Heavy rain, horse traffic along Anchorage-area trail breeds mess

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2007

INDIAN VALLEY TRAIL - Pieces of pressure-treated two-by-six that once served to plank boardwalks across wetlands here now litter the big mudholes dotting this popular trail south of Anchorage. Most of the bridges across little creeks, meanwhile, are in shambles.

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Between them, the surface of the trail that winds through the spruce and hemlock forest on its way toward the south entrance to Ship Creek Valley in the Chugach State Park is largely muddy goo.

The good news is that winter will soon hide most of the damage beneath a blanket of snow. Next year, say park officials, who knows?

Some damage may heal itself. Some will certainly need repair.

What caused the damage is, however, obvious to anyone who ventures onto the trail. This is a man-made mess. Or should that be horse-made mess?

Take a trail built across fragile, boggy soils; add in one of the wetter Septembers in Southcentral Alaska history; send dozens of steel-shoed horses climbing toward the 2,100-foot pass and this is what you get, said Chugach superintendent Tom Harrison.

And though horses did the damage, it's really moose that are in a way to blame.

Hiker Thomas Pease summarized the problem well in a plea to the Chugach Park advisory board to do something:

"As you know, ADFG (the Alaska Department of Fish and Game) called a special October moose hunt in the Ship Creek Valley to reduce by roughly 30 the number of (bull) moose in Ship Creek Valley.

"As a result, heavy hunter/pack horse traffic up Indian Valley Trail has transformed a once easily walkable trail into a treacherous, soupy, eroding quagmire. I hiked the 12-mile round trip to Indian Pass. ... During my half-day outing, I passed 12 pack horses, all of which were making slow progress because of dangerous trail conditions.

"The few hikers and hunters I encountered on foot all complained about the nearly impassable, horse-damaged trail."

People are wondering how this could have been allowed to happen, Pease added.

Two years ago, the park got a $30,000 grant to repair and reroute bad sections of trail. Now, many of the repairs have been trashed.

Area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott says now that holding the hunt later, after the ground froze, might have been better.

Sinnott leans toward moving opening day back to Nov. 1 when, in a normal year, many soft spots along the trail would likely be frozen. But, Harrison notes, that could cause a new set of problems.

"Then you're putting in people when conditions are harder," he said.

Heavy snows are common in November. Hunters with a string of horses back in Ship Valley could get trapped if several feet of snow fell.

"It could get dangerous," Harrison said. "Public safety is important."

Ideally, everyone seems to agree, the best permanent solution would be to move the Indian trail up out of the bottom of the Indian Creek Valley onto better soils, but there is little money for building trails anywhere in Alaska. And, Harrison noted, "there are a lot of trails in the park that need work."

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