Soul of Kincaid Park

Landscape architecture transforms old missile site into beloved public park

April 1, 2007 

  • 1940 -- Ralph Kincaid (1907-53) and family members homestead in the vicinity of the current park and Stevens International Airport. Kincaid-owned gravel and construction companies donate services to build local playgrounds and ball fields.

    1959 -- Alaska becomes a state. A Nike missile site is opened at the present location of Kincaid Park. The original Kincaid Park is dedicated by the Spenard Lions Club; it consists of 27 acres to the northeast of Jewel Lake.

    Mid-1960s -- City acquires military land near the airport and relocates the park there. Little Campbell Lake becomes known as "Beer Can Lake," a popular spot for teen parties.

    1971 -- Dimond High School's ski team begins practicing on trails along the fence lines.

    1972 -- Dick Mize, Jon Elliott and other volunteers from the Nordic Ski Club construct trails around the lake.

    1974 -- First national competition, the National FIS (International Ski Federation) Team Tryouts, is held at the park.

    1979 -- The Nike site is deactivated; land transferred to the Municipality of Anchorage the next year.

    1981 -- First lighted trail.

    1985 -- Construction begins to transform a missile bunker into the Kincaid Outdoor Center, known as "the chalet," and other bunker space is turned into storage for recreational equipment. Improvements include parking areas, grading of the stadium area and widening of trails to accommodate emerging skate-style skiing.

    1988 -- Biathlon range is added.

    1990 -- First Tour of Anchorage marathon ends at the park.

    1996-97 -- High-intensity lights are installed at the amphitheater and stadium.

    2001 -- As part of the Special Olympics World Games, the road to the chalet is paved, the chalet is expanded and a scoreboard is installed.

    Sources: Municipality of Anchorage; Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage

  • 1,500 acres

    329 feet

    HIGH POINT (ON LEKISCH TRAIL)

    11.5 FEET

    LOW POINT

    (ON SISSON TRAIL)

    37 MILES

    Maintained trails

    10 miles

    Lighted trails

    630

    Parking spots


    ACTIVITIES INCLUDE

    cross-country skiing

    fishing

    sledding

    mountain biking

    orienteering

    archery

    motocross

    kite flying

    disc golf

    biathlon

    dog training

    horseback riding

    outdoor concerts

  • Anchorage got lucky the night of March 27, 1964. True, the biggest earthquake in American history had just struck. More than 100 people were dead across Southcentral Alaska. Upheaval, tsunamis and fires devastated towns, roads and harbors.

    But, according to some, it could have been horrifically worse.

    The quake sent Nike missiles tumbling from their launchers just south of Anchorage International Airport. As aftershocks rumbled and temperatures sank below freezing, soldiers gritted their teeth and struggled with numb fingers to stabilize the highly volatile rocket motors and warheads, squinting by flashlight at manuals that didn't match the "mangled mess" they were looking at.

    This tale is recounted in detail on Nike-Hercules Alaska, a Web site dedicated to Nike installations in Alaska. (home.att. net/~nikealaska/INDEX.html) The extensive site is maintained by historian Jim Sapp, a former Nike soldier.

    Nikes were built to carry nuclear payloads of up to 20 kilotons, according to the authoritative reference Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems. To this day, the Department of Defense will not reveal whether the Anchorage Nikes were armed only with conventional explosives or with nuclear weapons.

    That information is still restricted, an Army spokesman at Fort Richardson said last month.

    Which is almost beside the point. Even if they were armed with (mere) conventional 1,100-pound warheads, an errant spark or open flame or another big jolt could have detonated the clustered solid rocket fuel and multiple explosives in a stupendous fireball.

    A "dirty bomb" incident -- radioactive material from damaged nuclear devices spewing into the air and dousing the region -- would have turned the '64 disaster into an epic catastrophe.

    No wonder that some personnel, "scared to death, ran away and were gone for days," an officer at the scene recalls on the Nike-Hercules Alaska Web site.

    The heroes who stayed and sweated through the hours after the quake received the Army's Meritorious Unit Commendation and a parade in their honor.

    But no one who knew was allowed to say why.

  • Kincaid projects under way or planned include:

    2007

    Topsoil, grass and benches to finish off the new trail connecting the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to existing bike paths on Raspberry Road.

    Road improvements adding bike lanes, lighting, medians at the Raspberry parking lot and an electronic speed indicator to tell drivers how fast they're going.

    Relocating the old pedestrian bridge to connect the chalet parking lot to "spectator hill."

    Completion of the new biathlon range.

    Pump and water system for snow-making and soccer field irrigation.

    Phase one of Anchorage International Rotary Club's Reflection Point/Garden project.

    Construction of two soccer fields, the first of eight, planned to include an artificial-turf stadium.

    2008

    New disc golf course.

    Phase two of Reflection Point, adding the gray-whale skeleton.

    2009

    Paved summer training loop for roller skiers.

  • Kincaid Park contains numerous privately sponsored tributes and features honoring pioneers and family members who are remembered for their love for the park, achievements there and contributions to it.

    "I don't think there's anywhere in Alaska that has so many memorials," said Kincaid's recreation supervisor, Robert Hughes. "This park is held deeply by many people."

    Among the more prominent memorials are:

    • LEKISCH TRAIL SYSTEM, on the southwest edge of the park, featuring sweeping views of upper Cook Inlet. Named for Andrew Lekisch (1972-87), an athlete and honors student who was killed in a fall while training in Chugach State Park.

    LEKISCH GARDENS, maintained by Andrew's mother, Ellen, at the head of the trail.

    ARLENE'S OVERLOOK, on the westernmost part of Mize Loop. Named for Arlene Mize (1937-97), who helped organize the Nordic Ski Club of Anchorage in the 1960s. (Mize Loop is named for her husband, Richard, who helped lay the first trails in Kincaid Park and is still intensely involved with the local ski community.)

    MARGAUX MENAKER GARDEN, east side of stadium at the start of Margaux's Loop. Menaker (1982-95) was an athlete, honor student and musician.

    PIA'S OVERLOOK AND BENCH, near the northwest curve on Mize Loop. Named for Pia-Margrethe Denkewalter (1981-96), an athlete, musician and honor student who was killed in a fall on Byron Glacier.

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 mdunham@adn.com.


April is Landscape Architecture Month. Find out more at

asla.org

FOR INFORMATION on the Kincaid Park Road project:

kincaidparkroad.com

TO HELP with or contribute to the Anchorage International Rotary Club's Reflection Point/Garden project, contact Aaron Joseph at

ajoseph@rim-ak.com WHAT MAKES KINCAID SPECIAL TO YOU?

CONTEST: Submit words, photos or video clips to the Show Us Your Parks contest before the end of May. Other parks are also eligible. For rules and information, go to

www.anchoragepark foundation.org

www.myspace.com/alaska_prm

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service