Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story about the life and philosophy of two Alaskans who embraced a life of outdoor activities, Charlie MacInnes and his wife, Kit. Part 1 details some of their many accomplishments, while next week, Part 2 will provide more of their personal background and examine their philosophies on life.
By Clark Fair
Charlie MacInnes was an impressive man.
In December 1979, for his Christmas vacation, he spent nearly two weeks bicycling 1,116 miles from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of the Baja peninsula in Mexico.
On the first day of this trip, he was nudged off his bike in San Diego traffic by the box of a camper truck driven — as MacInnes wrote later in his diary — by “an overweight American tourist.” Despite abrasions to his left elbow and right leg, he climbed right back on his bike, determined not to allow a bad beginning to ruin his entire vacation.
MacInnes was 66 years old at the time.
In his mid-60s, MacInnes was a lean machine. After the effort of the Baja bike tour, he weighed only 137
pounds (down about 10 pounds from his usual weight), and stood 5 feet, 9½ inches in his bare feet. In a photo accompanying a January 1980 Cheechako News article about the bike trip, MacInnes is seen standing next to his touring bike and facing the photographer. Evident even in grainy black and white is his squarish, handsome face, coupled with his wiry arms, tapered chest, thin waist and muscular legs — a chiseled form atypical for a man his age.
That strong frame was no fluke of genetics. It had been carved through the hard work of years on the move, years of self-propulsion by a man who eschewed most mechanized travel in favor of whatever distance he could cover under his own power.
MacInnes, and his wife, Kit, preferred to glide on skis, run on their own two feet, mush sled dogs and ride bicycles — and so that’s what they did, decade after decade. Starting in their 20s, they ventured outdoors and began moving forward, producing some striking results:
They both competed in the dog-sledding sprint races at Fur Rendezvous and elsewhere from the late 1940s until the early 1960s. In 1961, at the age of 42, Kit won the Women’s Championship for the third time. Charlie
won a number of preliminary events and finished high in the finals many times.
Charlie, at the age of 64 in 1977, competed in a marathon on the Resurrection Pass Trail.
In her late 60s, Kit, petite and only 5 feet tall, was still competing in races with her daughter, Ann (MacInnes) Mize.
In his early 70s, Charlie once rode his bike from their home on Mackey Lake Road to the end of the spit in Homer, intending to ride back far enough to earn a “century” — a 100-mile day — before calling to have someone drive down and pick him up. Instead, he felt so good that day that he decided to ride on home. Upon his arrival, he determined that he was close to a “double century” so he kept going. He headed north and then doubled back to earn his total.
Both Charlie and Kit stayed physically active into their early 80s.
According to the MacInneses’ good friend, Alan Boraas, all this fitness, particularly during their geriatric years, ran counter to the medical wisdom that prevailed when Charlie and Kit were growing up and even in their early adulthood.
“At the time, the wisdom was that you stopped doing sports in your teens or early 20s,” Boraas said. “(After that) it wasn’t seemly to be running. Doctors felt it was a stress on the heart. And both Charlie and Kit were of the opinion, contrary to what medicine said, that they loved (vigorous exercise), and it was meaningful to them.”
“I don’t think Charlie or Kit ever even considered the thought that getting older meant that they could do less,”
Boraas said. “And Charlie was certainly aware that he didn’t have the stamina that he did when he was younger — Kit, too, probably. He was aware that he wasn’t as fast — but that didn’t matter. He thought, ‘What’s the percent of my ability that I can do?’ And so they always pushed to the 90 percent of whatever age they were. And they had great admiration for those that did the same at their age.
“It was the body that was important,” Boraas continued. “It was what the body could do. And that’s a fact that a lot of people miss today. Well, for Charlie and Kit, exercise was a joy. It was the meaning of life. And so the body was a vehicle for the two of them to embrace that life. And that’s the significance. They didn’t sculpt their bodies to look good. They created hard, muscular, endurance-based bodies in order to enjoy those endurance activities that they loved.”
