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Reflections on building a trail through the 'Fortress of the Bears'

USFS foreman shares news of rebuilt Admiralty Island trail

Posted: June 29, 2012 - 12:01am
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Trail crew member Lindsey Sydow works to peel logs that were used last year to construct a portion of a new trail from Admiralty Cove to Young Lake.   Courtesy of Robert Marek
Courtesy of Robert Marek
Trail crew member Lindsey Sydow works to peel logs that were used last year to construct a portion of a new trail from Admiralty Cove to Young Lake.

“Kootznoowoo Wilderness” and “Fortress of the Bears” are both names for an enormous island just south of Juneau, names that evoke wild thoughts of brown bears and thick forest.

Admiralty Island lures visitors to remote U.S. Forest Service public use cabins that have long been popular with Juneau deer hunters and anglers.Some are linked by only a patchwork of trails and lakes.

During the summer of 2011, Kootznoowoo temporarily became home to a crew of seven SAGA AmeriCorps members as they rebuilt a puncheon-boardwalk trail from Admiralty Cove to Young Lake. Officials with the USFS on the Tongass National Forest took advantage of rare funding from the stimulus jobs bill — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — to fund the reconstruction of this 4.8-mile trail, as well as other trails, shelters and a cabin on the island.

Only Adam Jordan, the SAGA crew leader, had previous experience in Alaska. Maybe that was for the better since the rain, mud and bugs may have given the rest of his crew second thoughts.

Like many of the trails found in rainforests of Southeast, the trail the crew worked on this summer featured discouraging stretches of boot-sucking mud that kept human traffic to a minimum; definitely far less than the hoof and paw traffic.

Yet, despite the challenges caused by Mother Nature, the trail itself has much to offer a prepared hiker. After leaving the wide, sandy beach at Admiralty Cove it passes a remodeled cedar cabin and climbs through old groves of Sitka spruce and Western hemlock to an elevation of 320 feet at Young Lake, where two additional cabins can be rented, one on either end of the lake.

The “North” cabin became home to this crew of wide-eyed young adults.

Admiralty Island is managed as a wilderness area where the simplest of hand tools are most appropriate; the Pulaski, shovel, three-pound hammer, hatchet, eight-pound sledge and handsaws were all useful, but it was the pack-board that would garner the most discussion. Ten tons of puncheon boards were hauled down the trail. 1,500 linear feet of gravel was laid to a depth of several inches on other muddy sections. With thumping calls from blue grouse echoing in the distance and piles of grizzly scat that required careful steps, the scene was often like a film set from Tarzan.

Deck boards were fastened with six inch spikes to small tree logs (stringers) cut by handsaw from the surrounding forest, then limbed, peeled and hauled through thickets of blueberry and devil’s club. Hundreds of straight trees were needed with a diameter less than five inches. In an old growth forest, this size tree is not as common as one might assume, and the search for them sometimes extended a hundred feet or more beyond the trail corridor. In short, crew members were required to hike, heave, hike again and repeat. Add in some biting insects, cool temperatures and rain to complete the mental picture of what it took to build this trail.

A well-designed trail in a wilderness setting should be noticed as nothing more than a pathway. Ideally, the structures should not draw attention to themselves except, perhaps, where a bridge crosses a stream. Even bridges should blend in with their surroundings and become moss-covered over time, but as the months on the trail project passed and additional AmeriCorps crews were added, the trail gradually achieved a solid look that should last for generations.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for participants who brought home treasured memories such as their sightings of brown bear prints upon newly constructed puncheon, salmon in tumbling streams, sunsets splashed over tidal flats and the quiet and stillness beneath an old growth forest. The warmth shared around an evening campfire increased the bond of a common purpose between crew members. A solitary evening walk along the lakeshore gives opportunities for self-reflection, like the mountains reflected on the surface of the lake itself.

The result from this endeavor is a reconstructed trail, not far from Juneau. One can visit for the day, or stay a while longer in one of the USFS [filtered word] use cabins to experience all the aspects of what makes Admiralty Island a jewel in the archipelago of Southeast.

Hopefully, you too will get a chance to hike it soon.

• Robert Marek is a trail foremen with the USFS.

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