Very little escapes Kathy Heindle’s notice when she walks her route along the Kenai River in Soldotna’s Centennial Park. Armed with a grabbing claw, trash bag and backpack, she weaves among the campers and anglers in the park, gathering bits of plastic and fishing line between trips down the river access stairs to talk to fishermen.
Stepping up to the top of one of the river access stairs during her walk Thursday night, she pointed to a woman standing in the river angling for sockeye.
“No safety glasses,” she said. “We have some we’ll hand out if they want that, so I’d just go down and talk to them about it.”
And she did just that. As a Kenai Peninsula Stream Watch volunteer with the Kenai Watershed Forum, Heindle talks to anglers and park visitors often, filling them in on ways to stay safe while fishing and how to protect the Kenai River’s vegetated banks for the health of the river and the fish that live in it.
She got started volunteering with the group in 2011, taking her first walk on the Russian River. Now in her seventh season, she said she frequents Centennial Park, as it’s close to home and work, but has also done cleanups at Bings Landing in Sterling, Moose Range Meadows near Soldotna and on the Kasilof Beach.
The Kenai Peninsula Stream Watch program, begun on the Russian River in 1994, brings volunteers together to educate anglers and protect the Kenai River watershed with the goal to ensure good salmon spawning habitat, which depends on clean water and vegetated banks. They conduct regular trash cleanups, maintain fishing line recycling stations and erect temporary fencing in high-traffic areas to protect sensitive banks.
The program began on the Russian River and expanded to include the lower Kenai River near Kenai and Soldotna in 2011, the same year Heindle joined. This year, the program has 58 oriented ambassadors, who are people who have committed to spending at least 24 hours volunteering, said Alice Main, the Stream Watch coordinator for the Kenai Watershed Forum. But that’s not the only way to participate, she said.
“There are a lot of others, too, who participate in our stewardship days,” she said.
After he conversation with the man at the bottom of the first set of access stairs, she headed right on for the next one, stopping at Stream Watch’s canisters to pick up the monofilament fishing line anglers have deposited there. If a set of stairs doesn’t have someone at the bottom fishing, she checks for bent metal to see if the stairs looks safe; if it looks damaged, she’ll snap a picture and Kenai Watershed Forum will get it to the city of Soldotna’s Parks and Recreation Department to make sure it gets fixed.
If there is someone at the bottom, she’ll usually descend and strike up a conversation, regardless of whether or not she spots an obvious warning flag. In one case Thursday, she approached a pair of anglers, one of whom had placed his gear on the bank and the other who had placed his on the stairs.
“I made sure to say, ‘Good job, thanks for putting your things on the stairs, that protects the bank,’” she said later. “But I didn’t say anything to the other guy — I just praised the guy who did it right and hope that the other guy heard it.”
Some people are more receptive to the advice than others, so she just feels it out as she’s going through the conversations, she said. Stream Watch volunteers aren’t enforcement officers — they just try to educate people and pick up litter where they can.
The Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, a land stewardship and conservation trust based in Homer, took notice of Heindle’s dedication and awarded her the third “Kingmaker” award given on the Kenai Peninsula. The award, granted to people who work to conserve salmon by protecting habitat, began with the Great Land Trust recognizing private landowners who conserved salmon habitat on their lands in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Kachemak Heritage Land Trust brought the program to the Kenai Peninsula in 2016, awarding the first to the Kenai Watershed Forum’s then-educational specialist Dan Pascucci, best known for the environmental education songs he taught to students on the Kenai Peninsula.
“Your love for the rivers is evident by the countless hours you have dedicated volunteering through Kenai Watershed Forum’s StreamWatch program over the last seven years,” Kachemak Heritage Land Trust Executive Director Marie McCarty and Board of Directors President Sam Means in a letter to Heindle. “From Centennial Park, Moose Rnge Meadows, Kasilof River, and countless other areas, it is your selfless actions that help protect the vital habitat needed for salmon to live and thrive.”