• Trail crew ducks for cover when bullets fly overhead
by Hannah Heimbuch
Two Homer women were helping to clear brush on the Marathon Ski Trail off Ohlson Mountain Road on Saturday when they heard gunfire coming from somewhere up the trail. Both frequent users of the Alaska outdoors, the two aren’t unaccustomed to gunfire in the woods and continued to trim alders.
“We first heard shooting up the hill that got our attention, because it was rapid firing,” said Homer resident Kathy Sarns Irwin. “It was closer than we liked, but we kept working.”
That was around 1 p.m., she said, but when the firing started again a few minutes later, something was different. What had seemed a reasonable distance away before, now felt alarmingly close.
“We instinctively fell to the ground and lay flat,” Irwin said. “It was rapid, loud firing in our general direction.”
Irwin is a longtime Alaska resident, Homer business owner and member of the Kachemak Nordic Ski Club. She spends a great deal of time outdoors in all seasons and is accustomed to occasional shots ringing out in the woods. This, however, was a first.
“I have never had the inclination to fall flat at the sound of gunfire before,” she said.
Not only could the two hear the loud blasts from the gun, but from their placement flat against the snowy ground they heard the zing of a bullet directly overhead, Irwin said.
“This was so close we were instantly terrified and in total fear for our safety,” she said.
Friend Cindy Sisson said she heard the same thing.
“It was very unnerving,” Sisson said. “Especially at the point where we both heard this whizz sound which we interpreted as a bullet flying by.”
It’s impossible to tell from the sound what the intention or exact location of the shooter was, Sisson said, whether it was accidental, intentional, for hunting, or for target practice. Either way, it shook her.
“That was just too close for gunshots to be going off in places where there’s people,” she said.
While the event was scary in and of itself, Irwin said, it was even more so considering how much time she and other residents spend on that trail.
“It felt surreal — on a ski trail that I’ve coached kids on, that I’ve ski raced on and skied for fun on so many times,” Irwin said. “And suddenly I’m laying flat.”
Irwin and Sisson yelled for the shooter to stop while the gun fired, trying to signal that there were people on the trail. The two were located near Twitter Creek, about a quarter mile from private property.
Irwin reported the incident to Alaska State Troopers that afternoon. The trooper told her that he would investigate the incident, but that he was required to approach it as an accidental — though perhaps irresponsible — act and not a malicious one.
“He explained it’s not illegal to shoot near a trail on borough land,” Irwin said. “But you must shoot responsibly near trails.”
As of Monday, the troopers had investigated the incident and dismissed the possibility of any criminal behavior.
“Essentially we got a report that people thought they heard something like gunshots that may have been going over their heads,” said Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters. A responding trooper spoke to a nearby property owner, who was reportedly appropriately operating a firearm with a backdrop that afternoon. Since it was determined that no criminal activity took place, Peters said, nothing more will happen with the complaint.
“A property owner was found to be on his property operating a firearm in a safe manner,” Peters said. “Nothing more to it than that.”
A local trooper did tell Irwin, however, that he would return to the property in question and walk it with the owner to ensure the target practice area was set up as safely as possible.
This is far from the first time that gunfire has caused concern in the ridge-top neighborhood.
“Over the years we would hear gun shots because people were going up to the top of the mountain and doing target practice,” said Kristin Domela, an Ohlson Mountain area resident. Garbage items have been dumped and shot up over the years, she said, and they’ve heard ricochets in the woods while out horseback riding. Misfires and illegal shooting, such as across and from the roadway, have also been a concern. “It took us quite a long time to get things turned around,” she said.
Changes to state lands access and no trespassing signs and gates have helped some, as has the barricade near the gravel pit. But people do still use the area for target practice, she said.
“We have had ricochets and we have had unsafe firing, definitely, a lot,” said Domela, who has called troopers numerous times through the years to report gunfire.
“When I was here this summer, yes there were still guns being fired, and I would go drive to see what was going on at the school bus turn around but i couldn’t see anybody.”
Any regulation help from authorities has been sporadic, she said, and mostly the neighborhood has worked hard to stress safe gun practices in the area.
“I feel like we’ve monitored this for several years, and I’d hate for this to start going backward,” said Domela. “(We need) to impress again the danger and the illegal aspects of it.”
It is difficult and alarming to hear that one of the scariest moments of her life has been chalked up to run-of-the-mill target practice, Irwin said.
She is hoping this incident sheds some light on the dire need for responsible gun use near frequently used trails, and that the trail-using public will use caution when out and about.
“I just assumed all these years that shooting would not be allowed near trails,” Irwin said, “and that I was safe from being shot while skiing, running and hiking.”
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