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Putting some muscle into Mount Juneau

Trail Mix crews work to make popular trail sustainable and safe

Posted: July 27, 2012 - 12:00am
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Trail crews with Trail Mix Inc., have begun work to improve the Mount Juneau Trail, which leads to the summit of the 3,576-foot peak that rises above downtown Juneau. It's a popular summer hike for its vistas, but one that should only be attempted by intermediate to advanced hikers.  Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire
Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire
Trail crews with Trail Mix Inc., have begun work to improve the Mount Juneau Trail, which leads to the summit of the 3,576-foot peak that rises above downtown Juneau. It's a popular summer hike for its vistas, but one that should only be attempted by intermediate to advanced hikers.

One local trail that has tortured the legs of Juneauites for years is about to get easier.

The Mount Juneau Trail, which spurs off of the popular Perseverance Trail for roughly 1.5 miles and leads to breathtaking vistas on the summit of Mount Juneau, is receiving some attention from crews with Trail Mix Inc. this summer.

Erik Boraas, executive director of the local nonprofit, said the work crews are doing is really a continuation of construction that should have happened years ago, when the trail was initially being constructed.

“In the past, there was a grant to re-route the lower part of the mountain, and they got to a certain point and then the grant ran out. Crews stopped working after the money ran out, so people forged their own trail straight up the mountain, along the fall line.”

Today, it’s easy to see where deliberate trail construction stops; a sweeping turn abruptly turns uphill — straight uphill.

And while the quickest way between two points may be a straight line, Boraas said it’s not a good way to make a sustainable trail.

“There’s a lot of erosion issues,” he said. “(Plus,) it’s steep, it’s hard on the knees and there’s one section where the trail features a two-foot muddy trench.”

So, he said, Trail Mix got a grant to finish the work that was started.

Crews have been at it for more than a week now, swinging some of the simplest hand tools available. With pulaskis, shovels and picks, Boraas said, workers are cutting switchbacks into the side of the mountain. Only a few chainsaws are available to workers due to the rough terrain on the 3,576-foot mountain.

When complete, the new trail will reroute the existing trail to not only make it easier on hikers, but to also make it more sustainable.

“First of all, it will improve drainage,” he said. “(Second,) it will also make it less dangerous.”

The project is scheduled to take about two months, Boraas said, and he hopes to have the work completed by the time bad weather rolls in.

“Initially, crews were delayed due to poor weather this spring and then lingering snowpack on the mountainside delayed the start of the project further,” he said. “We started as soon as we could.”

During construction, the Mount Juneau Trail will remain open. Crews have marked closed portions of the trail with pink flagging tape. Boraas said those portions will be opened as soon as they are complete.

To facilitate the work, crews have set up a small spike camp at the summit where they stay for four days at a time, he said. This allows crews to gain access to the construction area in a timely fashion and alleviate the fatigue that would surely set in from hiking from the trailhead each day.

Supplies, Boraas said, are being helicoptered in by Northstar Trekking and Coastal helicopters. Each company, he said, has donated time to the project.

The terrain of the Mount Juneau Trail sets it apart from its sea level counterparts — water runs right off. For that reason, crews are using a trail-building technique that is unique to Juneau. While it has no official name to speak of, Boraas said the side of the mountain is dry enough to allow its use.

“We can cut into the side of the mountain and (compact) the material down to make the trail bed, and we try to angle it slightly, so water runs off,” he said. “Trails down low, we have to use lots of gravel or boardwalk. It’s not unique for the rest of the world, but it’s unique to Juneau to be able to build trails in this style.”

In a nutshell, crews dig down until they reach sturdy materials, Boraas said. Organics are tossed over the side to be re-absorbed.

On a sunny day last week, families, retirees and young twenty-somethings could be seen hiking toward the summit of the hulking mountain above downtown Juneau. Despite the steep climb, all were smiling.

Maybe it was the scenery or maybe it was the sun.

Either way, with the help of Trail Mix, the trail will soon become not only safer, but the latest improvements will also help locals and visitors enjoy the view from the summit for years to come.

• Contact Outdoors Editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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