Soldotna Middle track team takes run at Skyline Trail

After a strenuous climb up Skyline’s steep slope, students still had energy left to play around in the snow. 

Soldotna Middle School track team members did a figurative 180 as their eyes took in the 360-degree views. 

As they climbed above the trees and into the wide-open, bird’s-eye vantage point atop Skyline Trail, the ragged breath and questions of “how much farther” were quickly replaced with exclamations the likes of, “Oh, wow,” and, “Look at that!” 

The hike up Skyline, situated in the Kenai Mountains near the Sterling flats, is an annual end-of-the-year tradition for the SMS track team. It’s held as a way to reward students for good effort and to entice them to continue to be active. This year, 36 students, two coaches and five parents made the trip. 

“We hope to introduce the students to the benefits of being in shape and the unique Alaskan outdoor opportunities that are available to them as a result,” said Karl Kircher, a teacher and track coach at Soldotna Middle. “For many of them, this is the first time they have been above tree line or, for some of them, their first experience even hiking. There are an incredible amount of wide-eyed smiles as students take in the view from the top. ‘This is awesome,’ or, ‘This is incredible,’ or, ‘I’ve never done anything like this,’ were the comments du jour.” 

To be able to go on the hike, students had to meet the fitness requirement of 80th percentile or better on a 12-minute run in their physical education class. Even so, the climb up Skyline’s notoriously steep slope taxes legs and lungs. 

“Our hope is this trip turns a few kids on to the joys and benefits of strenuous outdoor activities, and that maybe a few of them will make it part of their lifestyle as they get older,” Kircher said. 

Though it’s challenging to get to the top, the rewards of doing so are myriad. There’s the sense of accomplishment that comes with setting a goal and sticking to it, even when the going gets tough. With Skyline, hikers are rewarded with a view that goes on for miles — and miles, and miles — the Kenai Mountains to the east, all the way over the central Kenai Peninsula to the Chigmit Mountains across Cook Inlet to the west and southwest, and up to Anchorage and beyond in the northwest. 

“Past years produced fog, snow and less-than-ideal conditions,” Kircher said. “The view on this trip was particularly good, as the flat light made visibility great. Fire Island (near Anchorage) was easily seen.” 

The trip is an opportunity to teach students about being prepared and safe outdoor travel. Students are given a list of mandatory gear and cannot go on the hike without it.  

Sledding down a snow patch on the summit made for a brief quick descent, but students still had to walk back down the trail. 

“We stress the importance of traveling noisily in bear country, although this is pretty much a given with 36 middle school students walking through the woods,” Kircher said. 

It was even more of a given once they got to the top and started playing, tumbling, sledding and hollering through the snow fields still clinging to the mountain. 

Kircher said the trip couldn’t happen without parental support, as they maintain a ratio of eight students per adult.  

“We have never had a problem getting parents to help out. There is usually a parent or two who is also making the climb for the first time, as well,” Kircher said. 

The shared experience continues when they make it back down to flat land — a sense of accomplishment for a hike well done that even tired legs can’t dull. 

“A unique aspect of this trip is that the ride home on the bus is eerily quiet,” Kircher said.