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Off the Beaten Path: The Alaskan slam

Posted: January 24, 2014 - 1:02am
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Houston Laws crosses a creek during a recent training run north of Juneau.   Bjorn Dihle | For the Juneau Empire
Bjorn Dihle | For the Juneau Empire
Houston Laws crosses a creek during a recent training run north of Juneau.

After nearly a month of gray and drizzle, the forecast was calling for partly cloudy skies. I wasted no time in calling my friend Houston Laws to see if he wanted to go on a mini adventure into Berners Bay to look for petroglyphs and soak up some sunshine. To my surprise, he agreed. Most people avoid going out with me, and those who do often blame their anxieties, hair loss, irritable bowels and inability to form healthy relationships on the time they spent in the woods in my company.

The following morning the sky was clear and the air was crisp. We parked at Echo Cove at the end of Glacier Highway and, after strapping on snowshoes, followed the snowed-in, three-mile, $5 million dollar road extension Governor Sean Parnell ordered built in 2009. I still haven’t heard a credible reason from the state why this project happened; the road goes nowhere scenic or practical. Many people think the three mile extension was a maneuver to gain momentum for building a road through Berners Bay and up the east side of Lynn Canal.

Fresh deer tracks crisscrossed the cut through the woods. The old tracks of three wolves followed an unwavering line. Soon I was panting, slobbering and jogging — an activity I despise — to keep up with Laws. He was training to attempt to run four Alaskan 100-mile races in one year, a feat that has never been accomplished and is known as the “Alaskan Slam” in the ultra-running world. When I asked him why he was devoting more than a year and a half of his life to such a masochistic goal he referenced George Mallory’s famous quote.

“Because it’s there,” he said. “I just really want to push myself, to test where my limits are and see if I can do it.”

Laws grew up in Ketchikan and considers himself a Southeast Alaskan through and through. He ran his first marathon in 2002 when he was 17. He credits Ketchikan ultra runner Chris Nelson for inspiring him to run his first 50 miler in 2009. After that, he was hooked. In 2013 he ran the White Mountain 100, a winter race through the taiga and mountains north of Fairbanks. He limped away from the finish line with a bad case of trench foot. Despite setbacks and naysayers expressing skepticism about completing the Alaskan Slam, Laws trained even harder as soon as he could run again. His first race, the Susitna 100, is scheduled for the Feb. 15. In preparation, he’s running 20 to 30 miles five days a week, often sleep-deprived and on sore legs.

A flock of common golden-eye ducks bobbed in the water near Cascade Point where the road extension ended. The tide was still too high for beach walking, so we snowshoed into the forest. “Wetland” flagging, part of the survey for the Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement for bettering access in and out of Juneau, hung limply from branches. The SEIS, along with the state’s decision on how it wants to improve access to Juneau, is scheduled to be released to the public during the first part of 2014. The course of action the state seems to favor is building a 51-mile road to the Katzehin River Delta, where a new ferry terminal will be built to shuttle motorists to Haines and Skagway. The road would run through one of the wildest tracts of temperate rainforest left in the world. I can’t help wondering if Juneau, the rest of Alaska and even the country is about to clash over the issue.

The fresh tracks of a small wolf took my mind off the potential controversy. We followed them down to the beach and were rewarded with a vista of the Chilkat Mountains, a sight that always makes me feel lucky to live in northern Southeast.

At Sawmill Creek the snow-pack became firm enough that Laws decided to start running again. A man in a skiff studied us for a bit. I imagined I might look like a Sasquatch lumbering after a fleeing man, so I watched to make sure he didn’t pull out a rifle. The sky began to cloud over, the wind began to stir and a few big snowflakes fell. Fresh tracks left from a cow and calf moose, along with an assortment of mink and otter tracks, crisscrossed the snow near the high tide line. We explored one small cove after another hoping to find petroglyphs. Many rocks and cliff faces were covered with snow, hiding any potential artwork.

As daylight ran low, we sat down to a late lunch and talked about the unique challenges of staying healthy and getting outside in Southeast Alaska.

“It’s easy to get in a rut living here with the weather. It takes extra motivation to get out,” Laws said.

He works at the Mental Health Unit at Bartlett Regional Hospital and strongly believes in the relationship between physical activity and mental well being. He organizes walk-a-thons and encourages patients to be active.

“Another reason I’m trying to do the Alaskan Slam is in the hopes it might inspire other people to try harder and be more active,” he said.

I lumbered and Laws jogged along the beach until it turned into slippery boulders. A small otter scurried up a cliff as we picked our footing carefully. It was snowing when we made it back to Echo Cove in the twilight.

“Thirteen miles today,” Laws said, checking a device that calculated his mileage.

“Well, you’d be about one tenth of the way done with one of your races,” I said.

Laws smiled and shrugged.

I was ready to go home, display a small scratch on my arm to my girlfriend in hopes of inspiring pity, lie on the couch and moan. But I couldn’t help feeling inspired by Laws’ passion, devotion and masochism. I’ll probably never run a 100-mile race, but perhaps that night, after a few hours of whining, I’d do some pushups, maybe even a sit-up or two.

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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