Unity Trail connecting Kenai, Soldotna should be completed as proposed

Seeing life from the slow lane

Posted: Friday, May 25, 2001

It was early in the morning when I decided to try crossing the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge on foot. I wanted to walk the highway to it over the Kenai River flats. At 6:30 a.m., my breath vaporized into the starchy morning sunlight.

Leaving my old mini-van at Ocean Dock Road, I headed south on the west side of the highway. I was feeling absolutely pouncy: Kenai Mountain high. Walking along, I saw a lot of automobiles and not too much trash. The majestic Alaska Range across Cook Inlet was still snow covered. So were the Kenai Mountains to the east. The optics of light made the Kenai Mountains look larger than life sized, for that I am glad, as they beckon and beguile at any time.

I soon saw one caribou cow. She was grazing near the highway. She looked forlorn and vulnerable. I looked for ducks and geese, but saw none, with the exception of one mallard hen who rose at a high angle above the river. I saw sea gulls, acting like sentinels over the wetlands, and finally a good-sized cow moose browsing by Birch Island.

Along the way, I thought about the proposed pathway connecting the Unity Trail around Kenai and Soldotna. The name of this project is the Kenai River Bridge Access Road Pathway. Another name for it that I have heard proposed is the Hugh Malone Memorial Trail. I like that name. Hugh was a great man, a great Alaskan and a credit to Kenai.

After the poorly attended public meeting on May 15, I have heard from the Department of Transportation that the odds are getting worse for this section of the trail to be constructed. It turns out that some of the resource agencies that are responsible for issuing permits are quite likely to obstruct the project because of "environmental concerns." Without loud and clear public support at this critical time in a community effort that dates back to the 1980s, it is likely that we will lose the funding for this pathway.

The Alaska Recreation Rendezvous is coming up in September in Wassila. This event will bring together all kinds of recreational enthusiasts, organizations and professional managers in educational sessions. The conference theme is "Access -- the thread that binds us." I will share information along with the registration form with anyone who is interested. The issues involved with defending the Bridge Access Roadside Pathway are about community and access and unity.

Road noise was probably the most annoying part of my recent morning walk. Big wheels under heavy trucks were the worst. Exhaust fumes and fear for my physical safety came next in terms of distractions.

The proposed pathway would be approximately 20 feet off the road shoulder where I was walking. This distance was reduced from the originally proposed 75 feet to accommodate the environmental concerns of the agencies.

Looking at the ground where the path could be located, I saw some dry grass and a few willows along the way. Further out from there it gets a little muddier. I don't perceive this particular area as being too critical for anything. The total amount of wetlands to be utilized by the proposed trail is 3.3 acres.

Getting into my stride, I came across two others braving the morning without a motorized vehicle -- one on foot, one on a bicycle. We made pleasant acknowledgements to each other. Quiet people, unseparated by steel and safety glass, enjoying the novelty of our existence.

The river was the picture of serenity; skylights and changing colors reflect off this perfect palette. I really love standing over a river and taking it all in. I have done this on several bridges in Alaska, each site memorable and remarkable in reverent and ecstatic ways.

One of the proposed alternatives is to restrict the path and stop it at the viewing area on the north side of the river and at the turn around parking area on the south side. This makes no sense to me.

Why disconnect the Unity Trail? What logical purpose would that really serve toward meeting the needs for public access or environmental protection? I would hate to see this pathway sacrificed for some illogical purpose.

Getting off the bridge and walking on the well-loved and well-used path along K-Beach Road will have to wait for another day. I look forward to traveling it with my neighbors from across the river. I see women walking it every day. I see kids and men on it, too. They always look happy.

Turning back around toward Kenai, my hometown, I headed into the stream of traffic. Yes, the big trucks were intimidating. Scrun-ching over on the shoulder of the road as far as I could, I felt safer. Thinking about my family here, I am reminded that my father worked for the Road Commission as a cat-skinner constructing the original road from Kenai to Sterling and Ninilchik as a teen-ager. He was 16 and as strong as Superman. Before him, his father worked as an engineer on several road and bridge jobs. He was an avid outdoor adventurer and the contractor that built the United Methodist Church of the New Covenant in Kenai. He drove over from Moose Pass to do it.

On my mother's side, my grandfather and his brother were contractors building the railroad out of Seward after they arrived there in 1917. Granddaddy eventually became the chief engineer on the Whittier Tunnel Project. His name was Anton Anderson. I have to respect these men and the others like them that established access in Alaska. Without their efforts, so much of our enjoyment and pleasure in experiencing the "Great Land" would never happen.

The most striking thing I discovered on my way back was a plant blooming on the shoulder of the highway. It burst with original beauty. This priceless composition of pale green blossoms and sun-kissing buds was breath taking. Instead of upright, it grew flat along the ground, nearly concealed by gravel and dirty grass. I wanted to cut it and take it home with me. It rivaled any floral arrangement to be found in town. Altogether exquisite, I wanted to believe that my eyes were the first to seize upon it.

It reminded me of some beautiful people I know who grow like that: in harsh conditions, against all odds and unnoticeable if traveling in the fast lane.

I encourage everyone to contact Mark Blanning at Wince-Corthell-Bryson's office, P.O. Box 1041, Kenai, AK 99611, with written comments that support a safe and continuous 3.3-mile segment to link the existing and proposed pathways on each side of the Kenai River to complete the Unity Trail System loop between Kenai and Soldotna. His phone number is 283-4672. His e-mail address is wcb@ptialaska.net.

For more information on how you can help raise public support for the Bridge Access Road Pathway, please contact me. My office is located at 36130 Kenai Spur Highway in the spruce bark beetle mitigation building. My phone number is 260-6202 ext. 302. The e-mail address is kgraves@borough.kenai.ak.us.

Kathleen Graves lives in Kenai and works as the trails coordinator for the Kenai Peninsula Borough.



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