What’s a great way to commune with nature in a big group that provides safety from bears, collective knowledge on plants and animals, socializing and the impetus to put excuses and tasks aside and drive to the trail head?
Take a Hike.
Take a Hike is a program of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge where rangers and staff are accompanying a group of hikers on Fridays at 1 p.m. The program started on June 15 and runs through Aug. 3, hitting trails throughout the refuge.
“The intention is to give everyone an opportunity to get out and see the refuge,” said Leah Eskelin, a visitor services park ranger at the refuge. “Some folks don’t like hiking by themselves.”
The refuge has been doing discovery hikes for years, but Eskelin said the trail selection was far more limited. This is the second year the selection of trails has been expanded. This summer, 11 trails will be used.
The June 29 selection was Bear Mountain Trail, located 6.1 miles down the east entrance of Skilak Lake Road. The trail is 1.7 miles round trip, provides showstopping views of Skilak Lake, and gains about 560 feet in elevation.
The hike was led by husband-and-wife team Gail Easley and Bill Farrell, a pair of volunteer visitor center hosts up for the summer from Florida. A ranger also normally joins the hike, but was busy at another event.
“Alaska kind of gets in your blood,” Farrell said in a speech to the group of 16 to kick off the hike. “My wife’s already telling me we’re coming back next year. I hope you find the place as enchanting as we do.”
The group asked just one question before beginning — what about bears?
That quickly brought up one of the benefits of Take a Hike. Both Easley and Farrell are trained in bear safety and were carrying bear spray, but the biggest safety benefit came from the large group heading into the woods.
“Safety increases through numbers and training,” Eskelin said. “Statistically, you’re safer if you have five or more people with you.”
Statistics are one thing. Feeling comfortable is another. Hikers Walter and Lawren Starner of Florida are spending six weeks on the peninsula and have done plenty of hiking as a couple. Recently on the Grewingk Glacier trail, though, they wouldn’t have minded some more company.
“It’s an eery feeling having only two people and seeing a ton of bear scat,” Lawren said. “Having four or more people makes me a lot less nervous about bears.”
Once everybody is relaxed, the true fun begins.
Easley, Sandy Kerns of Soldotna and Deborah Green of Moose Pass spent the early part of the hike trying to identify plants. Easley said listening to Kerns and Green share knowledge is one neat thing about the hikes.
“Locals might know a micro area well, but that’s very different from knowing the area at large,” Easley said.
Kerns is well-qualified to discuss another of the benefits of the hikes. She is a community volunteer at the refuge visitors center, but she also is a licensed clinical social worker who uses the benefits of nature therapy.
“By volunteering at the center, I can take care of my personal health as well as being able to take that back to the clients,” she said.
The viewshed at the top of the trail gives her the perfect chance to make her point.
Powerful. Calming. Invigorating. The expansive look at Skilak Lake was many things, but depressing and sad were not two of those things.
“It’s impossible for the mind to hold two different thoughts at once,” Kerns said.
Such beauty makes positive thoughts possible, then Kerns said pictures can be used as reminders of that moment.
The top of the trail also affords Farrell, a former principal, the opportunity to display another benefit of Take a Hike as he speaks about the history of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
“Once a teacher, always a teacher,” said Walter Starner, who lives next to Farrell in Florida. “We always tease him about that.”
Vincent Palancia, on the hike with his wife, Doris, loved Farrell’s speech.
“I didn’t know that,” he said. “I’m a historian on the island of St. Thomas. When I’m in a place, I like to know its history.”
The Palancias have been spending summers in Soldotna since 1998. They spend the rest of the year at St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. They are enthusiastic fans of staff- and ranger-led hikes.
“Every Friday, we look at the local calendar for ourselves and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” Vincent said.
There was a chance of rain that day on the Bear Mountain Trail. There were sure to be bugs, and would clouds afford a worthy view? Doris said a great thing about the hikes is having a set time for a hike so excuses can’t encroach.
“You can’t use it as an excuse not to do it,” Doris said of the rain. “Then you’d never go anywhere. In Alaska, it’s always raining somewhere.”
And no matter the weather, Doris and Vincent know they’ll at least have somebody leading the hike.
“They always show up,” she said of refuge personnel. “Even if you’re the only people there, they’ll still show up and go on the hike.”
At 69, Vincent, a retired Marine, said he feels very fortunate to still be doing Alaska hikes like Bear Mountain.
“I’ve been coming here 20 years and I’ve been around the world two times,” he said. “This is one of the last places you have to adjust to your environment in.
“You’re still low on the food chain, and you have to be able to adjust to that.”
On the way down, talk on a trail already once trodden turns from plants and animals to matters of daily life.
“A lot of retired folks talk about surgeries and operations,” Easley said. “The good news is, we’re still here.”
But at the bottom of the trail, with the hike over, enthusiasm for this place holds strong.
“We feel lucky to be able to be a part of events like this on the refuge,” Farrell said, with the same conviction he used in his speech before the hike, and in his history talk at the top of the trail.
Kerns and Easley said the refuge is offering an impressive array of programs this summer, with July being particularly heavy. Details are available on the refuge’s Facebook page, or by calling 260-2820.
The 1 p.m. hikes today with be at Vista Trail, which is moderate, and Burney’s Trail, which is easy. Vista Trail is at Upper Skilak Lake Campground, while Burney’s Trail is at Hidden Lake Campground.
The refuge asks that pets be left at home.