By Michael W. Williams
Across a wintery, steel grey Cook Inlet Mt. Susitna looms on the Anchorage skyline. This mountain is affectionately known to many locals today as Sleeping Lady. What is this Sleeping Lady all about? There are a number of Anchorage businesses that take their name from Sleeping Lady. Prints, coffee mugs, books and other assorted items depicting Sleeping Lady abound.
In recent times Mt. Susitna inspired the story of Sleeping Lady. A story evolved over the last 40 odd years. It leads us to believe the Mountain is the outline of a woman from a tribe of giant people. Covered in her blanket of white she lays asleep waiting for her love to return from war.
Mt. Susitna was once thought by local natives to impart a gift of strength to anyone climbing to its upper reaches. Today it is still a place where impressive numbers of brown and black bears lumber along well worn paths to favorite fishing holes or berry patches. A pack of wolves pursue prey of moose, hare and other small animals. Bull moose browse the high country in summer while cows with their newborns seek the safety of the lakes below.
If the Mountain could speak in words it would tell stories of people from as far back as 10,000 years ago roaming its countryside. Stories of people like Joe Reddington, Sr. combing the mountainside by dog team searching for downed aircraft. Hired by the Army in the 1950s to recover crashed aircraft and their contents Reddington made at least a dozen trips up the Mountain often alone for days and weeks at a time.
There was Tom Krause who lived 4 miles away at Sucker Lake. Tom spent the better part of 60 years living alone trapping, commercial fishing and pursuing a lifestyle many might call eccentric.
Bud Wilkens spent years prospecting for gold in an ancient river bed at the base of the Mountain. Few know for sure if he was ever rewarded for his years of search. He almost lost his life though, trying to walk out of the shadow of the Mountain back to civilization. Sleeping Lady is alluring and ruthless.
Take a little different perspective of the Mountain today. On the northwest side of Mt. Susitna lays Trail Lake. On the north shore of the lake is a patch of land known as EagleSong. It’s this place my family calls home.
In 1994 we traded a 20 year Army career for a life in the bush. My wife Paula and our four children Meghan 12, Lee 8 and twin boys Cody and Micah 6 held a dream to live a simpler life and walk a slightly different path.
We purchased a piece of land that held a handful of dilapidated log cabins reverently submitting to the dominance of Mt. Susitna and the weather it creates. The cabins, remnants of a 1970s era homestead.
Raising a family, making a living and living your dreams often have nothing in common. In our case EagleSong is the glue that binds all of these together. A homestead of the new millennium, still depending on ways of the last. A homestead, just a short mile off the famed Iditarod National Historic Trail. Not unlike homesteads that catered to the travelers of a hundred years ago my family rents cabins and provides other services to the traveler of today’s Iditarod.
A dog lot providing safe harbor for up to 50 weary sled dogs is constructed each winter on the lake. A runway designed to accommodate any of Alaska’s ski planes is tediously tended to all winter. Pilots are held in high esteem here. Many of the planes that land are older than the pilots that fly them. They still deliver food, fuel, mail and dozens of other things that are just a quick car ride for most.
The winter is a collage of trail work, tending farm animals, construction, home schooling, guiding, trapping, hunting and simple everyday living. Electricity requires the diesel generator, drinking water must be pumped and warmth means firewood.
Who will come down the trail today? Anyone? During a typical winter it could be a dog team, snowmachines, x-country skier, snowshoer…even a mountain bike not uncommon. There are times when not a sole from the outside is seen for weeks.
The gems in our winter crown are the races that call EagleSong a checkpoint.
The Junior Iditarod Sled Dog Race where youngsters hone their mushing skills over a 150 mile backcountry course. Some aspire to follow the trail all the way to Nome. Are we looking at future Iditarod champions? Odds are yes.
The Susitna100 Ultra Marathon, a 100 mile race pitting runners, snowshoers, x-country skiers and mountain bikers from around the world against the Alaska winter and each other.
The Knik 200, Joe Reddington Memorial Sled Dog Race, a qualifying race for the 1,049 mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Where professional and amateur mushers train their teams.
All the while Mt. Susitna silently intoxicates the senses with its beauty. Seven years ago unable to draw simple stick figures I now use chain saw to carve bears, eagles and wood spirits out of white spruce logs. Shed moose antlers are carved into scenes of nature inspired by the Mountain.
Today the wreckage of airplanes still dot the Mountain. Occasionally, a wheel or ski plane will land on top to take in the view. Since 1994 EagleSong has maintained a winter trail leading up the Mountain opening access to snowmachines, backcountry skiers and snowboarders. A brief window for people from across that steely gray inlet to experience the beauty of this mostly isolated mountain. A mountain viewed daily by thousands, but touched by few.
There is a song that asks “have you ever heard the wolf howl at the new born moon”. In the shadow of Mt. Susitna, I have.
What is it like living in Alaska’s backcountry today? What is typical or routine for an Alaskan family that lives in the shadow of Mt. Susitna some 38 miles from the nearest road? Is it folly or fate? Seven years later, my face weathered with wisdom I say our time here has been a gift of fate. The years to come, well…folly still looms out there somewhere on the Mountain.