Senior Scouts from Girl Scout Troop 83 get ready to take on the Crow Pass Trail in this 1974 photo taken near the Heritage Falls campsite.
Photo courtesy Terry Dittman
In September 1971, Girl Scout Troop 83 was fresh out of adventures. The Senior Scouts had hiked and camped along just about all of the trails near Anchorage and had even traveled to Sutton for a long-distance horseback trip through the Talkeetna Mountains.
Now, wet and dirty from glissading down a peak at Eklutna Lake, they gathered around to talk about what was next.
"We wondered what kind of hiking spots we could still find," said Terry Dittman, the adult troop leader at the time.
Knowing the pickings were slim, they considered building a trail themselves in fact, Eklutna Lake "would be such a great place," Dittman said. But with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act about to be signed into law, ownership of land around the lake was in question, Dittman said.
Instead, Dittman contacted Chugach State Park Ranger Doug Fesler, who suggested they refurbish the Crow Pass Trail from Girdwood to Eagle River. Each summer many people contacted the Park about the popular route to ask when a real trail would be built, according to a 1974 Department of Natural Resources memo.
At the time, a three-mile trail existed from the Paradise Haven Lodge in Eagle River (now the Eagle River Nature Center) to a turnoff for Dew Mound, Dittman said. The Girl Scouts would extend the trail another 22 miles to Girdwood, with Fesler as their adviser.
But first they had to find the money to pay for it.
Funding for history
It helped the Scouts' cause that the American Bicentennial was only five years away, and people were especially interested in the nation's history. The troop applied to the Alaska Bicentennial Commission for funding and received a large grant, Dittman said.
Support for the project blossomed. The Readers Digest Foundation, the America the Beautiful Fund, BP and the Girl Scouts of America all kicked in money, along with local businesses and individuals. Within four months, the project was almost fully funded, Dittman said.
It turned out the trail had a brief but compelling history. According to Thom Eley, a geographer, author and co-owner of Mapping Solutions in Anchorage, a written record of the trail dates to 1898, when it was called the Kelly Trail in honor of Army Scout Luther "Yellowstone" Kelly. Kelly and geologist Walter C. Mendenhall were part of an expedition searching for an overland route from Seward to the Yukon River.
"They were thinking about it as a road," Eley said. "They imagined wagons and pack horses and sleds on it and if you've ever been over Crow Creek Pass, you'd think, 'whoa, that would be wild.' "
The Kelly Trail soon dropped out of use, Eley said.
Then in 1912, Walter Goodwin, on assignment for the Alaska Road Commission to find a mail route between Seward and Nome, rediscovered it. Four years later, it began operating as part of the Seward to Nome Mail Trail, Eley said.
(From left) Beth Haselhorst, Peggy Clemons, Kim Winston, Ann Campbell, Jan Reinbold Smith and Pam Durgin undertake one of many crossings of Eagle River during the overhaul of the Crow Pass Trail in 1974 and 1975.
Photo courtesy Terry Dittman
"Nineteen sixteen is when the first mail actually went over it," Eley said.
The same year, the railroad began operating, so "by 1918, the trail was pretty much abandoned," he added.
Uncovering, and making, history
The Scouts' two-part trail restoration started in 1974, with 25 girls and seven adult leaders.
"Everyone had hoped to find some historic artifacts along the way but did not," Dittman wrote in a 1974 project summary. All they found was a trapper's cabin that probably dated to the 1930s, she wrote.
Instead the girls made history themselves. They named many of the geographical features they came across. Turbid Creek, Icicle Creek, Yakedeyak Creek, and Dishwater Creek; the Knob, Twin Falls and Heritage Falls are a few of the roughly two-dozen names hikers recognize today. To make the titles official, the Scouts worked with the Alaska State Geographic Board, Dittman said.
Above treeline, the girls doled out less formal names, Dittman said, as they stacked rock cairns to mark a path through the scree. The Richard Nixon Cairn and the Mama Cass Cairn commemorated the former President's resignation and the folk singer's death, both of which occurred during the girls' two weeks on the trail the first year.
The girls broke up into groups of five along the trail, with a leader wielding a machete to clear the path and others following up with detail work using handsaws and pulaskis. Often, the machete operator would disturb a hive, accidentally unleashing angry bees on her friends, Dittman said.
Helicopter pilots (from Anchorage Helicopter Service in 1974 and various military units in 1975) also unknowingly contributed to the girls' difficulties, Dittman said.
"One girl lost all her utensils to the wind of a helicopter, and so she had to share spoons with somebody else," she said.
Periodic rain and cold temperatures didn't help. Sometimes the girls went to bed in wet sleeping bags, woke up wet and stayed wet all day. Emotions ran high during those times, Dittman said.
Nightly campfires made up for some of the discomforts, said Jan Reinbold Smith, another adult leader on the trip.
"The campfires were a lot of fun," she said. "We would stop working at dusk, and we would eat and sit around the campfire and sing songs."
"We had several really junky guitars along on the trail," Dittman said. "We would write folk songs and sing them to entertain each other."
Even bee stings seemed better by firelight. The girls held contests to see who had the most, Dittman said, with the winner coming in at 69.
Shaped by the trail
Having spent a couple of winters being trained by Ranger Fesler, the girls were well prepared. They had marked the way with trail tape and cached equipment, and most important, learned to make decisions with real consequences, Dittman said.
By summer, the girls were ready to receive the lessons the trail had to teach.
"We surprised ourselves with how strong we were," Dittman said. "Everyone became stronger and more mentally efficient."
Looking back, Dittman realizes how big an impact the Crow Pass Trail has made on the hiking community in and around Anchorage. But that's nothing, she says, compared to what happened to the Girl Scouts who restored it.
"I think the most wonderful thing that came from it was the maturing of the girls into contributing adults," she said. "They are all successful, powerful women in our nation today. To this day I am so impressed with them."
Chris Lundgren is an Eagle River freelance writer.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, May 25, 2011.