place for remembering
Whenever we climb in the mountains we are inclined to look forward. What is over the next ridge? What lies beyond that mountain?
But POW/MIA is one of the few mountains in Alaska, perhaps the only one, that compels us to look backward — and to think about the many sacrifices of our brave men and women in the U.S. military.
POW/MIA is clearly visible from Palmer and the Matanuska Valley. It’s the more rounded-shaped mountain just to the west of the jagged Twin Peaks.
Naming of POW/MIA came after a 20-year effort by Vietnam veteran Jim Morrissey and veterans’ advocate Leo Kaye.
Along with an American flag, a special black and white POW/MIA flag designed by the National League flies over the summit.
Each May and coinciding with Memorial Day, members of the Palmer Colony High School Army JROTC climb up to the site to replace the flags and make other repairs.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.