Commentary

Trail’s end

A soft-spoken, rail-thin Anchorage musician and author once Alaska famous as one of the hardest of hard men on the Iditarod Trail is dead at the age of 66.

Shawn Lyons for years in the 1980s and 1990s dominated the snowshoe competition in the Iditasport human-powered endurance race. His abilities to power on for hour after hour along the frozen surface of the state’s most storied trail would have been mightily admired by those who pioneered the route north in pursuit of their golden dreams.

What drove Lyons to follow in their footsteps, however, was never clear. It definitely wasn’t about money – there were no prizes to be had – and though Lyons was proud of his snowshoe endurance, the Iditasport races didn’t seem to be much about ego either.

Yes, he liked to win. He won the snowshoe division of the Iditasport nine times. And he three times won the Coldfoot Classic, a borderline-insane, 100-mile ultramarathon foot race once run along the Dalton Highway at Halloween when the temperatures in the Brooks Range sometimes plunged to 30 or 40 degrees below zero and the Arctic winds howled.

But Lyons never displayed a hint of the intensity characteristic of seriously competitive athletes. His snowshoeing and endurance running was more like his music than athletic competition. It was something he’d been genetically gifted to do well and so he did it for the pure pleasure to be found in a job well done.

Pushing the limits

Or maybe it was tied to his interest in philosophy and psychology. You learn a lot about yourself when pushed to your limits, and Lyons regularly pushed himself to his.

In 1990, he went on a 27-hour hike that covered more than 18,000-feet in elevation gain and took him to the summits of the 12 tallest peaks rising above Anchorage in the Front Range of the Chugach Mountains. It was, in Lyons’ book, a long day hike.

As the outdoor editor at the Anchorage Daily News back in those days, I regularly edited a hiking column he wrote for the newspaper. Lyons wrote a lot about being cold, wet, miserable, beaten by the weather and confounded by the notoriously bad and crumbling rock characteristic of the Chugach.

Another editor or two sometimes questioned whether the newspaper should be publishing some of Lyons’  hikes for fear he might lead the inexperienced in over their heads, possibly way over their heads. Their concerns never seemed that plausible.

Where Lyons went, not a lot of other people were going to go.

Last summer, at the age of 65, he and hiking buddy Art Copoulos decided to go on a normal, Lyonesque jaunt from Turnagain Pass over the ridge to the southeast and on to Spencer Glacier in the Placer River valley. 

“A  few of the hunting parties that supplied meat for the crews building the railroad… some 100 years ago had crossed one of the less dramatic passes to the west, but probably not many others,” Shawn later wrote in a trip report for the website of the Kenai Mountain-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area. 

As he found out, there was a reason for that. The ridge above the Placer is riddled with cliffs. The trip thus turned into a classic Lyons adventure. A planned arrival at Spencer at 3 p.m. to catch an Alaska Railroad shuttle back to the Seward Highway was missed.

Lyons matter of factly described “intense bushwhacking down a very steep slope,” maneuvering around cliffs, and hearing the whistle of that train while only about a third of the way to the river.

The 8 o’clock shuttle, the last of the day, was missed as well, and when Lyons and Copoulos finally arrived at the rail stop, Lyons wrote that they “slept as well as we could in one of the vendors’ vans parked nearby with the mosquitoes buzzing in to find us through any crack available. All in all, not exactly how we expected the day to end. Then we waited through the hot, lazy (next) day.

“Finally, in the early afternoon, we hopped onto the train that would take us to Grandview and then back to Portage. Scraped, sunburned, and tired, we could now relax, eat, and enjoy the scenery, making for a fine ending to a hike over a route that could use some tweaking.”

Tiger and pussycat

This was Lyons the ironman as opposed to Lyons the sometimes instructor of music and English at the University of Alaska Anchorage, the classical guitarist and the one-time owner of Villa Nova, a classic Italian restaurant now gone.

In a tribute on his Facebook page, old friend Marge Stoneking described him as “a wise and gentle spirit…an adventurous gentleman and scholar,” which summed one side of him well.

It was the gentleman who came to own Villa Nova.

“Once in a great while we hear of a busboy or dishwasher rising to the position of restaurant owner, and Lyons has done those jobs too,” Mike Dunham, a now-retired reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, wrote in a 2014 story noting the rarity of a musician taking over a restaurant.

Dunham went on to sketch Lyons’ father-son like relationship with the late owner Giorgio “George” Chrimat and Lyons’ desire to keep the restaurant running in George’s honor. Dunham also did a good job of outlining the somewhat familiar path that led Lyons to Alaska:

An early introduction to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where Lyons’ father regularly took his Boston family hiking, and a trek along the Appalachian Trail as a teenager spawned a yearning for the wide-open spaces of the west and north.

Lyons was in the Yukon Territory, Canada, when a friend sent him a letter suggesting he check out Anchorage. He did, found it a place with easy access to plenty of wilderness and a market for musicians, and never left.

Throughout his life, he remained captivated by the wilderness playground that surrounds the state’s largest city.

“I think Shawn, like other great outdoor adventurers, was motivated by his love for the forest and the mountains,” Copoulos said. “They captivated him, and in them he found peace and beauty. He immersed himself in mountains and focused his life’s efforts, which, along with his with his extraordinary natural abilities and chill personality, allowed him to do all those amazing things.”

