Columnist’s note: I felt compelled to write this column Sunday night, even though it wasn’t due until Thursday afternoon. A short time after I finished, unbeknownst to me at the time, Alan Boraas would die of a stroke at Providence Hospital in Anchorage. Had I not written this Sunday, it never would have been written, replaced by a more conventional memorial. But I’m happy to let this stand as a tribute to the man who taught me so much about the value of place and shared outdoor activity. Happy trails to you, Alan.
Tightness in the chest. Queasiness in the stomach. Physical longing tinged with antsiness. Like a sled dog left behind on a training run.
It’s happened every time I’ve driven past the Skyline Trail since the Swan Lake Fire burned the area in August, keeping it currently closed to hikers.
I’ve thought about that first steep pitch when you enter the woods, pulling yourself over the top with an assist from a root and a downed tree as the heart races and the respiratory system jolts to action.
On Sept. 11, 2001, a friend and I made plans to hike Skyline.
“People are going to church today to deal with this,” he said. “This is my church.”
That day of waking up to an empty sky, as Springsteen later wrote, always resonates as I begin the climb. The unknown. The togetherness. Gratefulness for all I have, including this trail.
Things get wild in a hurry. The next bend features laced, serpentine roots. A black bear once blasted across the trail 10 feet in front of me here.
You’re in the wilds of Alaska now. Humbled. Vulnerable. Put in your place. And it feels good.
Climb a little farther and come upon a large boulder. In my 20s, I would jump 5 feet off this rock on my way down. In my 40s, I peck down and up it carefully. At least it’s not my mid-30s, when a back injury kept me off this trail for three years.
I’m not taking the safer, bypass trail off to the side. Not yet.
Continue to where the trail, before being rerouted, used to drop down a sharp hill to the left and over a creek. The old path is grown over now, practically unusable, but the memories remain pushki free.
My worst Skyline fall happened on that old trail, a gash closed by the bandage of a local ski coach.
A friend, K. Jones, got his nickname daredeviling down the slick, muddy bench that forced the eventual trail reroute.
And another friend arrived sweetly in my life for a summer on the top of that bench, her enchanting scent scrambling up that ledge a good minute before she did.
A climb, a flat section, then another rocky, rooty incline that starts with a boulder on the left, or a boulder on the right.
One Sunday afternoon in spring — one of those days when bluebird sunshine sucks winter right from the bones — I ran into a cancer survivor and Skyline legend on this spot.
“Perfect day to be up here,” he said, beaming.
Electric energy, appreciation, inspiration tingled through my body, settling moistly in the wells of my eyes.
It was a perfect day. He would know.
Finish this climb and arrive at the halfway point, with a nice log off to the left. With four friends, I sat here resting one day on a traverse over to Fuller Lakes.
One apologized for a slow start.
“It’s not a race,” another said.
“No, it’s certainly not,” came the content reply.
Soon the grade relents and it’s time for a relaxed approach to the saddle. Skilak Lake. Hideout Mountain. The flats. The lakes. Redoubt. Spurr. Iliamna. The Sterling Highway piecing its way back to town.
It’s all in play now.
You remember you weren’t gonna come because you had to do something important — you just can’t remember what that was anymore.
At the saddle sits Hobbit Forest — stunted, coniferous trees locking together for a hideaway childhood dream fort.
I sat in there one Christmas Day, watching tornadoes of snow racing along the ground until they whisked up the hills.
I’d run into a local commercial fisherman on the way up. As tough as they come, even for a commercial fisherman, I think he’s up to three death-defying escapes on land or sea at this point.
He’d told me he only made it to the Hobbit Forest on this stormy day. I wanted to go farther than him and I did. I counted. Ten steps.
One prickly rock wall after another now gradually clears trees and brush.
Bustling down this section at this time last year, I’d met two men who look as natural in the mountains as goats themselves. We marveled at how much the climate is changing, how it was odd this upper section of the trail got a bunch of snow then lost it so late in the year.
That area is black now. The fire got so hot it burned up to and past the tundra where we talked.
Next comes the bowl crossing and the knowledge that sometimes you need to know someone a long time to put in proper perspective how foolish you are.
I was walking down the trail here last year, hobbling along after a long traverse from Fuller Lakes, when a longtime friend said, “I remember back when you said running down this section as fast as possible was good for your knees.”
And then it’s just a short climb to the summit.
I’ve never known why, but when I reach that rock-strewn tip top, I yell. This doesn’t happen on other trails.
I’ll moderate it a bit if people are around, but sometimes you don’t see people having a “moment,” and, well, sorry.
I had one of those moments when another Skyline fixture, as enthusiastic and well-traveled adventurer as you’ll find, told me, “This is the best spot on the peninsula.”
I first thought he was crazy. This is a helluva peninsula.
I remember viewing Rodin’s “Man With a Broken Nose.” Rotate around the sculpture and each new angle reveals something different — a million sculptures in one.
The Mystery Hills are like that. They define beauty and breathtaking with each step and glance, each hour of the day and each shift of the season.
My mental trip up Skyline ends. I’ll arrive at Resurrection Pass or Vista Trail and settle for that.
Aah, Alaska slumming.
That fire was cursed. It terrorized Cooper Landing, saved only by the humbling bravery and expertise of the firefighters. But those flames seared in stark relief a connection to place that a professor who has charted my path in Alaska more than any other has been teaching for years.
When that trail finally opens, I’ll know why I scream when I get to the top.
It’s the best place on the peninsula.