Treading through time

Posted: Friday, October 02, 2009

October is the cruelest month.

Jill Homer / Juneau Empire
Jill Homer / Juneau Empire

That is, if you live in Juneau and you like to go outside. There's not enough snow to ski, not enough sun to hike, too much wind to kayak or ride a bicycle, and enough cold rain to swamp a small boat.

But it is possible to stave of Seasonal Affective Disorder and get some fresh (though damp) air by going for a long walk in the shelter of the rainforest. The Treadwell Ditch Trail, an oft-neglected singletrack that carves a gradual downhill path along Douglas Island, is the perfect setting for an autumn stroll.

The 12-mile trail parallels the remains of the Treadwell Ditch, a complex waterway built by miners in 1889 to shuttle water from the Fish Creek drainage to the Treadwell Mines south of Douglas. Sixteen miles long and about 5 feet wide, the ditch collected enough water from snowmelt and streams to power the massive mining operation, which shut down in 1917 after the tunnels were flooded by seawater following a massive cave-in. The trail is still littered with the remnants of Juneau's mining history - moss-covered rail ties, sunken and weak from a century of decay; dark tunnels carved into the mountainside; a ditch-tender cabin surrounded in devil's club and skunk cabbage; and weathered hollows carved into ancient trees.

The trail itself is a bit of a relic, overgrown in places, almost completely eroded away in others, blocked by fallen trees and littered with broken bridges and rotting ladders. It has long been slated for a large-scale improvement project that seems perpetually postponed, although some areas have been improved in recent years - there is a new bridge near Eaglecrest and reinforced bridges near the Dan Moller Trail. But perfection of the trail is years away, and for now, hikers must contend with obstacles such as climbing over fallen trees, crossing swollen creeks and tramping through swampy muskeg. If rain is falling heavily, caution is key.

The trailhead begins about a quarter mile from the main Eaglecrest Ski Area parking lot, in a small pullout near the cross-country ski trails. Follow the boardwalk into the woods, where the trail begins to drop steeply on a series of perilously slippery stair-stepping planks. This is by far the worst section of trail; it improves as it drops toward Douglas.

There is a nice new bridge over Fish Creek and many miles of smooth singletrack, often kept relatively dry by the sheer thickness of the Sitka spruce overhead. It's a suitable trail for jogging or running, with several branches along the way to shorten the overall length. The first cut-off is marked with a sign at the Bonnie Brae subdivision, where a side trail drops down to the neighborhood below. A second marked cutoff leaves the trail near Eagle Creek. The trail also can be accessed at the Dan Moller snowmobile trail parking lot, Lawson Creek and the Mount Jumbo trailhead. But if you stick with it, you can walk all the way from Eaglecrest to downtown Douglas on a mellow downhill slope, enjoying the occasional open view of the Gastineau Channel, Lemon Creek and downtown Juneau along the way.

It's common to see porcupine, deer, grouse and black bears near the trail. This time of year, you may also meet a fair number of hunters. But for the most part, this trail that is so close to civilization is usually devoid of other people, lending itself well to an immersion experience in the ghostly shadows of Juneau's history.

The Treadwell Ditch Trail is often presented as a mountain biking trail, but as an avid cyclist who tried (and failed) to ride from multiple access points and finally took the time to cover most of the route in one hike, it's my opinion that only the truly patient - or crazy - would bother to drag a bike over this partially decayed trail. Save yourself some frustration and likely some time by leaving the bike at home and enjoying the Treadwell Ditch Trail for what it is - a great rainy day stroll back in time.

• Jill Homer is a local outdoor enthusiast, winter mountain biker and deputy managing editor at the Juneau Empire.



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