The snows are piled deep in Alaska’s urban core this year, and modern-day adventurers are doing what winter adventures have done for more than 100 years in the north: bitching and moaning about snowy trail use and abuse.
Little has changed since the long dead, Archdeacon of the Yukon, Hudson Stuck, wrote this in “Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled” at the start of the 1900s:
“…We had gone but a mile along this good trail when our hearts sank, for we saw ahead of us a procession of army mules packing supplies from Fort Gibbon to the telegraph repair parties. We pulled out into the snow that the mules might pass, and the soldiers said no word, for they knew just how we felt, until the last soldier leading the last mule was going by, and he turned round and said: “And her name was Maud!”
“It was in the height of Opper’s popularity, his ‘comic supplements’ the chief dependence of the road-houses for wallpaper. The reference was so apposite that we burst into laughter, but there was nothing funny about the devastation that had been wrought. That good trail was all gone – the bottom pounded out of it – and nothing was left but a plowed lane punched full of sinkholes. We had no trouble following the trail on the river after this encounter, but it had been almost as easy going to have struck out for ourselves in the unbroken snow of the winter.
“It is hard to make outsiders understand how a man who loves all animals may come to hate horses and mules, particularly mules, in this country.”
The mules these days are of the human sort – runners, hikers and dog walkers with hard-soled boots who seem to care not what sort of post-holed mess they make of a trail – but the main issue remains the same.
Maud, for those unfamiliar with this history of newspaper comic strips, was what Wikimedia describes as “a revenge-seeking mule belonging to farmer Si Slocum and his wife Mirandy. Most of the action was a build-up to Maud kicking someone into the air. Si was the most frequent victim.”
Drawn and written by Frederick Burr Opper, the strip first appeared in the Hearst newspaper on July 24, 1904, and as phased out in the 1910s. Steam engines and motor vehicles were by then replacing mules. U.S. Borax – once famous for its 20-mule teams that hauled borate across the Mojave Desert – began phasing the animals out in favor of a steam engine in the mid-1890s, and Henry Ford sold his first Model T in 1908 and by the time production ended less than 20 years later in favor of the Model A, he’d sold 15 million.
Mules were destined to soon disappear as valued pack animals. The issue of trail use and abuse, however, lived on and survives to this day.
It exploded in Anchorage’s social media at the end of December when cyclist and LGBTQ activist Zoe Dickens took to the Anchorage Fat Bike page on Facebook to lambast those who bitch, moan and whine about the damage the modern mules can do to the extensive network of fat-bike trails that now exists in the state’s largest city.
“Just sharing my perspective, and wondering if others feel similar ways, and what that could mean for our community,” she wrote there without exactly specifying exactly community she was most concerned about.
“Annually, we see this group take on a tone that I imagine makes most of us uncomfortable. We all surely share gratitude for trailbuilders, and do what we can to respect all the efforts, but posts quickly start feeling shamey, authoritarian, and exclusionary…. like the posts that are clearly directed toward folks who aren’t even on the group page.
“I’m sorry for when the trails you worked hard to build, get walked on and post holey. That is really sad and very understandably upsetting…. but it’s complicated, because we are on ‘public land,’ colonized land that is largely accessed (and governed) by the cis hetero white folks with cushy bank accounts that it was gifted too.”
Her post missed a variety of important points and nuance’s that are important to the discussion, including the fact that the indigenous residents of Alaska – that group that got ‘colonized’ – ran around in moccasins and on snowshoes, both of which make winter trails better, not heavy boots with soles as hard as horseshoes which make a mess of things.
Here’s Stuck again on this subject:
“Our traveling is above all a matter of surface. Distance counts and weather counts, but surface counts for more than either. See how fast we came across the Seward Peninsula in the most distressing weather imaginable! A well-used dog trail becomes so hard and smooth that it offers scarce any resistance to the passage of the sled, and for walking or running over in moccasins or mukluks is the most perfect surface imaginable.
“The more it is used the better it becomes. But put a horse on that trail and in one passage, it is ruined. The iron-shod hoofs break through the crust at every step and throw up the broken pieces as they are withdrawn. With mules it is even worse; the holes they punch are deeper and sharper. Neither man nor dog can pass over it again in comfort.”
Moose can do similar damage, but Stuck made strangely few mentions of them being a problem on the trails of the early 1900s, observing at one point in his book that an 18-mile day on the trail across the state’s Interior “is noted in my diary for pleasant woodland travel and for the particular interest of the numerous animal tracks we passed. Here a moose had crossed the trail, plowing through the snow like a great cart horse; here for two or three miles a lynx had urgent business in the direction of the Healy River.”
And at another point observing that “a moose had used the trail for some distance, however, since the boys left it, and his great plunging hoofs had torn up the snow worse than a horse would have done.”
That single reference to bad trail due to moose would appear to indicate the animals were rare on or along the trails, which was likely due to their populations being suppressed by predators both wild and human. State wildlife biologists who in the 1970s wrote a history of moose in Alaska concluded that they were “present throughout most of Interior and Southcentral Alaska in the 1800s” and abundant in a few areas.
But “numerous early accounts exist of moose being absent from a particular area, or of having recently moved into a locale; we believe moose were present in most of these areas, but their numbers may have been extremely low at various times.”
