[This article appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News on Friday, September 25, 2015.]
Expecting my 10-year-old son to remain still longer than a millisecond often feels like an exercise in futility. This wiry, five-foot-one whirling dervish is always up for an adventure, literally; on rocks, on tree branches, on my nerves. It’s easy for us to stay active in Alaska through the hundreds of opportunities the Last Frontier affords, and we never have trouble suggesting something fun in the great outdoors. It’s the winding down part that sometimes frustrates my husband and I, and slowing the motor of constant motion, if you will.
I shouldn’t be surprised. Kids today are expected to sit in classrooms for six hours or more, five days a week, with less and less time for physical education and recess. After school, many come home to more structured schoolwork and time on devices or television. No wonder my kid and hundreds like him can’t wind down; they’re too wound up.
Time for a bit of quiet.
On a whim last Sunday, I trundled everyone to Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area in southwest Anchorage. Located above the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge that skirts Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm, the estuary’s space is by design a still, small voice within the loud and often brash environment of daily life. Officially dedicated in 2013 through a cooperative effort of the Municipality, Great Land Trust, and Anchorage Park Foundation, the 60-acre former homestead provides much more than pretty views and a nice afternoon walk — it reconnects body with soul, including, and perhaps most important, within our children.
With a gravel path looping less than a mile through gnarled cottonwood trees, an old garden plot, and overgrown meadow grasses, the property is closed to all but foot traffic and people. No dogs and no bikes means a temperate experience interrupted only by the occasional moose or chittering of black-capped chickadees flitting back and forth among forestland surrounding the park. Often, the only sound one hears in this pocket of populated Anchorage is wind rustling around grasses and leaves. Traffic is out of range, thanks to a location at the bottom of a small hill, and the reverence shared by fellow visitors is immediately obvious. Everyone, it seems, has the same idea. “Shhhh.”
Two spur trails also reinforce this concept of a quieter, gentler nature experience. One veers toward Campbell Creek itself and a wide platform along the bluff. Look for moose and local and migratory birds, depending upon the season. It was here that a small sign greeting visitors encouraged us to “Pause…Take a moment to enjoy this spot.” We did.
Tiptoeing the final few feet onto the platform, we sat and listened, tuned in to Alaska. Birds that a minute before were flying away because of the stampede of feet returned to feed; an eagle circled high above in the blue sky; and a squirrel bounded along the picket fencing. Cocking its head at a jaunty angle, it gave us a sound scolding, or a welcome. I’m not sure which.
The second spur trail is less developed and wanders around a grove of spruce and birch to a blind created for easier observation of Sandhill cranes that take up residence during the spring and summer months. These gawky birds have migrated south now, but the blind is a delightful spot in which to peer through the wooden window casings and watch the rest of nature carry on, uninterrupted.
Allow at least an hour to meander the entire Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area, as each pullout offers a different view of the creek, refuge, and distant mountains. An even better idea would be to spend a few hours pondering a life we Alaskans are so fortunate to have. If you do, try these activities that encourage silence and reflection, and see if you can’t come away with a profound appreciation for nature’s quiet moments a stone’s throw from busy Dimond Boulevard.
Quiet Walk. Can your family walk to the first spur trail without talking? How about the second? Poll everyone upon reaching the platforms and discover unique perspectives of kids and adults.
Sit Spot. Along the trail, pick a place to sit silently for a few minutes (younger children may need help finding an appropriate and safe location). Use your senses of hearing, touch, and sight to gather as much information as possible about the area directly around your body. How do the trees, plants, and rocks feel? How many different bird songs can you hear? Don’t talk; just be part of the estuary, nature, and Alaska.
Art. Take the “sit spot” idea further by encouraging older kids to bring along a sketch pad and pencils to draw what they see. If technology simply cannot be ignored, ask kids to take a photo of an object or scene and paint or draw at home. Even recording the sounds of nature can be artistic; visit multiple parks and compare the different audio tracks together, later.
Micro-hike. Bring along a length of yarn or string, approximately three feet in length, and stretch it out along a section of trailside landscape, being careful not to disturb plants or creatures beneath. Get down on your belly and see the intricate inner workings of nature, up close.
If you go: Reach the Campbell Creek Estuary Natural Area by taking Minnesota Parkway to Dimond Boulevard, heading west. Continue on Dimond Boulevard past Jewell Lake Road, taking a left at Edinburgh Street. Take a right on Selkirk Drive, and follow the street to the nature area parking lot (9531 Selkirk Drive).
The estuary park has portable toilets, interpretive signs, and crane-shaped bike racks. Bicycles and dogs are not allowed on the area trails. Strollers are permitted. This is an excellent trail for children of all ages, but please respect all signs asking visitors to remain on trails due to sensitive revegetation projects currently underway.