Thirty years ago, the hills of West Anchorage bristled with killing machines: Nike missiles, 41-foot-long, rocket-powered javelins designed to carry nuclear bombs. If hostile forces approached, they could be launched and detonated within 75 miles of Anchorage, knocking anything in the vicinity of the blast out of the sky.
Today, the only Nikes at the old missile site are those on the feet of runners on the woodland trails of what we now call Kincaid Park.
Kites fly, children sled, anglers troll for trout, churches throw picnics, cyclists wheel past moose, coyotes and the occasional black bear. There are rock concerts and international competitions. Couples wed in flower gardens. Throngs cheer at events like the Alaska Ski for Women.
The former fortress is probably the city's most beloved in-town recreation area, a transformation guided by people with the odd-sounding job title of landscape architects. Instead of the beams and bricks of building architects, landscape architects' materials include the terrain, ecology and history of a place.
They're architects of exterior spaces, explained Aaron Joseph, with RIM Architects.
"It's recognizing how the land works," said Dwayne Adams, owner of Land Design North, a company that has done much of the work at Kincaid over the years. "Recognizing what attributes make a place special."
Kincaid's been special since the end of the last ice age. The melting Knik and Matanuska glaciers created a massive river, depositing a delta of sand and gravel silts at this spot, then carving it into a maze of hills and holes. Fine dirt blew off the ice and covered the area with a deep layer of rich loess while most of the Anchorage Bowl was still bog, ice or gravel. The oldest trees in the city are said to grow there.
The rolling topography is ideal for cross-country ski trails. While the park hosts multiple year-round uses, nordic skiers have a particular claim on the place.
"The ski trails here have a soul," Adams said.
Nearly 40 miles of them fold around one another throughout the park, and their layout is a triumph of the landscape architect's craft, he adds. "For most of them, you can't see another trail."
"A good example is how the new trail pulls into the woods," added Mark Kimerer, a landscape architect with Land Design North. He was referring to a new 10-foot-wide blacktopped stretch that connects the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail with existing bike paths on Raspberry Road. It parallels the road into the park but for the most part is shielded from traffic by trees.
In addition to natural topography, landscape architecture takes existing man-made structures into account. In Kincaid, that means missile bunkers. In 1979, the military vacated the site, and most structures, including barracks, came down. But the massive trapezoidal bunkers were left in place.
Their shape, Adams said, inspired the first "real architecture" in the park, a series of four kiosks erected in 1985 that consciously replicated the bunkers' angled walls. One remains near the Outdoor Center -- better known as "the chalet."
The chalet is one of those old bunkers that has been expanded to include meeting areas, bathrooms, an information desk, warm-up benches and enormous windows. It's a popular spot to get married.
"On weekends in the summer, we're sort of the wedding capital of Alaska," said Robert Hughes, the park's recreation supervisor.
Other bunkers are used to store equipment like trail grooming machines. Anchorage International Rotary Club is fixing up one of the structures with a boardwalk and viewing pier, reflecting the mood of an Alaska coastal town, said RIM's Joseph, who is also the club's community service director.
When finished, the site will include a garden of native plants and a skeleton of an infant gray whale. The remains were found on the beach below the site in 1998 by kids in the Kincaid Adventure Camp, a summer program sponsored by the municipality. The bones won't be assembled as if in a museum, said Joseph, but arranged in an outdoor display as they might be found in the natural setting.
More changes are in the works, said Adams: new soccer fields, including one that he promises "will have the best view of a soccer field anywhere in the world, bar none." Additional space for disc ("Frisbee") golf. A track where skiers can work out on roller skis when there's no snow.
Beyond being a place for athletics, Kincaid has a meditative side, perhaps because so many people have made a personal investment in this public place. Many amenities have been furnished with funding and volunteer work from groups -- notably the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage -- and individual families who want loved ones remembered at this spot.
Some of the memorials include relics from missile days. A "cradle" used to transport rocket motors sits where it can be viewed from both the road and the new trail (an informative sign will go up this summer). In the chalet, visitors can view an interpretive display featuring a Nike fin that was found in the brush two years ago.
They're little pieces of Kincaid's "soul."
Daily News assistant features editor Mike Dunham can be reached at email@example.com.
April is Landscape Architecture Month. Find out more at
FOR INFORMATION on the Kincaid Park Road project:
TO HELP with or contribute to the Anchorage International Rotary Club's Reflection Point/Garden project, contact Aaron Joseph at
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