Cheechako's guide to Skyline Trail

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2001

I had to slide, stumble or trip at least 15 times on my second trek on the Skyline Trail before I felt that the trail was truly my own. Even though it was my second time on the trail, it was still a new experience. This time out, it had been raining, and I struggled against my natural instinct to stay inside where it was dry.

I was almost a month into my new residency in Alaska, when a couple of my colleagues asked me to go with them up Skyline on my day off. The week before, I went up on a clear day and enjoyed the scenery along with the challenge of schlepping my sorely out-of-shape body up the 3,000-foot incline. And on the way down, I was warned about how many of the steeper parts of the trail became almost impossible to tread on. But this time, with the forecast calling for rain, I wasn't so sure this was the thing to do.

"Maybe I'll pass this time," I told my colleague. "I don't have the right equipment to make it in wet weather."

My friend scoffed at this notion, suggesting that the only "equipment" he ever really needed for this trail in the rain were a healthy set of cajones.

So, with my manhood challenged, I found my-self headed north on the Sterling Highway in the rain, en route to Skyline the next morning. As a native of Tennessee, I am no stranger to hiking up steep trails. The Great Smokies and the Appalachians are filled with such paths. But favorable weather -- fair skies and moderate temperatures -- were ample, so the question of when to stay off the trails rarely came up.

When I first arrived in Alaska, however, someone told me that if I let the weather dictate my ventures into nature, I'd never get out. So I got out.

As I was climbing the slope, I felt like I was fording new trails. Conquering new horizons. Look-ing back over my shoulders to the mountains all around me I could see the rain blowing by in the distance. Just behind me, I saw the trail being swallowed by a haze that meant I could be swamped in precipitation if it caught up to me. We picked up our pace to reach the summit.

I was King of the Hill when I got to the top. On the way up, it was easy to see where one could take a spill and completely ruin their day. The dirt and rock on the trail were slick, and the earth was sliding from under my feet with every step.

On the last third of the trail, loose rocks rolled past me, up-ended from the person just ahead of me. But I was facing the climb and had only upward to look.

Of course, going down the trail was much more treacherous (or at least it seemed so to me) than going up. My first foray on the "hill" saw me just barely catching myself only a few times. This time, it was as if every new turn found me clamoring for trees, bushes, grass and even the mud itself.

I made one near-disastrous leap from one side of the gooey path to an outstretched branch, only to lose my grip before catching myself a few branches lower. This scared me to death, and I decided not to be so cavalier with this unknown territory.

By the time I reached the bottom, my normally sure-footed self assurance had turned to doubt with every step. Even when we reached the bottom and walked across the highway back to the parking area.

In retrospect, maybe I hadn't claimed Skyline that day. Maybe I didn't do much more than humble an ego inflated by years of big city living and dependency on modern conveniences.

But I did gain something on the trail. I came to Alaska to rediscover the simpler things in life and to learn to overcome boundaries I created for myself when I lived in urban comfort. Slogging through the mud and muck, I made my first steps to accomplishing that goal.

Marcus K. Garner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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