Moose numbers across Alaska increased as modern wildlife management entered the picture in the 1930s and on, and by the 1980s, it had become predictable that the late-Susan Butcher, a four-time champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and an Alaska dog-mushing legend, would somewhere between Anchorage and Rainy Pass start about moose-hole filled trail.
She worried that in some conditions a dog might step in one of those holes and break a leg. Runners who have had the good judgment to use solidly frozen Anchorage trails on spring mornings have sometimes expressed similar concerns about stepping into similar holes stomped two feet deep or deeper by people who decide to go for a trial-bashing march during the heat of the day.
Being that a size-12 human foot is, when shod, way bigger than a moose hoof, these holes can be more of an issue than moose holes. And they are certainly more upsetting.
Moose are big, dumb animals. People are expected to display better judgment, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way.
Twenty to 30 years ago, some friends and I used to maintain a snowmobile-packed and groomed network of cross-country ski trails in Anchorage’s Upper Potter Valley. The grooming activity was all perfectly illegal, but in those years no one cared.
Disputes over the creation of neighborhood trails across undeveloped and unoccupied land had yet to become an issue. The sections of Chugach State Park into which the trails stretched were never visited by state park rangers. And neighbors, who enjoyed having easy access to good trails, cooperated in seeing to it that the trails didn’t become bandit snowmachine raceways, given that illegal snowmobiling was then still something of a problem on the Hillside.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I was skiing those trails one March day and came down valley to find where four people walking abreast had postholed their way half-a-mile up valley and then, apparently tired by the effort of struggling uphill on a trail where they were sinking in a foot or more, turned around and marched back down the trail.
What the hell, I wondered, could they be thinking? Postholing is really not that much fun.
Fortunately, I caught up to this crew near the end of the trail and got to ask them that question. They were four, very nice, middle-aged women. The conversation went like this:
“Hi ladies, can I ask you a question?”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Making a mess of this trail.”
“Oh (looking around sheepishly), we’re sorry.”
“Well, I am curious as to why you didn’t just use Stewart’s Road where all the foot traffic has packed in a much better trail for hiking. All this postholing couldn’t have been much fun.”
“It wasn’t that bad, and it looked like such a nice trail we couldn’t resist.”
“But didn’t you realize you were wrecking it for others? Couldn’t you at least have walked single file on one side of the trail to try to preserve some of it? Trails don’t fall from the sky, you know.”
“I know. (Shrug of shoulders). I’m a skier, too. Sorry.”
The discussion pretty much ended there. There wasn’t much else that could be said. It wasn’t like they were cyclists on bikes with 2.5-inch wide tires putting ski-grabbing grooves down the trail before fat bikes became a thing in Anchorage and winter biking really caught on.
Those grooves could be dangerous. The postholers just made the skiing, and sometimes even the snowshoeing, suck. But what was truly galling was that said postholers would never show up after a new snowfall of a foot or more when any kind of track broken down the trail would have been helpful.
No, they’d wait for that “nice trail” before hiking. Fortunately, there weren’t that many postholers in those days, and most of those who were politely queried as to why they were wrecking the trails for others altered their behavior. As for the few who thought they had the “right” to stomp anywhere they wanted, it was always fun to move the trail a few feet off the old pack after a new snow and enjoy a laugh when they mindlessly followed the “nice trail” into deep snow and floundered around.
Trails attract people the way magnets attract steel even if the trails aren’t really going anywhere or actually make travel harder, not easier. Thus, if you build them, people will come. And since Anchorage cyclists started building them, the people have come.
How to deal with trail abuse now that Anchorage has become a mecca for fat biking has, in turn, become a problem. If people can’t be shamed into behaving in a neighborly way because it’s “off putting,” as Dickens contends, what are the alternatives? She considers peer pressure “bullying” and wants “something more centered in collective liberation,” whatever that is.
But if “liberation” is allowed to trump expectations of good behavior, how many will behave appropriately?
Dog mushers in the city long ago came up with their answer to the problem of trail abuse. They got the municipality to allow them to close a huge network of trails on the northeast side of the city to all uses other than dog mushing. Those nicely maintained trails now go largely unused given that urban sprawl long ago forced most dog lots out of the city and north to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
Meanwhile, fat bikers struggle to maintain usable trails sometimes assaulted by gangs of foot pounders.
The easiest answer to the issue might be to pack the trails in as hard as possible as is already done with the Tour of Anchorage Trail and some city greenbelt trails, such as Chester Creek. When three feet of snow is compacted down to six inches or less, postholing the trail becomes difficult.
To successfully posthole in those conditions, you need to be seriously overweight; venture out only in warm weather; wear heavy plastic mountaineering boots or something comparable; and stomp rather than hike.
Still, some people are opposed to the use of machinery – piston bullies, snowmachines, Trail Tamers, SnowDogs or any other carbon-dioxide-spewing motorized equipment – on any more city trails. And some folks don’t even like having trails, arguing they despoil what “wilderness’ is left in or adjacent to the city.
This is what you get in a democratic “community,” a lot of different views all selfish in their own ways. That really doesn’t leave Joe Average much to do but whine or start lobbying lawmakers, as dog mushers and cross-country skiers long ago did, to create more exclusive use areas where, of course, machinery can be used for regular trail maintenance as on existing dog trails and at the existing ski areas.