Russian Jack Springs Park
Deep in Russian Jack Springs Park, I lay in my sleeping bag alongside two of my best friends. I am wide awake and wondering when a brown bear would stroll through our camp, snapping and snarling, looking to rip out our vital organs.
Well, that didnʼt happen, but it was a real concern for me at 12 years old. I spent a lot of time at that park, running, skiing, and causing the mayhem only young teen-age boys can kick around.
According to the Anchorage Park Foundation, Russian Jack Springs Park is named for Jacob Marunenko, a Russian emigrant who arrived in Anchorage in 1915. Marunenko had a permit to harvest trees in the area and lived on land homesteaded by two of his friends.
In my lifetime, before Russian Jack Springs was a park, a prison farm occupied the acreage that is now the golf course. I spoke with a cop who used to transport prisoners to the farm to do their time. He told me that in the winter, theyʼd count the prisoners and wind up with more inmates than they were supposed to have. If you were homeless, it was a warm place to spend the winter, three hots and a cot, no doubt.
Once the park was built, families, mostly from the eastside, brought picnic lunches, bats and balls and spent a Sunday afternoon eating, playing games and probably swatting a few mosquitoes. Two rows of parking spaces next to picnic tables and concrete fireplaces spread across the east-facing hillside. Later, when Carrs and MacDonaldʼs moved in across the street, people parked here to eat their lunches and listen to the radio, letting the kids out of the car to run around the woods.
The park is still there although city officials blocked off the narrow asphalt roads that led to the picnic spots, leaving main parking lot as the only place for cars. The metal fortified bathrooms have locks and hasps welded onto the doors. The picnic tables are gone (except for several in a rough field below the parking lot), the fireplaces chipped and beat up, the shelter at the top of the hill demolished. A fair amount of tagging tattoos the structures still standing although I, and others like me, would challenge anyone like that to claim the park as their own.
During winters, a lovely groomed cross-country ski trail loops through the woods, a quiet trail insulated by snow-clad trees and the solitude that accompanies the cold and dark Alaska nights. If you cross-country ski, you can glide on the lighted trails or go to the north end of the park for more solitude.
In addition to the vague history of the real Russian Jack, the park has its dark history, notably Charles Meach and the 1982 murder of four teen-agers who were camping in the park. He had already beat a murder rap by using an insanity plea in California. At the time of the murder he was on a pass from Alaska Psychiatric Hospital. Another heinous murder happened less than 100 yards outside the park boundaries to the west on Glacier Street. On a wild crime-spree in 1985, 14-year-old Winona Fletcher murdered a couple and their mother-in-law. I went to elementary school with their son, Tommy. Meach died in prison, but Fletcher is alive and has born two children while in prison.
Despite the big-city scars, the park qualifies as a beautiful urban refuge perfect for walking. On those rare hot days, the dark green forest canopy provides refuge from the sun. On rainy days, that same canopy protects walkers from most of the dampness. An often-ignored part of the park lies north of Debarr Road accessed by a tunnel just west of the intersection of Boniface Parkway and Debarr Road. Itʼs part of the bike trail system, but walkers will want to veer left off the trail about 25 yards after they leave the tunnel. A wide gravel trail heads uphill to the network of ski trails through the area. Itʼs my favorite area to walk, with a few moose the only interlopers to distract me and my dog.
I also like to follow the ridgeline above the picnic area and the main parking lot off of Boniface. Itʼs a well-defined trail where you can discover trails branching off, waiting to be discovered by you.
There is a real spring in the park although everyone I talk to doesnʼt know where to find it. It trickles out of the ground east of the 9th hole of the golf course. Several narrow trails lead up to it, so itʼs not a big secret, but Iʼve never seen anyone there. I always pass it near the end of my walk so my dog can get a drink and muddy his feet. Itʼs so strange to go right to where the water comes out of the ground, just a slight bubbling out of the gravel and the lush green plants surrounding it. My entire life, Iʼve seen it, and it never quits, a stable and predictable part of my life I can return to, to sit in its quiet permanence.
The 300 acres of Russian Jack Springs is a short drive from anywhere in Anchorage. You canʼt get lost wandering its trails as its boundaries are well-defined by major roads and subdivisions. Summer is best for walking. Youʼll have to leave the park to skiers in the winter. Bicentennial Park might be a better winter choice with its skijoring trails throughout area.
I use the park as a walker, but you can visit the greenhouse, play a round of golf (be warned the greens are rock hard) or disc golf, ride your bike. A model train club occupies one of the old small buildings, too. A large parking lot at the golf “clubhouse” is at the top of the hill on Debarr Road.