Girdwood-area tram makes river crossing more manageable

Posted: Thursday, September 21, 2000

GLACIER CREEK -- Just back from hunting goats in the mountains above the headwaters of the Twentymile River, Dan Schilling welcomed the Four Corners Tram with a sense of relief.

After loading the rifle, a walking stick and a hefty backpack into the grated, metal basket dangling from a 1-inch steel cable 50 or 60 feet above this creek, Schilling grabbed the haul line and started muscling the hand-operated conveyance across the canyon.

The fast waters of the creek tumbled over boulders. A steep trail led down dangerous cliffs to one of two places Girdwood-area hikers used to cross the creek in the old days.

Crossing at the bottom of the cliffs was what Carolyn Bloom, administrative officer for Anchorage Municipal Parks and Recreation, called ''the wet method.''

Hikers would grab a cable strung across the water about chest high and start wading.

''The cable just kept you from getting dragged downstream,'' Bloom said.

The ''wet method'' was cold and wet. So for years someone strung a second cable. High above the creek, this cable formed a fine line between the cliffs.

''The dry method was this way,'' Bloom said.

People brave enough or crazy enough, or quite possibly possessed of a little of both, would strap on a climbing harness, clip themselves to the cable with a carabiner and start hand-pulling their way across. A few of the really brave and/or crazy crossed by grabbing the cable by hand, wrapping their feet around it, and then starting over.

Bloom helped explain the desire for a tram here with an example of the latter.

This came after the Girdwood Trails Committee went looking for public funding to finance volunteer construction of a new and more elevated creek-crossing. The Anchorage city manager's office, Bloom said, wasn't clear what a tram would replace so she and a municipal landscape architect went to take pictures.

''He started over the cable hand over hand with his feet wrapped around it,'' Bloom said.

She took photographs. The office types quickly got a picture of why a tram might be better, and safer.

Getting the tram built was left to a handful of Girdwood residents who have slowly but steadily spent years building one of the nicer but possibly least known community trail systems in Southcentral Alaska.

The committee has created a 7.5-mile loop through the forests of the central valley below Mount Alyeska.

''The long-term plan is to finish the Iditarod (Trail) up to Crow Creek Pass,'' said Anne Herschleb, chair of the trails committee.

That would connect the Girdwood trail system to the Eagle River trail system. A hiker starting at the Eagle River Visitor Center in Chugach State Park could take the trail all the way to the Alyeska Prince Hotel in Girdwood.

The old Iditarod Trail is only about half done, winding its way through the hemlock forest from near Girdwood Elementary School to cross and recross the Crow Creek Road before ending near the Crow Creek Mine.

The tram trail connects this historic stretch of the Iditarod Trail to the Winner Creek Trail, which then crosses a spectacular waterfall in the Winner Creek Gorge on its way to a ''Y'' that branches southeast into the Winner Creek Valley and beyond to emerge from the forest at the Alyeska Prince Hotel.

Officially, Bloom said, ''the Four Corners Tram is operational but not open.''

There is still work to be done. Shelters that protect the tram car from snow at either end of the cable still need roof boards as well as the metal roofing that sits on the ground nearby.

Meanwhile, Bloom is awaiting signs from the state Department of Transportation that will explain how to operate the tram. And the municipal risk managers have yet to OK official use of the tram.

''There's really no indication it's safe and open,'' Bloom said. ''We don't have a target date, really, for opening it.

''(But) people have been using it. We are not going to tell people not to use it.''

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