Wednesday, June 25, 2014

In Memory of Karen Sykes, 1945 - 2014

Karen Sykes - photo by Alan Bauer
I first met Karen in 2007 - March 13th, 2007 to be exact.  It was a special day because it marked my first time hiking with her and another new friend, Alan Bauer.  Little did I know that both would become very good friends and colleagues.
I met them at the Preston Park and Ride on this morning, and immediately knew it was going to be a fun day.  Karen was full of silliness, laughter, and many stories on that drive.   We all were, in fact.  I credit Karen for starting it.  Karen was also full of questions as she wanted to learn about me.  3-1/2 hours on the road seemed to fly by in 15 minutes.
Steamboat Rock was our destination, and it did not disappoint.  We met another friend, Kim Brown, at the parking lot, and off we went.  For most of us, our goal was the view at the top.  For Karen, it was all the exploration on the way, as she elected to loop around the top, eventually meeting back up with us at the viewpoint overlooking Banks Lake.  I’m sure she was thinking, “Why the hurry when there is so much more to see?  The views aren’t going anywhere.”  That was Karen.
Karen and I mostly stayed in contact via e-mail, which she would typically sign Cairn, in jest.  I too became a follower of her Thursday write-ups in the pages of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  We didn’t hike together as much as we would have liked, but we always shared our trip stories and photos and found time to chat or get together.  One of those times was a book party at the Mountaineers to introduce their new Day Hiking series.  Alan Bauer, Dan A. Nelson and Craig Romano were being featured for their respective books, with each taking turns speaking about them and later, signing copies.  Karen suggested we attend to support Alan.
We arrived early and ran into our friends Kim Brown and Steve Payne.  The silliness began.  Karen stopped us before the door.  She wanted to make a dramatic entrance that would catch Alan off-guard and make him laugh – even embarrass him if possible.  She suggested we enter doing cartwheels.  And she was serious!  We shook our heads and said we were NOT doing cartwheels.  So instead, we coupled up, interlocked arms and walked in stiff as boards, chest held out, two by two, as if we were royalty walking the carpet, drawing Alan’s laughter.  But the moment I remember most is when an associate we both new saw us, and hurriedly approached and pointedly asked me how my wife and kids were, while looking at Karen, our arms still hooked together.  I don’t think I ever heard Karen laugh so hard!
Karen Sykes - photo by Alan Bauer
I also became Karen’s “go to” IT guy whenever she was having computer programs.  She had a very old computer – an ancient computer, which was basically full and crawled at a snail’s pace.  Couple that with dial-up modem that sometimes connected successfully at as high as an 18.8 connection, and, well, you get the idea.  She would get so frustrated with it at times, and simply have to walk away to calm down.  But if she didn’t have time to walk away due to a deadline she was working on, my phone rang.  And my phone rang often! (And if I didn’t pick up, well, that is what the redial button was for!)  Eventually, my brother built her a new computer as a gift with components he had laying around.  It was nothing special, but to Karen, it was a hot rod.  She needed to wear a seat belt when she sat down in front of the keyboard!  (I suggested we paint flames on the sides.)  Karen was in heaven, and simply ecstatic.  I still got the panic phone calls periodically when something didn’t go right, but not nearly as often.

It was while working on her computer one day that Karen learned of a photography book I had recently authored, entitled "Mount Rainier" through Hancock House Publishing.  She asked if she could review it for the Seattle PI.  I excitedly said yes, and furnished her with a copy.  Karen gave it a wonderful review, supporting it with several of my pictures, and recommended it to all her readers.  It was the first review of my book, and the one I most cherish to this day.  I still have the original newspaper copy (the review can still be easily found online).
Then one day, Karen’s walls came crashing down.  She was notified by the Seattle PI that her services would no longer be needed.  Karen’s heart broke.  She contacted me right away and confided in me all her emotions and fears.  She was surprised, hurt, angry, worried, and…afraid.  Writing about the outdoors was her life and passion, and after 13 years with the PI, it was all being taken away from her in one sudden swoop.  She didn’t see it coming.
Karen needed to write and she didn’t know what she was going to do.  She not only needed to write, she needed to write with purpose.  It had to be beneficial and be appreciated by others.  She was afraid of being forgotten.
Once the storm and panic settled, Karen realized she needed to keep her writing in the public eye.  She got the idea to start a blog, and enlisted my help to get it set up.  It was slow going at first, and there was much frustration when things didn’t work or “disappeared when she hit a button or something”.  But the results of her turmoil speak for themselves.  If you haven’t perused her pages, I encourage you to do so.
It was very soon after that Karen began hearing the rumors.  Her termination from the PI was part of a much bigger thing.  The PI was closing its doors.  This was a tremendous shock to Karen, and her hurt was replaced by sadness and concern for her friends and colleagues that were about to suffer the same fate as her.  The world could be cruel at times.
The PI announced a final good-bye party, attended by invite only.  Karen received an invite, but couldn’t decide if she wanted to attend.  She felt uncomfortable with it, yet part of her felt the closure and seeing others, some possibly for the last time, was important.  At the 11th hour, she hesitantly decided she wanted to go – if I would be her guest.  I was happy to oblige.
Karen Sykes - photo by Alan Bauer
The event was not what we expected.  It was a party and it was festive!  I wrote about it shortly afterward.  Karen only knew a handful of people there, since she freelanced from her home and didn’t have much interaction with those in the office.  But we quickly found out that many, many people knew of her and were anxious to meet her!  Karen was a bit embarrassed by all the attention, but her spirits were soaring through the ceiling.  Her smile was a permanent fixture on her face the entire evening.  I was so happy for her.
As we all knew she would, Karen forged ahead with her writing and picked up many new projects.  She began contributing to the Seattle Times and other publications.  Visit Rainier soon became a favorite client for her, offering her reason to get out on the trail often.
Karen had other interests as well.  She liked to write poetry and aspired to someday have it published in a book.  She was an avid runner around West Seattle, recently logging 13 mile runs.  Yes, 70 years old and running the equivalent of half marathons.  Karen wasn’t one for sitting around.  She would go stir crazy.
On June 18th, Karen met her fate doing what she loved.  Her final adventure took place in Mount Rainier National Park, on a hike to Owyhigh Lakes with her boyfriend Bob.  Karen did not return. 
There are more questions than answers as to what happened on that day.  And most likely, many of those answers will never come.
I will miss Karen.  I will miss her joyous smile and infectious laugh.  I will miss her quest for adventure and seeking to notice details along the way that others might overlook.  I will miss her kind heart and goodwill to those around her whom she found so important in her life.  And, I’ll miss those damn phone calls.
Rest in peace, Karen.  You have touched the lives of more than you ever could have imagined, and will be sorely missed.
Memorial Information

Celebrate the life and legacy of Karen Sykes at the Seattle Mountaineers on July 14, 2014. Share stories and experiences with friends at 6:30 PM, with a program beginning at 7:00 PM.  

Please send photos of Karen Sykes for incorporation in a slide show to Heidi Walker at

And don't forget to share reminiscences of Karen at NW Hikers Trail Talk or at

See you there.