Alli Harvey on Outdoors: It's always happening at Westchester Lagoon

Daily News correspondentJanuary 29, 2014 

During a dismal winter weekend, Westchester Lagoon can be counted on to host some of the most dogged outdoorsy people in Anchorage.

I have seen people there in the fog. They're out there when it's mushy. People meet to walk their dogs along the Chester Creek or Coastal trails. Families cart camp chairs, picnic baskets and ice skates onto the lagoon and hang out for hours.

I always end up stopping what I'm doing to watch the scene. I pause just above the ice, usually while out on a run or ski, and feel really lucky to live here; I feel oddly excited that I'm not the only one outside and that I don't recognize any of the people having fun around me. It seems like my options for meeting new people and learning new things will be endless as long as I stay, in this town, at this cross-section of outdoor Anchorage.

That said, it's usually pretty easy to typecast some folks out there. There are your out-of-towners who are bundled up warmer than our recent 30-degree temperatures call for, who seem shaken when you make eye contact or say hello.

You have your families trying to get the kids and dog some exercise so everyone sleeps well at night and has plenty of happy memories. Thermoses and treats abound.

And, of course, there are the sleeper figure skaters. These are the so-called friends who gamely agree to meet down at the lagoon and disclose as they're skating backward and their friends are lurching precariously forward that they used to skate in high school.

On Martin Luther King Day, I saw all of these kinds of people gathered on the lagoon. In many parts of town the clouds hung heavily overhead but the sun shone down on Westchester and it felt more like March than January. There were skaters, shufflers, hockey players, hot chocolate pourers, sled pullers and spectators but there was something else that I'd never noticed before.

There were objects hurtling through the air. Specifically, there were small planes, helicopters and something that looked suspiciously like a hovercraft.

I saw a man disassemble a small plane on the hood of his car and pack it gently in his trunk. Another fellow with a headset flew a small, green helicopter. A red plane spiraled up, up, up and then swooped down several times before careening in for a smooth landing on the ice. The plane was bigger than I expected when it landed.

The two people closest to me were operating the hovercraft-like object -- an X-shaped contraption about a foot wide with four spindly legs. It jostled slightly from side to side as they lifted it from the ground with a remote control. It had small lights that glowed red and green, and I found myself rooting for it, like when you hope a kite will catch air and smoothly sail upward.

I wasn't the only one watching. A child, probably about 4 years old and wearing a green snowsuit and helmet, popped up on the snowbank, his expression changing rapidly as the object hovered higher and higher in the air. Then three older children popped up next to him. They lost interest as the craft swooped away, and regained it when it hovered closer again. The youngest one in green remained transfixed.

I introduced myself to the fellow who was operating the hovercraft and asked him what it was. Mike told me it's called a DJI Phantom, and he's been using it for about a month and a half. Apparently there was also a camera attached to the device, which I hadn't seen. It did explain the R2D2-looking goggles on his forehead, though.

Mike explained that there was a GoPro camera attached to the Phantom, and it was transmitting to his goggles, "so you can see what it sees."

I'd frequently seen GoPros being used. These are small, lightweight cameras that can be strapped to the user, capturing video from their perspective. So I had been standing there observing the lagoon all that time, and so had Mike. He'd just been looking from a different vantage point -- above.

Mike said it was his first time practicing with the "quadcopter" at Westchester. He'd only owned the setup for a month and a half, and needed some practice so he could be ready for summer.

"I've got a friend with a Harley that wants to do some chase cam stuff in the summertime but he wants to make sure I'm not going to crash it while he's driving too."

I walked away from the lagoon, reluctantly leaving because I was only wearing a few thin layers to run in and was starting to get cold. I heard a question that I hadn't thought to ask.

The child in the green snowsuit bravely stepped up to Mike, the stranger with the cool contraption.

He said: "I have to tell you something. What do the goggles do?"

"I can see video through the goggles," Mike responded. "Wanna try?"

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

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