By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
Once upon a time, my plans for spring were portended by failures from the preceding autumn. However, for the past few years, I am happy to say that this pattern of behavior has changed.
Autumn on the Kenai Peninsula usually arrives in two waves — starting with the often beautiful, crisp wave that features frosty mornings, clear blue skies, brightly turning leaves and the welcome death of biting insects. That’s followed by the sodden, browning, wetter wave that features decaying organic matter, grayer skies, ephemeral snows and a softening of sound that heralds winter. Over much of my life, it was during this second wave that I began to abandon my outdoor-adventure goals and set them aside for next year.
Unfortunately, “Wait ’til next time,” often meant, “Just forget about it.” While teaching high school English in Soldotna from 1988 to 2008, much of my “planning for next year” amounted to little more than wishful thinking. Those “saved” treks — climbing Mount Ascension, for instance, or finding a way up Mount Alice and returning to the high country above Cottonwood Creek Trail — usually wound up unrealized and saved again and again, like items on a to-do list that are never crossed off, due largely to a deeply ingrained blueprint of seasonal behavior.
Once fall arrived I began to fatten up for winter like the bears of the Kenai. I slowed my metabolism and grew slothful as I mostly hunkered in my den, waiting for waning sunlight to wax, for snow to melt once more from the trails, and for the energy of springtime to jump-start my diminished battery and provide the impetus to push me out the door.
Each spring I eventually emerged from dormancy to lumber off in search of adventure, but doing so was not easy. Hibernation always exacted a price — the pain associated with overcoming muscle atrophy and increased bulk.
I then exacerbated that pain by starting most summers too fast.
One of my first targets each year, usually on a warm weekend in mid- to late April, was the Slaughter Gulch trail in Cooper Landing. I felt exhilarated — between the panting pauses that punctuated my pathetic pioneering — to return to alpine terrain, briefly unfettered by lesson planning and grading, and breathing nonclassroom air. And as I shambled back to my van at the trailhead, smiling and usually muddy and wet, I was consistently unprepared for the aftermath — my knees would lock up during the drive home, the soles of my feet would become hamburgery, and for two or three days my hamstrings and quadriceps would be sensitive to the lightest touch.
On Monday, I’d hobble about the high school, grimacing on the stairs, fearful of bumping a thigh against a student’s desk. On Tuesday, the grimaces became slight winces, the hobbling more of a clumsy shuffle. By Wednesday, I was miraculously healed and swimming once again in denial concerning my lack of proper conditioning.
At the end of that full week of sitting at my desk, snacking on doughnuts in the teachers’ lounge and nursing my wounds, I would re-attire myself in Weekend Warrior regalia. I’d set aside Saturday or Sunday to assault more topographic contours, typically Skyline Trail or Hideout Hill, whichever appeared most snow-free. And so it went, punishing weekend after punishing weekend, until the school year ended in late May and I was liberated from my self-imposed sedentary life.
By the time June arrived, hiking uphill and down hurt less or not at all, and I was moving on to longer and more adventuresome treks — training, I probably claimed, for the bigger trips to come. But I kept postponing the major outings, waiting for perfect weather or a perfect opportunity. In other words, stalling for a time that almost never arrived.
After I retired, however, things changed (although I’d be lying if I said they changed right away). I joined the Kenai Peninsula Outdoor Club. I got back in shape under the ministrations and patience of trainer Darin Hagen. I also altered my mind-set. No more sloth. No more painful transitions with the seasons. No more sitting on my ass all winter.
Eventually, I was hiking year-round, often on snowshoes during the winter. I was skiing more often. I make longer treks on my mountain bike. And I started running for the first time since my college days.
Alaska opened up to me.
With much-appreciated pretrip advice from Pete Sprague and the accompaniment of Yvonne Leutwyler, I finally summited Mount Ascension. Accompanied by Tony Eskelin and Tom and Stephanie Kobylarz, I finally crossed Skilak Lake again and climbed above the terminus of the Cottonwood Creek Trail. With Yvonne and my brother, Lowell, I pounded up Pioneer Peak in Palmer. And with the assistance of inside information from a Seward resident, I at last learned the location of the Mount Alice trailhead and ventured up its rocky spine.
Now, instead of pocketing my plans in the autumn and digging them out with the lint in the spring, I’m planning constantly, seeking adventure regardless of the season. Each season, I’ve learned, holds special promise. (Of course, nonsnowy winters, high winds and extra-rainy summers can provide unwelcome challenges, too, but generally I’m much less interested in excuses than I used to be.)
Here in Dillingham now, I’ve struggled a bit more to get out as consistently and to be as fit as I’d like. We live on the second story of an apartment building. We have one car. The area has only three recognized trails, few roads and no public gym or recreation center. But those are just excuses. Such obstacles force us to think unconventionally. We seek access, or create it, where none appears to exist. We look for alternate means of transportation — kayaks, packrafts, friends with motorized boats and wheeled vehicles.
And we save money to shell out for trips to places beyond our reach.
Near Dillingham is the largest state park in the nation — Wood-Tikchik, the crown jewels of which are the series of five interconnected freshwater lakes that feed the Wood River and part of the most productive red salmon fishery in the world — Bristol Bay. North of those five lakes lie a half-dozen more, the most northern of which is Nishlik. This summer, rafting and fishing, camping and hiking at Nishlik is on our radar, among other things.
We’ve also discovered a dry ridge that will give us access to hills lying across stretches of wet, spongy tundra and winding watercourses. We’re eager to access this “gateway” and to explore new mountaintops and peer beyond them into new valleys.
But when next fall arrives, we won’t fret about what we haven’t accomplished. And we won’t worry about waiting out the long winter. We’ll ski across snowy marshes, fish through the ice of area lakes, explore on snowshoes the brushy confines of meandering salmon streams — searching, always searching, and ever in motion.
I’m not interesting in slowing down anytime soon.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.