Courtesy Photo / King family 
This photo shows Mary Lou King on the trail after being inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2018.

Courtesy Photo / King family This photo shows Mary Lou King on the trail after being inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2018.

90 shorts talks: The work of ‘professional Volunteer’ Mary Lou King

The Southeast Alaska starter kit would look something like this: An Alaska Airlines credit card, a pair of Xtratufs, and a copy of “90 Plus Short Walks Around Juneau.” And after about six months, the 128-page paper booklet should be trashed — if you’re doing it right.

The author is Mary Lou King, who arrived in Juneau as Mary Lou Neville on Sept. 11, 1958. On April 8, 1961, she married waterfowl biologist Jim King (also an original member of the City and Borough of Juneau’s Parks & Recreation Advisory Committee). They lived in Fairbanks, Fort Yukon and Bethel before settling back in Juneau in 1964, settling in their home at Sunny Point neighboring the Mendenhall Wetlands (one acre of which the Kings donated as a conservation easement to the Southeast Alaska Land Trust in 2002). They have three children, and grandchildren, too.

Lauren Cusimano / For the Juneau Empire 
The King land with tree swallow nest boxes on the Mendenhall Wetlands.

Lauren Cusimano / For the Juneau Empire The King land with tree swallow nest boxes on the Mendenhall Wetlands.

Courtesy Photo / King family 
Mary Lou King shows her granddaughter how to split spruce roots.

Courtesy Photo / King family Mary Lou King shows her granddaughter how to split spruce roots.

It being nearly 60 years later, Mary Lou is now known as a weaving instructor and a longtime board member of the Juneau Audubon Society, and for operating Sea Week, and, of course, first publishing “90 Short Walks” in 1988.

“I couldn’t have done any of it without my family and this whole town,” Mary Lou says, seated at the red, six-person linoleum table that came with her Sunny Point home. “It wasn’t just me by any stretch of the imagination.”

Lauren Cusimano / for the capital city weekly
Works by Mary Lou King on her red linoleum kitchen table.

Lauren Cusimano / for the capital city weekly Works by Mary Lou King on her red linoleum kitchen table.

But there’s more, like advocating for bike lanes, founding the Taku Conservation Society (which “doesn’t even exist anymore except in me,” Mary Lou says), authoring multiple other works, being inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame, and vending her famous nagoonberry jam at Juneau Public Market. And, much like the basketry she still does today at 93, each accomplishment wove into the next.

Mary Lou was born in 1929 in Prospect, Oregon, growing up on a “farm in the woods,” she says. “We didn’t have any close neighbors, and I knew where every flower bloomed, I knew where the mushrooms were.”

She was a trail finder even then. “From the time I was just a little kid I wandered all around the woods by myself,” she says. “I used to go over to this cliff, and there was this really narrow little trail that went down this craggy rock into the river, and I used to go down there a lot.”

This description almost sounds like one of the many beach access trails in “90 Short Walks.” But before the guidebook, there was Sea Week — a statewide, grade school marine and wetland curriculum that originated in Juneau during the 1969-1970 school year.

“She didn’t start Sea Week exactly, she helped expand it,” says Juneau-Douglas City Museum Director Beth Weigel, who was previously director at Discovery Southeast, which now operates Sea Week (she was also assistant to the dean and an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, where she overlapped with Mary Lou, who was teaching spruce root weaving classes). “I think so many kids and children have a much better sense of place [because of Sea Week].”

Courtesy Photo / King family 
Mary Lou King weaves at the kitchen table in her home.

Courtesy Photo / King family Mary Lou King weaves at the kitchen table in her home.

Weigel can also speak to some of the historical, found items at the city museum the Kings have contributed over the years, including a scythe, a pitchfork with four tines, animal traps, a saw, a hard hat, an ice hook, a caulking iron, a metal boundary marker from the Mendenhall Wetlands and a 1989-published copy of “90 Short Walks” in the permanent, reference collection.

But back to Sea Week. Mary Lou says she participated in the first event, leading a group of kids on a bird-forward walk on the Airport Dyke/Mendenhall Refuge trail. She says she then coordinated it for as long as her kids were in grade school, but not alone.

“I had the whole community working on Sea Week,” she says, laughing. “I had the Fish and Game guys, the Fish and Wildlife guys, I had parents by the dozens, the whole community participated in Sea Week — whether they wanted to or not!”

And it’s clear Mary Lou sees this time as important. “I feel like the Sea Week program has changed the attitude of a whole lot of little kids about what’s out there and how to enjoy it and how to not hurt it,” she says. “I feel like that made a difference.”

Courtesy Photo / King family 
Mary Lou volunteers for Sea Week.

Courtesy Photo / King family Mary Lou volunteers for Sea Week.

For these minus tides trips, Mary Lou spent a lot of time ensuring there was beach access, particularly out the road. In the mid-1980s she roped in her youngest, James King, still in high school, to work on beach access trails. (And it had an effect. He’d later become the first executive director of Trail Mix Inc. in 1998 and is now the Alaska Region Director of Recreation, Lands & Minerals for the United States Forest Service.)

“She started paying me and a high school friend, and we’d go out and do the brushing and the chainsawing, cutting windfalls, and that sort of thing,” James says. “And we laid endless amounts of plank. There are trails that still have it all over the place.”

James says his mother has always felt very strongly about getting young people outdoors to learn something about the environment and took an endless number of kids out to look at the low tides, birds, critters, and more. “It was that passion about getting outdoors that led her to trails,” James says.

