The Bird to Girdwood Bike Path Winter Closure
By Timothy Glassett, Avalanche Specialist
Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities
Let’s face it we have all done it, walked past one of the winter closure signs on the bike path. I completely understand why. The Bird to Gird (as locals call it) is a paved pathway that runs for 13 miles from the town of Bird Creek to Girdwood. Stuck between glacier carved mountains and Turnagain Arm; views of mountains and wildlife abound.
The majority of the pathway follows the old Seward Highway road bed before it was rerouted in 1999 to its present location. It is an ideal recreational path. However, during the winter it has been closed for avalanche danger and avalanche mitigation. This full winter closure will be a thing of the past.
A Brief History
The old Seward Highway location has been described by an avalanche engineer Art Mears (1983) as being “one of the most hazardous reaches of highway with respect to avalanches in the United States.”
With the completion of the highway from Seward to Anchorage in the 1950’s came with it the first highway avalanche related fatality. In May of 1952 at mile post 92, one car was hit and pushed into Turnagain Arm by a snow avalanche. The driver escaped but was shortly thereafter killed by a secondary avalanche release in the same location.
This incident highlighted the importance of a Department of Highways avalanche program. Several changes were made including working with the U.S. Army and Alaska National Guard for artillery support (1955-1968), establishing Alaska’s first avalanche research station near Girdwood, ridgetop weather stations and passive avalanche defenses.
Since this early start the avalanche program has changed. Artillery is now leased from the military and there are two full-time avalanche specialists. Not only is the region of direct responsibility along Turnagain Arm but it is also the Seward Highway to Kenai Lake, Sterling Highway to Cooper Landing, and Portage Valley and Whittier.
Further avalanche related work is supported by Department of Transportation foremen and equipment operators based out of maintenance stations along these corridors. One thing that has not changed is the avalanche danger to the old Seward Highway location.
Back to the Bird to Gird
Alaska State Parks (ASP) in partnership with Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT&PF) has managed the Bird to Gird as a full winter closure due to the Avalanche Danger and Avalanche Mitigation. This is a public safety closure that is enforceable under Chapter 11 of the Alaska Administration Code 12.335.
The problem that has become more pronounced in the last five years is the lack of compliance with this winter time closure. Beyond the daily routine of people walking past the closure, ADOT&PF personnel have had to stop avalanche mitigation efforts due to people on the path.
Before every planned avalanche mitigation, a concerted effort is made to clear all areas. This work includes airspace through an FAA Temporary Flight Restriction, railroad, highway and any and all trails or pathways that may be affected by the avalanche work. It is of paramount importance that avalanche mitigation areas are clear of people before work is performed from the tops of the mountains all the way down to the highways. Avalanche mitigation is typically performed during times of heavy snows and rain. However, warm sunny spring days can be prime periods.
During the winter of 2017/2018, a camera system was set up to count the amount of use the path received. At the Toadstool Rd. pathway entrance, we counted over 100 people with 89 dogs over a seven-day period that went past the closure signage. What can we do to effectively close the path when it is necessary and gain user compliance?
A New Strategy
We are hoping that by closing the path only during times of avalanche mitigation work, compliance will be gained, which will allow an open path for the majority of the winter. Still the path is in danger of avalanches and users should be informed. Through education, users can make informed decisions about using the path and its inherent dangers.
Throughout Chugach State Park (CSP) there are several trails with avalanche hazard. CSP informs users of this through Avalanche Hazard Area signs. You have likely seen these signs at trailheads in the Front Range. The Bird to Gird will have similar signs posted at prominent trailheads along the path. This will bring CSP Bird to Gird pathway’s avalanche management more aligned with other CSP trails and paths with avalanche hazard.
The DOT&PF signs will specifically address the pathway closure along with when it will be closed. For closures, we will have installed red barricade lights. The path will be closed when the lights are flashing. Flashing red lights should be attention grabbing and something that users can relate to. On an average winter avalanche mitigation is performed in this area of the Seward Highway around 5 times, a drastic reduction in path closure time.
Alaska State Parks and Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities will now close the Bird to Girdwood bike path only for avalanche mitigation during the winter. In so doing, we hope to gain user compliance and awareness of the importance of this public safety closure.
For further information please visit http://www.dot.state.ak.us/stwdmno/avalanche.shtml.