As with a lot of things, Alaska has been lucky to be far removed and largely untouched by the disastrous health effects of the novel coronavirus. Our case count has been low, and our death toll markedly so.
Many of the restrictions keeping the virus at bay in Alaska have been lifted, but it’s still here. One might not have known it from the positively packed trail to the Russian River Falls in Cooper Landing a few weekends ago, but it is.
Since the beginning of social distancing efforts, Alaskans have been taking to the outdoors in droves. Some of them have always been doing this, and no doubt were a tad surprised and maybe a bit miffed to see their favorite, normally empty trails filled up with more and more people in search of relief in the form of outdoor recreation.
The trails that lead to both Russian River Falls and the Upper and Lower Russian Lakes are a prime example of Alaskans taking advantage of the fact that, for now, hanging out “together” outside is a heck of a lot safer than jamming out in a crowded, stuffy bar. The trail is wheelchair accessible, with smooth turns and a wide, even path. It offers a slice of the vibrant Cooper Landing wilds to those who are not physically able to traipse up climbs like Slaughter Ridge.
The trail is popular among mountain bikers and families with young children, which was on display when a friend and I decided, rain be darned, we were going to enjoy the walk and the view of the rushing river and falls at the end. Scores of little ones tottered along the trail with their guardians, some dressed head-to-toe in matching rain gear and XTRATUFs, others in a hodgepodge of coats and boots that looked like they maybe belonged to one of their siblings.
Some little tykes were carried along on the backs of many strong, patient mothers — others fearlessly led the way, walking sticks in hand, while still others had clearly had enough of the rain and were being coaxed down the trail back to their vehicles between despondent sighs and vicious pouts.
The trail was admittedly a little more crowded than we would have liked, and indeed more than we felt totally comfortable with. My friend and I took a detour just ahead of the falls down the path that leads to a fishing spot along Russian River. I had been there a few years prior, and reflected on the hysterical fun some friends and I had wading into the freezing water in an eddy along the river’s edge.
On this day, the rain had helped the river to reach a steady rush, water churning much higher up the banks and in a much less inviting way than the day my friends and I decided to venture in.
Very few people had meandered down this part of the trail, and it provided a moment of respite to explore the nature around us, soaked as it was.
Back on the main trail, the gaggle of children, families and couples was gone. It seemed they had rushed in and out of the scenic overlook at the falls, as quickly as the river. The walk back was peaceful and void of people to dodge as we tried to maintain proper social distance. The way there had been like a friendly yet awkward live game of Tetris.
I couldn’t begrudge a single one of those families for picking the same day as us to get out and enjoy the Russian River trail. In fact I was surprised and impressed so many had decided to do it on such a dreary day.
If there’s any positive to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic (and I know we’ve all been looking for some) it’s that it’s maybe reminded Alaskans just how lucky they are to have such wild, rugged and vivid nature at their fingertips. With outdoor activities being some of the safest ways to spend our time these days, many people have been flocking back to popular trails and excursions.
Just like the die-hard gym rats must be patient with the influx of post-Christmas exercisers clogging up their treadmills and bikes for a couple weeks in January, so, too, must the avid outdoorsman be patient with the many Alaskans who are learning to take fuller advantage of what they have in front of them.
The beautiful thing about Alaska is that she was here before any pandemic, arms wide and inviting. She was prepared to be our escape then, and she’s happy to help us now when we seek refuge from the compounded stresses of our new normal.
Alaska, with her peaks and valleys and winding rivers, has a different sense of time than the rest of us. She’s got nowhere to be at the moment.
She’s here for us now, and she’ll be here for us when it’s over — her ears perking up ever so slightly in gratification when a boot or bike tire crunches the gravel of a well loved trail.