Most trails on Alaska’s 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 special experience.


The Becharof Refuge’s 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 Alaska’s 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 lies history.


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 tractors hauling supplies. But by the 1950s, Kanatak was a ghost town.


The refuge was lucky to have Paul Boskoffsky. Now in his 70s, he hiked part of the trail with archaeologist Tom Prang and refuge staff/ volunteers to flag the restoration route.


Boskoffsky grew 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. Boskoffsky’s 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 refuge’s 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 don’t have to constantly respond to someone.”


Julia Pinnix is a visitor services manager at Alaska Peninsula/Becharof National Wildlife Refuge.