A volunteer removes stumps from the new West Bluff Trail on Government Hill on July 9, 2019. (Photo by Amy Mostafa, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The Alaska Railroad yard separates the Government Hill neighborhood from downtown Anchorage.

But a century ago, trails connected the homes of federal workers to Ship Creek and the buildings below. 

Now, neighborhood residents are teaming up with a local nonprofit to construct the West Bluff Trail, a path among several they say used to bring Government Hill residents together. 

“This is the oldest neighborhood in Anchorage,” Gerlek said. “These houses up here were built by the railroad back at the turn of the century for workers who worked in the railroad yards down here on Ship Creek.”

Gerlek says the trail was part of the first transportation corridor in Anchorage. People would walk or drive on it to get to work or a social club and reading room below near the railyard. That’s according to an Alaska Railroad map of the Anchorage rail system that dates back to January 1921.  

Long-time resident Steve Gerlek is among those taking the lead on the project. 

A map of Anchorage’s railroad system dating back to January 1921, as found in the Alaska Railroad archives, now a part of Alaska State Archives. (Photo courtesy of Bob French)

A cropped section of the map showing Government Hill in January 1921, as found in the Alaska Railroad archives, now a part of Alaska State Archives. (Photo courtesy of Bob French)

And Aaron Leggett, Dena’ina historian and curator of Alaska history and culture at the Anchorage Museum, says the area had an extensive trail system long before, when primarily Dena’ina from the village of Eklutna would go up in the uplands in the area to berry-pick and hunt, or set up fish camps closer to the creeks. 

“Once Government Hill was built up, they probably weren’t going through the neighborhood,” Leggett said. “But the trails existed from Ship Creek up through Government Hill onto Elmendorf, Fort Ridge and then to Eklutna. They followed the coast.” 

Leggett doesn’t know whether the trail Gerlek and others are currently restoring was once a part of that system, which was used all the way up until World War II according to the historian.

This trail is less ambitious. The idea is to rebuild the path along the west side of the hill from Brown’s Point Park to Suzan Nightingale McKay Park. In all, it’s just three-quarters of a mile. 

The view from a portion along the new West Bluff Trail on Government Hill (Photo by Amy Mostafa, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

But Gerlek says it’s a good start. Maybe later they could do the same on the east side, so that they can go all the way around the hill without having to step on a single road.

“In our lifetime, we don’t expect to be connected to the Coastal Trail, so this is our initiative to create our own set of trails that we can enjoy here,” Gerlek said. 

That’s why on July 9, about a dozen residents gathered at Brown’s Point Park to continue the work along the trail about 50 feet down the steep slope.   

As crew leaders paired volunteers with hard helmets and a McLeod or Pulaski axe for the day, Gerlek explained that the process extends much further than the physical labor involved in building the trail. He says the paperwork took years, but the stakeholders for the land all signed off on the project. The neighborhood applied for a federal grant through the Alaska DNR with the help of a National Park Service planner. And two designers came down from Denali National Park to set the alignment for the new trail — as close to its original location as possible — according to Gerlek. In all, he says it took about four years. 

Last year, things finally lined up. The community council got a $32,000 grant to pay for materials, landscaping and the labor of two dozen teenagers from Youth Employment in Parks.

The 16-19 year olds dug the main trail into the slope over a period of two weeks, according to Kristen Mrozowski.  Mrozowski is the trails technician for Alaska Trails, a nonprofit that coordinates labor on projects like this. 

Youth Employment in Parks teens clean up the West Bluff Trail in June (Photo courtesy of Youth Employment in Parks)

“This type of trail uses a method called full bench construction, so you’re actually excavating a bench cut out of the side slope rather than building up the trail,” Mrozowski said.

She now leads the crew of residents and other volunteers to finish the job.

After a quick safety meeting where Mrozowski usually circles up with the teenagers, she divides Gerlek and others into crews to start brushing, filling in, and widening different parts of the trail. 

Within a few minutes the crews spread out along the bluff and the constructed path demarcated with orange flags. Mrozowski says it’s been unusually dry this year. That’ll make the material hard to compact.

“So my kids grew up here and they used to play down here on the bluff and when I would go down and get them, we would find these stitches, parts of old trails that are established down here,” Gerlek said. Here Gerlek removes tree roots from the new trail on July 9, 2019. (Photo by Amy Mostafa, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

For Gerlek, building the trail is about making his neighborhood better.

While a nearby group brushes a section of the trail to get it ready for more digging, Gerlek and a few others chop off stumps and roots with pulaski axes. By the end of the evening, they’ve cleared most of the stumps from the portion of the trail. 

But others like crew leader and returning volunteer Loogpla Cowden do it to learn a new area, play, and build for the next generation. 

“So I know that my grandchildren’s grandchildren will have it,” Cowden said. 

Mrozowski says one thing’s for sure: once you experience the hard work that goes into building a trail, “you’ll be cursed to ever see them the same way again.” 

The next volunteer work event is set for August 13th. 

Mrozowski says the trail should open sometime this fall. 

Correction: an earlier version of this story stated Kristen Mrozowski works for AllTrails. Mrozowski actually works for Alaska Trails. The story and audio have been updated.
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