Trail of the Month: May 2021
The Lanie Fleischer Chester Creek Trail is a beautiful oasis in the middle of Anchorage, Alaska. Running east to west from Goose Lake Park to Westchester Lagoon, the greenbelt boasts scenic views of the Chugach Mountains. “You would never know you’re going through an industrial area,” said Beth Nordlund, the executive director of the Anchorage Park Foundation.
Unlike most trails in the region that run along the coastline, Chester Creek Trail is a transportation corridor that runs through the city, offering an easy access point to downtown.
It’s also family friendly, stretching through parks such as Margaret Eagan Sullivan, Valley of the Moon and Eastchester, as well as recreational sites, including the Chester Creek Sports Complex and Davenport Softball Fields.
Centuries of Indigenous History
While the city of Anchorage is about 100 years old, Chester Creek and its namesake trail are ancient, said Aaron Leggett, president of the Native village of Eklutna, whose people—part of Dena’ina Athabascan—have lived in the area for centuries.
The name “Chester Creek” is an anglicized version of the Dena’ina Athabascan name “Chanshtnu,” which translates to “grass creek.” As the story goes, “When early mapmakers were coming through this area, they came across Dena’ina at the mouth of Chester Creek and asked them ‘What do you call this creek?’ We said ‘Chanshtnu.’ They wrote ‘Chester,’ and we said, ‘Well, close enough,’” explained Leggett, who is also a senior curator at the Anchorage Museum.
Dena’ina are the only group of Northern Athabascans in Alaska that live along saltwater. As such, creeks were an important part of their existence. Ship Creek, where Anchorage started as a tent city, was the largest in the area. But after 1915, “that location was no longer available as Anchorage grew, so we were slowly pushed onto the periphery,” said Leggett.
Chester Creek was one of the locations they relocated to over time. In the spring and summer, they camped along the creek to fish for salmon that they would clean, smoke and package for the winter. “Because of the long hours of daylight, it was not uncommon for them to be up for 20 hours a day, rotating, catching fish,” Leggett said.
Currently, Leggett is working to increase public awareness about this history. Without it, people are “losing a deeper connection to a place that is not an untouched pristine landscape,” he said. “Indigenous people had a sustainable culture that thrived in this area. They laughed and cried and loved and died. They had memories just as meaningful as people do today.”
A Vision Comes to Life
The city of Anchorage was developed in a piecemeal manner over the next several decades, according to Erin Kirkland, a community engagement coordinator with the Municipality of Anchorage. In 1971, a new resident named Lanie Fleischer noticed that there were no trails connecting the various parts of the city. She co-chaired a bike committee that created a master plan for trails; it envisioned numerous pathways that could be used for commuting, leisurely cycling and transporting children safely to school, libraries and parks.
In 1973, the group received financing for the city’s first paved pathway, which is now known as the Lanie Fleischer Chester Creek Trail. “In many other communities in the United States, they’ve had to repurchase their land that goes along creeks so they can create greenbelt trails and loops,” said Nordlund. “We have one in our fair city because of the foresight of our mothers and fathers.”
Today, the Chester Creek Trail is one of the most popular and active in the city. “Anything you can think to do on a trail is done on the Chester Creek Trail,” said Nordlund. In the spring and summer, trail users are often walking, running, biking or roller skating on the path. “I have even seen unicycles on it,” Nordlund exclaimed. Skijoring, in which a person on skis is pulled by a dog, is popular in the winter. Middle and high school ski teams are also regulars during the colder months.
Fat-tire biking, which is said to have originated in Anchorage, has “exploded here this year,” according to Kirkland. She says people started trying new things as trail use “went up exponentially” during the coronavirus pandemic.
The trail also fosters a range of “amazing flora and fauna, and of course, wildlife,” said Nordlund. While bears, small mammals, ducks, geese, birds and fish can all be found along the trail, the moose is one of Anchorage’s most beloved creatures. The animal began emerging about 150 years ago, according to Leggett. “It’s the largest land mammal that we hunt, so it’s an important food source.” There are a few hundred of them within the city limits, and they are often seen on the trail.
While the moose is great for viewing from a distance, it should not be approached up close. “More people die from being trampled by moose than bears, so we don’t get in the moose’s way,” said Nordlund. Children are taught bear and moose awareness in school and dogs are recommended to always be on a leash. It’s all part of Anchorage’s trail etiquette.
Trails in the Loop
Earlier this year, the Anchorage Park Foundation began promoting the “Moose Loop,” a 32-mile trail system connecting the Chester Creek Trail, Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, Campbell Creek Trail and Ship Creek Trail. When viewed on a map, the loop appears to be in the shape of a moose—from its ears and dewlap to its humped back.
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) referenced the Moose Loop when he co-introduced the Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act—a bipartisan bill that will provide $2.5 billion over five years to build connected walking and biking infrastructure so that people can travel safely across communities, regions and states. It also seeks to reduce carbon emissions and bolster economies with new job opportunities.
“Alaska’s transportation systems are in need of expansion, and building and connecting pedestrian and trail networks is an important part of bringing our infrastructure into the 21st century,” said Sen. Sullivan in a February 2021 press release. “This legislation will provide opportunities to compete for significant funding to complete and further expand trails like the Moose Loop, while ensuring that pedestrians and bicyclists are able to travel safely within and between communities in our state.”
Meanwhile, people on the ground such as Leggett and staff from the Anchorage Park Foundation are continuing to advocate for connecting gaps in the local trail system while improving wayfinding and highlighting cultural history.