Most trails on Alaskas remote
refuges are made by wildlife.
The Kanatak Trail on Becharof
National Wildlife Refuge is an exception.
It has been used for centuries by people
travelling between the Pacific Ocean and
the Bering Sea, but it was fading away
because of disuse.
Now, thanks to restoration work done
last year with funding from the Alaska
Division of Parks and Recreation
Recreational Trails Program and
support from the Student Conservation
Association (SCA), part of the historic
trail is available for visitors in search of a
The Becharof Refuges designated
wilderness area is visible from the
Kanatak Trail. So is volcanic Mount
Peulik. At Kanatak Pass, Summit
Lake reflects the rugged peaks of the
coastal range, and the sweeping ocean
views are magnificent. Although the
pass is just 1,013 feet, small elevation
increases change conditions rapidly in
this northerly land. Diverse wildflowers,
blooming from lush beach meadows to
wind-beaten alpine tundra, are the result.
Some of Alaskas largest brown bears
live on the refuge. Their sign is clear
along the trail, which recently received
a National Recreation Trail designation.
Fox, wolf, moose and caribou are often
seen. Bird life is diverse. Two kinds
of ptarmigan divide the high and low
country; the songs of passerines echo
from the rocky cliffs. In the lakes and
rivers are grayling, Dolly Varden char
and salmon. In the ocean, seabirds and
marine mammals cruise the shoreline.
Beyond the vistas, flora and fauna
Archaeologists document trail
inhabitants at least 1,900 years ago.
Russian and American travelers in
the 1700s reported trail settlements at
Kanatak and elsewhere. The village of
Kanatak, on the Pacific side of the Alaska
Peninsula, became a boomtown when oil
exploration arrived in the early 1900s.
Part of the trail
became a road
for wagons and
supplies. But by the
1950s, Kanatak was
a ghost town.
The refuge was
lucky to have Paul
in his 70s, he hiked
part of the trail
Tom Prang and
volunteers to flag
up hiking the
trail, following the
annual round of traditional subsistence
life. In spring, residents took the trail
from Kanatak to Becharof Lake to
gather gull eggs and reconnect with
relatives and friends. They often
continued on to Egegik on Bristol Bay, a
Bering Sea inlet, for work at the salmon
cannery. In late summer, they returned
to the lake to catch and preserve salmon
for winter. Packing supplies on horses,
dogs and their own backs, they went back
to Kanatak, where firewood was plentiful
for the cold months. Boskoffskys family
was the last to leave Kanatak in 1954.
The SCA assembled a crew of six high
school students and two crew leaders
to tackle the daunting task of clearing
vigorously growing brush from the five
miles between Kanatak and Becharof
Lake. The SCA crew used hand tools to
remove brush, taking care not to disturb
any cultural features. With SCA and
refuge assistance, Prang mapped the
trail, recording road sections, spur trails,
cultural sites and other components.
The refuges remoteness complicated the
work. Access was only by floatplane. Wet,
windy weather made travel challenging.
Most of the crew had never been so
cut off from civilization before. Daily
radio or satellite phone contact was
the tether to the outside world. Field
camp was a solar-powered electric fence
enclosure on a tundra-covered field, with
a WeatherPort shelter serving as kitchen
and living area.
When asked what it was like being out of
cell phone and Internet range, one
student said it was a relief: I dont have
to constantly respond to someone.
Julia Pinnix is a visitor services
manager at Alaska Peninsula/Becharof
National Wildlife Refuge.