AK: Volunteers work to rebuild damaged landscapes on Flattop Mountain

Local students volunteered with Alaska Geographic, including Jasmine Mina (center) and Education Specialist Reth Duir (bottom right). (Photo by Emily Russell, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Anchorage is home to one of Alaska’s most popular peaks—Flattop Mountain.  But all those hikers have done a lot of damage to the landscape. So this summer and fall, volunteers have been working hard to rebuild the final section of the trail.

Listen now

AKPM: “Alright so I’m just 20 minutes into the hike and so far I’ve seen two forks in the trail and the one that forks left looks like it’s in rehab. It’s covered with what looks like a white linen cloth or carpet that stretches up the side of the mountain.”

“That carpet you saw is called jute mat,” Joe Hall, the Park Specialist for Chugach State Park, explained. “It just kind of reduces the chances of it being eroded. It also kind of makes it look like not a place you want to walk.”

Hall said the impact on the old unorganized trail is “monstrous.”

“If you were to go up and put a drone up in the sky– just the amount of vegetation we’ve lost– it’s pretty remarkable,” Hall said.

Chugach State Park Specialist Joe Hall screws in the final signage for the trail up the backside of Flattop. (Photo by Emily Russell, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Mike Morganson, a volunteer with Alaska Trail Stewards, agrees.

“From outer space it probably looks crazy to have eight or ten trails all within spitting distance of each other,” Morganson said.

Those trails that slice through the land, Morganson explained, are likely there because of decisions hikers made when the weather was wet and the trail slippery.

“So they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll just move over here a couple feet to the right where there’s grass and I have better traction,’ and other people do the same and pretty soon your two-foot wide trail is four feet wide,” Morganson explained “And then the next time it’s wet, it becomes six feet wide and then it becomes eight feet wide and in some places it’s like forty-feet wide of just eroded [land]– kind of a scar on the mountainside.”

So, Hall, Morganson and more than 40 other volunteers are here today wearing hardhats and wielding shovels, picks, and pulaskis.

“How did you actually use that thing?” I asked. “I’ve never used a pulaski before.”

“You use your back,” Jasmine Mina explained. Mina is a freshman at UAA who volunteers with Alaska Geographic. “I like trail work,” Mina said, “Even though it’s hard and it kicks my butt,  I like it.”

Mina said doing volunteer work like this has gotten her outside more. She hiked the backside of Flattop two weeks.

“It was like this– it was pretty nice, but I forgot that we made a trail, so I didn’t use the trail,” Mina laughed. “But now that most of it is covered up, people are going to use this trail now.”

And they already are. As Mina and the other volunteers pick away, hikers pass them by. Reth Duir with Alaska Geographic said their work’s not going unnoticed.

“I kid you not– about every single person here that has been using the trail has thanked us for our hard work,” Duir said. “And it’s just amazing being able to see the fruits of our labor and have people thanking you for the work you’ve put in.”

Runners speed by with their dogs, parents pace along with their kids– it really is one of those perfect fall days. The sky is a bright blue and the tundra a mixture of pale yellows and reds.

But with all this traffic, keeping trails in good shape means some good engineering. Mike Morganson has worked his way farther up the trail, grading the slope to prevent erosion.

The view near the summit of Flattop, looking back at Peak Two and the new backside trail. (Photo by Emily Russell, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

“The trail tread, the flat part you would use, is about three feet wide,” Morganson said. “And then the backslope goes uphill to the current slope and you want that approximately 45 degrees, it’s not exact, just for drainage.”

So if it rains, Morganson said that backslope and the slight grade of the wider trail will prevent puddles from forming.

“It’s pretty amazing to see the progress coming back five, ten switchbacks behind us,” Morganson said. “And now we’re getting all the way up to the pass where it hooks up to Flattop and Peak Two intersection.”

And at that intersection, where the new trail hooks up to the old one, it’s just another ten to twenty minutes before reaching the summit.

AKPM: “One of the cool things about hiking the back of Flattop is that the big payoff comes at the very end on the summit and the entire city of Anchorage, if it’s a sunny day like it is today, you get to see it for the first time. Denali is out, the mountains are out– it’s just a stunner of a day. Doesn’t get much better than this.”

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Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.