A Chilkoot State Park management plan has been years in the making. The Chilkoot State Park, including Chilkoot Lake and the Chilkoot River continues to be a favorite destination for travelers. Watching eagles and bears or sport fishing are favored pass-times for visitors and locals. Many are content to enjoy the calm and serenity offered in the quiet peace of a pristine environment. This quiet peace is often punctuated by hordes of spectators and traffic congestion during “bear season.” There has been little official regulation or supervision through the corridor. This has caused concern and consternation in the community resulting in the Haines Borough Assembly seeking to constrain local businesses from conducting operations in the state park as a means of leveraging the Department of Natural Resources to take decisive action in the development of a management plan for the area.
As the saying goes, “Be careful what you ask for because you might get it.” In the last year the Department of Natural Resources who administer the Chilkoot State Park have executed a design plan that includes paving the Chilkoot River road, creating bear viewing platforms, pedestrian walkways and designated pull-outs for parking. This design may in fact facilitate bear viewing and ease congestion. It has also dramatically changed the basic nature of the road for better or worse. The new road essentially defines the Chilkoot State Park management plan by virtue of its structure. By sharing some photos, observations and personal interpretations I hope to explain what I believe to be the intent of the changes brought about in 2021. I will take the liberty of giving my opinion about the benefits and shortcoming of these changes in an equitable presentation.
A new road will define a new plan
When I first came to Haines Alaska in the late 90’s the road along the Chilkoot River to Chilkoot Lake was an unpaved dirt road. This allowed for regular grading, but my understanding is that this grading regularly turned up Tlingit (native population) artifacts. As a result, the Department of Transportation paved the road. Unfortunately the paving of the road degraded over time resulting in massive and frequent potholes. Somewhere along the way, not wanting to deal with a number of delicate issues, the DOT turned the road over to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) who administer state parks. DNR developed a design plan that included paving an elevated road through the corridor.
The road is now elevated by a good base that may help avoid the creation of potholes in the future. Unfortunately there is little in the way of usable shoulder to the road now. The road is narrow and drops off rather steeply at the road’s edge. This may serve to eliminate parking along the side of the road which contributed to traffic congestion. While the sign instructs drives to use pullouts only, there are very limited numbers of pullouts available.
I am not sure the bears are going to be able to easily navigate the the steep shoulders to make some of their road crossings from river to forest. This may serve to constrain where the bears prefer to cross? With the elimination of many roadside parking options visiting fishermen from Canada (who come regularly in significant numbers) will be challenged to find a place to park or may be inclined to just stop their car in the middle of the road to go fishing (which I have seen them do frequently). This could well create bigger congestion issues. Another cause for concern is the ‘so-called’ requirement that fish be stored in a secure manner (presumably in a car or truck). How does one easily access your vehicle parked far away every time you catch a fish?
It is being suggested that in the near future the DNR will be charging day use and boat launching fees in Chilkoot State Park as well as all other state parks. The road is also being gated off during the winter months. Neither of these new practices are meeting with favor with the local population. The collection of day use fees may result in traffic congestion as fees are being collected. Perhaps this is one way in which the DNR hopes to cut down on crowds in the corridor. Personally, I wonder if the fees collected will cover the cost of personnel required to collect the fees.
At the location of Deer Rock (where there was a pullout, platform and signage previously) there is a pullout for five vehicles and a spot reserved for handicap parking. The wide paved area across the road (to the right) is a bear viewing area and the beginning of a pedestrian walkway which extends to the weir. DNR has removed a lot of brush which should improve bear viewing. A question arises as to whether bears will want to be easily viewed by concentrations of people. Between this location and the weir there are numerous pullouts for larger vehicles along the forest side of the road. Some of these pullouts are designated for permitted tour vehicles only. These pullouts are rather limited and I would suggest that they would not accommodate the number of permitted tour vehicles that have normally used the corridor in past years.
While these reflective barricades may not be visually pleasing they do offer a measure of safety to pedestrians. (They also make fun slalom posts for bicycles). I have cautioned pedestrians in the past that while in bear country, the biggest hazard and risk they face is from vehicles. Everyone is looking at (or for) bears and may be completely unaware of either impending pedestrians or vehicles.
From the pedestrian’s point of view. To their credit, it appears the DNR may be limbing trees as well as clearing brush to improve visibility of the river along the walkway. The only vehicle pullouts along the length of the Chilkoot River road are on the other side of this pedestrian walkway.
Then upriver end of the pedestrian walkway terminates at a concrete bear viewing platform downriver from the DFG fish-counting weir (the horizontal line extending across the river). This platform and road is quite elevated above the river and many large trees have been removed from this area to open up the view. Personnel on the weir have expressed approval of the elevated road as it allows them to more easily see if a bear is on the road. It is my hope that the elevated road and difficult steep shoulders will keep people on the road and off the river banks. This will allow bears to have control of the river without the interference of spectators in their way.
Bear viewing platform or bunker? The curious thing about this platform (aside from being concrete) is that it is below the weir. The bears are almost always on the upriver side of the weir to harvest the fish that are swept up onto the side of the weir. Viewing of weir activity from this location will not be very satisfying in my opinion. Beyond this point there is no place for vehicles to stop legally until they arrive at Chilkoot Lake.
I fear the road may be dangerous at many points along its length due to its narrow width and the elevation and steep drop-offs along many shoulders. Inevitably some vehicles will go over the side risking human safety and environmental damage to the river. Recovery of such mishaps will be difficult. This stretch of the river was frequently used by many fishermen in the past and now access to the river is extremely difficult and dangerous if not virtually impossible.
When I first saw how the new road was being roughed in I was concerned and disappointed. (Personally my favorite parking spot for my favorite fishing hole is no longer an option). I was concerned about the elevation, the lack of parking options, the narrowness of the road, the steep ‘shoulders.’
After the road was paved I was equally concerned about vehicle access and safety due to those same initial considerations. After all the double yellow lines and designated parking lines, signage, and reflective barricades were installed I was downright depressed. Our lovely little country lane is now an industrial throughway. (While the rest of the country is agonizing over partisan politics Haines has infrastructure coming out of its ears).
Meanwhile, the longer I live with the new normal, the more sense it makes. I felt a sense of comfort watching pedestrians use the designated and protected walkway. I like being able to drive the length of the road without destroying my car in potholes that could swallow a small state. If DNR continues limbing trees the visible access to the river will be greatly improved. The constraints in the road and parking may serve to discourage cavalier disregard in people’s behavior. The impossible shoulders and elevation of the road my serve to keep people on the road and off the river banks. This helps give bears the freedom to move that they deserve. We will see how things fall out. Time will tell.