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.
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.