Exploring Juneau's backyard

Finding a path out of town has intrigued - and stumped - adventurers and developers for decades

Posted: Sunday, July 23, 2000

Mary Lou Spartz had a rude awakening when her family moved to Juneau in 1941 and found out she needed an escape route out of town.

Every family was required to have one, in case Japan invaded Alaska during World War II.

Spartz said her stepfather's plan was to drive to the end of the road that is now Perseverance Trail and hike to Canada. Her family never had to do it, but I've often tried to picture the route they would have taken.

From the beginning of Juneau's history, people have searched for a route out of town. Since I was a child, I've been captivated by stories about people who tried to hike out of Juneau to Yukon and British Columbia gold fields or who followed rumors of lost trails to Canada. I've even set out on my own to explore some of these routes and get a better look at Juneau's backyard.


Rivers of ice: Mac Metcalfe and Gary Rosenberger stand on a ridgeline with Norris Glacier (left) and Taku Glacier in the background. Taku Glacier is a three- to four-day hike from Juneau.


First crossing

I was surprised to learn that the first recorded crossing of the Juneau Icefield took place in 1949, when Tony Thomas and Dean Williams, both of Juneau, and Ted Haley of Washington state made the roughly 80-mile trip from the Atlin, British Columbia, area to Juneau on skis. At the time, all three were assisting scientist Maynard Miller in setting up campsites for Miller's glacier research project, which continues today.

The men started their trip in early July and had gone about halfway when they were hit by a tremendous snowstorm. As they waited out the storm in a tent, Williams set up his ham radio and established contact with Royal and Eleanor O'Reilly, two musicians who ran the Taku Lodge, said Williams, now 82.

``They could hear the gale in the background and said `You guys sound pretty lonely,''' Williams said. ``So they serenaded us.''

Pioneering trek

It wasn't until 1969 that a genuine icefield route was established by a group that included Tony Thomas' son Don and Van Sundberg, two Starr Hill kids who grew up together doing a lot of hiking.

Their pioneering effort was no easy task, especially with the icefield's many crevasses.

``It seemed like we fell in 50 times,'' said Sundberg, an environmental coordinator for the state Department of Transportation.

``We would walk 1,000 feet to move forward 100 feet,'' Thomas said.

The route they established has become something of a well-beaten path, negotiable in six or seven days. However the icefield would have been a formidable challenge during a time when there were no maps or aerial photographs.

June is the best month for passage because visibility is better and winter snow hasn't melted and provides bridges over many crevasses, said Thomas, a technician with the federal Geological Survey Office.

By land or by sea

Certainly Tlingits and probably some prospectors made their way across the icefield, but considering the dangers, it probably was under desperate circumstances, like those Spartz's family would have faced had Japan invaded.

The established Tlingit route to Juneau from Atlin was primarily by canoe down the Taku River. My favorite story about this route was unearthed in old newspaper articles found by Juneau historian Robert DeArmond.

In 1903 a Juneau newspaper reported two trading parties of Atlin Tlingits racing each other down the Taku River to Juneau.

``One bunch came over a pass in the mountains and down Silver Bow Basin and Gold Creek Valley. The other party took to canoes and came around Point Bishop. The mountain climbers reached the city a full hour ahead of the (others).''

This story and others like it convinced the Atlin Chamber of Commerce to petition the Juneau Chamber of Commerce to build a trail or wagon road from Perseverance to Atlin, DeArmond wrote.

The Juneau chamber was more than a little interested in a transportation route to Atlin because it saw an opportunity to compete with Skagway for the business that came with prospectors headed to Canadian gold fields. But they ignored this petition with good reason.

The citizens of Atlin didn't have a clue about Juneau's geography. Juneau sits on a small peninsula with Gastineau Channel to the west and Taku Inlet to the east. Except for a small narrow corridor that runs to Skagway, the peninsula is cut off to the north by the icefield. In essence, the icefield makes a direct road to Atlin from the peninsula impossible.

