Student Conservation Association trail crews work on adding trail to Burneyճ Trail in the Skilak Lake Recreation Area. (Photo by Lee Dudak/SCA)

Refuge Notebook: Getting a boost from SCA trail crews

This past summer, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge saw the benefit from four additional trail crews provided by the Student Conservation Association. The SCA crews were made up of one leader and four crew members, living and working together throughout their time in Alaska.

Our SCA crews of this style are typically college age young adults or just having finished their college studies. Two of our crews worked on the refuge for 12 weeks, while another was a 16-week crew, and our fourth crew was a 16-week “roving” crew stationed at the refuge for eight of its 16 weeks.

Our two 12-week crews, SCA Bravo and SCA Echo, lived and worked out of Hidden Lake Campground. Bravo and Echo spent time working on extending Burney’s Trail out of Hidden Lake Campground.

They added 1.4 miles of trail to the already existing 0.9 miles of the trail. Previous SCA crews built the previous trail during two stints. The last stint was back in 2007 by a high school SCA crew.

This year’s SCA crew worked on scouting out the route for the new portion of the trail. Then, the refuge trail crew did all the saw work in logging out and opening up the corridor for Bravo and Echo to begin their work of digging the tread for the new section of trail.

The goal was to connect Burney’s Trail to Hideout Trail, which was accomplished in early August. Once the crew finished digging tread, they spent about a week fine-tuning and performing cleanup work.

Burney’s Trail now sits at 2.3 miles one way from Hidden Lake Campground, where it starts to the “tie-in” spot on Hideout Trail.

If you decide to walk Hideout Trail and Burney’s Trail, you add 0.8 miles from trailhead to trailhead, wrapping Hideout to Burney’s trail to a total of 3.1 miles one way. However, if you decide to do the through-hike, I strongly recommend going up Hideout and walking down Burney’s as you get some great views of Skilak Lake and a view of Hidden Lake that is not available on any other trail on the refuge’s trail systems.

SCA Foxtrot, our 16-week trail crew, spent the bulk of its season working on the Hansen Horse Trail. They did not spend their time digging or building a new trail. Instead, they spent their time improving and regaining the corridor after the Funny River Fire of 2014 and the Shanta Creek Fire of 2009.

Since the Funny River and Shanta Creek fires, the regrowth of the aspens after the fires has made it very difficult for horses and humans to push through on the trail. So, Foxtrot spent its time cutting down as much brush as possible and opening up the corridor to an 8-foot width and 12-foot height for horses and humans to be able to move through the trail with ease.

Hansen Horse Trail is just over 20 miles from its start to Timberline Lake up on the Tustumena Bench. Our local horse group, the Kenai Peninsula Back Country Horsemen of Alaska, on several occasions packed Foxtrot 10 miles into a spike camp.

As a result, Foxtrot was able to open the corridor to between miles 12 and 13. Even though the group didn’t complete the trail all the way to the alpine, it was still a huge accomplishment to make it this far. Over the next couple of years, we will continue Foxtrot’s progress and improve the corridor on the Hansen Trail.

In early August, SCA Mike showed up on the refuge after spending its first eight weeks working on Bureau of Land Management lands north of Fairbanks. SCA Mike didn’t have one specific project. Instead, the group got to spend time working on several different trails and projects in eight weeks at the refuge.

First, the crew spent time working on Hansen Horse Trail with Foxtrot. From there, SCA Mike spent a hitch working on the Swanson River Canoe Route logging out portage trails. Finally, the group spent a few days working on Burney’s Trail, cleaning up and improving the new section of the trail.

All four crews also spent time working on our SCA Trail Project from 2019. In 2019, the refuge started reclaiming an old horse trail along the north shore of Tustumena Lake from the end of Doc Pollard Trail that will connect to Bear Creek Trail.

Originally, this trail was used in the 1930s and 1940s to access the Alaska Guides Camp that sat on the north shore of Tustumena Lake at Bear Creek. This year, the SCA crews spent several weeks opening up the corridor for the final three miles of the trail to connect to Bear Creek Trail.

We are still working on putting the map together for this trail, so the completion distance is an estimated 10 to 13 miles between the Pollard Horse Trail and Bear Creek Trail.

Although the refuge doesn’t have SCA crews every year, the years the refuge has them made it a little easier to work on some lagging projects. As we look toward next season, the refuge is looking forward to hosting another 12-week SCA crew in the summer of 2022 to continue to improve additional miles of hiking trails for the enjoyment of those who spend time on the refuge.

We look forward to seeing what the following crews accomplish!

Christa Kennedy is the Trails Volunteer Coordinator for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Kenai/community/refuge_notebook.html.

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