Hang gliders forging new paths on old homestead

Monday, July 31, 2017 - 14:00
  • Sean Meyer points to a landing zone from a spot above Eagle River during a trip to clear brush from a road leading to the site. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • Hang glider Lyndon Thomas clears brush on the old Wallace Homestead in Eagle River. Thomas said a nearby site within Chugach State Park is an ideal hang glider launch location, and clearing the private road leading to the site allows hang gliders access to a better launch location than they’d previously used near the Mount Baldy trailhead. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

Lyndon Thomas has always been a daredevil. As a teen, he said he once flew his hang glider from the Chugach Mountains to Chugiak High School.

“Everybody thought I was 007,” he said with a laugh.

That was back in the late 1970s, when Thomas and a few of his buddies were just getting into the new sport. Back then, they’d launch from a spot near the old Wallace Homestead overlooking Chugiak and Eagle River.

For nearly four decades, the land inside Chugach State Park where hang gliders used to launch has been difficult to access. There are roads on the property, but most became overgrown as the property ownership group became larger and ideas about what to do with the land fewer.

In the last two years, however, hang gliders have again been able to access the steep, exposed hill that provides what Thomas said is an ideal launching pad.

“This has always been the better site,” Thomas said during a recent trip to the spot, which is located at an elevation of about 1,200 feet.

Members of the hang gliding community have been allowed access to the private property and have spent the past two summers clearing alders along the overgrown road leading to the launch site. Now, instead of having to jump from an inferior point near the Mount Baldy trailhead, Thomas said hang gliders can again access the “clean air” available at the original jumping site used in the 1970s.

“It’s a whole lot better,” he said.

Called “Swiss Alps,” the area can only be accessed by crossing a 320-acre inholding within the nation’s third-largest state park. Originally homesteaded by Til, Ella and Mike Wallace, the property has been the subject of much interest and intrigue over the years.

It now belongs to several different people, a group which ideally would like to sell to the state in order to have it integrated into the state park, according to group spokesman Bill Tucker.

Subdivided in the 1970s — complete with roads and an artesian well — the land was used in the 1980s mostly by the Wallaces for a variety of recreational ventures that never quite panned out, Tucker said. As he neared the end of his life, the late Til Wallace lobbied state and local government to buy the land — which includes rolling terrain suitable for hiking and skiing — for the park.

However, state interest in the idea has been tepid at best. Landowners want “fair market value,” or they’ll hold out for a private home developer to make an offer. If that happens, much of the land would likely be lost to recreational users and become large hillside homes.

Nobody seems to want that to happen, but Tucker said that in lean financial times, state legislators have had little taste for the idea of buying new parkland.

“This has been an easy place for the Legislature to cut the budget,” said Tucker.

For the past few years, the group has been running a public relations campaign via a its website, WallaceBrothersMountain.com, where anyone wishing to access the land is asked to fill out a permit that doubles as a petition asking the state to buy the property to add to the park.

While Thomas and a handful of his hang glider friends cleared brush along the road one Saturday last month, several groups of hikers steamed across the old homestead. There’s a gate across the road leading onto the land, but Tucker said anyone is allowed to freely walk the grounds as long as they sign up for a free permit online. He’s also had buttons printed up, which he hands out to people using the road to access the backside of Mount Baldy.

“I think we’ve given away 500 of ‘em,” he said.

Most people are happy to fill out the online permit, Tucker said, and the website includes numerous comments in support of a state purchase.

However, the campaign hasn’t been universally beloved, with at least one person sending a letter to the editor opposing the idea of selling the land to the public on the grounds there should already be a public easement across the land and accusing the property owners of spreading misinformation.

Tucker is aware of the criticism, but said landowners have always been transparent with their objectives for the property; he’s simply looking for creative ways to satisfy both the landowners and the public.

Despite a lack of state interest, he’s hopeful the land will wind up in the hands of the public rather becoming a private subdivision.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “It may not be for me, but it needs to be for somebody.”

Hikers use the Wallace land to access Mount Baldy (which, Tucker said, Til Wallace insisted is properly known as “Old Baldy”) using trails pioneered by the Wallace family in the 1960s and 70s. The backside trail is less steep than the traditional trail up the mountain.

Tucker said property owners hope people continue to use the land for recreation and understand its value. He said Til Wallace tried to find a way to create some kind of recreational area on the land, but could never quite make it happen.

“His concept was right,” Tucker said. “It was only late in life he got to the point he realized he wasn’t going to get it done.”

Tucker said he’s hopeful that as more people use the land, the more they’ll want to see it brought into the park. In addition to its ample hiking and skiing potential, Tucker said the location offers more room for parking and other amenities that could help it become a jewel of the park. Its location — on the edge of the park but also relatively close to the city is also a plus.

“If you start from the Captain Cook Hotel I think it’s two minutes longer to get here…than to Flattop,” he said.

Lyndon Thomas said he’s thrilled to see the land being opened up to public use, and hopes it’s not eventually sold off to a private developer.

“It’s beautiful up here,” he said.

Thomas said the site is near and dear to the hearts of local hang gliders, who used to leap from the spot and fly to Pippel’s Field in the heart of what is now downtown Eagle River.

“This was back when there was nothing around here,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Pippel’s Field.

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