TUTKA BAY — Sometimes the work is slow enough that you might as well sit down. Scoot on your butt and pull each blueberry stem in turn, until it curves under the moss, red and damp and rooty, and you can’t pull any farther. Snip the stem off, leaving the sharp stub tucked carefully beneath the earth. Grab the next one.
Half an hour and a couple dozen feet later, I stood up to admire my path.
“It doesn’t look like I did anything at all,” I marveled.
The more we worked at trail building, the more it looked that way.
A trail is the absence of obstacles. Somebody removed them.
When your pack is filled with the clanking weight of saw and shears and an entrenching tool, a stretch of wilderness becomes nothing but a maddening series of obstacles. Cliffs to weave through, swamps to avoid, traverses to dig and a lush profusion of greenery to saw, hack, slice and uproot. This summer, the sun cooked the meadows in a decidedly un-Alaska fashion, while squished and biting black flies mingled with the salmonberry scratches and bow saw scratches on my body where I’d tried to slap flies with the saw still in my hand.
My pockets bulged with hand shears, a GPS, an inclinometer, pepper spray and colorful flagging tape in every color the Homer hardware store had left to sell us. We had bought them out weeks ago. We parked a skiff at the head of Tutka Bay, and set out to punch a new trail into Kachemak Bay State Park, hacking a tunnel through deadfall, brush and bureaucracy.
The three of us trail parents (me, my husband Hig, and our friend Jeff Lee) had spent months at management plan meetings and board meetings, scouring hundred-page PDFs for the details of trail standards and trading volleys of emails, seeking the special-use permit our plan required. We’d even postholed through a half-frozen April while absorbing information from Eric Clarke, the park’s official trail guru. Cutting our way up a 10-degree slope that we could have climbed swiftly was maddeningly slow.
“We’re not going for stroller access here,” I grumbled to Jeff as we sat high on the hill we’d walked straight up, considering mutiny. Eric, Hig and another friend, Craig Barnard, were far below us, trying to walk up the same hill without exceeding the 10-degree sustainable trail guideline. The inclinometer had met the mountain. And only the humans could budge.
“You guys don’t need a trail,” Eric pointed out later that day.
He was right. We were eager to climb because we knew where we were going — to a peak of bare rock and meadow with distant Mount Iliamna framed by the walls of the fjord, to a braided alpine valley ringed by waterfalls, to the rolling hills of the tundra playground, through the mountain pass, and eventually, hopefully, to the goat trails and surf of the far western Kenai Fjords.
We’d volunteered and schemed and pushed to build this new trail because of how special this place was. I’d been there without a trail, and even brought along a 6-month old baby. I could do it again. Anytime.
Instead, I wedged myself between two alder trunks, held down the devil’s club with my foot, squinted through the dim eyepiece of the inclinometer and tried to pick out my last piece of flagging tape through the screen of a million leaves. It was the middle of a bright-green leafy July now, and it was not the first time I’d crawled through this thicket in the last two hours, peppering my knuckles with devil’s club and advancing our route a good 900 feet.
I thought I knew trails, but this wasn’t like a secret, private footpath in someone’s backyard. Not even like our small-town public trails that follow power lines or section lines straight up and through swamps.
Every time I hung a flag, I heard a whisper of Eric’s trail standards in my head. It felt like I was hiking with a persnickety ghost. I needed to find the lowest angle, firmest ground between a small pond and a small lake. And to find it, I had to bushwhack every single one of the awful ways until the mesh of lines on my GPS resembled my alder-tangled hair.
It was extra satisfying the next morning to saw through one of those too-close alder trunks, and toss the whole thing off the edge of the slope. There was something human and primal about it all. The crash of the tree as it fell, the squeaking scritch-scratch of the bow saw, and the earth-ripping sound of torn-out devil’s club.
At midday, half a dozen people appeared from the wilderness. Through that former alder thicket, and all the former logs and berry bushes and devil’s club, to the edge of the small lake my kids and I had just been swimming in. The day before, this had been the middle of nowhere. It had taken more than a week to reach it, bit by bit. With the path cleared behind us, it took just a few hours. The newcomers were eager volunteers, here to improve and extend the access we’d started. I felt mildly amazed that the trail was already solid enough to follow.
But I wondered: What had we done?
We had done exactly what many adventurers believe you should never do. We took a special place and opened it up to the world.
It was nearly a decade ago when I was first told never to do such a thing by a Glacier Bay National Park employee who implored us never to publicize our journey along Alaska’s Lost Coast on the outer edge of his park. It was his special place. He’d walked it before us, and it was bad enough, he thought, that Google Earth allowed far-flung humans to spy on the route.
“I’m well aware that diminishment is inevitable,” he wrote. “I just don’t want to speed it along.”
It’s a worn-out debate that goes something like this. Someone says: “People need to experience wild places — to love them — to be interested in preserving them.”
Someone else comes back with: “Not in this place, not in this way — the wilderness is too fragile, and the people this brings will diminish the experience of those who make it here already.”
Want evidence? On one side there are statistics showing fewer people backpacking, glued instead to their screens. On the other, there are formerly unknown places marred by noise, erosion and trash. The argument plays out at every level. Snowmachines vs. no snowmachines. Bikes vs. no bikes. Trails vs. no trails. Photos vs. secrecy.
