Running Alaska’s Trails

High Mtn TrailPalmer, AK – Alaska as one of the last remaining wildernesses in the world, has its share of mountains, and outside of Europe’s renowned ranges, which have become known as the cradle of mountain and Sky Running, Alaska may yet provide the only mountains in North America rivaling that of Europe. And while Europe’s mountain trails are epic and well established, Alaska’s trails are only now being developed, or rediscovered, as the case may be. Long before the lore of Alaska became commonplace, it had been home to Indigenous peoples for millennia. These same people established extensive trade routes over and through the mountains, linking various communities in commerce; interestingly, many of these trails still exist, not only in mute testimony to the historical occupancy of these peoples, but as an open invitation to anyone willing to tread in the footsteps of the ancients.

While only recently appearing on the radar of the ultra, trail and mountain running community, helped in part by Sky Running World Champion Sky Killian Jornets’ epic, record- breaking ascent of Denali in June of 2014, Alaska may yet become the international destination for mountain trail runners seeking adventure in this “last best place”. While many destinations throughout the world offer challenging terrain, at high altitude, suitable for running, Alaska alone can offer both, but in the true context of wilderness. How many places can offer the high mountain expanses, glaciers, untamed rivers, unexplored territory and wildlife that have made Alaska world famous?

In keeping with Alaska’s exceptional nature, Its Native history may be equally important as well. For those seeking rejuvenation within the elevating solitude that only mountains can provide, this wilderness, once familiar to Alaska’s Native peoples, retains a memory of its own and still bears witness to the its symbiotic relationship with them. Of all the remaining places left on earth, Alaska certainly qualifies as the most primitive, and until only recently, the last independent stronghold of its indigenous people. They lived on it lightly, and with reverence, in a way best described by the Dena’ina concept of Beggesh and Beggesha, “wherein negative or positive information might be encoded in an artifact or a place” (Borass and Peter 2005); whether inadvertently or through direct intention, its metaphysical trace could remain long after the fact, with potentially beneficial or negative consequences. This concept of a consequential individuality interacting within the dimension of a divine creation, while foreign to modernity, is primary to our understanding and appreciation of how Alaska’s Native people, distributed over a wide geographic area, were able to utilize its natural resources, sustainably, over a very long period of time, while leaving little detrimental evidence of the historical fact.

While Alaska’s wilderness beckons, trails often provide the only means of access, yet publicly maintained trails are limited and often unclearly marked. Wilderness trails, on the other hand, can cross confusing jurisdictional boundaries of state, federal and tribal lands, consequently, access should be viewed as a both a privilege and personal responsibility. With the growing popularity of trail running, the use of existing trails, and demand for more trails will only increase, which makes trail etiquette increasingly important. With that in mind, one of the essential protocols while on the trail is to “Leave No Trace”, but apart from its more common connotation of carrying everything out that you brought in, make an effort to leave your mental garbage behind; before you follow those who went before, adjust your attitude, so that those who come after receive not only the blessings of nature, but of Beggesh.

Apart from Alaska’s notorious weather, it remains home to large populations of Moose and Bear, and the trails we run often follow natural animal corridors, along mountain ridges and stream courses. Bear that in mind when running alone, and, if at all possible, run with a partner. Although it’s every runners’ responsibility to become familiar with the area and its trails, and to be adequately trained and equipped, don’t become another statistic by forgetting to let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Carry enough gear! For a simple five-mile run, a water-bottle or hydration pack might be sufficient, but carry identification, including medical information, as well as a means of communication, such as a cell phone. For longer distances, over an hour or more, consider carrying electrolyte replacement, as needed, a trail-bar or two, a simple med-kit, as well as a hat and rain jacket. If you plan on putting in some serious mileage in the mountains, wear a running pack, with sufficient water, food, rain gear, a base-layer, medical supplies (including a space-blanket), GPS unit or “smart-watch”, possibly an emergency beacon, like SPOT, and perhaps a more reliable means of communication than a cell-phone. Remember that although Alaska’s wilderness beckons, it begins where the road ends. Coming back alive is the best story you will ever tell.

Contributor: Michael Kirby, Board Member and avid mountain runner

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