Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Of Moose and Men

When Outside visitors arrive in Anchorage by plane, I hope they’re seated on the right side of the aircraft. As the jetliners circle out over the Cook Inlet and make their final approach to Ted Stevens International, they’ll see out the windows a wild and expansive wilderness.

Sure, if said traveler flew in on a clear summer day, they might have seen glacier-capped peaks, and those unfortunate souls on the left side of the plane would have caught a glimpse of a forest that stretches north almost uninterrupted to the end of tree line in the Arctic; like, whatever.
The real Alaska is the 1,500 acres of lighted ski trails - replete with snowmaking, soccer fields, paved bike paths, narrow mountain bike trails, and a motocross park that is Kincaid Park.

Yes, this is the Last Frontier for hoards of people who call Alaska home. In fact, for a massive chunk of the people who call Alaska home, this is about as wild as things get. When you go to Kincaid, you might see a moose, or you might see a bear (black). You also might see skiers, bikers, runners, walkers, tourists, high schoolers, babies, the elderly, locals, tourists, and/or a hot dog vendor. It’s a city park - albeit a big one - like many others.

Why would you bother go see the “real Alaska,” you know, that one that people always talk about being “a 30-minute drive away” on one of the two deadly roads that connect Anchorage to the rest of the state?

I even hear there’s a really big state park on the city’s eastern border that has relatively poor access given it’s proximity to over a quarter-million people, making it possible to have an entire ridge, valley, or mountain tarn to oneself for marginal effort.

Forget it though! Just go to Kincaid!

Lately, if you’re lucky, you might see one of the park’s users and one of the park’s residents (a moose or a bear) get in a tussle. For the users, that means hoof prints in your forehead or elsewhere, and for the animal, it means a bullet in their aforementioned forehead.


I’m not trying to overly harsh on Kincaid.

The park is really nice, and I enjoy mountain biking, cross country skiing, and road biking there.

I’m fortunate to live very close to the Hillside ski trails and mountain bike trails, so those are typically my base of operations for the above-mentioned activities during the week, but Kincaid offers a change in scenery, different terrain type, snow making on its ski trails (yet to see this system really kick into gear, but it’s a possibility), and sometimes better weather than Hillside. Kincaid also helps to diffuse pressure from Hillside. The best thing that ever happened to the Hillside single track was Kincaid single track.

That being said, Kincaid is surrounded by ocean on two sides, and hemmed by urban development on the rest.

Part of that urban development includes one of the busiest cargo airports in the US.

The sound of roaring jumbo jet engines rumble through the hills and hollows at all hours, and the dimmer whine of cars and motor bike engines ricochet off the trees.
It’s common in the still of winter inversions for jet and auto exhaust to permeate throughout the low points along the trails, and air quality issues have caused some athletes respiratory issues.

On a warm summer day, the park is packed with all types of users. Riding through on the paved coastal trail, don’t expect to put the hammer down doing intervals. People will be out walking shoulder-to-shoulder across the paths; tourists on rented bikes, heads spinning in the wind will be gawking; runners; roller bladers; and roller skiers will help to round it all out.

Oh, and then there’s the wildlife.

Like many other park users, it’s rare that I go to Kincaid without seeing a moose or having to re-route around one, regardless of my activity.

Recent negative moose-human encounters (two moose were shot/killed this fall) there have raised the ire of a contingent of park users not happy about impingement on the wildlife and their habitat, as they see it.

Obviously, I’m not in this corner.

Bluntly, I don’t care if I see a moose in a city park.

Further, I think they are over-fed, over-tame, sometimes unnaturally over-sized – like a good deal of the city’s human residents one might add – and know of only two serious predators: the Chevy bear and the Ford bear.

The biggest moose I’ve seen in Alaska seem to live in the confines of Anchorage parks, not that I claim to be authoritative on anything moose. 

I don’t claim to be a moose hater either though. When I see a moose on a backcountry ski, hike, or mountain bike trip – in the said backcountry – I will probably stop, if I have a camera snap a photo, and admire it for its hardiness and tenacity to survive in a place I merely visit.

I get where some of the vocal folks who have put down on user development in the park as an impingement of the moose’s habitat are coming from.

The moose didn’t show up in Anchorage and call it home because they like the 4-lane highways, cookie-cutter suburban sprawl developments, and high concentration of people.

They were here first, and while their numbers have probably been somewhat helped thanks to passive protection from predators and increased production of forage (I’ve laughed heartily watching moose making carnage out of ornamental trees in front of strip malls), they didn’t ask for any of this and are helpless to control it.

