By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter
When the snow finally melts, it reveals more than just the earth or last fall’s lawn. This is the time of year the adopted parents of highways start to size up the job ahead of them. A winter’s worth of litter hiding beneath the snow is suddenly in plain view. There’s enough litter in some places to decoy snow geese passing overhead.
One of the places litter is out of control is the Escape Route — Marathon Road connecting Kenai and Nikiski. It offers litter on a scale that belongs to post-apocalyptic science-fiction movies. Shot-up appliances line the roadway and fill the gravel pits. The number of decommissioned computer monitors create the image of a bleak, dystopic future. One monitor hangs from a tree, its broken screen and weathered cords a warning to other monitors that this must be the place where computers go to die.
The road has become a back alley waste-disposal site, one in which refrigerators, microwaves and engine blocks pile up at a rate that a back hoe, loader and full-size dump truck are the required implements of litter patrol. Adopting this highway would be the equivalent of adopting a 1980s rock band with a penchant for firearms.
It’s hard to imagine this litter as falling into one of the complicated categories of the litter debate — the theories of which include biodegradable litter, the coffee cup left on a bench or the accidental wind-blown grocery bag. The litter on the Escape Route falls into the category of first-degree offenses: fast-food containers deliberately tossed out the window, in dinosaur proportions.
It was pointed out to me recently that the farther away from the road system we get, the less litter there is, and I’ve found this to be true. Yet, even after a gorgeous day in the mountains, the sight of litter can take the wind out of my sails. And it starts to appear the closer I get to a trailhead or a road.
In contrast to our current litter situation, the Dena’ina, the Native inhabitants of the Kenai, left little record of their lives on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s easy to forget that they were our founders. They cremated their dead and burned or destroyed their trash. Leaving signs of themselves was considered disrespectful of the spirits in nature.
The word “viewshed” has recently entered the vocabulary of the outdoors. It’s what we see when we look over a landscape. All the beauty that can be found in the outdoors can be destroyed by a single label, and yet, the world we live in is so full of litter. It isn’t just garbage thrown on the sidewalks, it’s an aesthetic integrity that informs the ethics of “leave no trace.”
Everywhere we look in the civilized world, there is trace. Volunteers all over the community pitch in to help clean up the peninsula every spring, and yellow bags dot the sides of the roads. My hunting and fishing partner spent annual cleanup day not hunting or fishing, but, instead, picking up litter on the Escape Route. I wished I could have helped, although work prevented it, because I know that, sometimes, the most difficult adoptions can be the most rewarding — whether children or highways. Bad behavior is often a cry for help that can only be cured through unconditional attention and commitment to a solution.
Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. She can be reached at email@example.com.