Seniors strolling hand in hand, boys on bikes, dog walkers, marathon runners-in-training, teens on in-line skates and mommies pushing strollers all have a great new place to play: the pedestrian trail next to Kalifornsky Beach Road.
The pathway is garnering rave reviews from the first users and inspiring ambitious dreams for next spring.
"I love it. It's great," said Mindee Morning, a runner who describes herself as a trail nut.
"The minute they put the dirt out there folks were on it."
The six-mile paved trail was completed this fall as part of the major road upgrade. It meanders along the road's north side from the Soldotna intersection with the Sterling Highway to the Bridge Access Road at Kenai.
Penny McClain, a friend of Morning, agreed.
"Anytime you get a bike trail in the community, it's a plus," she said. "It's a kick to see how many people use it.
"I haven't had my roller skis out there yet. What a great place for that."
The trail was installed this summer, but it has been a long time in the works.
We've been suggesting it for over 20 years," said Peggy Mullen, Soldotna homesteader and community activist.
She credited support from the city of Soldotna, parents and staff at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School and former Borough Mayor Mike Navarre for bringing the project to fruition. The project was on and off the state transportation planning lists over the years, she said.
"It was not easy," Mullen said.
The trail solves a long-standing concern about bicycling, walking or jogging along the busy road. Set back from the highway, it provides a place away from both bears and traffic.
"It is long, long overdue in this area. A lot of people don't want to be back in the woods. They want to be out where they feel safe," McClain said.
"Safety is the biggest thing. Every pedestrian deserves a safe place."
But the trail changes rather than abolishes safety concerns. People worry that trail users, especially those at high speeds, could be at risk at intersections, especially with major feeder streets such as Ciechanski Road, Poppy Lane and Community College Road.
Drivers need to watch out for the new trail travelers, Mullen cautioned.
"It means people need to be a little more cautious, a little more courteous," she said.
The users also worry that people with motorized vehicles will find the trail's smooth blacktop too great a temptation.
"What is the state going to do to keep vehicular traffic off it?" McClain asked.
Morning was run off the trail one day during the construction phase by an off-road pickup. She said she worried that snowmachines or dirt bikes could endanger pedestrians and undermine the trail's purpose.
Crossing the road remains an unresolved issue. The three women pointed out a need for underpasses or overpasses for pedestrians or for skiers to connect to the trails near Skyview High School.
Winter is another problem. The state does not intend to plow the path, said Billy Pool, foreman of the Soldotna maintenance station for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
"We just don't have the funds or the manpower to keep the bike paths open in the winter. It's very expensive," he said.
"We would really like to keep those cleared off for people to use year-round."
But come spring, the snow berms will vanish, and the trail's fans will return.
Morning already is making big plans.
The trail works out to almost exactly 10 kilometers long, perfect for a community fun run. She wants to help organize one, perhaps as a fund-raiser for the Tsalteshi Trails Association, she said.
The trail enthusiasts are looking ahead to the next pedestrian project: completion of the Unity Trail linking Kenai and Soldotna.
The section along the Kenai Spur Highway is due for construction next summer, and the final portion along Bridge Access Road is on the drawing board, Pool said.
When it is all done, Morning said, the central peninsula will be ready to host its own marathon.
Mullen predicted that the trails would be an asset for decades to come, fostering healthy family outings, giving visitors one more reason to like the Kenai Peninsula and promoting a sense of community on the central peninsula.
"To connect the loop would be wonderful," she said.
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