Tales of trails

‘Trail Mix Journal’ collects stories and experiences from local wilderness

Since earlier this year, the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area has been collecting creative writing about its trails — both established and unmarked — in the “Trail Mix Journal.” The online journal is seeking people interested in sharing their stories and experiences.

“Trail Mix” editor Sean Ulman said Wednesday that the project came together quickly, but then evolved rapidly. The project began when he saw a call by the heritage area for creative writing, and he pitched the idea of different people writing about different trails.

“There’s no one format,” he said. Just creative writing about “a trail you like.” He said that could take a lot of different forms, like a reflection on the trail the writer regularly revisits to feel better or a narrative about a singular experience on that trail.

“You don’t need to be a writer to contribute a great story.”

Ulman said sourcing the stories from different people about their own unique experiences makes for a more dynamic picture of the trails in the area. What he didn’t realize, however, was the way the writers would push the project to shift organically and define itself.

There are five entries in the Trail Mix Journal so far. The first, “A Favorite Hike,” by Marc Swanson, was published in July. The most recent, “Renegade Trails of the Kenai Mountains” by Erik Johnson, was published Wednesday.

Initially, Ulman said, the idea was that each entry would be a personal essay about one trail, its title the name of that trail. Swanson, the very first writer, didn’t want to name the trail he was writing about.

“Why should that matter?” Swanson writes in his story. “One man’s memorable trek should not be another man’s checklist.”

Swanson writes that the trail is one he’s shared with “the woman I love,” but also concedes that this “hint” describes “nearly all the walks I’ve trampled.” He describes an early morning excursion “adequate to shake off the morning cobwebs” to a “hidden spot on a grassy ledge” where he sits for coffee and bagels enjoyed while looking out over “the town I call home.”

In each entry, Ulman says the journal should offer an enriched sense of the experiences in our surrounding wilderness. Maybe this entices the reader to get out and try something new, or maybe it inspires them to regard an old favorite from “another’s shoes.”

He also hopes that the “Trail Mix Journal” inspires people to do more writing — whether that’s composing their own entries for the journal or just on their own.

Anyone with an interesting story or idea can reach out, Ulman said. Information on the heritage area’s website, kmtacorridor.org, offers some optional prompts to spark any potential writer’s thinking, and he said everyone is welcome to participate — whether they have writing experience or not. As the editor, Ulman says he’s excited to work with writers to get their stories ready for publication.

“It starts with a trail or with a moment,” he said. “It grows any way they think serves that trail best.”

Those stories, too, can take multiple forms. The journal’s second entry, Emily Mailman’s “Devil’s Pass,” is a poem.

Ulman said he initially was committed to the personal essay, but when he read the poem, he realized “this will fit great.”

So the journal in its first two entries immediately divested from its original concept and became something more inclusive, different “and better,” Ulman said.

“The writers are really leading it.”

Other entries have covered a complete — impulsive — run of Resurrection Pass, the way Slaughter Gulch has changed over decades and the opportunities offered by unofficial routes that can take visitors deep into the wilderness of the Chugach National Forest.

Ulman says he’s open and accepting of all submissions, and though the format has grown beyond just the personal essays he originally imagined, the idea that each piece is “personal” is still central.

“Anytime I get an email about this, I get excited,” he said. “It’s about getting the word out about how amazing these spaces are, to hike, to steward, to experience.”

Ideas for the future are also in abundant supply. Ulman said he wants to see the project and continue to grow, publishing two or three times a month indefinitely. He said writers can share their own stories about trails even if they’ve already been covered in the journal, because “everyone has their own tale.”

There could eventually be an audio component, Ulman said. He already hosts a radio show on KIBH 91.7 FM where Seward writers read their work live, and there could be a space in the journal for writing by local youth. The journal’s website says that the stories will eventually be collated into an interactive map of the area.

To submit a story for the “Trail Mix Journal,” find information at kmtacorridor.org and reach out with a story idea to Ulman at seanulman@gmail.com.

Each of the published stories, as well as future installments, can also be found at the same website, and links are posted to Facebook at “Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area.”

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.