I wrote back that the coast he wished to keep secret was littered with rusting mine equipment, regularly visited by airplanes, prehistorically inhabited and used seasonally for fishing. Its glaciers were melting, its beaches were eroding. On a gap of land the parks surrounded, 500-year-old trees had been clearcut and left to rot. What were a few footprints in the sand?
More people do walk and bike that coast now. I enjoy hearing their stories, and perhaps I had a small part in getting a few of them out there, but who knows? It was nothing but photos and words. Virtual stuff. At Tutka, our role was unmistakable.
During 16 days in July, plus a few stints in August and September, we (as part of the nonprofit Ground Truth Trekking) built 5.2 miles of trail, using more than 900 hours of volunteer labor, one chainsaw and a lot of hand tools — several of which we’d broken along the way. At the end of August, when we brought out Eric and a park ranger to see our work, we met two groups of backpackers, strangers to me. I directed one group onto a small reroute I was busy hacking, listening to their story of the nameless alpine lakes they’d visited, where the trail ends in an open swath of tundra. I wondered how long it might stay nameless.
There are more than 450 miles of trails in the Alaska state parks, including about 80 in Kachemak Bay State Park. Now there are five more, cut into a previously trail-less valley.
In this narrow valley we can repeat both sides of that old debate. There is a salmon hatchery that would like to set up pens at the head of Tutka Bay. The pens were controversial already, and might be more so now that dozens of people have taken scenic photos of that exact piece of the fjord. Yet-to-be-built portions of the route will link Seldovia, largely unconnected to the park and missed by park visitors, into this trail system. The trail also crosses a bright invisible line that no trail in this park has crossed before — the official boundary that distinguishes “park” from “wilderness park.”
A foot trail is an officially permissible impact in designated wilderness. Yet some people disagree. People disagree about nearly every development in the park, and the map produced by the management plan committee reads as an argument of geographically linked comments. Contradictory thought bubbles are pinned to each location. “Open beaches to bikes” next to “Keep beaches closed to bikes.” “Snowmobile trails” next to “No snowmobile access,” and “Extend trail into Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park” next to “Do not extend trails or develop new trails.”
‘Diminishment is inevitable’
We carried some of that ambivalence with us, even in our tiny crew. A month after building the trail, Jeff was already worried about its popularity. “The growth is going to be exponential. We need to work on that other fork, to take some pressure off. Did you see how many people have joined the Facebook group already?”
“Diminishment is inevitable,” the Glacier Bay worker had told us. From a trail-building perspective, diminishment is a poorly planned bit of treadwork turning into a giant mud pit, and it’s not inevitable at all. It’s a technical problem — exactly what Eric was teaching us to avoid. From a global perspective, diminishment of wilderness is certainly inevitable, but people walking through it is the least of our problems. “Diminishment,” the way he meant it, was really diminishment of human experience — of solitude. According to the government, solitude is an official resource of wild places. It even gets written into environmental impact statements.
In Alaska, solitude is still pretty easy to find. In some places it’s increasing. More people live in Alaska than ever before, but there are remote villages, mining camps, fish camps and homesteads lying abandoned across the state. Last month I took a trio of kids on a several-day wilderness backpacking trip that would have been half driveable in 2011, and completely driveable in 1955. At the head of a remote valley, one kid took a key from an ancient rusting dump truck as a souvenir. A few miles later in an alder thicket that no one had ever taken a saw to, we all briefly wished the road was still there.
You can have solitude, beauty and easy access — but perhaps not all three at once.
With a saw in hand, it feels like a trail is something you build. The construction laid out in our state permit follows certain standards. But when sawed logs sprout with shelf fungus and the cut branches rot into the forest floor, a trail is an artifact. It’s a callus on the land, smoothed and hardened by use. And like a callus, it will melt away if pressure and friction disappear. It takes just two years for salmonberries to obliterate an untended path.
Half our trail was a callus already, a rut worn smooth by moose and bears before we cut a thing. Our tools improved on their work, as their feet improved on ours. On our last trip out there, I cheered at every pile of bear crap on a human-planned section.
I’m a parent of that trail, responsible for being attentive to its muddy spots and needs for rerouting, and for helping it meet its potential to reach the Kenai Fjords. The responsibility is even written into our permit — 10 years of maintenance duty on our dirt-path child. Yet parenting only goes so far. Decades from now, the trail will only exist if people want it. If they walk its curves and a few bring shears and a few tell their friends, the trail will exist. It will bring a few more people to see a beautiful corner of the wilderness. Their experience may be better, and certainly easier, but never quite the same as my own, the first time I walked through.
There are other beautiful corners in the 400,000 acres of Kachemak Bay State Park, and maybe I won’t tell you about all of them just now. I think the trail is a good thing. But sometimes I wonder what people will think of it, and what will happen to it in the future. I hope that people treat it well, and I marvel at how crazy it is that I have the power and responsibility to make changes to this particular swath of the world. I guess it’s a lot like being a parent.
Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia. She’s the author of “A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski,” the children’s book “My Coyote Nose and Ptarmigan Toes” and “Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska.” Her next book, “Mud Flats and Fish Camps: 800 Miles around Alaska’s Cook Inlet,” is due out in spring of 2017. You can find her at GroundTruthTrekking.org.