Tracing old ski tracks in Spaulding Meadows

An old trail is made new again after local volunteers and experts revamp the route from John Muir cabin to Peterson Lake

Posted: Friday, March 25, 2011

It’s doubtful this trail will be marked on any map. Perhaps, it’s been mentioned in a guidebook, a journal entry, or blog post. It’s more likely, however, that through the years word-of-mouth passed along its whereabouts and users set tracks each winter for others to follow.

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Photo by David Job
Photo by David Job

Years before the construction of the John Muir and Peterson Lake cabins, a trail existed between where the two stand now. It was a route marked by three local pioneering spirits who reveled in the thrill of exploration and the solitude of wilderness.

Bob Armstrong was among the group of three. He, Dick Marriott and Dan Bishop, would do the route a couple times a year, he said. They’d head up the old Spaulding Meadows trail and break out into the meadows and travel northwest, flanked by ridgelines. The group flagged it with tape and ventured up each winter.

“We loved that whole Spaulding Meadow area,” Armstrong said. “We were doing it before snow machines and we felt pioneering. We loved the adventure of plotting these routes and such. We’d never see another track.”

But Armstrong said his flagging was replaced by diamond trail markers, and that the new route took users down into ravines, which his had not.

“It totally confused me,” he said. “The route we took was pretty easy and open most of the way.”

It was Armstrong’s route that David Job, his wife Marinke Van Gelder and Mike Dilger, a project planner for the U.S. Forest Service Recreation Department, hoped to resurrect when they headed into the area last weekend.

These days, the trail acts as a winter cross country connection between the John Muir and Peterson Lake cabins. The goal of Job, Van Gelder and Dilger was to make the route not only safer, but also more user-friendly.

“The driving goal of the trip came from public comment,” Dilger said. “We heard the route was hard to find. So, (we) thought it best to do an analysis of the current route and make adjustments.”

Using a GPS route set by Job earlier this year as reference, Gilder said they replaced aged diamond-shaped trail markers with ones that were larger, more reflective and a vibrant blue. They spaced them closer together for easy navigation and even used markers with directional arrows to identify turns and course changes in the trail. They used aerial photographs to identify the open areas and aimed to run the trail through these meadows instead through the forest. Gilder said they chose to do this for two reasons.

“The open areas get more snow,” he said. “The areas under the canopy sometimes have more topography, as the meadows drop into ravines. So there are some areas where the existing route was dropping to ravines that caused folks to lose their bearings.”

The group also changed the portion of the trail that drops down into Peterson Lake.

“The new ending moved more to the east,” Gilder said. “It’s a little safer spot because it takes folks away from a fresh water inlet where the ice could be thinner.”

This new portion of the trail also steers users away from a quarter mile of thick woods, which were hard to navigate. Instead, Job said trail users now jaunt through about 300 yards of wooded area, the whole time being able to see the lake below.

Armstrong said his group always did the trail from point-to-point, taking advantage of the cabins once they were built. But, Job said the trail is also doable as an out-and-back trip, especially now.

“I would recommend users avoid the Peterson Lake trail right now,” he said. “It’s in poor skiable condition rdue to some downed trees and ice.”

Yet, it’s a long ski to begin at the Auke Nu trail, head up to John Muir cabin, over to Peterson Lake and back. Gilder said it took the group about 12 hours to complete their trek.

But Job, who is a frequent user of the area every year, said he is drawn not for the use of the cabins, but instead for the opportunities for exploration. He recommends heading out just to enjoy the area, scenery and solitude.

“The trail can be so variable that you have to know your limits as a backcountry skier,” he said. “It’s not managed or patrolled so turn around when you’ve emptied a third of the tank. That way, you have a third left over and a third in reserve.”

Gilder said the new route offers users a reliable starting point from which to explore.

“Sure, it’s markers that mark a route between two cabins. But, the other benefit is that the route parallels two ridgelines. Users can use that as a beacon for exploring the meadows up there while always knowing they can run back to the center of the valley and pick up the route again,” he said.

Regardless of the reasons skiers or snowshoers head out onto the trail, Armstrong said it’s just a great place.

“It’s one of the best skis in Juneau, if the conditions are right,” he said.

With spring on its way and conditions currently being ideal, Job recommends skiers take advantage of the trail now.

“This is a winter only route, and right now it’s the end of the winter season,” he said.

Gilder said there are no plans to improve this trail for summer use due to other existing Forest Service trails in need of attention and upgrade.

Ed Grossman, Recreation Program Manager for the Forest Service, said the trail crosses too many sensitive areas and summer travel would cause a lot of resource damage.

As for next winter, Grossman said setting of the track on the trail is completely up to users.

One question remains unanswered with this scenic, non-motorized use trail: the name.

“I don’t think it ever had an official name,” Armstrong said.

But he reflected on a time, after Dick Marriott died, when the City and Borough Parks and Recreation Department held an annual Dick Marriott Ski Tour. Often the event drew nearly 70 people who would ski the route once flagged by Armstrong, Marriott and Bishop.

Perhaps the name should be the Dick Marriott ski route.

“That would be a good one,” Armstrong said.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at

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