For the next several months, guests to the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center in Old Town Kenai have the opportunity to view a photographic gallery that highlights the natural beauty of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and its many inhabitants.
The bulk of the works on display come from Mary Frische and Tom Collopy, the owners of Wild North photography. The two photographers used images that they shot, as well as images from other photographers, to create an exhibit that celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The images are printed on canvas, and Frische painted over the images with clear acrylics in order to give the subjects a sense of texture and dimension.
Images of all of the refuge’s iconic critters — moose, brown bear, salmon and the occasional fisherman — are on display, and there are also several aerial landscape photographs stretched onto large canvasses.
Frische and Collopy’s works will be on display at the visitor center until April 9. In addition to the works by Frische and Collopy, the gallery also features a rotating display of prints that will change each month. Each monthly exhibit will correspond with a workshop hosted by refuge rangers that are free to attend.
January’s rotating exhibit, as well as the associated workshop, is all about the winter birds that call Alaska home. Images can be seen of bald eagles, northern hawk owls, woodpeckers and thrushes of various kinds, photographed by artists Colin Canterbury, Becky Hutchinson and Leah Eskelin. Eskelin is also a ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and will be hosting, along with refuge ranger Matt Conner, an upcoming virtual workshop on nature journaling.
Eskelin said nature journaling is something that many of us do already without realizing it.
“It’s all about making observations and writing them down,” Eskelin said Tuesday. “You might be outside and notice that it’s colder today than it was yesterday. That’s an example of nature journaling. We’re going to teach people how to give those observations some structure.”
Eskelin said that nature journaling can have positive mental health benefits, and she does it with her daughters during their regular skiing outings.
“It forces you to slow down and look a little closer at your surroundings,” Eskelin said. “When my daughters and I go cross-country skiing, we have one spot that we’ve started calling our ‘listening circle’. We all sit in silence for a few minutes listening to what’s around us, and then we all talk about what we heard. It’s cool because everyone tends to pick up something different.”
Making sketches or taking photographs of plants and animals are also common elements of nature journaling. Eskelin said she took to photography naturally over her career as a ranger. It’s the kind of job where you never leave the office without your camera, Eskelin said.
“The refuge is certainly pretty inspirational,” Eskelin said. “Luckily, our smartphones can handle a lot of the picture-taking these days, but I still bring my camera. Although it’s usually at the bottom of my bag when I need it.”
One of the Eskelin’s photographs on display at the visitor center features an American dipper, also known as a water ouzel, standing on the banks of the Kenai River near Jim’s Landing.
Eskelin recalled being near the boat launch on a sunny but cold winter day and spotting the “plucky” little bird jumping in and out of the cold water to find food.
“Every time he got out the water he would fluff his feathers, and he just looked happy,” Eskelin said. “It just goes to show how a photograph can turn a quick stop into something memorable.”
The winter bird nature journaling workshop will be held via Zoom on Jan. 29 from 4:30-5:30 p.m. The workshop is free, but participants will need paper, a pencil and a view outside. The Zoom Meeting ID is 215 585 0285 and the passcode is “Refuge.”
Call the Refuge Visitor Center at 907-260-2820 for more information.