When I’m Ten in Dog Years  

By Jessica Shepherd

These days, when we meet up with friends over dinner or out on the trail, health issues are one of the topics we air with forthright regularity. I guess we’ve hit that age where we feel the need to compare medical procedures (Can they do that arthroscopically?), dental implants (Did your insurance cover that?), and dietary dilemmas (If I cut out tomatoes can I still drink coffee?). Most of us are in our 60’s and 70’s, so we’re no longer young pups.  But we’re still eager to head down the trail and willing to push ourselves, even if we require a good nap afterwards to recover.

Last week, Hal and I were on a walk with neighbors Steve Baird and Marie McCarty who live across McNeil canyon from us. “Try to keep up,” my husband instructed discreetly, as I fell behind yet again. Easy for him, I thought. He was holding onto Arlie’s leash and the dog was determined to lead the way. Moreover, Hal, who runs and bikes or snowshoes and skis with great regularity, is in much better shape than I am. Our neighbors, I noted, didn’t have any problem threading their way up the trail, high-stepping and dodging low tree limbs, but then, they’ve traversed this land for years and know its every nuance. The greater truth is, I don’t have the spring in my step I had even five years ago.

I reflected on an 8-mile hike earlier in the week to Grewingk Glacier Lake. I was joining friends Don and Tracie Pendergrast, along with eight seniors from Fairbanks who were visiting Homer for the week. At 61, I was one of the youngest people on the hike, and I was impressed by how fit the group was. I remember thinking, if I can just maintain this level of fitness, I’ll be happy. 

But even given robust exercise, you never know what your genetics will throw at you. A good friend of ours recently made a trip up to Anchorage for heart surgery to correct a run-away heartbeat. It’s the third time he’s had this procedure and we could tell he was spooked. This is a guy who, at 65, skis even more than Hal does, and yet, here he was, winded just coming up our steps to drop off his cat before departure.

Recently, two women friends who are younger than I am had heart attacks within a few months of each other. And I’ve lost count of the close friends and family members who have had or are currently battling cancer. More than a handful didn’t make it. All of this, plus the pandemic, has prompted me to improve upon my own health and fitness habits. 

On the other hand, I’m inspired by friends who retire from teaching or the federal government only to take on new, physically taxing, careers. For example, Don and Tracey have a canoe school and lead weeks-long river trips up in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Local friends Wayne and Lori Jenkins, and Don McNamara along with his wife Donna Rae Faulkner, began food farming in their late 50’s and early 60’s. And my friend Melisse Reichman began teaching yoga at sixty and now teaches several spiritually-enhanced classes a week.

And then there are those who make recreation possible for the rest of us. Take Dave Brann and Robert Archibald, along with a host of other retired volunteers, who groom our ski trails, help navigate the bureaucracy required to establish the Kachemak Bay Water Trail, and facilitate kayak safety trainings. Despite no longer skiing the trails or paddling the bay, Dave and Robert still smooth the way for the rest of us and we owe them a debt of gratitude. 

I suspect this dedication to outdoor recreation arose from a generation who came to Alaska when the state still inspired that can-do frontier spirit.  Now the question is, will the ensuing generations who kayak, cross-country ski, and canoe wild rivers step up to help out?  We need their efforts more now than ever to sustain these quiet, inobtrusive activities once the Daves and Roberts of the world retire from volunteering.

As for Hal and I, at 70 we’ll be 10-years-old in dog years. Our hips may hurt and we might miss the high notes in our favorite bird songs, but we’ll still be glad to turn our faces to the wind as the water taxi whisks us across the bay toward an easy hike and comradery with friends we’ve known for more than half our lives.