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Mushers Express Concern That Denali Highway Will Be Plowed; Cruz Says it Won’t

by Phillip Manning ~ December 4th, 2013

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The application for a permit to create a snow road from the Denali Highway to a spot near the proposed Susitna Watana Hydroelectric Project has drawn comments from community and environmental groups in the Susitna Valley.  Now, however, another group is adding its voice, dog mushers.

The permit for the winter route from the Denali Highway to the proposed dam site inevitably drew comment from groups opposed to the dam, including the Susitna River Coalition and the Talkeetna Community Council.  On Monday afternoon, word started circulating on social media that dog mushers were also concerned.

If granted, the permit would allow a winter route with a trailhead thirty-seven miles east of Cantwell on the Denali Highway.  The natural question, then, is how to get the heavy equipment down a road that isn’t maintained by DOT in the winter.  Some feared that could mean plowing over thirty miles of road that becomes a well-used trail for mushers, snowmachiners, and skiers.

“I don’t know of anyone who would prefer it [to] be plowed.”

That’s Jeff King, four-time Iditarod champion and organizer of the Denali Doubles race, which runs along the Denali Highway in February.   He says plowing the road would be very inconvenient for winter users and would be a blow to community relations.  He also says he believes it won’t happen.

“I’m expecting this to be a non-issue that has their full cooperation in not disrupting Alaska’s state sport on an Alaska state highway.”

Dave Cruz, owner of Cruz Construction, says that plowing was one of the options on the table initially, but that his company has decided against it.

“The current plan is we are not going to plow the Denali Highway.  If there’s some glaciering there, then that would create a huge problem…We’ve made the decision just to continue with a groomed trail from where DOT currently stops plowing, which is about five miles east of Cantwell.”

Cruz says that tracked snowcats will be used to groom the trail for heavy equipment to use.  He says that the company used a similar technique to make the trail to recover the wreckage of an F-22 fighter plane off the highway in November of 2010.  Jeff King says that, if that is the case, it may mean ideal conditions for running dogs.

“That equipment made a beautiful train for snowmobilers and dog mushers, so I continue to be optimistic that that’s the very same equipment and the very same type of trail that they will leave behind.  I am optimistic that there is no reason for them to do anything but be an asset to other winter users who are looking for a trail.”

The public comment period for the permit is open until December 13th.

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