A few years ago the Empire published an article called "Thousands of Footprints." It described the changes taking place on Mount Roberts after the tram began lifting thousands of people into the subalpine zone.
Areas that had experienced light usage by hikers over the years were threatened by the inundation of people into the fragile environment. It told of the efforts of a group of volunteers called Mount Roberts Stewards to lessen the impact of those footsteps - minor side trails blocked, twine fences erected and visitors spoken to about their experiences.
The impacted areas have changed since that time. Areas that had been trampled down by hikers and picnickers now are recovering due to stringent traffic control in the heavily traveled area of the loop trail above the tram. But areas higher up the mountain are suffering from more use by hikers boosted higher by the tram.
The stewards - working with the tram, Gastineau Guiding and Trail Mix - have instituted a number of measures over the years to continue to preserve the subalpine areas while allowing an enjoyable experience for the mountain's many visitors. One development has been building the observation decks near the loop trail to give visitors a destination to achieve, making it unnecessary for them to go farther and damaging a higher area.
With funding provided by Mount Roberts Tramway as part of the right of way agreements made during the development of the tram, Trail Mix has done considerable trail construction and maintenance in the area.
Most notable is the "reroute" a few years ago that moved the trail to Father Brown's cross away from the horrid, impossible-to-maintain switchbacks up the channel side of the ridge. The new, evenly graded trail now circles the ridge and provides grand vistas of Gold Creek and Nelson Watershed valleys. The summer of 2001 saw extensive work done to the trail from town to the tram. All the trail work near the alpine loop trail and cross have included "hardened" surfaces using expensive helicopter-lifted gravel that makes a much more stable surface. This solid surface encourages people to stay on the trail and lessens damage to surrounding vegetation.
Another goal was to provide people with educational material about what they were seeing. The stewards designed a small map brochure that described the trail up Mount Roberts. This map has been distributed through the Nature Center near the upper tram terminal for donations. Using these donations, volunteer time and a TRAAK grant, the stewards took two years to develop a series of interpretive signs designed by Discovery Foundation and installed by Trail Mix. There are now 10 informational signs near the tram describing the natural and human history of the area. People love them and in their own way they also act as a destinations for visitors.
Mount Roberts Stewards continue their mission on the mountain. Many hours are spent walking the mountain and talking to people. Lots of people will ask us: "What wildflower is that?" or "What is that mountain over there?" or "Is that (marmot) a bear?" They share the beauty of the area and make people aware of safety issues. Bears and proper hiking gear, including water and food, are common topics.
There is a wide variety of work to be done in protecting Mount Roberts. One area is guiding people's behaviors to minimize damage. Another is drainage improvements on the trail; a small diversion ditch dug by one person last year has a made major difference in how wet the upper trail below the snow fields were this June. Yet another area is clipping or whacking back the encroaching vegetation along the trail, which people otherwise step around and off of the trail, which damages the trail.
As you hike the Mount Roberts Trail above the cross you can see examples of this. In places where the trail goes steeply uphill and is beginning to erode, you can look around and spot the old trail, usually identified by alders that have invaded the old trail and confirmed by a dug trail bench found under the brush.
This month Trail Mix crews are working on Mount Roberts trails. They started off with a volunteer work day Saturday, and plan to reclaim some of the easier-to-maintain switchback trails that have been abandoned. The trail below the tram as well as the alpine loop trail at the tram also will receive maintenance.
Want to help us keep Mount Roberts a special place? The Mount Roberts Stewardship Program is always eager for more volunteers. Further information can be found at www.juneautrails.org or by calling the Trail Mix office at 790-6406.
Of course, Trail Mix is always looking for members as well. Right now the group is gearing up for the Fall Dinner-Auction Celebration marking Trail Mix's 10th year as Juneau's community trail organization. The event will be held Sept. 14 at the Mount Roberts Tramway. Contact the office for more details.
On the Trails is written by members of Trail Mix, a local nonprofit trails organization.