A trail built by and for a community

The following is an article in the Pay It Forward column published in the Homer News. This column is sponsored by the Homer Foundation, a community foundation promoting local philanthropy since 1991. To learn more please visit us @ www.homerfoundation.org and like us on Facebook.

Our floatplane motored past peaks protruding through pillows of cloud. I was sure we’d get turned back to Homer again, until the pilot dropped into a fog-free Port Dick, then slipped around the corner to drop four of us at the beach at Taylor Bay.

My fellow passengers were hiking Tutka Backdoor, while I was running it ahead of them. I took every step of the 32 mile line to Jakolof Bay alone, keeping company with the echoes of dozens of people. In one spot, I remembered a crew rolling boulders into place with rock bars. In another, we’d spent hours taking out a salmonberry thicket. I remembered the shivering soggy camaraderie in the week of pouring rain, the chainsawing run that went past midnight, and all of the impossibly terrible bushwhacks in the places the trail didn’t end up going. Each cut mark, each bit of tread, had a story, and a person, behind it.

Building a trail across the steep and crumpled country of the outer Kenai Peninsula was a crazy idea that only became possible because the community embraced it. In five years, over 100 people, adults and kids, spent nearly 1500 person days building Tutka Backdoor.

Trails have always been about community. Historically, most of our trails were built informally by hunters and travelers. The trails that survive are the ones that continue to be embraced by their communities. Our ecology isn’t kind to trails. Mud slides and washouts take them out, devil’s club bristle over them, beetle-killed forests fall on them, salmonberries lock their thorny canes across them, and even a bloom of pushki and ferns can render them invisible.

In the past couple decades, I’ve watched trails around Seldovia and in Kachemak Bay Park disappear. Some were old logging roads. Others were designed as trails. The ones that thrive are the ones the community cares for, whether it’s the Friends of Kachemak Bay Park keeping Grace Ridge and Sadie Knob clear, the Homer Drawdown group clearing trails in town, or Seldovia residents taking it upon ourselves to keep our own local trails in shape.

We’ve learned a lot about how to build trails better since the early days of informal hunting trails. But community labor is as important as ever to keep trails open, safe, and amazing. The Homer Foundation has generously provided a grant that will allow us to bring together professional trail experts, community volunteers, and park staff on an expedition this summer to plan for the best future of Tutka Backdoor. We hope it will provide not just a plan for this trail, but a model for how to bring community to all our trails.

Brent Higman