Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, the man who organized the first successful ascent of North America’s tallest mountain in 1913, once observed that the best thing one man can give another in Alaska is a trail.
Stark understated. The best thing man or beast can give to a man in Alaska is a trail.
In a state woefully short on maintained, human-built trails, the job of trail making often defaults to the animals. Where they dwell in abundance, the trails are often well established and can be a Godsend when found.
As Jay Cable of Fairbanks observed of one of his Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic experiences in the Brooks Range this year, “we had to climb up out of the creek, where we immediately found some awesome game trails. Alas, soon after that we encountered a bear trail — in some places bears walk so frequently on a trail they leave offset depressions. I have only seen these once before in the Brooks, but they are pretty common in Southeast Alaska where I grew up.”
So, too, on parts of Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula. And then there are sheep trails and mountain goat trails and caribou trails and, where the moose populations are big enough, moose trails to take the nightmare out of bashing through willow thickets.
This being the hunting season, Lars and I have been sneaking away from the computer whenever possible to chase waterfowl. Many waterfowlers, the smart ones, prefer to wait in ambush in a blind.
We like to pound the flooded grass of the Twentymile-Portage-Placer rivers delta at the head of Turnagain Arm. It is always tough going. With every passing year, it seems to get just a little tougher, too.
All of which makes me only more appreciative of the now healthy moose population in the area. The moose have their own trail system in the brush that provides constant cover along the edges of the marshes.
Possibly due to a summer that averaged almost two degrees warmer than normal even if it didn’t seem like it, this is a somewhat hidden trail system. A good growth of willow, sweet gale and marsh grass has hidden most of the trail bed.
If you get down in a squat beneath the cover, you can see it fine. But walking in a squat is uncomfortable. Fortunately, thanks to Lars, there is no need to do so.
Down at dog level, he has no trouble following the firmly packed, generally obstruction-free trail bed. All I then have to do is follow Lars, who may or may not have to be called back on occasion, depending on how hard we have hunted, to perform his seeing-eye duties.
When fresh, he has a tendency to want to travel at Labrador retriever speed. As the hours pass, however, and he starts to tire from swimming and pulling himself in and out of the water to cross patches of floating grass, he starts to slow down.
Sometimes by the end of a long day, he’s down to human speed, which is a good thing when a tired man is miles from the truck and needs a seeing-trail dog to find the easiest route back.
Elsewhere in the world, people actually build and maintain trails, but in the 49th state that idea has sort of gone out of favor except close in around major urban or semi-urban clusters.
Anchorage has nicely maintained mountain-bike trails and nicely paved multi-use trails. There are good hiking trails leaving the near-city access points to the half-million-acre Chugach State Park at the city’s eastern and southern edges.
But you don’t have to go very deep into the Chugach to develop an appreciation for animal trails or what a primitive state Alaska remains. And the same can be said once you venture off Alaska’s limited road system.
The story is different in winter when snowmachine trails pop up everywhere after the land freezes, but the state is woefully short on summer trails. The fact a trail guide titled “55 Ways to the Wilderness – Southcentral Alaska” remains a 49th-state bestseller says a lot.
The Southcentral region covers an area about the size of North Carolina, a state which claims 2,197 hiking trails.
Alaska probably has a few hundred; “55 Ways” does leave some out. There are definitely more than 55 human-built trails in the Southcentral region, but not all that many more.
The number of animal trails, meanwhile, are endless. If, of course, you can find them.