Nick Longobardi / Kenai National Wildlife Refuge                                 Anglers practice social distancing on the upper Kenai River in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in late June 2020.

Nick Longobardi / Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Anglers practice social distancing on the upper Kenai River in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in late June 2020.

Exploring the Kenai’s backyard

Refuge to start open air ranger station

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge will be opening an outdoor ranger contact station starting Friday in order to better serve the public during the time of the new coronavirus pandemic, the visitor services park ranger at the refuge said.

“We’re very excited,” Leah Eskelin said. “Summer is our highlight season because there’s a lot of fun to be had at the refuge. Of course there’s fishing, visiting and camping opportunities. This year, there’s morel mushrooms.

“There’s only so much you can do with virtual and telephone contacts. We want someone coming to the refuge to have the most positive experience possible and that’s easiest when talking to someone in person.”

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center has been closed to the public since March 21, but Eskelin said recreational facilities such as trails, cabins, campgrounds and Skilak Loop Road have not been affected by the pandemic.

“That’s not a secret,” Eskelin said. “There’s been a lot of visitation. We’re thrilled to have local residents using the refuge, spending time outdoors and finding solace, and also entertainment, on public lands.”

The open-air station will be near Majesty of the Kenai, the statue of the moose on the path to the visitor center. Starting Friday, the station will be open each week Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors also can continue to contact the refuge at 260-2820 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.

Eskelin said the station will make a number of things easier for the public, as well as providing a place to sell items including guidebooks, maps and logo items.

Seniors will no longer have to purchase senior passes, which give half off camping, online and have them mailed. Eskelin said they can be picked up at the station.

The refuge had been doing the Junior Explorer program virtually, but not the much more comprehensive Junior Ranger program. Eskelin said the station will make the Junior Explorer program easier to do, and make the Junior Ranger program possible again.

There are no guided activities planned right now, but Eskelin said the refuge is working to figure out how to do that safely.

“We loved guided programs and we miss them,” Eskelin said.

Campgrounds

Eskelin said visitors have already been taking advantage of the refuge campgrounds. There have been just a few changes caused by the pandemic.

“We are living in a place a lot of people wish to travel to,” she said. “Our nearby nature is remarkable, beautiful and iconic. We’ve definitely noticed a lot of our campgrounds have become a regular source of weekend recreation options.”

Eskelin said Upper Skilak and Hidden Lake campgrounds normally have campground hosts, but do not this season.

That means campers should bring exact change for Upper Skilak and Hidden Lake, which are $10 a night except for those with senior passes.

Upper Skilak, with 25 spots, and Hidden Lake, with 44 spots, are both first-come, first-served. With so many morel hunters and people recreating in-state, Eskelin said the best spots have been taken for the weekend by Thursday morning.

She said campers should come ready to occupy the site with something they will sleep the night in — a tent, vehicle, recreational vehicle or trailer.

“It’s not enough to pay and leave a cooler or camp chair there,” Eskelin said. “That can lead to double booking.”

Eskelin also said there is not firewood for sale at the campgrounds this year. Campers also should bring items that make sanitation of the campsites easier, like hand sanitizer, as well as their own water. The bathrooms are open, with hand sanitizer.

Finally, Eskelin said all campfires must take place in established metal rings. The Alaska Division of Forestry continues to have a burn permit suspension prohibiting brush pile burning and the use of burn barrels for the Kenai Peninsula.

With warmer, drier weather expected for the Fourth of July weekend, the Division of Forestry issued a press release Wednesday urging caution with regard to fireworks, campfires and barbecue grills.

Eskelin said crews were able to keep the Swan Lake Fire from sweeping through campgrounds, but the flip side of that means there is still fuel in campground areas for a wildfire.

“Folks need to be prepared to put the fire cold out,” she said. “They should have a bucket full of water. Before they leave, they should be able to put their hand on the embers and coals and have no heat left.”

Cabins

Eskelin said refuge cabins accessible by the roadway are pretty well booked up for the summer, which is normal. The cabins that can only be accessed by boat or plane also are pretty booked for the summer.

Eskelin said these cabins typically don’t get booked up until hunting season in fall.

“It really speaks to the number of Alaskans getting into public lands,” she said.

Anybody booking a refuge cabin at recreation.gov will get a sanitation guide, packed with steps on how to make the cabin safe during this pandemic. Each cabin also has a sanitation logbook so users can communicate what was cleaned before they departed the cabin.

Fishing

The Russian River Ferry, located in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, is still operating, with some modifications. Eskelin said the refuge is asking the public to wear masks on the ferry and keep them on until spreading out along the riverbank.

The ferry also has modified operations to allow more social distancing for passengers.

Once fishing, the refuge is recommending anglers stay a rod apart. Eskelin said that recommendation is working out so far.

She added there has been bear activity in the area this year, so it’s also important anglers keep their personal belongings within 3 feet and stringers of fish within 12 feet.

Remove fish whole and clean them elsewhere, or cut the carcasses into small pieces and toss them in deeper, faster waters.

Other refuge projects

Eskelin said other research and projects being done by the refuge have generally found a way to proceed despite the new coronavirus pandemic.

She said the Kenai refuge is fortunate that many areas can be accessed by vehicle and foot, meaning it is easier to keep staff socially distanced when traveling for projects. This wouldn’t be the case if lands could only be accessed by plane or boat. Eskelin added another factor in the refuge’s favor is that staff needed for the summer was able to be found locally. That meant travel restrictions didn’t keep the refuge from staffing up.

If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, Eskelin said, it’s that the public is realizing all that exists so close to home.

“This opportunity, even though it’s something we never asked for, has allowed us to look around and say, ‘Wow. We do live in a special place. Let’s go explore,’” Eskelin said.

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