Haines Junction resident Dave Heath stands beside a gully made on one of the local ski trails by a May mud bogging event. (Courtesy/Dave Heath)

Haines Junction resident Dave Heath stands beside a gully made on one of the local ski trails by a May mud bogging event. (Courtesy/Dave Heath)

Haines Junction residents divided over use of local trails

A May mud bog led to destruction that some say is still making it difficult to use local trails

Gut-wrenching devastation is how Dave Heath describes the damage done to the ski trails in Haines Junction by an annual mud bog.

“[The bog] happens in one day, and the rest of us have to use those trails the other 364 days a year,” says Heath. “It has become really detrimental. It’s destroying the trails is what it’s doing.”

The St. Elias Lion’s Club Annual Jorg Schneider Memorial Poker Run is held in mid-May. This year, the 26th annual event took place on the ski trails around Haines Junction, including those behind the old Parks Canada complex on the Alaska Highway.

Heath says the damage there is so severe because spring is when the trails are at their most sensitive. Having dozens of vehicles spinning their tires in the mud rips up the trails that Heath uses to walk, bike and ride his horses. He says the ridges and divots left behind by the mud bog can sometimes stay that way all summer.

“Unless you’re super determined to have an obstacle course in your way, you just won’t use them,” he says.

In an email sent to the News by Lions Club secretary Gwen Watson, Watson agreed a number of mud bog participants got stuck in the soft mud, creating divots and gullies on the trails.

“The Lions Club’s intent was, and always has been, to go back onto the trail once it has dried up and we can gain access and repair any trail damage,” her email said. “We have been in touch with the St. Elias Ski Club for their input and ideas, and we will be making a joint effort to clean up the trail system.”

Heath says he’s heard that before. The event was held on May 13. He took photos of the chewed-up trails the third week of June.

Helena Ouskine is the president of the St. Elias Ski Club. The club met this week to discuss the trails.

“We’re working with the Lions Club to fix up the trails,” she says. “To come up with a solution.”

Ouskine says no strategy has been decided upon and that the ski club is in the early stages of that process. She says she’s hoping to meet with the Lions in the coming weeks.

Not everyone sees an issue with the Lions’ use of the ski trails. Jennifer McPhie, a resident of Haines Junction, says she’s supportive of the event. She says she uses the trails before and after the Poker Run each year. She says she’s never had an issue with trail conditions.

McPhie says the event brings revenue to the community, both by way of visitors and participation fees.

This year, Watson says the event raised a total of $7,750 for multiple organizations, including the driver’s education program at St. Elias School, the Haines Junction Public Library and the Humane Society of Yukon/Mae Bachur.

“There are ruts, of course, and mud,” says McPhie. “But that’s the fun, and most everything gets grown over later.”

“I know there are some people that are opposed to this event, but they don’t consider the good it brings. There are tons of trails out there, and they are welcome to use them.”

Heath says this isn’t the first time the Poker Run has divided opinions on trail use in the community. In 2011, the number of participants had jumped from around 30 machines in the early years of the event to roughly 140 machines.

That year, Heath says he was vocal about his opposition to it. He says people in town drove around in a truck with a loudspeaker and a billboard, “basically saying because I wasn’t born here, I can’t have an opinion about anything.”

Heath realizes the event isn’t going away, but he’d like to see the Lions Club hold the mud bog in the summer when the trails are drier, and the damage wouldn’t be as severe.

Alternatively, or additionally, he’d like to see the event adopt the same model as mud bogs in Dawson City or Whitehorse. In the past, the Whitehorse event has taken place near the motocross track off Robert Service Way. Dawson City has held its event at the end of Front Street, below the Moosehide Slide. Both are in areas that aren’t commonly used for other activities.

The area where the Poker Run takes place does not restrict off-road vehicle use. Areas in the Yukon that do restrict off-road vehicle use include First Nation settlement land, three special types of zone regulated by the government in 2021 (certain alpine areas, as well as parts of the Peel region and the Ddhaw Ghro Habitat Protection Area between the Pelly and Stewart rivers), federal parks, and areas designated by communities and municipalities.

The Village of Haines Junction and the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation responded with no comment.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com