As Alaska basks in the summer weather, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is set to have a busy couple of months. The first day of June — which is National Trails Day — kicked off the summer events at the Refuge with two guided hikes, one along Centennial Trail at the Refuge’s Visitor Center and one going out to Marsh Lake at the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area.
David Fink is an environmental education intern at the Refuge and led the guided hike from the visitor’s center along Centennial Trail. Fink had never led a hike before Saturday, but his experience leading field trips and going into classrooms to teach students about the Refuge came in handy considering kids made up about half of Saturday’s group. Fink stopped occasionally during the hike to teach the kids — and some of theadults — about plants and animals encountered along the trail. Before starting, Fink asked the kids what kind of plants and animals they might expect to see along the way.
“Snowshoe rabbits!” Shouted Zachariah Fray, one of the kids on the hike.
“Bears!” added another, Sasha Brott.
While there were no snowshoe hares or bears seen on Saturday, Fink said that one should be prepared to see any of the above on a hike through the Refuge, and Fink had a can of bear mace with him as a precaution.
As the hike began, Fink pointed out the horsetail on either side of the trail and showed the kids how to tell the male plant from the female. The differences were easy to spot, with the female plant looking like a typical fern and the male plant looking like a stalk of asparagus. Shortly after that, Fink stopped to warn that moose can be particularly aggressive this time of year because calves are being born and the cows become extra protective. He demonstrated the signs that a moose is about to charge by putting his head down slightly and lowering his ears.
Cheyenne Juliussen, the Refuge’s cultural intern, added that the fur on the back of moose’s neck also stands up, but Fink was unable to mimic that move.
Fink taught how to identify many different plants along the hike, including devil’s club, pushki, fireweed, birches and spruce. Fink even spotted a morel mushroom along the way, a somewhat rare delicacy that many often go foraging through the Refuge to find. Naturally it was finders keepers this time, and Fink pocketed the tasty treat before continuing to lead the group through the forest.
Later Fink broke off another mushroom — this time a tinder conk — from a nearby tree and passed it around for everyone to see and feel. As he did so, he taught the kids a trick to remembering its scientific name — fomes fomentarius — by thinking of it as a spell from “Harry Potter.” Before long the kids were waving their fingers like wands and shouting “Fomes fomentarius!” at each other in an attempt to turn their friends and siblings into mushrooms.
To end the hike, Fink put the guests’ newfound knowledge to the test in a game he called “tree doctor.” The hikers split into pairs, with one person closing their eyes while the other person guided them to a nearby tree. After taking time to feel the bark, leaves and branches of the trees, the hikers were led back to the trail, opened their eyes, and were told to go back and identify the tree to which they had been brought. Either Fink was an excellent teacher or the kids were fast learners, because everyone passed the test.
The Refuge will be offering guided hikes similar to the one led by Fink three days a week starting at the end of June, with the next one on June 21 at Hidden Creek. On Thursdays and Fridays, the hikes will be longer and cater towards teenagers and adults, while Saturdays will be the gentler hikes that can be taken on by hikers young and old. Gail Easley, a volunteer for the Department of Fish and Wildlife at the Refuge, described the Saturday hikes as family-friendly.
“We don’t go quite as far or quite as fast,” Easley said.
On Thursday, June 20, the Refuge will host two sessions of their Preschool Environmental Education Programs (PEEPS) at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Easley said PEEPS will be hosted once a month and will include hands-on wildlife games, crafts and stories, with the theme this month being sheep and goats.
For the older kids, the Refuge will host two different day camps that will each have two sessions this summer. Critter Camp is designed for kids entering second or third grade in the fall and runs from June 10-14, with a second session from June 17-21. Kids will meet with rangers like Fink daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will learn about Alaska plants and animals through arts and crafts activities, trail explorations and science experiments.
Get Out & Get Dirty is the other day camp offered at the Refuge and is meant for kids entering the fourth or fifth grade this fall. The first session runs July 8-12 and the second session will be July 22-26. Meeting from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., kids will learn digital photography, map and compass and other survival skills through a variety of trail activities. Registration for Critter Camp is $50 and registration for Get Out & Get Dirty is $75.
Parents can contact Kenai Refuge Education Specialist Michelle Ostrowski at 907-260-2839 or Michelle_ostrowski@fws.gov for more information or to obtain a registration packet.
Finally, The Refuge will be hosting several interpretive storytelling events in July and August, including “Tales of the Sourdough,” which is the story of Andrew Berg, the first licensed guide in the state of Alaska. Dates for these events will be announced as they are determined, and people can call the Refuge Visitor Center at 907-260-2820 for more information.