Alaska News

Chugach backcountry network takes stride forward

A decades-long dream of backcountry hikers to construct a network of destinations in remote sections of the Kenai Peninsula accessible mainly by the Alaska Railroad took a step forward this month.

The U.S. Forest Service says that a $1.2 million rail platform will be built this summer at Grandview, the former winter destination for the Alaska Ski Train. It will be the second of five such platforms envisioned for the area between Portage and Moose Pass.

The Whistle-Stop program is a partnership between Chugach National Forest and the Alaska Railroad begun in 2003 along the tracks to Seward. By the time it's finished, the program will cost about $14 million, according to the Alaska Railroad.

Currently the only stop is Spencer. By summer 2012, the Grandview platform is expected to be ready, giving people another place to get off the train.

The Forest Service will also start construction of a nine-mile trail between the Spencer and Grandview locations this summer.

"That's really one of the most important things about the project -- the interconnectivity," said Paul Clark, forest recreation planner and trails program manager with the U.S. Forest Service.

The trail will feature a 6-foot wide, 280-foot-long pedestrian bridge over Placer River. Construction of the $1.6 million bridge, funded by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will begin this summer. It will be located about 400 feet upriver from the railroad's Placer River bridge.

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"It's a first important step connecting Spencer to Grandview," said Clark. "It's a very big bridge. But the plan is for it to be completed by snowfall. One of the biggest design challenges is ice flow coming off the lake and (Spencer) glacier. The design had to make sure any debris would be clear of the bridge."

A bridge helping to link the whistle-stops is "a key component in the project," according to John Wolfe, executive director of the Alaska Mountain & Wilderness Huts Association.

Later, if funds become available, the Forest Service would like to build a cabin at the top of the Spencer Bench Trail off the three-mile trail that leaves the Spencer Whistle-Stop and parallels the glacier.

The huts association has proposed building a cabin at Grandview near the platform. In addition, a retired caboose donated by the railroad will eventually be renovated so it can serve as a backcountry information and education center on the platform.

Only about a mile of the trail between Spencer and Grandview will be finished this year, Clark said. "It could take a while," he said.

One change under discussion -- allowing visitors to Spencer to return at 8 p.m. on the Coastal Classic train headed back to Anchorage from Seward -- would give hikers extra hours to explore. Currently, they have only from 1:45 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. to explore.

The season start won't begin until snow melts on the trail to the glacier. Typically, that happens in mid-May, but last year it didn't happen until June.

Spencer's Whistle-Stop opened in August 2008, built exclusively with native white cedar. A kiosk displays photos of the historic Dead Horse Creek Railroad Construction Camp.

Once the Grandview stop is finished, the next whistle-stop will be built at Luebner Lake between Spencer and Portage, with construction due to start next year. Facilities will include a pavilion and one toilet.

The $14 million project includes:

• $4.7 million from a Forest Service grant to buy a double-deck, self-propelled commuter railcar to transport summer visitors back and forth. It began operating two years ago.

• $1.2 million for planning and construction of the Spencer Whistle-Stop.

• $600,000 for Forest Service plans, including design of the whistle-stops.

• $1.6 million for the Placer River bridge, funding by an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant.

• $1.2 million for the Grandview Whistle-Stop, funded by the same grant.

Last year, the railroad said, 3,956 passengers bought tickets to the Spencer Whistle-Stop. That was down 12 percent from 2009 -- but more than the 3,871 who made the trip in 2008.

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

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By MIKE CAMPBELL

mcampbell@adn.com

Mike Campbell

Mike Campbell was a longtime editor for Alaska Dispatch News, and before that, the Anchorage Daily News.

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