Getting lost can be a glorious thing. Other times, though, it ranges from mildly annoying to downright terrifying. If you've ever gotten lost in Kincaid Park, or if you're the type who avoids the labyrinthine unpaved trails for fear of losing your way, then the new "Find Yourself in Kincaid Park" app might be just the thing for you.
Mike and Jill Brook, husband and wife technological collaborators, released the free application for smartphones in early December. With the GPS-based location-finding capabilities, it aims to provide some peace of mind and help Anchorage residents and visitors have more fun in Kincaid Park.
Afraid to explore
The Brooks moved to Anchorage in July and began spending more and more time in Kincaid, exploring myriad trails. While Mike ran with the masters' ski team, Jill would roam the park alone.
"I found myself walking the same few trails over and over because I didn't dare get lost," Jill said.
Until she began to grow restless.
"Because he's an app-builder, we have this great relationship where I can complain about something and he makes an app," Jill said.
Within a week, Mike had a prototype of an app that could serve as an interactive trail map. It showed most of Kincaid's trails and could pinpoint precise location in the park, all without cellular reception.
For a month or two, the Brooks were the only users. "It became clear to me that this was good to have," Mike said. "What I didn't realize was that it would totally change my attitude about the park, so that I'd be more eager to just go, knowing that I had a way back."
"The park is so enchanting," Jill added. "It's like a crime if you can't just follow your nose."
Not only is the park enchanting, it's enormous, sprawled over 1,400 acres. There are 17 miles of single track and 42 miles of ski trails, in addition to the paved Coastal Trail. Considering that it receives more than a million visits a year, the Kincaid Outdoor Center hears infrequently about lost people, according to Brad Cooke, assistant facility manager at Kincaid Park.
"People do sometimes get lost, but often they'll find their way out on their own, or run into another user," Cooke said. "But as far as the app is concerned, any additional help with navigating the trails of Kincaid is a good thing."
To some, the occasional wandering is part of Kincaid's charm. To others, this fear is enough to keep them on familiar trails again and again. There is rarely cell phone coverage to call for assistance, so many people play it safe and never explore the full vastness of the park.
How it works
The app opens with a simple, stylish screen. "Welcome to Kincaid Park," it greets you. "What sounds fun?"
Select the season and mode of travel, with options like skiing, running, biking and dog-walking. Voila, up pops the appropriate network of color-coded trails. As you click each route, more information appears: trail name, allowed usage in each season, surface, handicap accessibility and total distance. Parking lots are clearly denoted with amenities listed.
At any point, click the bull's-eye icon to see a blue dot pin-pointing your location. This is most handy at unmarked junctions, or in the case of needing to modify your trail en route.
"There is no bigger thrill than having a moose blockade out there and having an app to be able to go around it, to be able to find a path around it to get where you want to go without having to completely backtrack," Mike said.
The app works without cell phone signal and it minimizes battery drainage by turning GPS off whenever possible and not tracking your route or mileage. Essentially, it just sits there for when you need it.
You can download both the iPhone or Android app for free, without catches or pop-up ads. Being new to the community, the Brooks hope to establish themselves while developing the local market for useful smartphone apps.
A collaborative process
When the Brooks work together, Jill serves as researcher/copywriter and Mike as programmer. Their past apps have served as resources for Jill's nutrition business in Pasadena, which she still owns and runs remotely. When a rare disorder of Jill's, POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), necessitated a move to a colder climate, the Brooks chose Anchorage. Since July, they have begun working on stand-alone apps through their new company Alaska App Works, LLC.
For "Find Yourself in Kincaid Park," Mike tapped into multiple resources around the city. He joined Code for Anchorage, a public-service programming group, which had been focusing on maps at the time. He was able to combine maps and files produced by the Municipality of Anchorage, the Singletrack Advocates mountain biking organization, and the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage.
If app users stumble upon a mapping error, there is a way to report inaccuracies. The Brooks hope this will crowd-source trail edits and keep the app up to date.
Giving it a go
I first tried the app one December afternoon, sitting in the passenger seat as my boyfriend drove toward Kincaid Park. We had our classic skis with us but no set plan for what trails to take. Yet.
Once the app opened, I selected our season (winter) and activity (skiing), and it showed the appropriate network of trails. We'd spent all autumn running and hiking from the chalet, so we decided to switch it up and park in the Raspberry Road lot this time to try out the Lake Loop.
We waxed our skis, studied the general overview of our trail, and then headed out with our phones stowed in pockets. I also had a paper copy of the NSAA trail map in a small backpack. I wasn't sure which was backup for which, but I felt prepared.
At an early intersection, we pulled out our phones and used the app to see our location. Sure enough, there we were — a little blue dot on the trail. We already knew which way we were supposed to go, but it was still cool to get confirmation and make sure the app was working.
Over the course of our ski, we never used the paper map, but opened the app three times. One was when we spotted two moose standing on the trail; we wanted to see what our options were to backtrack only partially. Another was toward the end, when we thought we should have reached the parking lot but hadn't. We weren't too concerned yet, but we were set completely at ease when the app revealed that we had turned off just one spur too early and could easily get back on track.
Bottom line: worth trying
Overall, this is a great app. It can be useful to newcomers, active folk hoping to expand their trail repertoire, or even experienced outdoors-people seeking extra peace of mind. If you love the major trails — Chester Creek, Campbell Creek and Coastal—and want the confidence or inspiration to venture onto smaller, "wilder" trails, this app is super.
Some outdoor-oriented apps are unnecessary and obnoxious; they suck away from your experience of being in nature. "Find Yourself in Kincaid Park" avoid these pitfalls. It doesn't beep, buzz, or require you to always keep your phone out. If you want to be spontaneous and explore, you can still do so. Don't even look at the app as you ramble. It's there for when you need it.
The Brooks emphasize that the app is not designed as a crutch, but rather, a backup. "Our goal is not having people with noses buried in the app, but for them to use it like a safety net," Mike said.
Jill said, "I only use it around one out of every 10 times I'm there but it makes me feel free to explore every time I'm there."
This app is not meant to replace general safety protocols, common sense or map-reading abilities. It's just an extra resource.
Make sure you have good battery life on your phone, especially when it's cold. And it's always a good idea to have a paper map with you, too.
I would recommend this app to anybody who lives, works or plays in Anchorage. There's no harm in downloading it and just having it handy or looking at it in the parking lot for quick ideas of where to go – without fear of getting hopelessly lost.
Elissa Brown is an Anchorage freelance writer.