- Associated Press - Saturday, April 1, 2017

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - When then-Rep. Mike Kelly heard a new and popular firebreak trail in his district was made nearly impassible by state reclamation efforts, he had to see it for himself.

On a summer day in 2005, the avid outdoorsman set out on a six-hour four-wheeler ride on the trail north of Two Rivers with state officials to see firsthand the changes to the trail that had become popular with mushers in the winter after the fire season.

“It was as miserable and ugly a four-wheeler trip as you could take,” Kelly recalled to the News-Miner at the time. “They took something that was functional for users and reasonably decent looking and turned it into an unusable mess of trees scattered everywhere.”

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Upon returning to town, Kelly set to work in his official capacity to restore the trail for outdoor recreation. It was through his efforts that state officials agreed to rework the trail and preserve it as a trail that is still popular with local mushers, snowmachiners and trappers today.

It’s one of the lasting changes Kelly made for Interior Alaska and one that now bears his name.

Kelly died at 74 in December when a plane he was piloting crashed. He served in the Alaska Legislature from 2004 to 2010 representing the northern region of the Fairbanks North Star Borough and had long records of public service before and after his time in office.

This month, Gov. Bill Walker announced he has renamed the 13.5-mile trail near Two Rivers in honor of Kelly. Signs will be posted this summer and “Little Chena Dozer Line” will be replaced with “Mike Kelly Trail” on maps.

“The public can be grateful and will continue to benefit from his significant work to have the firebreak converted into a public trail,” Walker said in the letter to Sen. John Coghill and Rep. Dave Talerico, the legislators who requested the name change.

Walker also remarked on a handful of photos taken on Kelly’s trip.

“It looked like a fine day to be on the trail enjoying Alaska, and the photos reflect Representative Kelly’s love of the outdoors and commitment to his district,” he wrote, “for which he is fondly remembered.”

The trail has become an invaluable training asset for the 40-some mushing kennels in the Two Rivers area, said Matt Hall, who won this year’s Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. He credits the trail in part for his victory.

“One of the reasons that trail is super important for us is it’s the only places that we can get up in the hills. Two Rivers is known for its flat trails and really good training, but there’s really only one place you can go to climb and train a race team, and that’s across on the north side of the road there up on the firebreak,” he said. “It’s superb training. … It worked out this year, that’s for sure.”

Hall said without the trail, Two River teams would have to go elsewhere for hill training, which is particularly important for a long-distance race such as the Yukon Quest.

“The Quest has four summits that you have to climb well above tree line and you’re climbing for hours to get over these summits,” he said. “Getting into these hills is vital for the race. Otherwise, it takes away from our training if you have to load up the dogs and drive out to the White Mountains or something.”

Hall added that he felt giving the trail a name will help preserve it well into the future.

“It’s not necessarily going to change a lot for us mushers out here, but for the general public it will get some more snowmachine use if it’s easier to find on a map with a name,” he said. “Then I think you’ll see more families on the weekends getting out there with their kids and their snowmachines, which in turn is good for us as dog mushers, giving us a better trail.”

Coghill said he took up the issue after hearing about how important the trail has become for outdoor recreation, particularly for local mushers such as Hall. He said once his office started looking into the issue, it didn’t take long to get the state on board.

“There was not really even one negative comment on it,” he said of the process. “They all agreed that Mike Kelly certainly made his mark, especially earlier on when they were going to let the firebreak grow back naturally. It’s a testament to his tenacity.”


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, https://www.newsminer.com

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