Essay: The Urban Wilds in Alaska

  • Backyards and nature collide, even in Alaska. (Photo courtesy of US Department of Justice)

Over the last couple of decades, a lot of small cities have grown rapidly. They’ve pushed their city limits closer to wilderness areas. That’s caused some city dwellers to connect to nature in unexpected ways. And just like in the lower 48 states, the same things happening in an area often thought of as the country’s last frontier. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Aileo Weinmann is visiting Alaska this summer and brings us this audio essay:


Over the last couple of decades, a lot of small cities have grown rapidly.
They’ve pushed their city limits closer and closer to what used to be
natural areas. They’ve spread out to bump up against wildlife habitat.
That’s caused some city dwellers to connect to nature in unexpected ways.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Aileo Weinmann says, just like in the lower 48, that’s happening

in Alaska too.

(Sound of insects and birds)

I can see why Bill Sherwonit calls his backyard one of his favorite urban wild places.

(Sound of creek)

Birds sing. Insects buzz around. They’re backed by a gurgling creek. In the foothills bordering

Alaska’s biggest city, the sounds mingle with fresh scents of grass and wildflowers. It awakens the

senses to the wildness of nature. This place feels closer to the nearby mountains than Alaska’s

urban center, Anchorage.

We sit in a grassy spot still damp with dew. Sherwonit is a freelance nature
writer who writes a monthly column for the local newspaper.

He’s dressed in a weathered, blue Iditarod sweatshirt. His strong posture
and gentle face make him seem younger than his salt-and-pepper whiskers
would indicate. Sherwonit beams as he explains why he thinks wildness is
essential to being human.

“It’s who we are. One of the great things about getting out, you know, wherever it is, the

so-called open spaces or natural spaces in Anchorage. You get out and you exercise your body and

you start to feel yourself in your body. You sweat a little bit. You know, you smack mosquitoes,

you feel your muscles. Our bodies our wild things.”

This wildlife refuge doesn’t get a lot of traffic because the paths to get
here are disappearing due to a housing boom on the bluffs above the

The simple park sign says nothing of the refuge. But we walk down a short
grassy path. Its edges are bordered by alder-willow thickets and yellow and
indigo wildflowers. Soon, we’re standing on a spit of land overlooking sedge marsh and mud

Houses pack the wooded bluff tops. But where we’re standing, we can see a
narrow strip of forest that still forms an important wildlife corridor for
birds, moose, and even an occasional bear. It’s a gorgeous panoramic view of
the Refuge, the surrounding mountain ranges looming in the distance.

“Most of what we can see from here is very natural and much of it is
wild, and some of it is indeed wilderness. I don’t know if you’re feeling it
too, but there’s a change in the energy here; it just seems much calmer.”

A path leads us to the sedge marsh and mud flats below, where Sherwonit says
it’s safe to walk during low tide. That is, as long as you watch out for
low points where the mud is softer. It’s a good idea to check a tide table
before heading out.

(Sound of water)

This morning we don’t venture too far out onto the mud flats because the
tide is rising. It’s already high enough to begin lapping at our boots. Sherwonit says watching the
wild places close to home, and seeing their seasonal changes is the best way
for people to experience wilderness.

“You actually begin to develop a relationship with a place. I like to think
of the birds and the bears and the moose and even the trees and the
wildflowers and these other – like here, the sedges and other coastal plants;
really they’re our wild neighbors.”

The visit with Bill Sherwonit inspired me. I’ve returned to the Refuge many
times on my own. At low tide, I can wander farther onto the rippled silt
and mud. I’ve seen fresh moose tracks, and I’ve heard up close the
loud, prehistoric bugle of sandhill cranes near the sedge marsh. I try to
go at different times of day, find something new each time. But, even
though I’m close to the city and the encroaching suburbs, I never see
another human along this sliver of Alaska’s coast. So for now, it’s still
wild, even with the city nearby.

For the GLRC, this is Aileo Weinmann.

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