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Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers

Providing safe access to Alaska’s backcountry
Riding snowmobile with sunset in background

The Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers (CHCH) is a volunteer organization that protects, promotes and provides safe access to Alaska’s backcountry for outdoor recreational adventures. CHCH looks after the maintenance and grooming of trails from Kasilof, Clam Gulch through the backcountry of Ninilchik to the edge waters of Caribou Lake.

The home base for the organization is 49545 Oilwell Road in Ninilchik, which is also the location of one of two access parking lots that the CHCH provides for members.

“Through the years, CHCH has grown from a club to an organization,” said Larry Davis, vice president of the CHCH. “The State of Alaska (SOA) dedicated the Caribou Hills as an outdoor recreational area during the late ’80s and early ’90s. However, there were an assortment of cabins built in the ’60s. Once the designation of the outdoor recreation area was made, the SOA allotted land use permits to erect removable recreational cabins. To access the remote cabins, which range 10 to 30 miles from the nearest road, the permit owners started using seismographic cleared strips of land, and winter cross-country routes and access trails started to form.”

These original cabin hopper outdoor enthusiasts were adventurous pioneers.

“A group of the original cabin hoppers kept the trails smooth by building homemade drags that were pulled by old-time sleds with no suspensions,” said Davis. “They are the godfathers of the CHCH.”

Trail and sign maintenance is the key objective of the CHCH organization. Objectives also include erecting, maintaining and improving public facilities, promoting safety, stewardship and access to Alaska’s remote backcountry.

“Our trails cross many different landowners: (SOA), University of Alaska, federal, Ninilchik Native Organization, Cook Inlet Regional Corporation, which is a Native Alaska Association, Kenai Peninsula Borough and private property,” said Davis. “We groom over 120 miles of trail every week in the winter, which gives us access to thousands of square miles of fabulous snowmobile riding. We have placed and maintained trail signage throughout our trail system.”

The Caribou Hills area consists mainly of recreational cabins and day riders, says Davis.

“However, in the past 15 years we have had more people choosing to make this area their full-time home, making preservation and access very important,” said Davis. “And, for the preservationists out there, wildlife uses our trails regularly. We had so much snow this past winter that the moose, as well as smaller wildlife, were using our trails to get themselves from feeding ground to feeding ground. Alaskans, as a whole, are very keen on protecting wildlife and trying to identify all the tracks along our trails is a fun family game.”

Membership at CHCH

Filling out and submitting an application, paying yearly dues, signing a liability waiver, and agreeing to be responsible stewards of the trail systems, public and private properties are the requirements to gain membership into the CHCH.

Snowmobile approaching on trail

“We currently have approximately 500 members, including individual, family and business memberships,” said Davis. “Plus, we solicit and receive financial sponsorships for our larger events. Membership benefits include savings at supporting businesses, parking at the club’s private lot, sustained legal access to Alaska’s backcountry discount with Guardian Flight membership, entrance to an annual kick-off party and family fun day, plus the camaraderie we have among our members.”

The organization offers a scholarship opportunity, public socials and is in the process of erecting a facility that will provide years of support to the Caribou Hills community. The family fun day in March is open to the community and the organization also has an information booth at the Soldotna Sports Recreation and Trade Show in May, and runs an Oilwell Road cleanup in June.

“The kick-off party in November is our annual membership drive and fundraiser with food, auctions and socializing,” said Davis. “We also hold raffles to generate more revenue. In May, we raffled off a new Arctic Cat ZR 200 and we have also raffled off fishing charters and other items.”

CHCH owns its own pavilion

Through the years, the CHCH were tied to numerous leases and the restrictions of those leases, says Davis.

“CHCH moved our pavilion from leased land to our own property,” said Davis. “We improved the building and created better access for all members. We expanded our privately owned parking lot, releasing ourselves from another lease. We are now in the process of building a shop on our property that will support our groomer maintenance in a clean, dry, warm environment.”

Volunteers and community support keep CHCH alive

All the organization’s accomplishments have been possible because of the efforts of volunteers, says Davis. Volunteers are trained in the maintenance and driving of grooming equipment, which consists of two PistenBully groomers, a 200 and a 400 series, and a large drag to pull behind them.

“There is a small group of members who volunteer and devote time to maintaining and grooming the 120 miles of trails,” said Davis. “They will spend eight to 12 hours grooming a trail in a single day. Weather permitting, we try to groom all the major trails two days a week.”

“There are a small group of members who volunteer and devote time to maintaining and grooming the 120 miles of trails. They will spend eight to 12 hours grooming a trail in a single day. Weather permitting, we try to groom all the major trails two days a week.”

Larry Davis, Caribou Hills Cabin Hopper

Volunteer organizations are successful due to the desire, drive and dedication of volunteers, says Davis. CHCH’s current board of directors are: president Rick Bailey, vice president Davis, secretary Kathy Hoskins and treasurer Sylvia Shelton. Trustees are: Nick Stoltzfus, Tay Harling, Ben Cox, Jeff Leete, Jody Hoskins and Tim VanSickle. Rebecca Davis, who handles and maintains membership, and Danielle Cooper, who looks after social media, are non-voting board support persons.

“CHCH has a diverse board of directors who keep the organization moving forward during these ever-changing times,” said Davis. “We support year-round use of our trails by not only snowmachines, but sled dog teams, snow-bike riders, cross-country skiing and, in the summer, ATV riders and mountain bikers.”

Community support from local businesses, families and friends is crucial to the club’s survival. “CHCH is forever grateful for this support,” Davis said.

Encouraging all members to volunteer and participate in the workings of the club and its events can be a challenge, says Davis. There are financial-based challenges to operating the club as well.

“State-supported funding and Recreational Trails Program Grants have declined significantly over the years,” he said. “Trail usage and maintenance, motorized access and concerns of our usage area being decreased are also challenges.” However, these challenges do not stop CHCH from planning for the future with enthusiasm. “CHCH is a growing organization,” said Davis.

He says they would like to build and improve upon the following:

  • Implement a safety and education program for injury or survival skills for remote areas
  • Improve the historical events pavilion and surrounding grounds
  • Maintain access, parking and kiosks
  • Add GPS locators to groomers to provide real-time information to apps that provide current groomer location and trail conditions

“CHCH strives to be self-sustaining through its memberships, fundraising, grants and gaming revenues,” Davis said.