Alan and Sheila Degener often walk the path that winds its way through the tall trees of the Auke Village Recreation Area. But they've been more cautious about the eastern end of the trail recently because some of the trees are toppling over.
"We didn't come out here for a while because of the trees," Sheila Degener said during a hike earlier this week.
About a half-dozen trees, including one almost 80 feet tall and 2 feet thick, have fallen in recent months. More are leaning, some caught up in other trees and a few rooted in soil on the verge of breaking away from a nearby slope.
Trees fall in the forest all the time, but this unstable stand surrounds a well-used trail, picnic table and fire circle in the popular park. That's why U.S. Forest Service staffer Marc Scholten put up signs Thursday warning hikers to stay out of the area.
Scholten said the forest was fine until Glacier Highway's Auke Bay Bypass went in nearby and changed the hydrology of the area, making the soil less firm.
"Somehow there's a lot more water moving through there," he said. "We've had numerous trees come down or be uprooted. We've also had a large rock come down the hill."
Forest Service staffers have cut fallen trees blocking trails, but some of those left leaning pose a hazard to cutters and need to be taken out by professionals. Scholten said that will happen in the spring, when experts come to town to train Forest Service staff on chain-saw use. The result won't be pretty.
"When there's so many trees in that state of flux, when you start cutting you're going to have to do a lot of cutting," he said. "People aren't going to like the outcome. There's going to be a big hole in there."
The path through the Auke Rec woods follows a relatively level route, meandering from shelters to restrooms to picnic tables. Flights of metal stairs connect to the road above, and sandy paths lead to the rocky beach below, arcing around a bay dotted with red crab-pot buoys, feeding ducks and occasional sea-lion snouts.
Numerous trees along the trail lean one way or the other, some holding ferns sprouting from clumps of branch-caught composted leaves, others dangling ropes knotted for use by swinging children.
Along the trail, piles of cut wood and chips show where maintenance crews have cleared the path of previous falls. The freshest cuts are in the tree-fall area, at the east end of the trail below the terminus of Otter Way, west of Indian Cove and the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal.
This part of the trail sees less use than the western bluff and beach, where picnics and parties often are held. Still, one morning this week, a half-dozen hikers passed in a 30-minute period.
The path is popular because it is level, sheltered and often less icy than other trails, said John d'Armand, who frequently walks the area.
"A few days ago my wife and I stood at the bottom of the trees and we just wanted to get out of there," he said. "It seemed awfully unsafe to me."
Doug Blanc of the Forest Service said staffers are checking the area every few days to assess the situation. Scholten said warning signs posted Thursday should help, although they won't keep everyone away. In the meantime, the remaining unbalanced trees probably won't fall without warning.
"These trees, when they come down, they come down in a storm," Scholten said. "And most times, people aren't using our areas in a storm."
Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.