In Honor of Shawn Lyons
Our beloved friend and invaluable board member Shawn Lyons died suddenly on Feb. 2 in an Anchorage hospital. He took ill and passed so quickly that it appears no one in town knew that he’d even gone to the hospital until a day later. He was 66, young at heart, and as open to adventure as someone one-third his age. A gentle, optimistic soul with a stubborn streak about punching the route through.
Shawn had also become an evangelist and ambassador for Alaska Huts, fully embracing our mission of creating opportunities for camaraderie and fellowship in the wilderness. Ever a strong advocate for working with allies like KMTA and Alaska Trails, Shawn shared the vision of a regional long trail with a spider network through the Kenai and Chugach mountains.
I met Shawn nearly 30 years ago, when I worked as a reporter at the Anchorage Daily News. Already known as an accomplished musician, educator and scholar of local history, he also happened to perform incredible hiking feats and wilderness races in his spare time. (A nine-time winner of the snow-shoe category of the original Iditasport.) He was as gnarly as any old-time Alaska pioneer.
Here’s a glimpse of Shawn in his athletic prime while winning the first “Coldfoot Classic”—a semi-crazy 100-mile ultra-marathon up the Dalton Highway though sometimes brutally cold weather at the end of October. I wrote this in 1994:
“Lyons’ pace hardly changed. His feet never stopped. On and on, hour after hour, mile after mile, he planted one shoe in front of the other shoe, landing as lightly and firmly as a lynx padding down a snowy trail.
It was like watching a human clock. Arms tight to his torso, triple-layered mittens flapping every so slightly, stick-figure thighs swinging past each other in a tick-tock rhythm, narrow calves following on the hinge of his sharp knees, arches as pronounced as stiletto heels planting perfectly on the snowy road.
Lyons’ red cap and blue suit hardly bobbed, his head moved so little that fragile oblong icicles formed and dangled from his mustache. Indeed, Lyons gave little sense of motion as he trotted forward. He wasn’t running so much as tottering, not tottering so much as dancing, his motion as dainty and economical as a ballerina’s.
By 6:40 p.m., he’d reached mile 70. “My legs are hurting like hell,” Lyons reported, “but I’m ALL RIGHT.”
Move forward 25 years for another memory—a shared work trip to Manitoba in spring of 2019. On a mission to rehab and paint the floors in the two yurts (along with other chores,) Shawn cheerfully volunteered to do whatever was necessary.
Feeling a bit like Tom Sawyer passing off a task in a tricky way, I said that if he could just scrub the dirt from corners, I could concentrate on painting. “Absolutely!” he said. And proceeded to crawl on his belly under bunks, reaching into nooks, removing a decade’s worth of hidden grime.
We finished early. So what did we do? A hike, of course. Myself, my wife Helen and our puppy Suka accompanied Shawn up steep, jungled Blue Gulch right above Manitoba, following remnants of a century-old wagon track in search of mining sign and artifacts. More of a pleasurable search for lore than a serious climb.
Two hours later, we topped out on the Mills Creek Road, descended to Manitoba for dinner, plus a box of cheap red wine around a campfire with other friends on the work crew.
And that’s how I’ll remember Shawn. Sharing a full day in every sense—capped by humor, discovery and good conversation that lasted far into the endless dusk of an Alaskan spring night.
For more details, and updates—
Story about Shawn’s passing in the Anchorage Daily News by Beth Bragg
Remembrance about Shawn by Craig Medred
City Wilds: Remembrance of Shawn by Bill Sherwonit
Shawn’s Facebook page
Facebook post from Sarah Lyons, Shawn’s sister
A site for Shawn’s incomparable hiking books