But he also played a role. At the time, the Juneau Parks & Recreation department had a router (a major sign-making piece of equipment). He learned how to make signs out of yellow cedar after school. He routed the letters, and free-handed a little man, some waves and a seagull, and installed him as various trailheads.

Courtesy Photo / Trail Mix Inc. 
An early trail marker sign made by James King was auctioned in 2022 by Trail Mix Inc.

Courtesy Photo / Trail Mix Inc. An early trail marker sign made by James King was auctioned in 2022 by Trail Mix Inc.

Those first spots included Sunshine Cove, South Bridget Cove, Lena Point, Auke Lake and some beach access spots along Douglas Highway like Fish Creek up to Outer Point. These now-retired signs became iconic markers for Juneau’s trail system. Some were even up for grabs at the 2022 Trail Mix Inc. Annual Dinner and Auction.

James says during this time, Mary Lou started to recognize the need for a book so people would know where these trails are. “So that’s where ‘90 Short Walks’ happened.”

Katrina Woolford is the manager and book buyer at Hearthside Books and has been on and off at the bookshop since 1988. She says Hearthside has carried “90 Short Walks” since its publication, and copies are still sold monthly.

“We highly recommend it in the store if anyone’s asking about hiking or outdoors in Juneau … we also say it’s from a local author,” she says. “Tourists appreciate that because they know it’s going to be accurate.”

Woolford says a “very handy” thing about the book is how it includes information on the natural surroundings of each trail. Her copy has notes, been dog-eared, and even got her unlost while hiking, though she’s had to replace it after it barely made it through a trip out to Blue Mussel Cabin.

“I think a lot of kids grew up in the bookstore, and I think all of us have had the fortunate experience of selling Mary Lou’s book,” she says. “She’s a nature trail rock star.”

John Thill, library director at Juneau Public Library, says the library system has nine circulating copies and several reference copies. “It continues to be a popular book,” he says via email. “We circulate a copy about once per month.”

Down at Rainy Retreat, owner Tori Weaver says they sell about 100 copies a year.

Lauren Cusimano / For the Juneau Empire 
A new and well-loved copy of “90 Plus Short Walks Around Juneau.”

Lauren Cusimano / For the Juneau Empire A new and well-loved copy of “90 Plus Short Walks Around Juneau.”

“It’s something that locals ask for by name, and it’s something that we recommend to tourists,” she says. “I think all you need is ‘90 Short Walks’ — toss the rest.”

And, universally, the price of the book hovers around the $10 mark, which Mary Lou has been “strict about.” Weaver says she’ll never charge more than that. “That’s always been very important to her,” she says. “That it never be expensive.” And, according to James, all the money that she’s ever made off that book has gone into Trails or cabins.

And, says Rainy Retreat employee Sara Franck, many are purchased as gifts for Juneau newcomers. “I think that is one of the most special things about it,” she says. “Locals are not usually buying it for themselves when they are asking for it by name. They are buying it as a gift.”

Many would agree that newcomers to Juneau are gifted the book. And that means everybody, from city folks first arriving in Alaska to experienced outdoors people, like Trail Mix Executive Director Ryan O’Shaughnessy. He moved to Juneau in 2015 and had some time to kill before he was to start.

“The first thing I did was try to find a trail map,” he says. He got a copy of the Juneau Area Trails Guide map from the United States Forest Service, and a copy of “90 Short Walks.” He first hiked from Montana Creek to Windfall Lake and I spent the next two weeks crossing off trails out of Mary Lou’s book.

“I think ‘90 Short Walks’ is really the most condensed piece of information that is publicly available about our trail system at large,” he says. And despite the fact that he spends his days improving and expanding that trail system, O’Shaughnessy says the book “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.”

O’Shaughnessy is hesitant to say he’s done all the hikes, “because that sounds like bull,” but he’s close. This is because the “Plus” in “90 Plus Short Walks Around Juneau” alludes to the fact that there are actually 123 outlined in the table of contents, but it’s actually more like 130 or so.

So how does a city like Juneau, a “small town” with a population of roughly 32,000, have so many trails?

“Because I put them in the book.” Mary Lou says, laughing.

It’s true. “90 Short Walks” includes beach access trails to Mount Jumbo and all the identified trails on state land and federal land. “I didn’t have anything to do with starting or identifying those, the ones I did personally were beach access,” says Mary Lou. “But then all the trails are in that book.”

Lauren Cusimano / For the Juneau Empire 
This photo shows the Favorite Channel Beach Access walk with a new trail marker.

Lauren Cusimano / For the Juneau Empire This photo shows the Favorite Channel Beach Access walk with a new trail marker.

O’Shaughnessy says a lot of the trails are mining legacy from extraction, naming Amalga Trail and Treadwell Ditch. Then there’s the demand. “I think being so islanded makes people want to get out of their houses a little bit more,” he says, calling the Juneau trail system “a great community resource” — which brings it back to Mary Lou.

“[She] really kindled the idea of trails as something you have to advocate for,” he says. “Or else they’ll go away.”

And while you may not find Mary Lou down a trail so much these days (“I’ve always been outside,” she says. “That’s my favorite place in the world and what I missed the most.”), James says she still, at 93, has that desire to give. “She is a professional volunteer,” he says.

“I think there were a lot of young people who grew up in Juneau who got their first or only introduction to the natural environment because of her and many other’s efforts,” James says. “Some of those people likely were influenced career-wise and how they think about our natural environment.”

But, like many close friends and family members know, Mary Lou did not do it for the glory. She’s clear she received support from her husband, her family, and the Juneau community for her accomplishments. However, one act does stand above the rest — Sea Week.

“I don’t feel I was all that important,” she says, “But I feel like I did make a little impression on a lot of kids.”

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