Lower Iditarod Trail Gets Upgrades
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
The goal of connecting Old and New Girdwood townsites with a slightly raised, 6-foot wide gravel path through the lower valley and away from roads is one step closer to completion.
The Girdwood section of the Iditarod National Historic Trail runs from the Forest Service building to Crow Pass Trail’s trailhead, with the New Townsite marking the meeting of the Lower and Upper Iditarod Trails. Work on the Lower Trail was planned in three phases, with the second one just completed.
The first phase was upgrading the trail from the Forest Service building to the rickety wooden bridge across California Creek. The second phase was building a new, much safer bridge and upgrading the trail from the bridge to the water treatment plant off of Ruane Road. The final phase is to upgrade the trail from the treatment plant to the community center and ball park, which depends on funding that appears hopeful.
The multi-use trail will offer varied recreational opportunities throughout the year. Paul Crews, who volunteered his time and carpentry experience to help build the new bridge, is excited about the project.
“When the trail is completed, from old Girdwood to the ball park, it will be a wonderful alternative to either ride your bike in a loop, going down the bike trail and coming back on this new trail. If you want to go down to the highway and do the Bird to Gird [Trail], you can use that route rather than the bike path alongside the highway. It’s very scenic and a nice, easy walk. It’s going to be a gorgeous trail.”
Kyle Kelley, Girdwood’s Service Area Manager, offered a similar view.
“These types of improvements here will set us up for a very long time, especially if the community keeps up with funding and maintenance, this will be a great corridor for a long time. We want to get the whole segment done so that it is attractive all the way through.”
This past fall, Crews and Kelley measured the distance across the creek to see where the new bridge should be located and where the piles will be driven for the bridge’s foundation. Though piles were driven in May, further construction waited for bridge materials to arrive. Upon delivery, the heavy materials were bundled and banded at Alpine Air for a series of short helicopter flights to the worksite.
“Alpine Air donated helicopter time with their A-Star and sling loaded in either seven or nine bundles,” Crews said. “We were able to set the bridge beams directly onto the pilings. The bundles of the other materials were left on site.”
Kelley also wished to acknowledge Student Conservation Association’s two volunteer trail crew interns and Seasonal Parks Caretaker David Parr for their help on the trail.
For Crews, building the bridge was a basic process.
“For the most part, was a bit of dirt work and putting in place fairly heavy timbers because it’s a very strong bridge. It wasn’t difficult to build, just a lot of big pieces. From a construction perspective, it was pretty straightforward.”
Kelley took the Gazette for a short tour and interview to see the new bridge and trail improvements, and he explained how they happened financially. He said Kenai Mountain Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area (KMTA) and the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), run by U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, provided matching funds for developing and repairing recreational trails.
“We were awarded grants for the past two years. The first phase was to build the trail to the bridge here in 2018. That was a $50,000 grant. In 2018, we also received a grant from KMTA for this bridge. They gave us $17,000 for the bridge, which we matched 50/50. The RTP grant was only a 90/10 match.”
The grant helped with materials, while volunteers provided the labor.
“The bridge is highly over-engineered because of the flooding,” Kelley said. “If a flood ever came along and a log got caught on the side of the bridge, it’s meant to hold and not collapse. It’s also built for snow loads, but we don’t see snow loads down here like you do further up in the valley.”
In winter, the trail can be used for fat tire biking and, given the right snow conditions, Nordic skiing.
A $75,000 RTP grant this year allowed the section of trail from new bridge to the water treatment plant to be raised and widened with gravel. Kelley described the section of the trail’s previous condition as a “swampy mess.” During the summer, the trail was single track with dense vegetation on both sides, making it difficult to see very far.
“Our goal building the trail the way we did was to establish a line so if we have to brush, it’s not very big,” Kelley said. “Before, there would be a crew of six out here, and it would take a full day to get halfway between here [the new bridge] and the treatment plant. Once they brush, they have to get it off the trail, so it was a big task.”
Trail alignment makes it easier to maintain and has a better line of sight, so if you’re riding a bike or hiking, you can see the trail for a small distance, which makes it safer in bear and moose habitat. When salmon are running, brown bears and their footprints are common around the creek. Moose are common as well. The new trail is designed to avert human-wildlife encounters.
The old bridge will be removed after custom bolts are placed in the new bridge. The new bridge makes it much easier to cross compared to the previous one.
“With the old bridge,” Crews said, “you’d have to crawl across the bridge on your hands and knees holding onto the high side so you wouldn’t slip into the creek.”
Kelley thanked Andy Hehnlin, owner of Onsight Snow Removal, for his vital role in building the trail.
“Andy sat in a skid steer and drove in and out of here for three weeks,” Kelley said. “He’d come out, drop a load and go back with a two and a half-yard bucket. He persevered right through it. I have a lot of respect for what he did.”
Hehnlin received the gravel from the U.S. Forest Service’s site in Portage, hauled in the material and built the trail. He described it as “driving it in one bucket at a time with the Bobcat.” The process took about a month to complete.
“It was supplied by the Forest Service, which donated the gravel, and I processed it,” he said. “I screened it, crushed it and delivered it, trucked it down and built the trail. The first course was the bedding course and I got out all the way to the bridge. On the way back, we did the final grade on the trail. It’s not that complex.”
However, Hehnlin said the construction experience took a toll on him physically. “The Bobcat’s bouncy,” he said. “It sucks driving it down that trail. You get tired of it. You have to pace yourself. It’s a lot of getting beat up. Not too many people can handle all that work. They don’t have the back for it and the stamina. It’s sitting on a seat that is kicking your butt. It’s pushing you around. I’m not a whiner. It’s hard work, and to do that for a month is hard on me.”
There is a ribbon cutting ceremony at the new bridge on July 2 at 3 p.m. There is also a future plan to place a memorial bench beside the bridge for Dwayne Schultz, a longtime Chair of Girdwood Trails Committee.