An Alaskan Sabbatical’s Most Memorable Runs

Bryon Powell shares where running took him during an Alaskan sabbatical.

By on November 8, 2023 | Comments

After nearly 15 years of leading iRunFar more than full time, this summer I took a two-month sabbatical in the form of a road trip to Alaska. Aside from taking some time away from work, the primary focus of the trip was on fishing. Still, running continued to be a part of my journey, as it has every day for nearly seven years. Here are some of the running highlights from what I call my “Alaskabbatical.”

Not from a run, but Mount Drum from outside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. All photos: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

North Fork of the Blackfoot

Ahead of the trip, I checked in with a Missoula, Montana, fishing connection (who’s better known as an ultrarunner) for some favorite spots in western Montana. He shared the North Fork of the Blackfoot River and it didn’t disappoint.

After a huge day of driving the day before, I spent four hours running and fishing on a new-to-me trail. Along the way, I caught my first ever fish in Montana, as well as my first bull trout and first West Slope cutthroat trout. It was a good start to the trip.

Fishing North Fork Blackfoot

Fishing the North Fork of the Blackfoot River during a trail run.

Kesugi Ridge Run

I’ve long known of the 30-mile Kesugi Ridge Traverse, from its founders David Johnston and Andrea Hambach, from other Alaskan runners, and from current race director Matias Saari. A rugged point-to-point course through Denali State Park in Alaska, this run lives up to its name as at least half the race is high up on Kesugi Ridge, a stunning landscape in and of itself, with tremendous views of the Alaska Range just across the Chulitna River valley.

Even better than the scenery, and the fistfuls of blueberries on the first climb, were the hospitality and collegiality of the Alaskan runners. Throughout the race, if I was with someone, chances are I was chatting with them. This made for a really enjoyable run as well as a real feeling of welcome just a few days into my time in Alaska.

That feeling of camaraderie was distilled further amongst the group of runners, volunteers, and friends that hung around the finish-line camp the night after the race. A seemingly endless supply of varied foods and drinks, from both the race and various attendees, made for one heck of a fun evening.

2023 Kesugi Ridge Traverse

A passel of good people during the 2023 Kesugi Ridge Traverse.

Kenai Beach Run

I took a couple longer spells based near Cooper Landing on the Kenai Peninsula during this trip. During one such spell, my parents’ 50th anniversary was quickly approaching. They were so understanding of my sabbatical keeping me from joining them on a vacation of their own. However, to “join” the celebration, I caught some Kenai River sockeye salmon, had it frozen, and drove it to the airport in the town of Kenai so they could enjoy some fresh fish down south.

Later that day, I ran to the beach in Kenai where I encountered a high school cross-country team doing hill repeats on the seaside bluffs and it brought a smile to my face having had such a wonderful high school cross-country experience so many years ago.

After an out-and-back in one direction, I passed the team again and not long after found a cellphone in the sand. Before I could call the first number, a call came in and I was able to quickly reunite the phone with its owner who was out for a beach walk with a friend.

I continued on, taking in the seals swimming in the surf and the glaciated peaks of the Aleutian Range across the bay on a gorgeous afternoon. It was a day and a run filled with smiles.

Kenai beach 2023

The quiet sands of the shore in Kenai, Alaska.

Togiak River Gravel Bar Streak-Keepers

The pinnacle dream of my Alaskabbatical was to take a roughly week-long float down a remote Alaska river into Bristol Bay. That dream came true in the form of a packraft trip down the Togiak River. There are no permanent communities nor settlements on the Togiak and, therefore, no roads nor trails. This is remote, wild Alaska.

Contrary to independent reports ahead of the trip, it’s also absolutely crawling with brown bears. So, there weren’t going to be any bushwhacking, cross-country runs out here. Instead, my token runs were repeated laps along whatever gravel bar we were camped on.

Of these, two runs at Geshiak Creek stand out. First, there was the evening run after arriving with a rainbow breaking out after a wet, windy, and wild day on the river. The next morning, I got to enjoy the sight of a sow and cub starting off their day as I did the same on the opposite side of the creek.

Togiak River Rainbow 2023

A rainbow over Geshiak Creek just off the Togiak River.

Tour du Togiak

On many runs last winter, my now former Silverton, Colorado, neighbor and run-fish companion Karl Kamm day dreamed of an Alaskan river float fish this past summer, as he’d likely be headed that way for temporary work and I hoped I’d be there on this sabbatical. Life changes meant that Karl couldn’t join me on a float, but he would be in the small Yup’ik village of Togiak for a couple weeks of work in late summer.

In fact, this is why I chose to float the Togiak River. Awesomely, Karl met us at the takeout in Togiak after we finished a short float across the bay from the mouth of the river. Later that day, Karl and I headed out in the howling coastal winds. We caught up for the first time in many months while I got to check out town for the first time. After five straight days of merely streak-keeping runs on the river, it was great to get in a real run, too!

Karl Kamm - Togiak Alaska 2023

Catching up with Karl Kamm outside of Togiak, Alaska.

Where the Hell is Chitina

Late in the trip, I headed up and over to Chitina. Where the hell is Chitina? Well, it would be southeastern Alaska, but for the state’s panhandle. It’s a couple hours north of Valdez and sits just to the west of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

I headed there to catch up with Bradley Mongold, an ultrarunner I knew when he lived in West Virginia and I near Washington, D.C. That was ages ago, but we’ve caught up on the phone every couple years since. Still, meeting up in person with an old friend is always a blast and such was the case with Mongold.

During my couple days staying with him and his wife, Jill, we’d run together most days, chatting non-stop about his hunting, our lives, the government, investing, or whatever else came up. Autumn was also in full swing in the area and it was great to have the runniest stretch of my sabbatical coincide with it.

Bradley Mongold - Alaska 2023

Bradley Mongold running in the Alaskan interior.

Kennecott and McCarthy

During my Chitina stay, at Mongold’s suggestion, I took an overnight trip out to the end of the road in Wrangell-St. Elias. I hit the final parking lots in mid-afternoon, and headed out the mostly pedestrian-only road, unsure how far I’d go. I ended up making it to the former copper mining town of Kennecott, much of which has been restored in recent decades.

Living in Silverton, Colorado, a mining town with less well preserved infrastructure, it was fascinating to see intact mills and the like. On the return leg of the run, I took the small side trip to the quaint town of McCarthy. Both towns were largely shuttered as the tourist season had already ended.

Kennecott Alaska

Beautiful downtown Kennecott, Alaska.

Call for Comments

Where did your runs take you this summer?

Valdez Alaska 2023

Another non-running photo of day’s end outside Valdez, Alaska.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.