By Jim Magowan
Turnagain Times Correspondent
Ken Smith/Turnagain Times
A boardwalk on The Trail of Blue Ice in Portage Valley is covered with fresh fallen snow. The 4.7 mile trail was completed last fall at a cost of $4.4 million.
Alaskans love trails, but that love can carry a hefty price tag, like the $4.4 million it cost to build the 4.7 mile Trail of Blue Ice in Portage Valley.
This modern pathway to adventure, though pricey as it was, has been lauded by the multitude of people hiking and biking this one-of-a-kind trail in Alaska that was completed last fall.
In less than five miles, from its start at the Portage Lake parking lot to its finish at Moose Flats, the trail winds by three glaciers, Byron, Middle and Explorer, while passing through wilderness, within yards of Portage Highway, that is habitat for a wildlife population that includes moose, black bears snowshoe hares and coyotes.
“The Trail of Blue Ice is a great bike ride. It's so beautiful and peaceful; there is nothing like it,” said, Anchorage attorney Paul Kelly, who was enjoying a late February hike on the trail.
Kelly agreed that $4.4 million is a lot of money to build a trail, but he feels the beauty and pleasure the trail provides is worth it.
Not a simple footpath through the woods, the Trail of Blue Ice is what the U.S. Forest Service classifies as a Class V trail.
“The Forest Service classifies trails as Class I through V,” said Alison Rein, a U.S. Forest Service Landscape Architect who worked on the Tail system. “With Class I being the most primitive and Class V the most elaborate, the Trail of Blue Ice is a class V trail.”
Gravel, paved and even some metal boardwalk sections over wetlands plus seven bridges, including two tied-arch bridges, makes up the Trail of Blue Ice. Even in the gravel areas, the surface is both wide and deep. The paved section, from near the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center to the Williwaw area is handicapped accessible and able to accommodate wheelchairs.
“First conceived in 1997, the trail was built in three phases, starting in 2002,” said Mark Pomeroy with the State of Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT).
The trail construction involved three contractors and had taken seven years to finish when contractor Oregon Woods completed Phase III last fall.
While the trail is an easy bike ride, hike or ski tour, building it was another story. In addition to the technical difficulties of building in an area of deep, sandy, wet soils, often with moving water, environmental concerns, including protecting the Williwaw salmon spawning area, contributed to the high cost of building the trail.
The geotechnical report by Shannon & Wilson recommended that if pilings were used for pedestrian bridges, due to soil conditions, they should be 16 to 20 feet deep.
Obtaining the funding history of the Trail of Blue Ice was not an easy task because funds went back and forth between state and federal agencies over a seven year period.
“91 percent of the funds ($4,125,705) was from grants to the state from the federal highway trust fund which has a fund for trails,” said Pomeroy. “The remaining 9 percent ($275,047) were state matching funds.”
There was agreement that at a cost of about $1 million a mile, the Trail of Blue Ice was expensive.
Both federal and state officials attributed the high cost to the conditions the contractors faced in building the trail, including both technical issues related to the characteristics of the soil and water where the trail was built and environmental and social issues because the trail is through an ecologically sensitive environment in a popular recreational area.
Ken Smith/Turnagain Times
One of two tied-arch bridges on the Trail of Blue Ice crosses over a creek near Portage Highway. There are seven bridges total on the 4.7 mile trail.
The large number of online articles and comments about the trail support that it is considered a real gem by trail users and trail user groups, and it is certainly an attraction for the Turnagain Arm area.
If the million dollar a mile cost of the trail is simply the cost of building deluxe trails in this kind of environment and is not due to waste or mismanagement, planners will undoubtedly have to evaluate the benefits of trails such as this one, compared to their cost.
Is a Class V trail worth the difference in cost over a Class I or II trail? In an area such as Portage Valley, the need to cross salmon viewing areas and wetlands may dictate that the only developed trail that is acceptable is a Class V trail so the choice may be a Class V or nothing.
As for the local economic impact of building of the trail, the results were mixed.
“Alaska Yellow Cedar was used for some of the bridges,” Rein said. “Yellow Cedar resists decay, and we wanted to help stimulate the Alaska timber industry. As it turned out, a lot of the wood came from Canada. We can't control where the contractors buy the materials and apparently the wood from Canada cost less than wood from Southeast Alaska. Some of the material did come from Alaska, though, and there was a ‘Buy Alaska' provision so, overall, the Alaska economy did benefit.”
The Forest Service also felt that Yellow Cedar was a good alternative to treated wood because it does not contain toxic chemicals that may leach into the environment.
Future plans for the Trail of Blue Ices include linking it with trails along the Seward Highway.
“The Seward Highway plan includes a trail along the Seward Highway from Ingram Creek to Girdwood,” said Pomeroy. “We hope to connect the Trail of Blue Ice to the Seward Highway trail. Although, right now, we don't know what is going to happen with that plan.”