Third Grader’s Wish for a Safe Route to School Becomes a Community Cornerstone Project in Naknek, Alaska

Even in remote Naknek, Alaska, kids need safe routes to school.  Isabel Babiak knew that when she was an eight-year-old third grader.  She and her school friends feared the off highway vehicles (OHV) speeding on the narrow gravel roads they walked, and they suffered from breathing in vehicle exhaust fumes trapped low to the ground near their school by Alaska’s temperature inversion patterns.

So when the Bristol Bay Borough Community Development Director Yvonne Copy (pronounced Koe-pee) asked Isabel’s class: “what would you do to improve your community?” she got an earful, according to Alaska SRTS Coordinator Steve Soenksen.

“Isabel wanted a safe way to school—kids were getting injured by other kids on OHVs.  She was also concerned about the pollution—many kids were suffering from asthma, having to use inhalers.  She was concerned about the speed of the OHVs and the dust they create—more pollution.  Obesity is an issue in rural Alaska—she wanted a place where she and her friends could get outside and play and move safely,” Soenksen said.

Amazingly, Isabel and her friends got what they wanted.

In September, the town dedicated the Sockeye Run Fitness Trail and Bike Path.  It’s a 2.3 mile path that connects the Bristol Bay Borough School, the health clinic, the community center, and the senior center.  Along the path are nodes with play equipment and fitness activity stations, benches, a scenic overlook at a lake, and interpretive signs informing trail users about the local flora and fauna.

The project also includes a school drop-off zone connected to the school by a one-third mile long section of the trail, which keeps vehicle exhaust from clogging the air near the school.  “The drop-off and route to school is illuminated using existing infrastructure,” Soenksen said.  “It’s located near three of the ten or so street lights in town.”

This trail would be a great community project anywhere in the country.  But in tiny Naknek, it’s incredible.  The community caught on and shared Isabel’s vision and built the facilities themselves, with a little help from business, local, state, and federal partners.

Located on the northeastern arm of Bristol Bay, part of the Bering Sea, Naknek is about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, reachable only by air and sea, and actually closer to Kamchatka than Seattle (1,590 miles to 1,608 according to infoplease.com’s distance calculator).  The population of 544 (2010 census) is mostly engaged in salmon fishing and canning; Bristol Bay is home to the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery as well as strong runs of other salmon.  Naknek is also a National Park Service Gateway Community, with Katmai National Park situated just to the east.

The Bristol Bay Borough School in Naknek serves 150-160 K-12 students from the communities of Naknek, South Naknek, and King Salmon.  The school’s basketball court had not been maintained in many years, Soenksen said.  School athletic fields hadn’t been finished.  There were no parks or playgrounds, no place for kids to go to play safely.  Now that’s changed.  But it wasn’t easy.

“I was surprised how much work it took to put in a little trail,” Isabel Babiak told the Bristol Bay Times earlier this month.

The work began, like it does, with a germ of an idea that sprouted—Isabel’s idea for a trail to get safely to school.  After the class session with Yvonne Copy, Isabel went to the borough assembly meeting (like a meeting of the county commissioners in other parts of the U.S.) with a map to show where she thought the trail and improvements should go.  She kept going to meetings with her map.  She got more than 80 children to sign a petition.  She spoke with the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.  Then she submitted an application to the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program (RTCA) for technical assistance.

“The RTCA called me and said, ‘This is one of the best applications we’ve had in 10 years.  We’re going to do this and we want you to partner with us to make it more successful,’” Soenksen recalled.

Ultimately, the project was made possible by a coalition of partners.  Alaska’s Safe Routes to School Program contributed approximately $100,000; $30,000 came from the National Park Service and $52,000 from a state recreational trails grant; the borough provided $50,000 and secured the land for the trail.  Volunteers pitched in hundreds of hours of labor to clear the route for the trail.  Sand and gravel was donated from a dredging operation that happened to be taking place.

“The RTCA did all the necessary reviews for the trail project and got the permits in place,” Soenksen said.  “That created a lot of opportunities, and then the resources came.  The school was able to finish some projects, like leveling out its playing fields.”

“I don’t know how many people will use the trail,” he continued, “but at least half the people in the community knew about it, and it’s already increased the number of kids walking and biking to school.  On top of that, this project is being looked at as a model for other Alaska communities, the way they linked their facilities and built a coalition of people that can result in a great community asset.”

Now 13 years old, Isabel Babiak is receiving—and deflecting—a lot of attention for her role in the project.

“I’ve gotten a lot of credit for the trail but it was a community-wide effort,” she told the Bristol Bay Times.  Her mother, Lisa Babiak, added, “It took a whole community to get a task like this done and we are really proud to be part of that."