People traveling on the Chester Creek Trail in midtown Anchorage this week might notice a group wandering about in Kelly green vests and sashes adorned with a distinctive merit badge. They aren’t overgrown Girl Scouts; they’re artists who are “Seeking the Source” of the trail and it’s role in the community.
“Well, um, I don’t have an opening line, but I have this odd vest with a weird patch,” says Anchorage photographer Michael Conti as he strolls down the Chester Creek Trail clutching his camera and smiling beneath his wide-brimmed hat.
He’s looking for people to photograph and trying to figure out how to explain to them why he’s doing it…
“I would say, ‘Well, we’re trying to make art about this trail. On the trail and with the users of the trail and in the landscape of the trail.’ What else would I say to a person? I don’t know. Um, I’d probably leave it there. Because the more I talk the more confused I get about this project.”
Conti is one of eight artists participating in a nebulous thing called “Seeking the Source.” The group also includes artists who are sketching the plants that grow in the area, writers who are looking for intimate spaces, even a stilt walker who is recording stories from passersby about the trail. They’re meeting with groups and walking the trail for a week to interact with random individuals.
Jimmy Riordan is the mastermind behind it. He says he wants people to engage in the space in a new way, notice things they might ignore when traveling on a trail they’ve visited a hundred times before.
“The arts are a place where it’s okay to have conversations about things that maybe wouldn’t come up in other forms or other situations.”
He says the group is leading an expedition to discover the stories, sounds, and experiences of what the trail is today. So before they set off, they consulted a map. Or rather, a room full of maps and historical documents at the city’s Parks & Rec department.
“Let’s guess the decade based on the colors. 1980s? 70s…” the artists joke as they look over a vividly colored map highlight different land uses.
The muni started buying land for the greenbelt in 1965, well before it was a popular thing to do. The current trail runs about 4 miles and started as a footpath. The city owns more land along the creek but hasn’t been able to develop it yet.
“Dear Mr. Pitchford, it has come to our attention that a garden plot at your residence is not properly located on your property but is encroaching on the Chester Creek Greenbelt Park property,” reads artist Ayden LeRoux from a 1982 letter.
Manila folders stuffed with documents show everything from property lines and drainage ditches to outdated, underfunded project proposals. Some plans for the area say the creek cannot be rehabilitated. Others highlight its potential.
Riordan walks through the tunnel that runs under Minnesota Drive. He says opinions and experiences on the trail still vary from person to person. Planning this project changed his relationship with the area.
“Maybe it’s a different sort of intimacy or a different sort of knowledge. I agree. I used to commute on the trail, and I definitely knew, when you think about things like bumps or different neighborhoods. But I didn’t know the different turns of the creek. And I don’t think I noticed exactly where one type of landscape shifted to the next.”
He says those are the personal experiences he and his team are collecting for their website.
Photographer Conti is already hard at work on his map of Westchester Lagoon, sketched with child-like symbols inside a 30-year-old book of hexagonal graphing paper leftover from his teenaged role-playing days. It includes the usual landmarks and some less typical stuff.
“Well, there’s a red fox that lives over here, and I’ve seen him or her many, many times over the years. Mostly in winter. And there’s salmon over here and cranes over here and a tug boat pulling a barge and a broken bridge…”
Conti’s starting to get the idea of what they’re trying to do. He’s thinking about what the trail he’s walked on for more than decade really means to him.