Although the 1903 newspaper story didn't make it clear, both trading parties must have taken boats down the river until they reached the east side of the peninsula about 16 miles from Juneau. From this point the Tlingit climbers left their boats and took a shortcut to Juneau.

Having hiked this shortcut numerous times, I can safely say that a road over even this small part of the route is difficult. Unless you're going to tunnel through, you've got problems. During the winter, Taku winds often reach 100 mph on the ridgelines behind Juneau and the winds carry enough snow to occasionally bury the Annex Creek power lines at the top of the towers that carry the lines.

Road to Atlin

Although Skagway newspapers waged an editorial war against a Juneau-Atlin route, the promotional work of Juneau boosters paid off in the summer of 1917, when construction actually started on a road to Atlin. Federal money was used to build six miles of road near the Canadian boundary.

The idea was to use steamboats to ferry people up Taku River to the road. A second construction season on the road never developed even though federal funds remained available. DeArmond speculates that America's entry into World War I drained manpower away from the project. But maybe a more important reason, DeArmond wrote, was that the road's biggest booster, photographer Percy Pond, moved away from Juneau.

Traveling a ghost route

There is, however, a ghost road running from Juneau up Taku Inlet toward Atlin. I refer to this route as a ghost because, it exists, for the most part, only on maps, as hiking partner Larry Fanning and I found out.

Many people are familiar with the Point Bishop trail that starts at the south tip of Thane Road and runs out to Bishop Point on Taku Inlet. U.S. Geological Survey maps show this route continuing beyond Point Bishop another 10 or 15 miles up to Annex power station. Other government maps show it as a road.

The numerous old-timers that Fanning and I talked to knew nothing of a trail, much less a road running up Taku Inlet. Nor is there any mention in Juneau trail guides about this route or other historical references I looked at.

Throwing caution to the wind, Fanning and I decided to fly out to where the first section of the ``trail'' ends and hike back to Juneau. I might add that I can confidently ignore caution because Fanning is a retired Juneau fire chief and well-trained in the fields of medicine and rescue. However, I am not sure what his excuse is.

As the plane disappeared in the distance we headed into the woods and found devil's club and deadfall -- but no trail.

The maps all show the trail hugging the coast, which is where we tried to stay as we hiked toward Juneau. But because the land often rises almost vertically out of the water, we often zigzagged up and down looking for a shelf or a ledge where walking was easier.

The maps also show creeks and streams as neat, pencil-thin blue lines. In reality they are often mini canyons with torrents of water roaring through them, particularly during the spring.

After a day and a half, we headed down into a creek and Fanning noticed two spikes driven into a tree and hammered over as if to hold a rope.

As we scrambled up the other side, we found a trail. It was a very old trail and hard to follow at times, but it hugged the coast, just like the maps show it, and inevitably led to the easiest crossing points for creeks.

Mystery trail

So what kind of trail was it? The Tlingits had a village on the north shore of Sunny Cove, which is exactly where we started our hike and another village at Point Bishop, which was were we were going. Also a cannery was built at Sunny Cove in 1900.

Was this a village trail? Did cannery workers use the trail as an alternative route when the weather made boat travel too difficult?

I don't have good answers to these questions but I do have an idea why this route is represented on some maps as a road.

When a Canadian company announced plans for mining development in the Tulsequah area in 1952, Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening pressured the federal Bureau of Public Roads to do a survey for a road up the valley linking Juneau to the Alaska Highway. In 1953, the bureau sent out a survey team to chart a coastal route from Juneau to Annex Creek, where a ferry would be located to cross to Taku Lodge. Another survey team plotted a route from Taku Lodge to the Canadian border.

The development plans and the road came to naught, mostly because mining engineers couldn't come up with a practical way to deal with advancing glaciers, winter winds and silting in the river. It's my guess the survey route is the source of the trail or road that appears on maps and that the survey team may have cut the trail we found, or revitalized it.

I have no idea if a road will ever be built out of Juneau, but I won't be surprised if it shows up on a map.

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