Mountain quest

Columnist reconnects with trailblazing dad


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The shale slide leading up to the mountain’s ridge was easy to climb, and grass for most of this stretch provided relatively good footing. After about 500 feet I finally reached the ridge, which I expected would be somewhat gradual. However, I was surprised to see that it became precipitously steep on both sides. I recalled my dad’s admonishment, when as a child I first showed an interest in climbing: “Stay off the cliffs.”

“I’m going against you now dad,” I said to myself, working my way around 15 feet of a steep pitch without protection. I was relieved to see it led to a gully that ramped back up to the ridge. I would encounter a few other areas like this on the climb, and each time thought I could hear my father’s voice, “stay off the cliffs.”

And each time, the mountain seemed to generously offer a passable route.

It was a tougher climb than I anticipated, but I felt as if a strong force were pushing me along. I had named this 3,800-foot peak west of Seward after my father, and was journeying up there for the first time to erect a marker. From 1947-50 my father and a partner operated a hard rock gold mine in the vicinity, and my dad often talked about this feature, calling it “Black Shale Mountain.” Before he died in 1984, I promised that I would name it after him, calling it Mt. Kennybaker.

After another hour of circuiting knife-edged ridges and jumbles of rock, sometimes dropping down and then scrambling back up to the ridge line, I could see that I was running out of mountain. I even spoke aloud: “I’m almost there dad, I’m going to make it.”

It was a warm, blue-sky day in August of this year, but the wind was coming out of the north at about 20-25 miles per hour, with gusts up to 30. The views out to the west were incredible, with Bear Glacier sprawling south to the ocean and numerous smaller glaciers tucked between the plateaus abutting the massive Harding Ice Field that caps the Kenai Peninsula.

After installing the marker and taking a few photos, I found a place out of the wind and had lunch. The climb back down would be difficult, but strangely, I wasn’t worried. On this day something was imbuing me with all the strength that I needed.

I visited my dad’s old mine site 13 years earlier in a search for relics and artifacts, but mainly to reconnect with him. He and my mother divorced when I was nine years old, and after that he and I didn’t have much contact, other than letters. But in those first nine years of my life, he somehow instilled in me a love for the outdoors, especially mountains. I remembered his stories about the mine and his many adventures in the wild. On that last visit, as I walked around the ruins of his mine, I truly felt his presence. I looked up at the mountain that towers over his old claim and vowed to name it after him.

The capricious wind hurled itself at me when I rose to get ready for the descent back to my tent camp. I knelt down until the gusts subsided. I might never get here again, so I took one last look at the country stretching far to the west. Was it really gold my father was seeking out here 60 years ago, or was it something else? Other than the fact there was less ice and snow than half a century ago, I doubt this land had changed much in all that time. It had remained isolated and outside civilization’s tumult. There was an enduring peace here, a latent truth that is hard to define.

I think my dad experienced a deep bond with God in this place. I know I felt it.

He wrote several poems. Perhaps these few lines say it best:

 

“From his lonely aerie an eagle watched
while God whispered an ode;
it was dust to dust by the dusty trail
where you found the mother lode.
In that fleeting trail-bound moment
In the vista of eternity,
you saw the goal where your splinter soul
fulfilled its destiny.
And now the truth is before you
where the spirit re-unites;
the wind told you so, long long ago,
out there on those craggy heights.”

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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