It turns out there are over 9,000 steps to taking your first Alaska hike.
Step one, two and three led me to the trailhead of Skilak Lookout Trail, a four-mile round-trip hike in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. I was sporting secondhand hiking boots with brand-new snow cleats strapped to their soles and many, many layers of clothing.
It wasn’t long, around steps 200, 201 and 202, before I realized I had never been on a hike before. The boots showed signs of use, but I was new at this.
I now firmly believe that calling anything in my home state of New Jersey a hike is a misnomer. The day before I left for Alaska, I “hiked” in the woods to go fishing with a friend. We circled lakes while hopping over fallen branches, but never once met an incline or even a hint of snow, and 45 minutes later we were safely back in our car without breaking a sweat.
Once I was staring up along the first steep section of the trail, I realized why my hiking partners, Elizabeth and Ben, told me to get snow cleats. I found myself calculating each forward movement, thinking two to three steps ahead to make sure I wouldn’t slip down an incline or fall off the trail into a snow bank. I would like to repeat, I’m new at this.
At steps 676, 677 and 678, I started to sweat. The trail gains elevation gradually, but my heart rate was climbing exponentially. I shed my scarf, my hat, my gloves and my jacket. Don’t tell my mother I was out in 20 degree weather without gloves, that’s unheard of in New Jersey.
I found my stride around my thousandth step, about a quarter of the way through the hike, and felt comfortable taking my eyes off of my feet. I looked forward and saw Ben and Elizabeth ahead on the trail, and then I looked to my left.
The most important moments in your first Alaska hike are the ones that happen in between the steps, when you turn your head and realize that those mountains you’ve been driving through for the past few weeks are more than a fleeting scene in your rearview mirror and that you are hiking along the side of one right now.
It’s in between the steps that I would catch my breath and find myself saying “Wow,” over and over again, calling to Ben and Elizabeth to wait up while I stopped and stared.
I took a lot more steps, climbing up along the trail and through the Hidden Creek burn (and learned what a burn is while I was at it), and I took many more moments to look out onto the mountains.
Then we stopped and the trail had ended, just like that. There is no, “Congratulations, you did it!” sign, like I had imagined — specifically around step 1,790, when I didn’t think I could finish a particularly steep section — but there is a flat rock. I stepped onto that rock and sat down next to Elizabeth and Ben and we looked out at a panoramic view of the mountains and Skilak Lake. I managed to hold a conversation in between the gush of emotion I felt as I looked out at the vista. I took my first Alaska hike and was rewarded with my first, up-close view of Alaska’s breathtaking scenery, and all I had to do was take a few steps.
As for the way back, steps 4,500 to 9,000 were a breeze. Any thoughts of my earlier struggles left my mind as we traveled down the mountain, and were replaced by future plans for my second, third and fourth Alaska hike.