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With budget cuts running deep, remote Alaska airstrip falls into disrepair

Ben Anderson
A white "X" shows Gelvin's Airstrip in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve as unsafe and closed to use. NPS/Jessica Sherwood photo

Hit hard by sequestration, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve has been forced to indefinitely close the Gelvin airstrip, an almost-entirely-unmaintained stretch of rock and sand that’s a popular landing -- and jumping-off -- point for adventurers looking to hunt for caribou or raft the Charley River.

Yukon-Charley Preserve is located in Interior Alaska near the state's border with Canada, far from the state’s meager road system and accessible only by air or by water, rafting or boating along the Yukon River to the reserve. The Gelvin airstrip is located at the headwaters of the Charley River, from which visitors can take the long float trip to connect with the Yukon River.

The airstrip is named after Ed Gelvin, whom Pat Sanders, the lead interpretive ranger at Yukon-Charley, described as “a prominent man in the Circle and Central area,” as well as a trapper, hunter and pilot. Gelvin is reportedly the person who first tamed the airstrip and built a cabin at the site.

According to an alert on the preserve’s website, the Gelvin Airstrip is “permanently closed” after a particularly rough breakup -- fueled by record-high heat in Interior Alaska that melted off a thick snowpack. That left the airstrip in poor condition -- with its surface hazardous, even for well-equipped backcountry planes and pilots.

“This year, breakup really went high on the Charley (River) and just dug some amazing gouges in (the airstrip),” Sanders said. “There’s also a great big hole that we just can’t repair yet, because our funding is very minimal right now.”

Normally, some preserve employees would make a trip out to the airstrip to do basic maintenance with hand tools like rakes and shovels, enough for pilots to land.

“Even though it’s an unmaintained airstrip, we’ve tried to keep it safe as we could,” Sanders said.

But like other National Park Service facilities, Yukon-Charley has been hit hard by federal sequestration, which has slashed budgets and hurt staffing. That's made repairing the airstrip an even more daunting proposition. Add the high waters from this year’s breakup, and it’s no surprise that the preserve has been forced to shut down its most popular landing strip.

The airstrip wasn’t the only thing damaged in the flooding. A cabin located at the site also suffered water damage, rendering it even more rustic than its remote nature would suggest.

“We’ve got a proposal in to repair the cabin, because it has a lot of water damage,” Sanders said. “The cabin and the airstrip ... it’s a popular place for hunters and floaters and people who maybe just want to catch a grayling on the Charley.”

Whether or not federal money will be forthcoming is a big unknown. In the meantime, those hoping to make a trip to one of Alaska’s most remote parks will have to figure out another way in. The only other airstrip with access to the Charley River is the Three Fingers Airstrip, and accessing the river from there requires portaging across sections of stream that the Preserve’s website warns are “very shallow and full of rocks; it is much more of a creek than a river.”

Sanders couldn’t say just how many people used the Gelvin Airstrip in a given year -- commercial operators have an agreement with the park to provide them information about passengers being dropped off after a boating fatality took place on the Charley River back in 2001. But the number of private pilots arriving at the site remains a mystery, and Sanders hopes to get the word out to them that Gelvin is closed for the time being.

Meanwhile, private pilots and others will continue to drop adventurers and hunters off at favorite remote locations -- level fields and gravel bars used only by a few select pilots that Sanders affectionately refers to as “bush babies.”

Many pilots pride themselves on being able to land in hard-to-reach -- and often secret -- locations that might provide a better chance for a hunter already paying thousands of dollars to bag some game. Sanders said she knows they're out there, she just doesn’t necessarily know where or how many.

“We know where a lot of people land, but that’s a 1.1-million-acre watershed, and there’s certainly a lot of people landing out there,” she said.

Yukon-Charley officials will continue to hope for either sequestration to end or funding to come through and allow them to resume service at the area’s most-used airstrip.

“We’re just doing the best we can with what we have, and right now we don’t have a lot,” Sanders said.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com