City Wilds




Over the years I have written several stories about my love and appreciation for Byers Lake, most recently in my City Wilds column, “Byers Lake, a home away from home.” As it happens I’ve just returned from a five-night stay at the lake’s Cabin No. 2 and I bring home sad news. It appears that those who manage Denali State Park are neglecting to properly care for Byers Lake’s recreational facilities, most notably the “Loop Trail” that allows visitors to circumnavigate the lake.

The first indication that things are amiss is a sign that greets hikers heading out along the Loop Trail: 

“CAUTION! 

The outlet bridge on the South End of Byers Lake was damaged over the winter and is unsafe. Do not attempt to cross. Please plan accordingly.”

That sign is in an important way misleading, because it suggests that all the damage occurred this past winter and that just ain’t so. In fact the bridge has been damaged for more than a year. I have a photo that demonstrates this fact, taken in mid-August 2019.

It is however true that the bridge is now more dangerous. And it seems only a matter of time before it collapses.

Park staff is right in closing the bridge to human passage, but that of course means people cannot do the entire Lake Loop unless they 1) take their chances crossing the bridge despite the warning; or 2) wade across either Byers Lake or the creek that flows from it, something most day hikers are unlikely to do, for good reasons.

I suppose it’s a good thing that if the bridge had to be closed, it’s during a summer when far fewer people are visiting Byers Lake, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I also suppose park managers don’t feel a special urgency to make repairs because of the diminished visitation.

But that doesn’t negate this fact: park staff should have fixed the bridge—or at least begun repairs—last year, when it began to fall apart. That nothing has been done is evidence of the managers’ negligence.

There’s plenty more evidence of management neglect immediately beyond the bridge (for those who either figure out how to cross the outlet or come from the other direction). 

Much of the trail between the outlet bridge and the lake’s “remote” walk- or boat-in campsite is thickly overgrown. I don’t simply mean the grasses, fireweed, and other plants that annually grow thick and high in summer, sometimes bending across the narrow footpath; many bushes and small trees that grow beside the trail are now sending their branches across it.

 In many places it’s now impossible to see the Loop Trail because of the thick plant growth that hides it, making it more likely a hiker will stumble on the many roots that also cross the path. This makes the trail something of an obstacle course, particularly for the young and old who try to navigate it.

I suppose it’s easy, during this time of coronavirus, to rationalize that not many people are doing the Loop Trail, so trail clearing is not a priority. But some substantial work needs to be done sooner or later to cut back the bushes and trees that are growing across the trail and hiding it.

A bigger problem in the long run is that portions of the Loop Trail are eroding away. This is particularly true along a segment that side hills across a steep forested slope beneath Kesugi Ridge, where parts of the path are sloughing away and crumbling downhill, which makes footing tricky and potentially dangerous. 

Again, this is a problem that’s been growing for years and trail repairs are long overdue.

One final example: the food storage locker at the lake’s remote campsite needs to be replaced. Its metal bottom is heavily corroded and now has large holes through which smaller mammals can crawl and get into campers’ food. This is another example of long overdue repairs or replacement. 

There’s another issue that’s going to be a problem for many years to come, one that will require additional annual maintenance: beetle-killed spruce trees are falling across the trail, blocking it and forcing detours.  It appears park staff is at least periodically clearing these trees, but it’s going to require continual monitoring in summer.

I couldn’t help but contrast the poor maintenance of Byers Lake’s trail system with the highly polished feel of Denali State Park’s K’esugi Ken Campground Complex, 12 miles to the south. Officially opened in May 2017, this campground area and associated trails still have a sparkling new quality to them. In many ways—both for better and for worse—this is a state-of-the-art recreational area, at least by Alaska standards.

On my recent visit to Byers Lake, I did a day trip to K’esugi Ken and the nearby Curry Ridge Trail. I’ve been to both before, but wanted my memory refreshed. The campground “complex” features not only separate RV and walk-in tent camping areas (including a group campsite), but also three public-use cabins (only two are available in summer, with one set aside for the campground host), a ranger-contact station, an interpretive center/pavilion, and natural history displays galore. 

Have I mentioned that the roads to and through the campgrounds are paved and that there’s a well-maintained trail system “for a range of abilities”?

But there’s more: in summer the site features daily ranger programs that include guided hikes and evening programs. On the day I visited, a sign also invited visitors to “stop by (the interpretive center) between 4-5:30 (or anytime in the afternoon on rainy days) to chat with a ranger, enjoy the displays, sit by the fire, or become a Junior Ranger!”

Wow.

Byers Lake too has a campground and public-use cabins and trails, but you won’t find such high-end camping amenities or visitor programs. That part is fine. There’s a reason for the difference: K’esugi Ken is a partnership of Alaska’s State Parks and the National Park Service. The federal government largely financed the development of the complex and pays for much, if not all, of the maintenance and also provides the ranger programs.  

It’s only because of the federal money that K’esugi Ken even exists. This is a “South Denali” attraction intended to cater to tourists, though Alaskans benefit. 

Even during this pandemic summer, the K’esugi Ken complex and nearby Curry Ridge Trail (which rises more than 1,000 feet but at a gentle grade that can be easily walked by youngsters and old folks alike, and which offers spectacularly sweeping views of the Alaska Range, neighboring foothills, and adjacent lowlands) were filled with people on the Saturday that I visited.  

I think it’s great that Denali State Park has such an appealing, modern, and well-kept visitor destination that’s easily accessible from the Parks Highway, one that seems to cater to independent travelers as much or more than tour companies. It’s way better here than what was originally proposed, in the wilder and more remote Peters Hills, in the state park’s far western reaches.

But I fear that Byers Lake is suffering from all the attention and resources being showered upon K’esugi Ken.

To be honest—and this will come as no surprise to those familiar with my writings and values—I much prefer Byers Lake to K’esugi Ken. 

Even when its campground is filled—as it often is on summer weekends—and groups of tourists come to experience the lake as part of their tour package (something that’s not happening this summer), it’s easy to find solitude at Byers Lake, particularly if you stay at one of the cabins that are off the beaten path and require a half-mile hike (or short paddle across the lake) to reach; or if you make the effort to hike the Cascade Trail to Kesugi Ridge.

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, Byers Lake was the premier state-managed visitor destination in Denali State Park. The fact that K’esugi Ken has become the go-to place for many Alaskans (and tourists) should not mean that Byers Lake can now be ignored, as parts of it seem to be. 

Alaska State Parks’ managers need to step up and repair what’s broken and do the regular maintenance that’s required to keep the Loop Trail and other facilities in proper condition. 

What’s being allowed to happen at Byers Lake is an embarrassment to the state parks system and it needs to be addressed, the sooner the better.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Alaska’s Accessible Wilderness: A Traveler’s Guide to Alaska’s State Parks” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com

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