It was that mindset and that endurance-based body that allowed Charlie (as part of a 20-person guided group of mixed ages) to pedal more than 1,100 miles through dry desert country in his mid-60s — an average of about 10 hours and 80 miles of pedaling per day, sometimes over mountainous terrain, for a dozen days. In his trip diary, he wrote that their guide had told him that Charlie was the oldest biker ever to complete the trip.
Less than a year before Charlie died in 1995, Boraas recalled, he and Kit were still active outdoors — still biking, still skiing. On one particular day that Boraas and his wife were skiing at Kincaid Park in Anchorage, they unexpectedly met up with Kit and Charlie (then 81 years old) on the trails:
“We saw two old people shuffling up the trail. It was, of course, Charlie and Kit MacInnes. It was near the end of the day, and we
talked happily about racers, skiing, trails and weather, all the while bathed in the wonderful yellow light that comes with the setting sun in midwinter,” Boraas wrote about the incident.
“Then Charlie said they better be going, and Kit said, with a twinkle in her eye, ‘Race you to the car.’ Cheeks red, eyes merry, the two old folks stepped around to gain the advantage on the trail. Charlie got going first. But Kit stuck out her pole and tripped him and then zipped into the lead. The chase was on. We could still hear them laughing as they rounded a bend and disappeared from sight. It may have been the most spirited race of the day.”
Excerpt from: ‘The last time I saw Charlie ski: On the meaning of life in the north’
By Alan Boraas, July 1994
On a cold, clear January day I watched as 20 or so high school skiers finished a workout on a hill close to the trailhead of the Tsalteshi Ski Trails near Soldotna. As the last of the teenagers charged up the hill I saw a familiar car pull up in the parking lot. My 80-year-old friend Charles MacInnes got out and began his ritual of getting ready to ski — a ritual he had performed hundreds of times in his 60-odd years cross-country skiing. His son Scott, approaching 40 but looking closer to 30, was with him.
Slowly, methodically, father and son prepared themselves and their skis for a day on the trails. They didn’t talk much; skiing for them was not about talking. Skiing for them was an unspoken conversation of shared experience, muscles and minds gliding the hills together at a place they love.
I watched them for a little while, then turned my attention back to the Skyview ski team workout. We were practicing the diagonal stride — a skiing technique that is as old as the sport itself. One after another they charged up the hill trying to grasp the elusive secrets of going fast uphill and fathom the mystery of wax on snow. “Lean forward … reach with your skis … good, next time put some pop into it!” Head coach Allan Miller called out the themes of uphill skiing as the teenagers repeated their turns on the hill. The better skiers assaulted the workout with determination; confidently sailing up the hill in defiance of gravity as can only be done on cross-country skis. The younger ones skied with trepidation as if they were amazed skis could actually glide uphill. The rest concentrated on making their bodies respond to the will of their minds.
Charlie and Scott were ready to ski, and the ski team had done the last hill of the day. I suggested to Allan that we ask Charlie to talk to the ski team. He agreed to assemble the skiers at the end of a cool-down lap, and off he went with the horde of teenagers in one direction while I skied over to talk to Charlie.
“Hello, Alan, beautiful day for skiing,” Charlie called out his characteristic hale-fellow greeting as I approached. We talked of weather, wax, trail conditions and family. Then I asked him if he would say a few words to the ski team that was beginning to assemble about a hundred yards away. He agreed.
We skied side-by-side on the double-tracked trail. Charlie was not one to waddle on skis. He reached for the track and let his skis glide. He shifted his weight and poled vigorously. Not many years earlier when Charlie participated in citizen races his body was supple and he had the endurance of a wolf loping across the tundra. Now he had a stiffer, more halting stride of a man in his eighties, but a man who had the heart of an athlete. As we approached the ski team he put a little more zing in his stride. He skied with dignity and pride, well aware there were young people watching.
The young skiers assembled around Charlie. They stood in a loose semicircle wearing a menagerie of gear consisting of a mixture of brightly colored nylon, spandex and northern grunge.
Charlie’s face was deeply lined with heavy brows over clear eyes whose brightness spoke of one immersed in life, one who let nothing pass unnoticed. He was missing the top of his right ear and had other wounds, both external and internal, the consequence of an active life. He was of medium height, a strong barrel chest, no excess fat, with legs a man half his age would be proud of.
