Getting away from it all on Sheep Creek trail

Posted: Friday, November 13, 2009

I don't always agree with city officials on Juneau's trail priorities.

Jill Homer / Juneau Empire
Jill Homer / Juneau Empire

OK, I rarely do. I couldn't wrap my head around the $1.3 million spent last year on a mile-long trail along Auke Lake, although I do appreciate the availability of wheelchair-access trails in town, so I kept my silence.

I don't like that many of the city's outlying trails, such as the Point Bishop Trail, have apparently been left to nature's rapid decay, while tourist-popular trails, such as the Perseverance Trail, seem to be locked under a continuous series of upgrades. But I don't exactly donate all that much of my time to volunteer trail work, so I kept my silence.

But then one day in late September, I rode my mountain bike up the Perseverance Trail for the last time. I passed the trail crews shoveling rocks away from the cliff face and smiled at them, because no one wants to be hit with falling rocks. I worked my way over the bulldozed landslide, past the smoothed-out former rock garden near Ebner Falls, and onto the gentle wooden ramps that no longer let me practice my bunny-hop maneuver on the many bridges of Perseverance.

I approached my favorite obstacle on the entire trail, the tumbling boulder field where the canyon narrows. This short climb has been my nemesis for three years. Finally, I told myself, it was my time to shine, my time to ride my bike all the way to the top without stepping off.

And then, without realizing it, I did it. I coasted to a stop and, confused, hopped off my bike to investigate. There was nothing left on the trail. I could still see the fresh grade left by the machinery that had razed the entire surface to a flat, joyless ramp. I was heartbroken.

I went home and composed a short e-mail to voice my disappointment: "Dear City and Borough of Juneau: Please quit fixing the Perseverance Trail!"

But I didn't send it. Instead, I just decided to boycott the Perseverance Trail for a while. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because that same day, it occurred to me that I hadn't been up the Sheep Creek Trail in at least two years.

The Sheep Creek Trail is like the Perseverance Trail, except for it's quiet, mostly deserted, and not under constant construction. It's strange that the Sheep Creek Trail is not more popular than it is, because it provides a gentle grade and minimal obstacles that most of the trails around town, save for the Perseverance, are lacking. Maybe some regular Perseverance hikers are turned off by the steep, often muddy first half-mile of the Sheep Creek Trail, which also prevents most cyclists from getting up there. But after that initial 700-foot climb, the trail levels out to a relaxing, scenic stroll along Sheep Creek, with the steep slopes of Powerline Ridge and Hawthorne Peak looming overhead.

I headed up there during one of those surprisingly frequent sunny days in October. A harsh Taku wind wailed down from the mountains, but the trees provided relative shelter from the cold blasts of air. The first half mile, though steep, is wide and well built, with stair-steps installed in sections. Once the trail reaches about 700 feet elevation, it emerges in an open area and follows power lines down to the creek. From there, the remaining 2½ miles are mostly level, with a soft, grassy surface that's great for walking or running. (I imagine that by now, some of that area is covered with a thin dusting of snow, which probably adds to the tranquil scenery.)

At the end of the 3-mile trail, a more primitive path continues along the powerlines, toward Powerline Ridge. From there, one can access Sheep Mountain or Hawthorne Peak, with spectacular ridge walks on both sides. During winter, this upper trail is probably not advisable, but the Sheep Creek Trail maintains year-round appeal, as long as hikers remain wary of avalanche danger.

But in my opinion, the best part about Sheep Creek Trail: It hasn't been fixed.

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