Alaskans crowd popular recreation sites
Stealing a page from the playbook of radio-tracking wildlife biologists, the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation four years ago began tracking people roaming the state’s big outdoors to see where they go.
Some of what was discovered is predictable; some more surprising.
One of the big discoveries is that despite a massive influx of tourists in the 49th state every summer – tourism numbers more than double the number of state residents – out-of-staters are really not – with one or two exceptions – the folks crowding popular recreation areas.
Overall, at their worst on a statewide basis, tourists represented less than a quarter of the recreationists using more than a dozen popular recreation sites tracked in the years 2019, 2020 and 2021, according to the data in the 2023-2027 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan now available online.
The busy places – such as Chugach State Park and the Kenai River – attracted a lot more locals than visitors. All of which is in line with participation studies showing Alaskans are tied with Montanans as the most outdoor active people in the country.
Alaskans often complain about tourists crowding the state, but in reality the data would indicate Pogo, a character developed by the late cartoonist Walt Kelly, had it figured out:
Not that there aren’t tourist hotspots. Mobile phone tracking – the new way to radio-collar humans with no need to fit them with radio collars – recorded that 65 percent of the folks at the Totem Bight State Historical Park in Sitka in the summer of 2021 were visitors from Outside, as Alaskans call the lower 49 states, and Denali State Park looked to be two-thirds filled with tourists in the summer of that same year.
Traffic to and from the hotel would also help explain why the vast majority of activity tracked in Denali State Park centered on the period from May 15 and Sept. 15, the prime part of the Alaska tourist season.
Overall, too, the report concluded Denali was a “moderately low use” attraction.
The big attractions turned out to be pretty predictable: Chugach State Park and the Kenai River Special Use Management Area.
Measured in cellphone “device days” per year, no other identifiable recreation area came close to the Chugach’s nearly 100,000 pings. The Kenai River Special Management Area was second with about half the traffic of the Chugach.
“By monitoring over 150,000 different mobile phone apps, the location (latitude and longitude), timestamp, and anonymously assigned device IDs are collected (by cellphone carriers) and available for analysis,” the Parks report says.
“On average, approximately five to ten percent of all available devices in an area are captured through this methodology…..(and) it can distinguish device geographic origins (e.g., in-state versus out-of-state users).”
Given this level of coverage, 100,000 pings in the Chugach would represent a half-million to a million people engaged in recreation in the park in a given year, but the number is likely larger than that given the non-existence cell service in parts of the park.
The “heat map” of cell phone pings there showd some noticeable holes that likely correspond to dead zones.
Popular trailheads, with the notable exception of Eklutna Lake have generally good reception, however, and it was predictable that the park’s Glen Alps parking lot below Flattop Mountain, a notable landmark on Anchorage’s eastern edge, was at the top of the list of “locations of interest” in the Chugach.
Any regular user of that area could not have missed the history of an overflowing parking lot, the addition of another parking lot, and the now regular overflow of both lots that still happens on warm, sunny summer days.
The Eagle River Campground in number two on the top Chugach locations of interest might have been something of a surprise, but not the Turnagain Arm Trail, McHugh Trailhead and Glen Alps Anchorage Overlook rounding out the top five.
All are busy almost every day from mid-April into mid-October.
What was more surprising about Chugach use numbers was that the number of people using the park went up even as the pandemic was raging.
“Recreational use, as measured by device days, spiked significantly between 2019 and 2021,” the report says. “This included a jump in out-of-state visitor use from 24 percent in 2019 to 35 percent in 2021. This growth rate occurred despite very limited cruise traffic in Alaska in 2020 and 2021 and despite the park not being marketed as a major visitor attraction.”
Cruise ships have long been the major vehicle delivering tourists to the 49th state.
Approximately 57 percent of the visitors coming to Alaska in 2018 arrived on cruise ships, according to the Alaska Resource Development Council. But the Alaska cruise industry collapsed with the arrival of the pandemic in early 2020.
