Lake Louise's long-silent airstrip lands renovation funds

June 6, 2007

On maps, the small community of Lake Louise near Glennallen has an airstrip.

In reality, nothing but birds, mosquitoes or the occasional helicopter dares land on it. The 700-foot-long runway of gravel and dirt is rutted, overgrown with weeds and officially closed for more than 10 years.

"It's not something you can negotiate at all. You can't even drive on it," said Victoria Paulson, co-owner of the Point Lodge, about a half-mile from the strip.

That will soon change. State transportation officials say they plan to spend up to $3 million this summer and $5.4 million overall, almost all federal funding, renovating and expanding the strip with hopes of reopening it in 2009.

The new runway will be a big step up from the current one, which residents say dates back to World War II.

Current plans call for a 2,700-foot-long gravel strip with a taxiway, improved access road and 120-foot-long safety runouts on either end.

The new runway will also be 120 feet wide, compared to the current 18 feet, Transportation Department spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said.

The work is a small part of approximately $150 million in construction projects planned for this summer at the state's rural airports, said Roger Maggard, the department airport development manager.


The Lake Louise strip stands out somewhat in that its primary use is for recreation, he said.

Most of the 282 state-owned strips in communities like Bethel or New Stuyahok serve as lifelines for ferrying cargo and people, he said. Most of those strips are also off the road system, he said.

Lake Louise, about 30 miles northwest of Glennallen, is reachable by road off the Glenn Highway.

Paulson said most residents support having the airstrip, but not all.

A few have questioned spending millions on something that may get little use; some worry the air traffic will disrupt the area's quiet feel, said Bev Matthews, president of a nonprofit group that serves as the community council.

McCarthy said transportation officials could only guess at how much traffic the runway will generate. Pilots can land on the lake now on floats. Residents say a few planes -- albeit illegally -- also occasionally land on Lake Louise Road.

Lake Louise, a sprawling area made up of several lakes, is home to about 100 year-round residents. But that population swells in the summer with visitors who come to fish, hunt and spend time at recreational cabins. Snowmachiners also flock to the area in the winter.

Supporters, including area residents, say the strip will be a lifeline for the community, a place where fixed-wing medevac flights from Anchorage and Palmer may land.

As it is, a helicopter can reach critical patients but only when the weather allows, said Corwin Matthews, a longtime resident who belongs to the local volunteer ambulance crew.

Otherwise, crews must pack patients into an ambulance and drive 46 miles to the Gulkana airstrip in Glennallen, or to a rendezvous point at Eureka, also miles away, on the Glenn Highway. That can cost critical time, he said.

Just this past winter, crews had to take a 7-year-old boy injured in a snowmachine accident to the Gulkana airport after bad weather forced a rescue helicopter to turn around, he said. The boy was too severely injured to be saved, but being able to land a fixed-wing aircraft at the lake could make a difference for other patients, Matthews said.

"When you start from this far out, you're already way behind on the time," he said. "It does provide a safety factor."

The small clinic in Glennallen is not equipped to deal with severely injured patients, he said.

Residents say the strip will also help area businesses, including several lodges, by making it possible for people to do quick day trips rather than drive the nearly four hours from Anchorage.

Lynn Ellis, who runs Ellis Air Taxi service at the Gulkana airport, said his business could benefit.

He picked people up at the Lake Louise strip for flightseeing tours before it closed and would do so again.

"I'm all for it," he said.

Paulson, who has run the Point Lodge for three years, said she suspected the airstrip would bring in more business, but not an overwhelming amount.

Visitors only occasionally ask about nearby airstrips, she said.

"I'm not thinking it will get overrun," she said.

Work this summer will largely consist of building up the surface of the gravel runway, McCarthy said.

Because the area is so wet, officials plan to let that work settle for two years before putting on the final surface, she said.

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