Cottonwood Creek Trail Head Geoblock Installation

PALMER HAY FLATS — There are many ways to blaze a trail. Some do so through ideology, while some lead the way for others to follow. In Alaska, there are plenty of both. Like the 15 hardy volunteers who spent a wet Saturday at the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge building nearly 400 feet of pedestrian and ATV trail.

The men and women didn’t mind the chill and constant drizzle as they connected hundreds of pieces of Geoblock sections together to form a wide, flat surface that will connect a new Cottonwood Creek bridge to existing trail within the refuge.

“The purpose of the refuge is to protect habitats for fish and wildlife and for public uses of fish and wildlife,” said Joe Meehan, program coordinator for the DF&G. “Typically, we don’t let ATVs ride off-road in our refuge systems. If we can accommodate them, then we will. Wintertime, we can accommodate them all they want, because it’s frozen and full of snow. But summertime use, if the ATVs just went through the wetlands, they can tear it up.”

That’s where the Geoblock comes in. The engineered heavy plastic panels lay flat on the ground and are latticed with holes to allow vegetation to grow up through the panels and serve to tie the blocks to the path.

By installing 374 feet of path from the new bridge to already existing trail in the refuge, the volunteers are giving ATV riders a place to for their vehicles to access the rest of the area without tearing up the landscape, Meehan said.

“We’re giving them an alternative by hardening part of the trail,” he said.
At a cost of about $100,000 a mile, the small part of trail volunteers installed Saturday comes to nearly $7,100, paid for through state capital projects money from the Alaska Legislature and matching federal grant funds, Meehan said.

“We didn’t want this section of new trail to turn into a big mudhole,” he said. “Geoblock allows plants to grow up through it and it basically floats on the wet, muddy soils so it doesn’t sink in.”

Helping install improvements at the refuge is a boon for all users, recreational and sportsmen, said Rick Ellis.

Along with Doug Shepherd and Jennifer Heckler, the trio was busy screwing together Geoblock panels shortly before noon on Saturday. They’re also all members of the Alaska Frontier Trappers Association, and they didn’t mind the rain.

“It’s Alaska,” Heckler said.

“We’ll, it said work would be going on rain or shine, so …” added Ellis.

For Shepherd, he sees the trail extension to the bridge as a welcome improvement.

“It’s access for everybody,” he said. “A lot of duck hunters use this area, and anything we can do as sportsmen — whether we’re trappers or hunters or whatever — it’s working together. Our guys will use this in the wintertime trapping muskrats and stuff.”

Enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers like those with the Alaska Frontier Trappers Association are a large reason the Palmer Hay Flats continues to see more and more improvements, said Bill Wood, an Alaskans for Palmer Hay Flats board member.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he said of the response on a wet afternoon. “I hope this (trail) provides for some users who haven’t been able to use the refuge and give them more access to the site. But I also hope everybody who uses it understands the responsibility for using it.”

After installation, the trail needs a little time to settle and to allow for vegetation to take hold of it, Wood said, adding a future goal would be to find ways to make the area more ADA accessible.

For now, though, the new trail tie-in should be good to go in about three weeks, Wood said, “just in time for duck season.”

Story by Greg Johnson of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman (


Volunteers gathered at the Cottonwood Creek Trail Head Saturday Aug. 10, 2013 to install 400 ft. of

Geoblock to help preserve the trail and protect the wetlands during heavy four-wheeler use during waterfowl hunting season.