I also think about the folks that have called this place home for more than a decade, or better yet, multiple, and don’t like what they have seen.

It’s no secret that Alaska’s, and especially Anchorage’s, population is transient. Many people don’t make it past two or three years here, let alone 10.

As someone who is generally adverse to change, I wonder what it will be like for me if I last another 5, 10, or 15 years here.

I think in the short-term, we are all pro-change/pro-development, but we don’t always appreciate how those little changes can stack up to big changes in the long run.

Recently, I was driving the completely re-done Trunk Road in Palmer. I drove this road once in its entirety before it was rebuilt. It was windy and narrow like all good country roads, and passed through a mosaic of woods and fields.

The new road is straight, fast, and wide, and I like it.
It’s an improvement. Sure the old road had more character, but this one shortens the drive, gets me to the mountains faster, feels overall safer, and has enough shoulder to appeal to my inner road biker.

But as I drove it one day this fall, passing through a fading green hay field, I watched a group of kids ride scooters on the paved path next to the road scooting by a yellow sign with a tractor on it.

The sight was not uncommon in my youth; a juxtaposition of the growth of housing developments into the domain of a struggling dairy industry.

I wondered, if in 10 years, I would be driving this road, parked at traffic light, surrounded by strip malls, and if some kids would be riding scooters next to the road there too.
Would I still think the project was great?

Change can be good, but it can lead to things we don’t like too.

I like the fast road, but I like the big, open fields next to it more.

I have no idea what the future holds for Trunk Road, I hope it’s not Dimond Boulevard, but if history is our teacher, I can make a sturdy guess.

To close the circle, I can see how that has played out for Kincaid.

The park is a very different place than it was 10, or 20 years ago, I’m positive.

In small increments, the addition of trails, trail lighting, parking, access, and new facilities has probably been welcomed by most.

More, because of the transience that prevails here, the base line of what was, is continually fleeting. This concept is common in fisheries biology. One generation’s perception of abundance of a depleting stock of fish will be different than the next generation’s concept of abundnce, as each generation’s baseline is lower than the former’s.

Here, the weight of long-term management and conservation of park lands becomes evident. That being said, the future of park management should come from the user groups.

Kincaid’s future has in many ways been decided by its past developments and its geography. Cornered by the sea and a growing city, its ability to serve as a wildlife sanctuary is questionable. Meanwhile, it has been developed to support high quality recreational facilities, be it skiing, biathalon, soccer, mountain biking, etc.

Scattered calls have been made to halt further, sanctioned, approved trail building and development in the park, despite incredible year-round popularity of the trails that have been built thus far (less than 10 miles at this point).
Halting development will not decrease use though.

So long as Anchorage’s population continues to grow, users of all types will continue to go to recreate at the park in increasing numbers.
Meanwhile, as this country’s waist line girth continues to grow proportionally, and our govnerment convulses into seizures over providing healthcare, it is bewildering to me that anyone would not want to see an increase in the development of opportunities for people to get outside and partake in some form of healthy exercise.

How many miles of trails the park can sustain is a good question, but limiting the miles that exist in the hopes of reducing human-moose encounters in Kincaid, will effectively spread those encounters out over a wider area, i.e., outside of Kincaid, while increasing the pressure on the already existing facilities and trails.

If users begin to feel that the trails at Kincaid are too crowded with people, or moose for that matter, they will seek out their experiences elsewhere, or demand an expansion of those opportunities into territories yonder.

When I look at the vastness of this state, and on the whole how little of it is developed, traipsed upon, or generally recreated on, I think, “It’s not so bad.”

When I think about Anchorage’s rolls of fat spilling outside its metaphorical belt into the Valley or beyond though, with its massive appetite for land to consume giant parking lots and big box stores, I think: “Anchorage should do everything it can to contain itself.”

Among other things, that means further developing Anchorage for all that it’s worth. Build higher, build denser, build more efficient, etc. What that spells for Anchorage’s parks is more of the same. We are well endowed with some great parks, but they will need to be capable of handling more use, not less. Undoubtedly, the city’s wildlife will suffer. That’s unfortunate, but I’d rather see the wildlife in Anchorage take it on the nose than wildlife in points beyond.

It seems obvious to me, that for those of us who live here so that we may spend time in “the real Alaska,” but are employed in here Anchorage for five days a week, that is a simple solution to preserve what we really love.

1 comment:

Wfinley said...

I came here looking for shred pix of the Pinnacle and instead I end up reading a good essay on development, wildlife and recreation. Well written. Nice to see a cognizant take on Kincaid that differs from the usual pro and anti arguments.