Cruise passenger arrivals fell by 86 percent in 2020, according to the Alaska Department of Labor, and in 2021 remained 46 percent below the more than 1.8 million visitors in 2019, the year before the pandemic began.
The boom in the Chugach while a bust was underway in the cruise industry might best be explained by the very packaged nature of Alaska cruises.
The tour companies bundle their clients and ship them off by buses or trains to national parks once they arrive in the north rather than visiting local attractions in Anchorage.
The changes the pandemic wrought in the national parks are reflected in the Labor report which showed the number of visitors to Denali National Park and Preserve dropping by 91 percent in 2020 while Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve visits fell by 78 percent and Kenai Fjords National Park by 78 percent.
These differences between the parks are largely explained by the pre-pandemic ratios of tourists to Alaska residents visiting each.
As Alaska’s wildlife Disneyland, Denali is considered the state’s biggest tourist attraction. Alaskans visit there less while more get counted as visitors to Wrangell-St. Elias when they flock to Chitina to dipnet for salmon in the Copper River or as visitors to Kenai Fjord when they head to Seward, headquarters for the Kenai park, to fish for halibut or salmon, engage in Resurrection Bay water sports, watch the legendary Mount Marathon Race, or pursue other forms of recreation.
The phone tracking data in the Resurrection Bay Special Use Area showed the pandemic effect, but it was not as great as that hitting the parks. State Parks reported Seward-area activity “went from a majority of Alaska users in 2019 (62 percent) to a majority of out-of-state visitors in 2021 (61 percent.)”
The flipflop was especially notable in summer. By 2021, the Alaskans who’d been in the majority in 2019 were down to 32 percent of visitors in the broad Resurrection Bay area blanketing the bay, the city Seward, part of Kenai Fjords park, and parts of the drainages of the Resurrection and Snow rivers.
Still, the plan ranked the overall use of the area as “moderate” while the Kenai River area on the opposite side of the Kenai Peninsula was second only to the Chugach as a high-use area.
While the use of the Chugach showed a fairly steady, year-round base of use climbing toward an early summer peak before gently sliding into the fall, the action on the Kenai started climbing to a pinnacle in early July, peaked around the end of that month, and then crashed into August almost as fast as it had gone up in July.
Two words adequately explain this phenomenon: sockeye salmon.
When the fish swarm back from the sea by the hundreds of thousands, people from the 26,000-square mile Anchorage Metropolitan Area – the Alaska underbelly home to more than half the state’s population – grab nets and rush to meet them.
There they are joined by anglers from around the world, but the Parks data proved interesting in that the entire list of top five “locations of interest” on the Kenai as identified by phones were dipnet areas.
Once world-famous for its world-record size king salmon approaching 100 pounds, the Kenai River appears to have become more of a mecca for Alaskans hoping to fill their freezers with sockeyes since those Kenai kings joined nearly all other Pacific king stocks in decline.
Why this is remains a mystery, but it appears to be tangled up in competition with other salmon for food and warmer ocean waters plus potential problems from disease and predation from marine mammal populations that have boomed since the implementation of the Marine Mammal and Protection Act in 1972.
With the king fishery in tatters, Alaskans rather than Outside tourists now dominate visitors to the Kenai River management area although their majority shrunk from 76 percent in the pandemic summer of 2020 to 59 percent by the summer of 2021.
And there appear to be key differences between the fishing areas favored by Alaskans, a lot of whom prefer to catch fish in the resident-only dipnet fishery, and tourists from outside.
Non-residents still dominate the traffic at the Russian River Campground on the banks of a Kenai tributary famed for its angling opportunities. Alaskans were the main visitors there in the summer of 2019, but by 2021 the out-of-staters appeared back in force with 66 percent of the phones belonging to someone other than an Alaskan.
A smallish, clearwater tributary to the much larger, glacier-fed Kenai, the Russian was once thought of as “the” place to catch sockeye on rod and reel, but over the past decade major rod-and-reel fisheries for sockeye have developed up and down the Kenai.
