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Juneau's trails are one positive left by mines

Posted: Wednesday, June 01, 2005

BENJAMIN BROWN

The Alaska Observer

Memorial Day is over, the special session is adjourned and large ships visit us daily: Summer is here. I need to interact with nature, specifically to get to the top of the three mountains circling the downtown-Gastineau Channel-Douglas area. Mount Roberts is easy, from the switchback trail to the upper tram terminal, the cakewalk up to the cross, and the truly alpine hike to Gastineau and Roberts peaks. There are many people in espadrilles in the tram zone, but I don't begrudge them the opportunity to be on top of a mountain. (If I survive a few more decades on this planet, I'll be thankful for a tram somewhere in my future to help my aged body along.)

Mount Bradley (also known as Jumbo) is more challenging. The forested path at the beginning gives way to a well-planked meadow, and then a steep stretch I call "the stairs of death." This chute climbs up the ridge that defines Bradley's appearance from downtown, and it requires deep knee bends - if you're recovering from arthroscopy, don't go there. The reward of Mount Jumbo, as summer progresses and snow disappears, are snow-melt pools in little vales atop this peak, affording the weary hiker a place to rinse away the remains of his or her trek.

Mount Juneau is only for experienced hikers. While the way is easy as pie up to Ebner Falls, after the left turn there it quickly gets steep. One comes to a picturesque overlook point before skirting a mountainside bowl, crossing several falling streams. The kicker is the final stretch, extremely steep and at points disorienting as one toils up the side of a parabolic slope with elusive fake trails near the end. The intrepid mountaineer comes upon the surreal remains of a failed tram construction scheme, numerous rusting metal cables and large industrial containers containing refuse and signs of human habitation. Having reached the summit, some descend to Granite Creek, and others return the way they came, proving that it really can be harder going down than it was coming up.

While I'm still looking forward to these adventures in 2005, I've already been up my favorite easy trail three times, the one and only Perseverance. This has been well-maintained and upgraded over the past few years by Trail Mix, the outstanding volunteer group that labors hard to improve our outdoor experiences. If you haven't seen the new end of Perseverance Trail, or the Glory Hole overlook reached by the new Red Mill Trail, get thee up Silverbow Basin! It is one of the best hikes I know, with country-lane stretches, roaring waterfalls, berries - everything you look for in a hike. Yes, the relative flatness means more people, but you can always sneak off and find your own little corner of paradise when you want to be alone.

One irony that hit me the last time I was up Perseverance is that it would likely not exist were it not for a commercial hard-rock mine. Old photographs show the whole basin in the not-too-distant past denuded of trees, with industrial buildings dotting the landscape. That era in Juneau's past has ended on this piece of land, and now we have a world-class recreational site that brings joy to thousands, mostly in summer, but year-round for the heartiest among us. What lessons might this have for our present-day land-use debates?

Opposition to the road to Skagway and to the Kensington Mine shows some historical amnesia. I'm not saying mining's legacy to Juneau is perfect in every way. I believe the quality of life we presently enjoy in Alaska's capital derives in large part from our mining past. With technological improvements, greater environmental awareness, and community oversight of industrial activity, we needn't blindly fear all efforts to remove ore from the ground. The road and the mine may just open up Berners Bay and the east side of Lynn Canal to people that might otherwise never see them. There will still be vast parcels of northern Southeast accessible only to kayakers, boaters and pilots. This is not an apocalyptic zero-sum game.

This Saturday, Perseverance will be designated a National Recreation Trail by the National Park Service in a ceremony for the 13th National Trails Day. Trail Mix and SAGA co-sponsor the dedication at 9 a.m. at the end-of-Basin-Road trailhead. Celebrating the results of things our forebears did that left us better off helps in contemplating how our actions may truly affect the lives of those in the future.

• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Juneau.



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