This story originally appeared in the September 2015 (44.1) issue of POWDER Magazine.
By DAVID STEVENSON
First day of the season on skis: three laps around my favorite snowy Anchorage loop. I am the first to park my car in the lot. The sun has barely risen and conditions are a little icy. On my third lap, I ski past a group of kids, red-cheeked beauties one and all, 7 or 8 years old. When they see me, they yell, “Snow bum!” and fall to either side of the trail like the parted Red Sea. They allow me clear passage, yet I am reluctant to take leave of them. I feel like a dude who has watched Sunday Mass on television for a couple seasons before finding his way back to church at Sacred Heart. A reminder of what is beautiful and holy.
Darkness at noon in Alaska. Every once in a while the sun works through the clouds and the sky holds dull pastel blues and yellows, as if a watercolor artist had touched up a black and white photograph. In spots, conifer branches brush me gently as I glide up the trail. A low front has warmed temps 20 degrees overnight and the snow is perfect. A kerfuffle in the branches ahead. I slow to a stop and a tiny bird, a chickadee, falls out of a tree and lands at my feet. The bird looks up at me and seems to say, WTF? A gift. It hops off the trail and flits into the trees.
Early spring. I am skiing through tracks laid over two feet of fresh snow. It’s cold and the snow is delicious and kind of crunchy, but not icy. For some reason my skis are not gliding very well, but who cares? When I ski up a rise, I can see Foraker and Denali through the bare trees to the north across Knik Arm. The mountains hover just off the horizon, catching the late afternoon alpenglow. Foraker is sharply defined and the Infinite Spur, the ridge bisecting its southern face, divides the lit-up western flank from its shadow-darkened eastern side. I am thinking of all the epics that have occurred there, mostly the tragic ones. Mystery and loss. I wouldn’t touch that freakin’ route no matter how easy Steve House thinks it is. There’s a bench that has a great unobstructed view of the Alaska Range and I am thinking about sitting for a while; I’m in no hurry. Then I notice a moose has planted itself in the snow in front of the bench and is lying there silently, almost motionless, munching on something. The moose doesn’t even know that I exist in the same universe. As I ski by, I notice an eagle sitting on a branch just above the moose. The eagle looks down at the moose and me. I move on, feeling like Thoreau promised, that I was, for a moment, living “with the license of a higher order of being.”
Tonight the trail is icy and just a tad more exhilarating than scary on the downhill: an inevitable sign of the end of the season. I have the place to myself. Alone in the forest, I feel like I am skiing after the apocalypse. It’s dead still. On the drive home, the Iditarod update on National Public Radio: speed versus strength, rest versus lightning assaults, the flat and fast Yukon River ahead. Above me the Chugach Range bathes in golden alpenglow. I am at home in the world.
David Stevenson directs the University of Alaska Anchorage MFA program in creative writing. He’s also a skier.