The heat-zone map of phones along the Kenai shows heavy use now concentrating around the dipnet fishery and the most popular locations for catching sockeye with rod and reel.
Outdoor recreation in Alaska is, however, constantly evolving, as the Parks report also notes, and some of that evolution now shows up in the data.
The report says the Petersville Snow Machine Use Area west of the community of Talkeetna, about 115 miles up the Talkeetna Highway from Anchorage, has grown into a moderate-use area with a considerable increase in winter recreation.
“State lands sales over the last 50 years pepper this block of state-owned land,” the report says. “Thus cabins have been built on many of these parcels. Much of the terrain is wetlands so most access is in the winter by snowmachine.
“The map shows the well-marked snowmachine trails maintained by the Petersville Community non-profit group….The combination of these trails, good snow, areas of wide-open terrain and access into the Alaska Range foothills with grand views has made this one of Alaska’s most popular snowmachine areas.”
Summer activities in the area remain greater than winter activities, but the latter are fast growing with peaks in early winter – depending on snow levels – and in late February through early April when the days are getting longer with weather conditions often making this the perfect season for travel on snow.
Data for the Knik River Public Use Area reflects a similiar late winter-early spring phenomenon with a notable, year-on-year increase in use tied to a steady increase in snowmachine, fatbike and all-terrain-vehicle traffic to the Knik Glacier.
Touring to the glacier has largely been an Alaska thing, but the Parks data shows the percentage of non-residents visiting the area in spring almost doubled between 2019 and 2021 and was approaching the level of summer use of the area by out-of-state residents.
The Knik Area, like the Petersville area, is now rated a moderate-use area, although it doesn’t always look that way. Only an hour’s drive from Anchorage, the area tends to attract a lot of weekend traffic and thus can vary from a relatively low-use area during the week to a relatively high-use area on the weekends.
This pattern of use is well-reflected in the obvious peaks in Parks’ 2021 tracking of phones in the Knik area.
Alaskans do love to get outside. A 2022 user survey conducted as part of the Parks outdoor recreation plan concluded 99 percent of them engage in outdoor activities in the summer with visits to public parks and picnic areas and walking or hiking on trails leading the list of activities.
“And 90 percent of Alasknas partook of winter activities led by ice skating and outdoor ice hockey (52 percent), snow machining (50 percent), northern lights viewing (35 percent) and cross-country skiing (24 percent),” the report said.
The biggest limitation to getting outside, the report added, was a lack of time or work, which nearly 43 percent reported as a problem, with “the next highest limitations to outdoor participation (being) safety concerns due to wildlife (24.3 percent), lack of knowledge of outdoor opportunities (21.4 percent), and lack of supporting infrastructure (20.8 percent).”
Alaska has far more near-impenetrable alder thickets than hiking trails, and both the alders thickets and the trails are frequented by bears – both black and brown/grizzly – which scare the hell out of some people.
You are being watched
Most people reading this story hopefully already know that cell phones can be easily tracked in most of the U.S., and that the wireless carrier companies – ATT, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc. – that provide the connections between those phones and the big, wide world continuously collect this tracking data.
The companies regularly sell various sorts of data on non-identified phone users to businesses and government agencies, and they rather liberally provided law enforcement authorities tracking information on individual phone users until a 2018 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court mandated they obtain a court order before asking for such information.
Alaska Parks did not track individual phone users. The agency wasn’t interested in where anyone went, but where most people go.
Anyone who in today’s privacy conscience world is bothered by the idea of being constantly tracked needs to understand that the only way to avoid this is to leave the cell phone on the counter at home or in some way block the GPS signal.
Be forewarned, however, that if you are venturing off the road system in Alaska, people’s lives have been saved by the ability of cellphone signal carriers to identify the location of a phone carried by someone who is lost.
There are individuals upsides to being constantly monitored by technology, and at the community level, the monitoring can provide a much better idea of what the public really wants from state lands in the 49th state.