Along the way, Lyons wrote four “Walkabout Guides” to Alaska covering the Chugach, Kenai and Talkeetna mountains. They are definitive outlines of the many “routes” and some trails Lyons traced through those terrains.

His website, where those books can be found for sale, describes him as “the hiking guru of South Central Alaska,” which he was though such a statement is most unlike the author himself. A self-confessed, “pig-headed Irishman,” he was in person about as humble an athlete or writer as anyone is ever likely to meet.

Copoulos remembered his old friend as a “truly authentic Alaska,” one in some ways from a time before the internet when everything wasn’t “all about me!”

“He hiked with an old wood stick that his grandfather gave him, not a slick modern ice ax or hiking poles,” Copoulos said. “He hiked in sneakers, not in the latest high tech ultra-light hiking boot.

“He brought minimal amounts of food, instead preferring to live simply, off the land as best he could. His actions reflected his true nature and beliefs, that of the simple hiker who finds sustenance in the woods and mountains, not in the trappings of modern comfort and technology.

“I also think of Shawn as determined and fierce. When he picked a route, he never gave up. He hiked endlessly and tirelessly. He gave it everything until he accomplished his objective, no matter how dangerous or how long it took. He cussed and swore and fought the rock, snow, and ice without any faintness of heart.”

That was wilderness Shawn. The Shawn of the city was an altogether different person: gregarious, friendly, always reaching out, as Copoulos put it, “to meet strangers, to hear their stories, share his, and make others feel happy and comfortable.”

City Shawn was the pussycat. Wilderness Shawn was the tiger.

Some friends and acquaintances at times wondered if the latter might lead him to his death in the Alaska mountains as it has others. Lyons took more than his share of calculated risks. That he survived them all is a testament to his judgment.

What finally claimed his life is unclear. He went to the hospital last week and shortly after his sister, Sarah Lyons back in Massachusetts, was informed of his death.

“He called the ambulance himself in the late hours of Monday night because he was passing out and had shortness of breath, and though he was still coherent when he got to the hospital, he quickly lost consciousness,” she reported. “The doctors performed CPR for 40 minutes but sadly couldn’t bring him back to us. Distressingly, the coroner has (in his words) ‘declined jurisdiction’ and declared that Shawn died of ‘natural causes’ – and though my heart feels that there is nothing natural about Shawn’s passing, we might, unfortunately, never truly know what precipitated his all-too-sudden passing.”
Lyons, being the man he was, had agreed to donate his organs after death.
“How lovely is it to think that someone out there will be seeing the world, quite literally, through Shawn’s eyes for years to come,” his sister wrote. “I take so much solace in the thought.”

21 replies »

  1. Excellent tribute, Craig. While I didn’t know Shawn well, I had the chance to talk with him during a few Iditasports when he came through whichever checkpoint I was at, or at the start. He never was one for long conversations there, but always had thought provoking comments. As a medic, I was fascinated by his endurance, as I was with Dick’s.

  2. Lovely tribute to Shawn, but please can you spell Art’s name correctly and consistently? Art Copoulos, who also happens to have grown up in the Boston area and will hike and bike without complaint for miles & miles.

  3. Cruel paradox,
    3 men who had a fair amount of control over there future, lost it.And one who probably had almost no control, and lost it.
    Hard to say who was more terrified.
    My peerless hiking guide just became a bit more costly.

  4. Thank you for writing this beautiful tribute to Shawn Lyons, Craig. Even though I spoke with him only a few times in the past few decades, I knew the legend, and have his walkabout guides in my library. He certainly was a sweet person. There are most likely many of us who are feeling pretty low after getting news of his passing. It was a surprise; he should have enjoyed a couple more decades roaming around on this beautiful earth that he loved so much.

  5. I was a classical guitar student of his in 1989. To this day I remember pointers he gave to achieve proper musicianship, and I’ve never ever forgotten them over all these years! And I’ve applied those in other aspects of my life, not just music. That’s a magical thing, to teach, influence, and impress upon others principals they remember for life! I’ve always remembered Shawn as one of my favorite teachers when I play music… and now I will cherish his memory even more. Thank You Shawn!

    • Well done, Craig. Spent many an hour trying to track Shawn from a snow machine to photograph on Iditasport. Never a complaint, never a concern; nothing but strong-willed determination. He was an amazing human being…

  6. Craig, as always you seem to be able identify the character of the person when you write. I also never met Shawn but was a fan reading some of his hiking articles for sure. I know after some treks in the backcountry how he must of felt as it sounds like he was at his best when he was out there. Thanks for writing about a legend that would have not wrote about himself. Daryl

  7. I never met, nor knew this man, but I felt like I did after reading this. Nice job Craig, in capturing his essence.

  8. Nice tribute Craig. The world will be not the same with the loss of Shawn, a true inspiration to many, and a friend to all that crossed his path(s).

  9. I was a sports/outdoors reporter/editor for a couple of decades at several newspapers in Alaska. I covered the Iditasport several times, and one time, as I was getting ready to head back to Anchorage from the start-finish line in Big Lake, Shawn asked me if he could bum a ride. He had just won the 100-mile snowshoe division race, again, but he also had a guitar gig that night and his ride was late. He wanted to get back to town in time to get ready. Since he only lived a couple of blocks from my parents, I cleared out the passenger seat and drove. He didn’t talk much, just slept. But he made his guitar gig.

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