Volunteers clear vegetation in Kachemak Bay State Park in summer 2016. This year, volunteers will have the opportunity to cross the bay and volunteer to clear trails on Saturday, June 3, as part of National Trails Day, or can volunteer for work parties on every Saturday throughout the summer through the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. (Courtesy Christina Whiting/Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation)

Volunteers clear vegetation in Kachemak Bay State Park in summer 2016. This year, volunteers will have the opportunity to cross the bay and volunteer to clear trails on Saturday, June 3, as part of National Trails Day, or can volunteer for work parties on every Saturday throughout the summer through the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. (Courtesy Christina Whiting/Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation)

Clearing the way across the bay

The quiet forests of Kachemak Bay State Park carry magic for Kathy Sarns.

After moving to Homer in 2008, she began visiting the park on the south side of Kachemak Bay to hike as often as she could, enjoying the views from the sides of the mountain trails. But over the years, she said she started noticing the forest swallowing up the trails. Some were so overgrown it became hard to find them at all, she said.

Then, last summer, she heard about a volunteer work party for citizens to cross the bay and learn to clear trails in the park with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. As she was working on the trail, she said she realized she could lead parties if she knew how to use the heavier equipment to brush out the trails.

“Something just dawned on me: ‘I can do more of this,’” she said. “I have my own business, so I am a little more flexible, and you can volunteer. I just watched how it worked that day and saw how many people for a trail you actually need, so I said to (the team leader), ‘If you can teach me how to use the brusher, I would only need one or two people with me.’”

After learning how to do the brush-clearing, she, another volunteer and park technician Eric Clarke took on the project of clearing the south side of the Grace Ridge trail, opening it for hikers again. This year, she will be leading her own group of volunteers across the bay to clear trails.

There isn’t much by way of funding for maintaining trails in Kachemak Bay State Park, and as the state tightens its belt amid a fiscal crisis, the staff has been trimmed down significantly. The Homer community benefits both from being able to access the park for personal use and from the tourists who come to visit the wilderness, Sarns said.

“Everybody benefits from that park, and the more accessible trails over there, the more everybody benefits,” Sarns said.

Sarns’ volunteer group is one of several that will go across the bay this summer to maintain trails for visitors. Clarke is working on organizing work parties to go over every Saturday to work on a variety of trail projects, including hand crews to clear vegetation and move a trail to avoid further erosion. The park has come to rely on the volunteers, as the grants the park has used for trails are primarily oriented to building new trails rather than maintaining existing ones, he said.

With budget cuts making it unlikely that the park will get more staff in the future to maintain the trails, the volunteer program is meant to get more volunteers trained as team leaders so they can do more of the maintenance over the years, he said.

“What we’re trying to do with these work parties is (volunteers would) go out with (me), and hopefully we’ll find people who say, ‘Huh, I like this — I’d like to do more of this!’” Clarke said.

The Homer office started coordinating the volunteer trail crews last year and had a good response, Clarke said. The Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation coordinates transportation for the volunteer teams, which will be capped at six participants per weekend, Clarke said. Participants do have to fill out some volunteering paperwork at least five days before planning to go out, he said.

“When we ask anybody to come help us do work in the park they have to sign up with the park, and then once they’ve done it once, it’s good till the end of the year,” he said.

The work crews will likely begin mid-June. For those who want an earlier chance, the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation and the Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park are coordinating a trail volunteering event for National Trails Day on June 3, which will give people a chance to cross the bay for $20 and work on a maintenance project while enjoying the park.

Christina Whiting, the volunteer coordinator for the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recretion, said much of the day will be about the cleanup work, but the team leaders will still be sure to provide time for people to enjoy the park, too.

“We provide all the tools — there’s no skills necessary,” she said. “It’s about camaraderie and getting out into the park and having fun.”

The popularity of the park has grown significantly over the years, with a lot of support from the Homer community, Whiting said. As the budget cuts at the state have impacted staffing levels, volunteers have stepped up to keep the park maintained, she said.

“That’s a really big part of the story — that if you’re enjoying the trails in the park, thank a volunteer,” she said.

Many of the trips are already full, but the coordinators are still looking for four volunteers for a trip to clean up Kayak Beach and 10 people to work on a bike trail expansion project on the Homer side of the bay, Whiting said. Preregistration is required by May 26. People can drop by the Parks and Outdoor Recreation office at the Islands and Ocean Center in Homer or email kbayvolunteer@gmail.com for the form to volunteer.

Sarns said she uses social media to recruit her own volunteers, who are not connected with the state. She set a goal of her own to volunteer every week or every other week to maintain the trails.

“As a trail user … it feels like you’re doing something,” she said. “It feels good because you know that more people will be using (the trail) and they won’t get lost.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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