Sunday, June 8, 2014

Thinking of Sharon

I must have met Sharon soon after she moved to Juneau. She showed up for some weekly evening bike rides I organized through the Juneau Freewheelers Bike Club to encourage women to bicycle and train together. She was a strong rider, not particularly fast, but she could ride forever. I didn’t realize she was training for a long distance solo bike tour until she was almost ready to leave on her trip. She kept pretty quiet about her plans, and I remember I had to pry details out of her. I could tell she was a little bit nervous about the trip, but at the same time very determined and sure about what she wanted to do.

We lost touch until we bumped into each other after she returned from the trip. Apparently everything went well and it sounded like she had a great time. I was impressed. I always admire strong, adventurous women and love to see them plan and do things that take courage, strength, and brains. Because that was another quality of Sharon’s that was very apparent – she was a smart, resourceful person who did not, as far as I could tell, act impulsively.
Sharon (left) with her hiking partner and Scott descending into Granite Creek Basin
Over the years, I would run into Sharon on the trails. Once I was cross country skiing at Eaglecrest and trying to work my muscles back into shape after a particularly bad biking accident earlier that year. She saw me on the trail, bent over with pain from the muscle spasms in my arm that had been severely broken. She took time to make sure I was o.k. and asked me how I was recovering from my injuries. I told her that I was just trying to work through the pain of getting my arm and shoulder back into shape and so had to stop skiing every so often to let the spasms pass. I was worried that maybe I was rushing it and shouldn’t try so hard. She calmly explained that the damaged muscles form scar tissue that needed to break loose, and that is what was probably causing some of the pain. Of course! I’d forgotten that Sharon was a physical therapist. Her explanation made perfect sense and with that one simple, quiet conversation, she helped me get through the rest of the winter and work my arm back into shape.

Another time Scott and I were hiking along the Mt. Juneau ridge on a particularly nice day. We stopped near the end of the ridge at a soft heather meadow to lounge in the sun when two hikers approached from the other direction. Sharon and her hiking partner had hiked to the end of the ridge, but were unsure how to drop down into Granite Creek safely. Rather than risk going down the wrong way, they had decided to turn around and retrace their steps back to Mt. Juneau. We invited them to hike out with us, as we were very familiar with the way out. Scott and Sharon’s friend boldly glissaded down the steep snow off the ridge, but Sharon was not as comfortable doing that, so she and I took the slower, more conservative hiking route down while they waited for us.  Once again, I was impressed with her ability to assess her skills and choose the best way down the mountain. She was not a person who did things without first carefully thinking, and was not afraid to acknowledge and accept her limitations in any given situation.
Sharon descending the lower slopes into Granite Creek Basin, after skirting around the steeper sections
Her skills and her strength continued to grow, and I kept running into her sometimes in the most unlikely places. A few summers ago we were by the Boy Scout Camp trail head when she came bursting out of the woods on what appeared to be a long, solo trail run. Her face was red and she was drenched in sweat, but she just smiled, waved hello and disappeared right back into the woods, with only a water bottle and probably some energy bars in a waist pack. Scott and I laughed. “Sharon is getting to be quite the wilderness runner,” I remarked. “She certainly looks super fit.” I only had a small idea of some the adventures she was having, but I know she continued to get outdoors and into the mountains as much as she could, and she looked very happy whenever I saw her.

That’s why I was so shocked when I learned she was missing, apparently while hiking in the Mt. Roberts trail area or possibly further beyond. She was strong, she was smart, and she was experienced. How in the world could something like this have happened? We were hiking the Mt. Roberts trail the day after she was reported missing, and talked to the first searcher we saw on the lower trail, who asked us if we knew a hiker named “Shannon B—“. He couldn’t think of her last name and was unsure of her first name. My eyes widened and I immediately said, “Sharon Buis?” Yes, that was her name.

We continued on our hike and went up onto Gold Ridge and then over to Mt. Gastineau, sweeping the area all around us. We had a pair of binoculars and often stopped to use them. But the area is so big and there are so many different places a hiker can go. Helicopters swept up and down the slopes all around us, buzzing along the valley floors and then scanning the cliffs and ridges up high. Members of the Juneau Mountain Rescue Group worked their way from the ridges down along the slopes, covering much of the area in a coordinated search pattern. They talked to other hikers and asked them to look for signs of anything that looked suspicious.

