A trail fit for tennis shoes

Juneau trail blazers make one-of-a-kind gravel path on redesigned Herbert Glacier Trail

Posted: Sunday, September 04, 2005

One of Juneau's most massive trail restorations is underway this summer to create the borough's only gravel path to an interior glacier.

The idea was kicked around for 15 years until $600,000 of grant money cleared earlier this year to make the redesigned Herbert Glacier Trail a reality. About 70 percent of the grant comes from the U.S. Forest Service and the rest was scraped together by AmeriCorps and Trail Mix, Inc.

The glacier can be viewed from a distance at the end of the 4.5-mile trail. Though prior to the reconstruction, seasoned hikers were the only ones trudging through mud, dense vegetation and narrow criss-cross lines to get there.

The dream is to blaze a trail for everyone, from Tour de France cyclists to the average Joe with bad knees. This mission brought Juneau's three largest trailblazing outfits - Southeast Alaska Guidance Association, the U.S. Forest Service and Trail Mix - together for their largest-ever collaboration.

"Before you couldn't walk 20 yards with tennis shoes on," said Ron Marvin, U.S. Forest Service officer with the Juneau Ranger District.

Joe Parrish, founder and director of SAGA, said nothing like this has been done before in Juneau, considering the cooperation between the three units swapping equipment, labor and ideas.

Layers of rock and gravel are trucked in weekly to lay the foundation. Fist-sized stones are laid on the bottom after the path is cleared of logs, stumps and nature's other speed bumps. Then two coats of gravel are compacted inside, with the final layer containing fine sediments that leave a lasting smooth surface.

The other back-breaking tasks are building bridges and water diversion paths, blasting rocks in narrow places and constructing a few benches here and there for people to take a break.

James King, director of Trail Mix, explained that gravel was the best way to go because it's natural and long-lasting. King said Trail Mix had complications in the past with using wooden planks: They contained toxins that were being released into the environment, they were expensive to transport by helicopter and for hikers, some said they were too slippery.

The trick to gravel paths is finding the right height level raised above the earth so the path does not disappear in a few years from flooding, overgrowing vegetation and cakes of mud, King said.

King is proud of the progress but he doesn't want people to see the trail until this spring. It currently looks like a construction zone, with wide paths cleared for the miniature excavators to deliver the rocks, he said.

"I would say it's about 60 percent finished," King said.

Moss and other plants will grow back next year to make the trail more natural and cozy, but the groups did intend for the trail to be wide. It is planned to stretch 4 feet across so families, dogs and cross-country skiers can share the trail.

Elevation gain is about 150 to 175 feet, Marvin said.

Putting in 10-hour days of cheap labor are the local participants working for AmeriCorps, the domestic version of the Peace Corps that sends 70,000 Americans every year to areas in critical need.

SAGA is an umbrella organization that helps AmeriCorps participants and others find work in the region.

Andrew Walter, a Southeast Alaska Youth Corps volunteer, came from Wisconsin after taking a break from school. Many in these programs serve as five-month and nine-month commitments and the organizations help students and graduates further their education and pay for student loans.

"It will be neat to come back in a number of years to see how (the trail) has changed," Walter said.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.

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