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Three Lakes - The Building of an Alaskan Trail System

Three Lakes

Out Mitkof Highway a little beyond Man-Made Hole the Three Lakes Loop Road branches off.  The three lakes (actually; five) listed north to south are Sand, Hill and Crane.  Get it?  Sand Hill cranes are an auspicious and ominous sign to Petersburgers.  With their flocks in long “V” shaped flight patterns and high pitched caws they mark the end of summer or the beginning of spring.

The Civilian Conservation Corps laid out the single plank trails and Adirondack shelters here long ago.  The forest road parallels the lakes by a half to a quarter of a mile and the  trail system circles the lakes on the East side.

Back in the day, the kids working for Southeast Guidance Association (SAGA) or Youth Conservation Corp (YCC) rebuilt the trail while we slung in the planks and resupplied their camps.

The old trails  consisted of slick planks laid end to end in the muskeg, some time for root wad to root wad, or nailed across two fallen logs making a bridge. When I first started the job, my wife and I along with the future founder of Alaskan Seafood Guys hiked the trail down to Sand Lake and around the Hill to Shelter Lake. (It was named later for the CCC Adirondack shelter there.)  A large spruce offered my little boy a rope swing to play on.  But that was as far as his little legs could go that day.

The YCC and SAGA kids could carry some of the new planks from the forest road, but for the trail system across the lakes we slung in bundles of planks.  Naturally, the muskegs were perfect places to drop them. The town crew would drive the planks out to Three Lakes, bind them to bundles of five, put a choker on each end, then hook the two chokers to the long line under the helicopter when it arrived.  The pilot, always worried about fuel, would “Wenatchee Snatch” the loads off the road to a distant muskeg, drop them, wait anxiously for me to  “unbell” the chokers, yank them from beneath the load and race back for another. Unless he dropped the load on me!  You had to be quick like a bunny beneath a ton of spinning death.  If your feet weren’t fast enough, they’d get pinned in the muskeg.  But no harm; no foul.  The muskegs are giant sponges so you weren't really pinned down hard.

A great part of the job was when the SAGA kids camped above Hill Lake.  I would drive out the road to where the pavement ended at the hatchery, follow the slickest muddiest part of Mitkof Highway, turning at Man-Made Hole to go up Three Lakes Loop Road.  It is only 1/4 mile to Hill Lake on the new plank wide trail .  Once there I’d row across to the bridge, or as far as the beavers would  let me row, then hike up the hill to their camp.  Meanwhile a ship would fly from Wrangell. The town portion of SAGA would meet it with supplies.  The helicopter pilot flew the week’s grub in on a long line, I unhooked it, hooked up camp trash and off it would fly. Leisurely rowing back across Hill Lake and driving into town , let me occasionally meet a duck and her ducklings crossing the lake, a beaver on her den, scurrying porcupines, a moose grazing on water lilies in the lake, a yearling black bear up a young alder, and as usual the deer at the Fur Farm.

As the project neared completion I took the boys out there.  They were big enough to walk the whole 5 miles now.  This was before the brown bears moved in and usually when we hiked in the woods the boys made so much noise that you didn’t worry about surprising the wildlife.  But about halfway around, trail-side bush made a noise!  My youngest boy instinctively stepped behind and closer to me. I reined in the eldest.  It was a grouse. I knew from fighting forest fires down south that grouse are incredibly stupid (and good eating). And they have a rather wise trick. “Look around!” I whispered to the boys as the grouse noisily faked a broken wing.  We spotted one chick 3 feet up a young alder, another just a little ways away, and another a few inches away from our feet headed towards mom. We let her herd her brood up and sneak off before we moved on.

Years passed.  They replaced all the planks.  The slick ones got covered with gill net.  They rebuilt that Adirondack at Shelter Lakes.  Lot of people attended the grand re-opening.  The place smelled of freshly cut cedar .  The walls held plaques and historical information .  It felt like the finale of the work of a lifetime.

 Author - William Moulton