12 January 2024

Month 3: Southerner in the Alaskan Tundra

Written by: Sharika Elahi

The beginning of January marks the start of my third month since I moved up to Alaska from the south – that is Chicago, to be more exact (the entire lower 48 is known as “the south” up here). Two months later and I’m still in a deep state of awe every time I step outside. I’m based in Anchorage and surrounded by mountains from all directions – a daily joy that I’m still getting used to, and suspect I never really will. The snow came down hard as soon as I arrived in November, and the daily sunlight dwindled at a rapid pace that shocked even this lifelong Midwesterner. Every expectation I had about Alaskan winters was fulfilled: it’s been long, dark, and relentlessly cold. What I really wasn’t prepared for was the magnificence of Alaska’s wildlands in the winter. I haven’t been much of a cold-weather hiker before, but I’ve found that outdoor wintertime activities are an essential part of life here. I’m thankful that’s the case, as there is almost nothing more calming than mountain forests filled with birch, aspen, and spruce muffled by endless seas of fresh snow, nothing as hypnotizing as watching blocks of ice drift apart and flow gracefully down the Cook Inlet into the ocean. I have never been more grateful for sunny days and winter gear than these past two months.

I’m also constantly in awe at how much there is to learn. Alaska may be part of the United States, but the distinct communities that make up this state are as culturally unique as they are numerous. Only when I moved up here did I begin to understand how very little I previously knew about this special corner of the world. I was astounded to learn that Alaska is home to 229 federally recognized tribes (and that doesn’t even include tribes that aren’t federally listed) and at least 20 different native languages. The native presence in the state is strong and highly visible. I was also astonished by the diversity that exists in Anchorage itself. Anchorage is home to the top three most diverse public high schools in the country, in terms of the number of ethnicities and languages repped by the students. As a Bangali-American privileged to be born and raised in such a robust cultural hub, it was a welcome surprise to move so far away, to a region I perceived as profoundly isolated, and find myself surrounded by such a rich array of human experience.

Having an abundance of opportunities to learn about (and from) the different communities that make up Alaska has been the highlight of my fellowship with the NPS Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program. The RTCA Alaska team is very small, and it consists of people who are intimately connected to this region and tuned into the variety of things happening here. The program itself is very much rooted in its collaborative relationships with the communities that it serves. Any group or individual throughout the state with an idea for a trail, park, restoration project, etc. throughout Alaska can apply for technical project planning and facilitation assistance from the RTCA program, which means that we’ve gotten projects in communities with less than 100 people, or in places that can only be accessed by small planes and ferries. Our job is to help actualize the ideas for projects that come directly out of these Alaskan communities, whether that be by coordinating and facilitating meetings, putting together trail plans, or drafting concept maps.

One of the projects I’ve been particularly excited about is the concept design for a native Dena’ina Athabascan cultural education trail in the Palmer Hay Flats, just an hour north of Anchorage. I was able to participate in a Design Charette for the plan, where community members had the chance to meet up and pull together ideas for what the interpretive trail could look like. We came out of the day with our minds swimming in a sea of creative ideas and engaging discussions, and we spent the weeks after the event synthesizing everything we heard into documents and three alternative concept map designs. Getting acquainted with the process of bringing a community project come to life has been an inspiring experience. I know I’ll be eternally grateful for the opportunity to work for such a special program in such a special place.

On another, equally significant note: I saw a moose hanging out in the parking lot of a local Taco King last week. For this, too, I know I’ll be eternally grateful.

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