A map of Alaska with the Southeast region highlighted.
Organization: University of Alaska Southeast
City: Juneau
Region: Southeast
Program Area: Education \ Higher Education
Grants Received:
2009: $50,000  2001: $150,000
2008: $25,000  1989: $4,500
2006: $500,000

A fine natural laboratory close at hand

Mission Statement
University of Alaska Southeast

To serve as "an open enrollment, public university that provides postsecondary education to a diverse student body. UAS promotes student achievement and faculty scholarship, lifelong learning opportunities, and quality academic programs." The enhancement and expansion of the Auke Lake Trail connects the university to the city park and and the University's existing trail system.
It doesn't take a newcomer long to notice that red rubber boots are de rigueur on most of the hiking trails in the rainforest around Juneau. Many of the public trails in the area offer a chance to splash through ankle-deep puddles or slip around in muddy quagmires. But by July of 2009, anyone heading out for a stroll around the capital city may choose to reach for a pair of sandals, because innovative improvements to a trail along the edge of Auke Lake, on the eastern side of the University of Alaska Southeast campus, will offer a chance to not only walk or bicycle beneath the forest canopy but to take a dry-footed walk ON the water, atop a four hundred foot section of floating trail.

The floating trail - the only one of its kind in the state and perhaps the nation - was designed to traverse an estuary used by migrating waterfowl and salmon, in order to avoid impacting a stand of exceptionally large spruce trees near the water's edge. Widening and straightening the existing rough-and-tumble trail would have required extensive cutting among the trees' complex root systems; moving it inland far enough to avoid damaging the trees would have meant building stairs
up a steep ridge. The offshore solution offers the twin benefits of presenting visitors with a clear view of the lake and its magnificent backdrop of coastal mountains, and making the trail accessible to users with impaired mobility by maintaining a grade gradual enough to make it suitable for wheelchairs.

A photo of a rock trailSpacer Image The inventive floating trail is the end result of years of brainstorming and work by university staff, planners from Juneau's Department of Parks and Recreation, lakeside residents, and a host of engineers and volunteers bent on meeting the needs of a wide variety of users. Funding for the $1.3 million upgrade to the 1.1-mile long trail came through a potpourri of private donors, grants, and government sources, with the university's Chancellor John Pugh spearheading the drive.

While no one person can be credited with coming up with the concept, it might be fair to say that the seed that became the floating trail fell to earth and sprouted into fruition somewhere near James King, the current director of the State of Alaska's Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. Under the prodding of his parents Jim and Mary Lou King, who were both active in the early years of the Taku Conservation Society, James waded in with a machete and began clearing the underbrush from the original trail twenty-five years ago, when he was still a teenager attending high school in Juneau.

James cleared the old trail, which skirted the edge of the lake through a hodge-podge of windfalls, muck holes, and berry patches, then went away to school in North Carolina for a degree in architectural landscaping. He returned to Juneau, and eventually became the director of Trail Mix, Inc., a non-profit founded in 1993 to bring together volunteers and hired crews to improve and maintain public trails on city, state, and federal lands in the area. Although James moved on to his current position after the design for the trail was finished and the bulk of the necessary permits in place, Trail Mix is still handling the nuts and bolts - or rather the chainsaws and shovels - of the operation. Since April of this year, according to George Schaaf, the new Trail Mix director, field crews have moved nearly five thousand yards of crushed rock and gravel (450 dump trucks worth), built seven bridges, laid a thousand feet of culvert, and worn out several chainsaws and a few backs pulling an uncountable number of stumps. Preparing for the project also allowed Professor Dan Monteith's UASE anthropology class to get some hands-on field experience in plotting historic human use of the area by documenting the remains of an old fox farm from the 1930's and identifying several ‘culturally modified trees' that show signs of use by the original Tlingit inhabitants.

A photo two students on a floating trail segmentSpacer Image The trail will give geology and environmental sciences classes from the university a fine natural laboratory close at hand and bicyclists commuting from nearby neighborhoods will be able to take a beautiful shortcut to commercial centers closer to downtown. In short, thanks to the efforts of a remarkable blend of public and private organizations, government agencies, and volunteers, the Auke Lake Trail is poised to become one of the most popular and oft-used trails in a community of dedicated outdoor enthusiasts.

Lynn Schooler is the author of "The Blue Bear" and "The Last Shot." He lives in Juneau and hikes one or more of the trails in the area almost every day.