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Guest Post: Shawn Lyons’ Manitoba Wanderings

Man walking down a gravel road in thick forest

Friends had talked for years of their stays at Manitoba Hut. They spoke glowingly, but they spoke of it as a winter destination for skiing, not as a summer destination for hiking. They spoke of carving up Manitoba Mountain, not climbing Manitoba Mountain. They spoke of skiing up creeks, not hiking trails. It just did not seem to have much a draw for a hiker, especially with so many other fine hikes and climbs close to mile 49 on Seward Highway. It took but one chance visit to the hut to make me a regular visitor.

No particular longing drew me to the hut. I had no thoughts of it on leaving Seward one mid-day in August a few years ago. Then a whim took hold as I rolled past Summit Lake. With no urgent need to get anywhere, it suddenly seemed a good idea to walk down to the hut. Call it serendipitous if you will. At the time it seemed merely gratuitous, little more than a minor tug of curiosity, not a yank of longing. I didn’t even expect to hike very far.

On that chilly day under a high smear of gray sky, I intended only to find the hut. But the trail did not stop at the hut. So, finding the hut deserted and spending a few moments admiring the surroundings, I continued up the trail.

Then the wonder of discovery got the better of me. As the trail continued to wind upland, passing Little Manitoba Mountain before dropping down to cross Juneau Creek (neither of the names of which, like every other creek or mountain I encountered that day, did I learn until looking at a map later), I kept following it. Eventually, I followed over the base of Windwalker and down into the Mills Creek basin. There a miner labored at coaxing a few gold flakes from the current. Waving to him over the noise of his engines, I continued upstream. Only when the water on one side and the cliffs on the other prevented any further travel upstream did I stop. I wanted to go on. But after first looking hard for a way to continue, even taking a few steps into the fast, deep stream in a vain attempt to ford it, the time came to turn around.

But unbeknownst to me, I had only begun my exploring of the area. Backtracking the way I had come, I turned to look up a narrow trail climbing to the top of Little Manitoba Mountain. Then I looked at the sky. I had some hours before dark it seemed. With that decision, I shrugged my shoulders wondering what I’d find and started up the overgrown trail to the spruce-covered crest of Little Manitoba Mountain.

From there another faint trail led down the edge of the spruce to where one could look across a wide dip and up to the summit of Manitoba Mountain—the obvious and tempting mountain, one can see from the highway.

Down I dropped into the brush on the far side of Little Manitoba Mountain. After then winding through the low brush in the wide saddle below, I began to climb. Eventually, after trudging up that wide slope (the slope my skiing friends had spoken of excitedly for so many years) I stood on the summit.

And, lo and behold, a trail actually led off the back of the summit toward the high ridge that rose at a right angle over a mile farther up the ridge.

Now that looked intriguing, and so the way led on again.

After clambering up the increasingly rocky ridge and making one last grunt-filled scramble up a steep scree and shale slope I stood on that ridge. Then I first tried going right (south) but soon dangled a bit too precariously over a bit too much air. Then after carefully backtracking I thought about going right (north) and climbing the prominent peak rising many feet above the saddle between us.

In that late hour of the day, it took some time to ponder whether to go on or not. As Robert Frost so aptly observed, “way leads on to way” and it did seem that way had indeed led on to way. Standing on that corner of the ridge with that massive summit (called Silvertip Peak I learned later) rising just across the saddle to the north I so wanted the way to lead me on to yet another way. But the gray day had rapidly begun to lean toward a gray night and so I pulled myself away.

When a number of hours later I finally reached the car in the dark, I realized how much hiking and climbing one could do in the mountains and valleys behind the hut. Since that first trip, I’ve spent many hours venturing into the country. Yet even after all those hours (including one memorable night’s bivouac on the north side of Silvertip Peak) my list of possible hikes and climbs in the area still remains unfinished. As way has led on to way, the various ways keep increasing. With a little luck, the number of ways may continue to increase as the year’s pass. Thus has a whim turned into an obsession.

Shawn Lyons is a writer, guitar instructor, and restaurateur living in Anchorage. A new edition of Shawn’s “Walk About Guide to Alaska” will be published in 2018; it describes adventures all around Southcentral Alaska, including many in the Manitoba Cabin area. 

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