It is surprisingly difficult to convey how much the Wilderness Classics have meant to me. I was introduced to them through my recreation partner John Pekar, who had done a few summer Classics before convincing me to join for a winter course. It was grueling. I lost toenails, got frostbite, and took months to recover from tendonitis in my knees, ankles, and wrists. I swore to never do it again. But as the physical ailments wore off I was left with the realization that I had experienced 180 miles of Alaska’s mind-blowing wilderness, 40 miles a day under my own power and with one of my best friends. I learned a lot about myself, physical limits, and backcountry travel. I’d never learned so much so quickly, and I was aware of a lot of room for improvement. I felt super-human, empowered, invincible. I was addicted.
The first several years were all about the accomplishment, proving that I had the muscle to cover the ground and the skills to manage the risks. The learning curve was steep. I reveled in the tricks I learned, my improvement, and the stories of successes and failures from the other participants. Racers ranged from professional Air National Guard Pararescuers to hermits that crawled out of the woods carrying more pot than food.
Rob Kehrer was a constant presence, year after year, summer and winter. We teased each other about our opposing strategies. I can’t remember if he was already “Team Heavy” or if Greg or I coined that term. He loved to remind me that John and I spent 15 minutes discussing the option of each carrying one crampon, and finally decided not to bring either. Rob on the other hand carried creature comforts, like down booties, even on the summer course, when most folks don’t bring a sleeping bag. More than once he carried extra gear that he forgot about. At the end of a winter course Rob pulled out his repair kit and realized that he had forgotten to repack it after his snowmachine work for the Iditarod Trail Invitational. He had carried spark plugs and wrench through 180 challenging miles of the Wrangells, while I had opted to leave my toothbrush at home.
The learning curve grew more gradual. My friendships from the Classics grew into month-long big-mountain trips: Denali, Logan, Fairweather, the Cook Inlet volcanoes. We realized that our combined experience enabled us to include less experienced friends, girlfriends and others, and share with them the rewards of covering hundreds of miles in Alaska’s wilderness. What these groups all had in common was the ability to laugh through the hard stuff. Nobody could do that better than Rob. You just kind of isolate that part of your brain and convince yourself that things will improve, because they do. Oh look! A squirrel!
The Classic has been more than a community to me, almost a family. Dick Griffith is the grandfather I never got to know and am uncomfortable bothering. Roman would be the dad but he isn’t mature enough, so Dave Cramer is the dad. Roman gets to be an older brother, still pushing the competitive spirit even as his ankle fuses. Rob was the mom! He’d probably be pissed to hear me say that. But what else could he be? All heart. Always picking up solo travelers, taking care of everyone else. Always there. This year Greg Mills told me, “It’s ok if you forgot something because Rob always has extra.” I forgot warm pants and socks and on the first night was boiling hot water to sleep with to keep me warm. Rob said, “I brought extra pants and socks, you should use these.” I told him that I didn’t want to take his dry pants, and he responded, “No, these are the extra extra pants, I have another pair of dry pants. Really, take these.”
Rob wasn’t a mountain athlete. He never got the hang of gliding on skis, never got comfortable on water even though he rafted the Talkeetna, Tasnuna, Copper, Yanert, Klu, and ultimately, fatally, the Tana. I wish I had asked why the Classics were so important to him. I think I get it, I think we have that need in common, but I would have liked to hear him say it. I think Rob was there because time in the wilderness, the mental and physical challenge of navigating the land, was grounding for him, completed him. Rob needed that experience to counter the stress and reality of ‘the real world.’ He told me how much he appreciated my videos and that he had watched them hundreds of times because they were the next best thing to being out there.
So what now? The Classic community, this family, is in mourning. We lost big. This is from my mom:
Rob so clearly loved to brave the challenging beauty of the natural world. And he did it over and over again. And if I loved him the way I love you, would I put a stop to his adventuring if I could, in order to protect him from harm? Even if I had that power, I would do as I do now. I take the risk of losing you.
Thank you to all the friends and family, blood and Classic, that have reached out to support Rob, Tammy, Greg, the Classic, and myself. I am blessed to have you in my life.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, Mowry