Story last updated at 2:50 p.m. Thursday, October 3, 2002

Trail of the future taking shape near Caribou Lake
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: outdoors

  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
Ellen Simpson, a habitat biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, suveys the mitigation work near the trail head for the Caribou Lake ATV route on Sept. 26. The black grid platform, a plastic trail-hardening material called Geoblock, is capable of supporting ATV traffic over wet areas while allowing vegetation to grow.  
CARIBOU LAKE TRAIL -- John Coila looked over his shoulder Thursday afternoon as he sat astride his ATV and watched the novice rider following him get his machine stuck in the muddy maze of tracks crossing a nameless bog in the Moose Creek drainage.

"If you follow the other tracks too close, you're going to get stuck in those mud holes," Coila said, before asking the other rider in the group, Department of Natural Resources trails specialist Cliff Larson, to give the floundering four-wheeler a shove.

If the weaving and crisscrossing network of tracks was any indication, the advice was sound and the practice was common knowledge. A few seconds later, the three ATVs were off again, churning across the spongy tundra, kicking up sunlit showers of water from their fat tires as they crossed the saturated ground.

Coila, a local with a homestead overlooking the Fox River Valley, was attempting to navigate the fen but also to demonstrate the environmental need to reroute the trail onto the higher and drier forested ground wherever possible. This was the mission taken up last year in a project that has become a joint effort of the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District, the National Park Service, the Snowmads snowmachine club, the environmental water-quality watchdog Cook Inlet Keeper and locals like Coila.

photo: outdoors

  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
No caption was contained in the photo file  
The Caribou Lake Trail, with its unique melding of local and bureaucratic cultures, is a demonstration project for the National Park Service's Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance Program, which is seeking in Alaska to build support for a variety of community-driven trails projects across the state.

"What we're working toward is developing a community-based trail advocacy (program)," said Kevin Meyer, project manager for the National Park Service.

As he drove toward the Circle Lake Road trail head, which is also to be relocated and revamped, Meyer pointed out that because of their state's general lack of roads, Alaskans are already well invested in their trails, making it imperative for land managers to begin planning work at the local level.

Later, as Coila worked his way out toward Caribou Lake and then, ultimately, around the Fox Creek canyon and down the rough trail to the village of Dolina on the Fox River, he showed Larson the preferred trail routes, picked by the project's managers to mitigate the damage to the area's sensitive streams and wetlands. Larson, for his part, took a keen interest, because the trail also happens to be up for easement certification with DNR, and Larson is one of the officials who processes trail easement applications at the department's Anchorage office.

Larson had never seen the area in person and said he was happy to put real life together with the place names and contour lines from his maps.

According to the Caribou Lake Trail project planners, acquisition of an easement from Larson's department is the key.

"Right now, we're just trying to get the easement issue settled," Lindsay Winkler said of the project she manages for the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District.

The project to relocate the Caribou Lake Trail, buoyed by technical know-how of the Park Service's Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance Program and local leg work of the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District and the other locals, will seek to capitalize on one of the state's Trails and Recreation Access for Alaska grants, known as a TRAAK grants.

But where a trail group might normally apply for money that would go directly toward grading and hardening the new trail and installing boardwalks and bridges, without the land manager's easement there can be no grant.

So, following the convoluted path of agency cash, the group will apply for a grant specified to aid in the acquisition of the easement. And since DNR requires a trail to be constructed before an easement can be granted, the hope is that the TRAAK grant will both help the trail move forward and get the necessary legal right of way.

Winkler said she thinks the odds of success in the grant process are likely improved by the fact that the group held a public input meeting on the project last spring, as well as the fact that the project received positive reaction from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and many of the trail area's approximately 250 landowners.

Considering that many of these private landowners received no specific legal access route from the state, it is not surprising that many of them would like to see easements secured and improvements made to the trails accessing their property. A bog crossing with a lone rider on an ATV is dicey enough in wet late summer and fall conditions, but a cabin owner or a moose hunter pulling a loaded trailer is in danger of landing in a major predicament, Coila said.

Larson had little doubt that users would take to the new route.

"If they build a better mouse trap, they'll use it," Larson said.

In its first phase, the project will relocate more than 75 percent of the seven-mile trail from Circle Lake Road to Caribou Lake, where many of the area's established cabins are located. Historically, almost 100 percent of the trail was situated in wetlands. The relocated portions of trail for this phase have been mapped and flagged. Meyer and his crew have also prescribed the hardening and mitigation techniques they will use for both the uplands and the wetlands and stream crossings.

In subsequent phases, the project will include improved access to several of the subdivided areas as well as upgrade the complete loop down to the Fox River.

The trio of riders who set out for Fox River on Thursday was a part of what had been a pack of 10 ATVs, most of which were carrying a trail specialist or habitat biologist from one agency or another. Meyer, with a background as a soils scientist, was the ring leader of this day's expedition. The Snomads were represented by Mike Eastham, who also wore the hat of the Kenai Peninsula Borough trails commissioner. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had four members of its habitat division on hand. Shirley Schollenberg was there representing Homer Soil and Water Conservation District.

Beyond the goal of jump-starting a frustratingly slow easement process, Winkler said the object was for the Fish and Game habitat biologists to see some of the mitigation techniques Meyer plans to employ in the project. Because Fish and Game has its own project under way regarding the use of ATVs on the trails of the lower Kenai Peninsula, the biologists have been keeping an eye from afar on the progress in the Caribou Lake area. This was their chance to see it up close.

The adventure began with the group stopped just off East End Road, inspecting a bridge across Fritz Creek. The bridge was constructed using a recycled flatbed semi trailer, decked over with treated four-by-fours, and Coila had consulted on its installation. Several like it will likely become a part of the improved trail to Caribou Lake.

Once on the trail, the possible new site for a trail head was looked over, followed by an installation of a plastic trail hardening material called Geoblock. Geoblock has been successfully installed in the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge to allow ATV riders to access prime waterfowl hunting areas during the fall season without degrading the habitat in the refuge.

From there, Meyer led the party on a trip that crossed open fen wetlands, a slightly improved section of trail relocated to an upland area and a similarly relocated section that had been cut and brushed but not graded. The improved and graded trail was relatively passable. The ungraded trail was a very rough ride. Meyer's point -- without serious trail hardening efforts these trails will be too rough and riders will stay out in the open marshy areas.

The last stop of the day was to visit some of the boardwalk at Coila's homestead. One group of three went by way of the full trail loop, while the others went by way of Voznesenka and the switchback to the Fox River Flats.

Coila, through sheer hard work and determination, created a yellow-brick road-like boardwalk that descends through the forested benchlands of the Fox River Valley immediately below his place. He estimated that he'd put boardwalk over 1,000 feet of muddy, root-laden trail, and said some sections had lasted close to 20 years.

Coila's technique, which lays spruce rails directly on the surface of the ground and then covers it with spruce planking milled on site, would likely be employed for the Caribou Lake's more treacherous and sensitive areas. Coila has offered to donate half the materials needed for the trails boardwalk, which could potentially cover a total of two miles of wetlands, Winkler said.

For the scientists' part, the fact that Coila had worked so successfully with all native materials was a big selling point. It would cost less and had ecological and esthetic benefits as well, though Meyer wondered if ATV users were "particularly aesthetically sensitive."

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer