Even when sitting in his wheelchair, Ira Edwards of Anchorage looms large, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound man with a riot of bushy brown hair circling his face and a size XXL zeal for life and community.
He worked as a wildlife biologist and an Alaska State Parks ranger before becoming a land planner for the Department of Natural Resources, but he says his true calling is bringing people together.
“I’m a social organizer. I’m able to make things happen. I’m able to pull things together at the last minute,” he said.
You have to be a people-person to do that, and Edwards is as gregarious as they come. “I’m a social critter,” he said.
But a pandemic is rough on extroverts, and he’s chafing from months of isolation.
Consider last month when Nov. 18 rolled around — the 10-year anniversary of the day he was paralyzed from the waist down when a tree fell on him while he was clearing trees at Nancy Lake Recreation Area for Alaska State Parks.
“I usually host an ‘I’m Glad I’m Alive’ party and roast a pig,” Edwards said. “This year we couldn’t do that so I got a pork shoulder from somebody and smoked that. I was hanging out by myself. Everything happens on Zoom these days.”
It’s not like Edwards hasn’t seen a soul in real life since March. He works from home in a house located on a half-acre of land near Service High, but he still plays in the outdoors. Plans for this weekend included becoming the first sit-skier at Skeetawk, the just-opened alpine ski area at Hatcher Pass, not far from where Edwards grew up in Palmer.
But the barbecues, the concerts, the potlucks Edwards routinely hosts for his friends? All are on pause, and it’s painful.
“The physical isolation has been rough. The emotional side has been tough,” he said. “I rode my bike a lot and went fishing a lot, but not the way I’m used to.”
Edwards is well-known in Alaska’s skiing community. He’s worked as a representative for Rossignol skis for more than 20 years and he’s been a cross-country ski coach for nearly as long, both before and after his accident.
He uses a manual wheelchair and is so active — whether handcycling, skiing, fishing, hunting or harvesting a backyard orchard that includes eight apple trees, three pear trees, two cherry trees and rows and rows of raspberries — that his upper body underwent a Hulk-like transformation in the last 10 years.
“I’ve grown 12 inches around my shoulders and chest,” he said, from 44 to 56 inches.
Also expanding in that time: his Facebook presence, a timeline filled with glimpses into a life that inspired a Chive magazine article with a headline that called Edwards “the real-life most interesting man.”
Before his accident, Edwards had about five Facebook friends and had made a similar number of posts. Now he’s got more than 4,200 friends, many of whom engage with his frequent posts.
“Facebook was a way to let people know how I was doing in recovery,” he said. “I was having to answer 50 or 60 emails a day and I was on a lot of drugs and in ICU and it was not a good time for me to be doing stuff. I wasn’t super-coherent, so I started cutting-and-pasting the same response to everyone. Someone said, ‘Why don’t you use Facebook?’ ‘‘
He still uses it, most often to promote fundraisers or events he’s involved with, but also to engage with friends.
On Friday, he invited people to share something they’ve done that they’re pretty sure no one else has ever done. Nearly 300 comments followed from people claiming, among other things, to have milked a musk ox, dined with a former German chancellor and dropped a flashbang down a porta-potty vent tube.
Edwards spends his whole life doing things not many people do.
“I’m pretty sure I’m the only guy in Whittier that launches in a wheelchair to go shrimping,” he said.
This fall he pressed 894 gallons of apple cider while co-hosting two community apple pressings (masks required with social distancing where necessary) and canned 42 pints of tomato sauce. He stuffs sausages, cures bacon and processes his own game meat, grinding the scraps into dog food.
“I buy grains and dairy. I grow sprouts and micro-greens and I probably buy some greens in the winter, but I provide 90% of my own food either by hunting, fishing or gardening,” he said. “That lets me spend my resources having fun.”