Charlie’s equipment was a curious combination of old and new chosen for its good service and functionality and representing six decades of cross-country skiing. He had good, 1980s-vintage, wood-core, fiberglass, no-wax skis, among the best money could buy. His boots were from the 1960s, made of real leather, warm and comfortable with room to wiggle the toes, and his bindings were the old three-pin variety. He wore dark-blue knickers made in a style popular in the 1950s. His wool knicker socks and wool sweater would have been stylish in the 1940s. Over his sweater he wore his faded red anorak with all his Mount Marathon race patches sewn on. To keep his hands warm he wore heavy, wool-lined leather mittens, good for cutting wood in the 1930s and for skiing on a cold day in the 1990s. And on his head he wore a brightly colored, lightweight, polypropylene knit cap typical of a 1990s ski racer. His equipment was like he was — comfortable, functional, well-used, and of high quality.
Charles MacInnes was more than 60 years older than the young skiers gathered around him. They were near the start of the trail of life and were about to listen to a man near the end of his. Teenagers don’t often hear old people talk to them anymore. Their teachers retire in their 50s or earlier, their celebrity heroes are seldom older than 40. They might see a public official or businessperson interviewed on television but the grayhairs are not really talking to them. Grandparents are a voice on the phone. Elders, in their world, are not purveyors of wisdom, but a gerontology problem to be discussed in social studies class.
I made the introductions, and then Charlie, standing tall, back erect, hands on both ski poles in front of him, began to talk. The youngsters were unusually quiet as Charlie began his impromptu speech:
When I was a young man in my 20s doctors felt it was unhealthy for anyone to exercise beyond the age of 30. Athletes retired early because doctors said their heart would go bad and they’d die young. My wife and I and some others thought this was bunk and are living proof that a life of exercise can be healthy.
I never listened to those who said I couldn’t do things. For example, last fall on my 80th birthday I rode a century on my bicycle — that’s a hundred miles in one day — even though people said I shouldn’t. For all our lives Kit and I have been skiing, running, skijoring, dog-mushing, hiking, bicycling and playing tennis. Sometimes we’ve competed and sometimes we’ve done it just to do it. Not that we haven’t had injuries. Maybe you’ve noticed I’ve only got half an ear on this side. A car hit me when I was bicycling a few years ago and would have killed me if I hadn’t been wearing my helmet.
But we’ve had a good vigorous life together. We’ve been to a lot of wonderful places not many people get to, and we’ve returned to many of them year after year. The outdoor life has kept us physically strong and morally straight, and we’ve had a lot of fun. It’s a good way to live, and you can, too.
His speech over, Charlie smiled at the skiers and said, “Well, we’re going skiing now — good luck this season.” And he turned and skied off down the trail, no question-and-answer session, no long discussion; he had said his piece and now he was going skiing. As I watched him leave, I noticed he was putting as much pop and glide into his stride as he could muster. Some of the young skiers saw it as well.
Off he went with Scott beside him: across the flats, up the hill, and around a bend to meet the day and the terrain. Off to encounter the landscape’s rhythm, the surety of the hills, and the authority of gravity. Off to feel the amazing contrast of delightful, crisp air wrapping around his exercise-warm body. Off to feel once again, if only for a brief moment, the cosmic convergence of technique and terrain when your body’s movements conform to your will and you ski effortlessly as though floating over the landscape in a kind of out-of-body experience.
The young skiers watched for a moment and then headed to the nearby school to put away their skis. Gradually their chatter picked up. Exuberant, healthy youth do not spend much time pondering life’s mysteries. As I skied with them I wondered what effect, if any, Charlie’s impromptu speech would have. Some joked about Charlie’s mittens and knickers, and some marveled at his ear. Some passed the whole talk off, or seemed to, and went on to important matters, such as what movie they would like to see next.
I fell in behind a group of girls who were discussing Charlie’s talk. I heard one young freshman say, “When I get old like him I want to be one of those little old ladies at races who comes in last and everybody cheers for.”