We changed our original hiking plan to go over to Mt. Roberts and instead returned and walked the length of Gold Ridge, looking at spots where someone could drop down towards Perseverance and get lost or in trouble. If indeed that is where she went. The Mt. Roberts trail connects to so many peaks, ridges and drainages. And sometimes people park at the trailhead and then continue up Basin Road to the Perseverance Trail, Mt. Juneau, Granite Creek Basin, Mt. Olds – well, you get the idea. The problem is that she didn’t tell anyone her plans the day she parked her car at the trailhead, and she left no note behind indicating where she was going or how long she expected to be gone.

It’s been over two weeks, and there is still no sign of what happened to Sharon. We may never know.  That happens sometimes in Alaska, but you don’t expect it to happen to someone you know. I can’t imagine what her family and close friends must be going through as they continue to search and to pray for her.
Sharon could be silly and fun, despite a quiet, strong and sometimes stubborn personality
The other day Scott and I decided to hike the Sheep Creek trail and continue up to the Powerline Ridge. This time I did something that I have never before done in my forty two years of going into the mountains. I’ve done more solo hikes than I can recall, and I’ve always let someone know where I was going and when I’d be back. And when I have a partner with me, I almost never leave a trip plan with anyone. But as I left the house, I grabbed a scrap piece of paper and put it on the seat of our car parked at the Sheep Creek trailhead. On it I wrote “Wed 6/4 - Day hike on Sheep Creek trail to Powerline Ridge, possibly over to the base of Hawthorne Peak – Betsy and Scott.” Just in case.

Part of the Hiker Safety Code states: TELL SOMEONE WHERE YOU ARE GOING, THE TRAILS YOU ARE HIKING, WHEN YOU WILL RETURN AND YOUR EMERGENCY PLANS. For more hiking safety information, go to


  1. Betsy: Thanks for writing this column to share some memories of Sharon and some good advice about never taking for granted that even the most experienced can sometimes get into trouble in this beautiful place we call home.

  2. Great article Betsy. I just started hiking alone last year but always tell someone where I'm going. Now I am 'forbidden' by my husband to go alone. First time he has ever done this. I think the loss of so many hikers in the last couple of years has touched all our hearts. Hopefully we will all learn valuable lessons.

  3. Sharon was one of my 2nd cousins. Like many others, I've been hoping and praying for her safe return. I highly appreciate you for searching for Sharon but also for this column, in which you put into words the kind of personality she was and I'm able to get to know her a little bit (as we never met). Thank you, Betsy!
    Gonny (The Netherlands)

  4. Beautiful story! Thank you for sharing your experiences. I may upset people here, but I'd like to voice thoughts I just can't shake. There are many of us who don't feel she's on the mountain... If the trained dogs couldn't get her scent, then chances are she wasn't there - and if she's not there, she is somewhere. It is always a good idea to let people know where you are going, but we don't always do that if we just do a quick walk around the block. Sharron may have been on her "once around the block" as a reward for completely an errand at AML. It's not safe, but it is understandable. But no scent is not. I believe she is alive out there doing what she can to survive, but if she was abducted from the trailhead, time is not our friend.

  5. I am glad you enjoyed reading the story I wrote. Yes, your comment is a little upsetting. I feel it is irresponsible to speculate what may or may not have happened to Sharon. The fact is that we simply do not know what happened. Hiking Mt. Roberts trail and the areas beyond there is not a "once a around the block" experience. It is a wilderness area complete with bears, dangerous snow gullies (off-trail), and impenetrable brush right next to the well traveled trail. And as I pointed out in my blog, parking at the Mt. Roberts trail head is not a guarantee that she went up that particular trail. I have heard others comment that the search area is "so small", they should have found some trace by now. That's simply ridiculous. There are miles and miles of difficult, steep, brushy, rocky terrain in the area where anything could have happened. Just because it is right next to downtown does not make it any safer. Talking about things like abduction only fuel pointless speculations and rumors, and are hurtful to those who are close to her. Please be more mindful and try to refrain from uneducated guessing.

  6. Hi Betsy ,
    I really enjoyed your story and pictures of my niece Sharon. Thank you for sharing it with us her family. You described her personality so well! Needless to say we are on an emotional roller coaster, stumped by the fact that there is no trace of her anywhere! We are so grateful for everyone who gave of their time and effort to try and find her, and as I read that some were still searching on the weekend. God bless them all. Thanks again from Sharon's Aunt Trudy.

  7. Betsy, thank you for writing this article. It is nice to be able to get to know the person for whom we are praying, even a little. God knows Sharon and where she is and He is with her, there on the trail, or she is with Him. All we can do here, so far away in Cambridge, Ontario, is pray for her safe return and for her health. She has relatives here who love her and church family praying hard. Thanks again, stay safe, Caroline