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From The Dirt Up

Words by Carolyn Highland, photos by Joe Connelly

Soon after moving to Anchorage, Stio Ambassador Carolyn Highland takes advantage of a brief weather window for a multi-sport adventure in Chugach State Park. Running and riding up Ptarmigan Pass, she confronts complicated feelings of leaving behind familiar landscapes, as well as the satisfaction of building a relationship with her new home—one adventure at a time, from the dirt up.

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Building my sense of place with Alaska started with the 57-hour drive from California, where I’d lived for the past five years. Over the seven days it took my partner Andy and me to make the drive, I felt on a granular level exactly how far Anchorage was from Truckee. We arrived in summer—an Alaskan season relatively unfamiliar to me. Everything was green and lush and drenched in near-constant sunlight. I had to squint at the bare peaks of Chugach State Park that loomed to the east and imagine them covered in snow to recognize them. 

When you leave a place, shelving your hard-won geographic knowledge of the area almost feels like breaking up with someone. You still remember their favorite wildflower, or how they liked their eggs, or how they laughed about something truly funny. The information is still real, but you no longer need it. 

I had spent years coming to Alaska to ski with my cousin Joe, a long-time Anchorage resident, so I wasn’t starting from zero. From our new house, I looked up at several of the main drainages of Chugach State Park, identifying peaks and ridgelines and faces we’d skied. In the summer, the landscape looked entirely different. Trails existed that had been buried under feet of snow, and the mountains seemed bare with vegetation exposed. 

Getting to know the land intentionally feels like the first step to being in relationship in a way that’s meaningful and reciprocal. It happens slowly and steadily, through exploring, researching and connecting with others. I cherish looking around at the natural landscape and feeling among friends, but I now needed to work to regain that relationship.  

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Greeted by a stretch of unusually glorious high pressure, we spent the first couple of days unpacking, starting new jobs and exploring new trails. Saturday rolled around and we learned that Joe had cooked up a multi-sport backyard adventure for Andy and me to cut our teeth on. Joe had spent years staring out his window at these valleys and ridgelines and was still coming up with new and creative ways to travel across the landscape. I knew whatever we were in for, it wouldn’t be a standard day hike from an internet list. 

We left Joe’s house, near the Glen Alps trailhead, on mountain bikes, setting out east across Powerline Valley into Chugach State Park. To the north, Little O’Malley, False Peak and O’Malley Peak rose up against the sky—to the south, a ridgeline that was home to Flat Top, Peak 2, Peak 3, Flaketop and Ptarmigan Peaks. Campbell Creek cut in ribbons down the center of the U-shaped glacial valley, eventually flowing in several forks down to the city. A double track trail followed the valley east to Powerline Pass, with singletrack options spurring south to Ship Lake Pass and Hidden Lakes. 

We pedaled east until we neared the base of Ptarmigan Pass, tucked just between Flaketop and Ptarmigan Peaks. We ditched our bikes in some hemlocks just off the double track trail and switched into trail running gear. I felt the buzz of adrenaline from exploring a new zone, my legs spring-loaded with eagerness to see what lay beyond the ridgeline.

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There was no true trail up to Ptarmigan Pass, just a hint of a game trail and then some scrambling up steep alpine tundra. Crowberry and blueberries and sphagnum moss carpeted the hillside. It started out sloping gently and eventually sloped upward into cliffbands guarding the top of the pass. We found ways of least resistance through notches in the rock, clambering up trickling cascades and through narrow talus piles. 

After forty-five minutes of slow upward movement, we crested the col. Our gazes rested on the crooked prominence of Ptarmigan and the glittering jewel of a lake below it. Andy leapt off a boulder on the shoreline into the blue as Joe and I sat down for snacks on the slope above. Andy’s hooting and hollering at the exhilarating cold of the water echoed around us as we surveyed the surrounding peaks. 

Even though they looked different in their summer skin, I started to orient myself by the lines I’d skied in winters past—looking across Powerline Valley to False Peak and back up the ridgeline toward Flaketop and Peak 3.  I felt the roots of connection slowly start to radiate out between me and the landscape, tying us closer together. 

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One of my favorite parts of getting to know a place’s geography is seeing it from as many vantage points as possible. Each slightly different perspective provides another piece of the puzzle—another way to triangulate based on recognizable landmarks. Each view brings the whole picture into focus, brings you slightly closer to the land. This was just one angle of many, but it was a start. 

There is deep satisfaction in having intimate knowledge of a place. Of knowing how to get there from here, of recognizing peaks and lakes and valleys and rivers by name. Being able to give detailed directions and excellent trail recommendations, knowing the flora and fauna, collecting stories and memories for each drainage.

As we descended slowly down the steep slope and back into the valley, I felt a sense of satisfaction grow after spending a day getting to know a corner of my new home. There are no shortcuts to understanding a landscape. It would take time, maybe months and or even years, to build to the knowledge I had of my last home. One adventure at a time—that’s the pace that builds a relationship with the land, from the dirt up. You go trailhead by trailhead, drainage by drainage, introducing yourself, orienting yourself to all the tiny wonders that await.

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