A few years ago, Mark Scholten was cross-country skiing down an overgrown path in the gravelly area between Back Loop Road and Mendenhall Lake.
The snow was great, as was the scenery, but the trail was bumpy and he had to fight his way through the snow-bent alders. Scholten, a recreational forester by profession and a Nordic skier by passion, decided the area had potential.
"It was like, 'Bing!,' " he said Tuesday, skate-skiing on what is now a wide path through the snow-shrouded evergreens of the Dredge Lake area. "I started thinking, 'If we brushed out this area, it would be awesome.' "
They did, and it is. Tons of gravel, thousands of dollars in tourist fees and hundreds of hours of volunteer time have turned overgrown roads and all-terrain vehicle routes into a maze of ski trails, most set with tracks when there's enough snow.
"What's so great about Dredge Lake is it's right in our back yard and it butts up against one of our most beautiful views, the Mendenhall Glacier," Scholten said.
The trail system wanders through forests, over glacial moraines, next to beaver dams and across frozen lakes. When combined with tracks set at the Mendenhall Campground and on west Mendenhall Lake, the Dredge Lake improvements expand the area's maintained cross-country ski trail system to about 21 kilometers - about 13 miles.
Five trailheads allow for easy access to the 15 named trails in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area system and numerous other untitled paths. The most commonly used route into the Dredge Lake area starts at the Back Loop Road bridge over the Mendenhall River. Others begin at the National Weather Service building parking lot, the end of Dredge Lake Road, off Glacier Spur Road about halfway between Back Loop Road and the glacier visitor center parking lot, and off the Moraine Ecology Trail.
Maps posted at all trailheads and major intersections show the trails, with regularly set routes highlighted.
The area has undergone a lot of change in the past century.
Glacial ice extended as far as the Back Loop Road area about 1875, not long before the first gold miners settled in what is now downtown, said Richard Carstensen, a Juneau naturalist who has studied glaciation in the Mendenhall Valley.
As the ice receded, wildlife and plants moved in. Higher, drier spots became home to coniferous trees while lower areas grew a tangle of brush and alders. Lichens spread, birds nested, beavers dammed up creeks, showshoe hares and coyotes found homes and bears foraged.
Glacial recession left behind piles of rock called moraines and layers of gravel and sediment. A braided river wandered through the area for years, scouring channels and washing away lighter material.
"That's why there's so much gravel there, because there was high-velocity flow," Carstensen said.
As people moved into and developed the Mendenhall Valley, they scooped out gravel for roadbeds and building pads, leaving behind depressions that became Dredge Lake, Crystal Lake and a variety of ponds and pools. The U.S. Forest Service developed a picnic area by Dredge Lake and biologists dammed up creeks to create salmon-rearing ponds.
Motorbikers and all-terrain-vehicle users found the area attractive for running and racing because of its dry gravel base and easy accessibility. But neighbors complained about the noise, biologists worried about the damage to wildlife and hikers objected to the potential for collisions. In 1997, the Forest Service, which manages the area, decided to ban motorized use.
"After that, people started hiking and skiing more," Scholten said.
Over the past five years, the Forest Service, the Juneau Nordic Ski Club, Trail Mix, Southeast Alaska Guidance Association and others have worked to repair, brush and label a variety of area trails. Volunteer labor, mostly from ski club members, has been a big part of the effort, as has about $10,000 in fees collected from tourists admitted to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, Scholten said.
The work has added gravel to trailbeds, raising them above flood levels. And small trees have been cut back.
"Those darned alders just don't stand up in the heavy snow," said James King, director of Trail Mix, a nonprofit trail group. "And the new ones just fall over no matter how far back you've trimmed them."
The resulting system of trails is attracting users year-round. Hikers, dog-walkers, runners and mountain bikers come in the summer; skiers and snowshoers visit in the winter. Scholten, Kevin White, Scott Fischer, Don Thomas, and Tim and Riley Hall use snowmobiles pulling rollers to pack down paths, renovators to break up frozen crusts and track-setters to carve classic ski tracks into the trails.
Frankie Pillifant of the 4-H Nordic Ski Club said her group often brings 30 to 40 young skiers to the area.
"The terrain is good for beginners, but it also works for the intermediate skiers," she said. "We spend a good two-thirds of our club time around the Dredge Lake, Mendenhall Campground, Mendenhall Lake area."
Scholten said there's been some discussion of a future footbridge across the Mendenhall River connecting the visitors center and Dredge Lake trail systems more directly to the campground area.
King of Trail Mix said that would be popular with summer as well as winter users.
"With a trail like that, it would really open up a neat area to a lot more people," he said.
But even without further growth, the area's trail system is unusual for Juneau, King said.
"You can have so many trails that you can spread out a lot of users," he said. "There can be something for everybody out there - a short loop for somebody who has just a half hour and a much longer loop for somebody who has a couple hours. There's plenty of room for folks out there to just go."
Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.