Group works to shelter hikers in backcountry

Posted: Friday, July 12, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The perfect hike would include -- what? Spectacular scenery? A sunny day? A light backpack? An open trail? A few nonthreatening critters? A loaf of bread, a book of verse, a flask of wine and -- Ptarmigan Creek Trail?

Perhaps. The gentle trek that a small party of hikers made from the Seward Highway to the turquoise mirror of Ptarmigan Lake on the upper Kenai Peninsula one recent Saturday had nearly all those attributes.

But as they arrived at the lake, John Wolfe Jr., co-author of ''55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska,'' and Christie Kearney, an Anchorage environmental scientist, were looking for something more.

A place to build a hut.

Ideally, a small, concealed site that would be far enough from the shoreline of Ptarmigan Lake to avoid contaminating the water or impinging on the view in summer -- but not too close to the surrounding avalanche slopes to court oblivion come winter.

Along with others in the nonprofit Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Huts Association, Wolfe and Kearney want to create a shelter-to-shelter trail system in Alaska in the tradition of the grand old mountain-hut routes in the Alps, Appalachians and Rockies.

As president of the 4-year-old organization, Wolfe has canvassed nearly all the possible sites within a two-hour drive of Anchorage, assuming the trail head should be reasonably accessible. Now he thinks he has it. The 56th way -- the perfect hike.

If the U.S. Forest Service agrees, the state's first hut-to-hut trail could begin on the narrow seven-mile path that Wolfe and Kearney traveled that Saturday to the east end of Ptarmigan Lake, then continue on a new trail that would rise over Snow River Pass, descend into Paradise Valley, course along the ''wild and scenic'' Snow River and return to the highway near Kenai Lake.

Alaska's first hut-to-hut trail should be special, Wolfe wrote in the formal proposal his group submitted last month to the Seward District ranger for Chugach National Forest. Its setting should ''truly inspire.''

''We believe the huts should be placed where there is geographical variety -- forests, glaciers, water, wildlife, peaks and valleys equal to people's vision of Alaska and equal to the inspiring settings found in the Rockies, the Alps and the Himalayas,'' he wrote.

The proposed trail would extend about 30 miles, from hemlock-bordered creek to blue-green lake to hanging glaciers on the Ptarmigan side, and to broad alpine meadow and braided river and thundering waterfall on the Snow River side.

But interspersed within those miles would be three or four huts (the alpine term for large group cabins) that could eliminate the need for camping gear or heavy backpacks altogether. Each hut would be equipped with a wood stove and a dining area and room for about a dozen bunks. At least half the year, they'd be staffed by live-in caretaker/naturalists who would prepare meals, stoke the fire, serve as educators and generally keep the gemutlichkeit flowing.

Impacts on the environment would be mitigated by propane lights, compost toilets (no septic tanks) and a formal trail-use ethic of ''leave no trace.''

Finally the hut system would be affordable and egalitarian, with something to offer beginning and experienced hikers alike, and the rich and the poor, facilitated through grant programs that value wilderness education.

And once constructed, the huts would be no burden to the taxpayer: User fees, private and corporate donations, and volunteer maintenance would pay all operating costs, according to the hut association.

The proposal has already won a surprise $500,000 appropriation for construction costs in the 2003 Forest Service budget, thanks to Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens' seniority on the Senate Appropriations Committee. But that funding presupposes that the huts' placement in Chugach National Forest is compatible with the recently revised forest plan for the region.

Under the most optimistic scenario, Wolfe said, a Forest Service approval could be forthcoming in spring 2004, with construction of the first hut commencing that summer.

In the meantime, Ptarmigan Creek Campground to Ptarmigan Lake isn't a bad hike just the way it is. On June 1 -- National Trails Day -- Wolfe and Kearney and their party never crossed paths with any other hiker in the course of a 15-mile day.

While the day dawned gray and drizzly in Anchorage, over Turnagain Pass the skies improved to partly cloudy, with an occasional brilliant sun. Blue forget-me-nots were just beginning to bloom along the trail edge. Still-leafless devil's club poked through the earth as spiky young stalks that were easy to spot and avoid.

But Ptarmigan Lake -- a 4-mile-long ''turquoise beauty,'' according to ''55 Ways to the Wilderness'' -- was the real attraction.

That and the precipitous peaks that surrounded it, jousting with the clouds. On the broad north-facing slopes of Andy Simons Mountain to the south of the lake, a glacier hung suspended in a high cirque. On the south-facing slopes to the north, either Dall sheep or mountain goats grazed beyond the effective range of small binoculars.

What the group really needed was a top-of-the-line spotting scope, the sort of instrument that might one day be available in the hut system. The group's proposal to the Forest Service says the huts will be supplied with ''educational tools that campers normally do not pack with them, such as telescopes, weather instruments, microscopes, scales, nets and books.''

But no one needed a telescope to spot the adult bald eagle that sat perched a little over head-high on an old cottonwood a few feet from the trail. It watched them for about five minutes, then flapped across the lake. Or the beaver sign a little way farther, leading to a long, ambitious beaver dam at the east end of the lake. Or the bear scat that was far too old to provoke concern.

A near-perfect day on the trail.

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