John Loranger, Ruby Glaser, Linda Loranger and Alice Main snowshoe on Headquarters Lake during a winter solstice event at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on Friday. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

John Loranger, Ruby Glaser, Linda Loranger and Alice Main snowshoe on Headquarters Lake during a winter solstice event at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on Friday. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

‘There’s something about snow’

Celebrating solstice at the refuge with a sunset walk

The first few steps in snowshoes for Theo Carroll, 75, of Soldotna did not go well.

Carroll was just steps out of the parking lot of the Environmental Education Center at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on Friday night when she got her refuge-issued snowshoes caught up in the plentiful powder and went down.

“I was the first one to fall down,” said Carroll, who just as importantly popped right back up after a lesson from Ranger Michelle Ostrowski, an education specialist at the refuge. “You can’t shuffle along. You really have to lift up your feet.”

By the end of the 1-mile walk to and from Headquarters Lake, though, Carroll had decided she needed a pair of snowshoes of her own.

“I want to come again,” she said. “I want to walk the perimeter of that lake.”

Such can be the magic of a sunsetting, snow-capped winter solstice walk of an hour and a half in the refuge, even if one of the featured guests — a nearly full moon — sat this one out behind a bank of clouds.

Ostrowski, who started at the refuge in 1997, has put on snowshoe walks like this one before, but this is the first one she’s done on the solstice.

“At least in my mind, yes, this is a celebration of the shortest day of the year and reflecting on that darkness,” she said of the event, which drew 14 people. “It’s also a celebration of the excitement of increased daylight.”

The evening started with a brief snowshoe lesson by Ostrowski, then a question. What made you come out? Answers ranged from wanting to try snowshoeing, to having bad knees and simply wanting to get out of the house, to, “My snowshoes have been in the closet for two years. It was time to get them out again.”

Married couple John Loranger, 30, and Ruby Glaser, 28, are from New York City and visiting the area for 10 days.

Andy Loranger, John’s father, is the Refuge Manager, so the couple has done activities on the refuge before. This was the first organized activity, though, and what stood out to Glaser was how much Ostrowski augmented the occasion.

“We learned so much,” Glaser said. “It was nice being with a ranger who was so informative.”

At one stop, Ostrowski quizzed the group on what is needed for snow to form (cold air, moisture and particles in the atmosphere that can be anything from bacteria to dust to volcanic ash) to what number of sides a true snowflake has (six).

She told about how snow plays a vital role in the survival of animals from camouflage (for example snowshoe hares and ptarmigan), to giving an advantage to those with big feet (lynx, snowshoe hares), to providing vital insulation to vegetation and creatures like mice, shrews and voles that tunnel just above ground under the snow.

(This is why the refuge requests that walkers and snowshoers stay on trails near the headquarters. Walking off the trail collapses those tunnels, exposing the subnivean — meaning “under snow” — animals to cold and predators. The same precaution is not necessary on lakes).

On Headquarters Lake, as the shortest day of the year expired, Ostrowski told about how wolves travel in the snow in a straight line to conserve energy for taking down big prey. After getting off the lake, the ranger gave a brief lesson in how to identify tracks.

Unfortunately, the track she identified was from a dog. Dogs are allowed on the refuge, but are not allowed on the trails surrounding the headquarters.

John Loranger was born in Anchorage and moved to the refuge area when he was about 1, staying until he was 5. He mostly grew up in the suburbs of Houston, and was quick to note the solstice doesn’t mean much in the constant lights and bustle of New York City.

This solstice walk on the refuge was another matter.

“The forest is magical at all times of the year, but there’s something about snow,” Loranger said. “I appreciate each season for what is different about it. Winter is important for rest and rejuvenation.”

Carroll certainly caught on quickly. She moved to Soldotna this summer from Florida to be closer to her family.

Her first Alaska winter has not slowed her down. She still aims to walk 25 miles a week, just like in Florida.

“It’s not a hard adjustment and in other ways it’s a significant adjustment,” Carroll said. “I did a lot of athletic activities in Florida in the morning to beat the heat. Now I wait until later in the day for the warmth.”

Carroll has been doing most of that walking on cleared sidewalks, but that scene could be changing to what she called the “magnificent, gorgeous” forest in the winter. Even at night.

“What I really take from this is how light and brilliant it felt,” Carroll said. “It wasn’t dark at all.

“I thought I would need a flashlight. I brought two and didn’t need them.”

Ostrowski said Carroll would not be the first person to take a maiden cruise on refuge-issued snowshoes then decide to purchase a pair at the store.

“I love getting people outside and active and enjoying their refuge in any season at any time of day,” Ostrowski said.

She said the best way to keep up with activities in the refuge is through their Facebook page or by a monthly flyer which shows upcoming activities. The flyer can be picked up at the visitors center, or Ostrowski does an email blast every month. To get on that email list, contact Ostrowski at 907-260-2839 or

Suggestions for future programs also can be sent to Ostrowski.

“The refuge is always open to adding ideas for programs the public may have been looking for,” Ostrowski said. “We’re always looking for ways for people to connect with the refuge.”

Ranger Michelle Ostrowski, an education specialist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, tells a group of winter solstice walkers at Headquarters Lake about wolves Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Ranger Michelle Ostrowski, an education specialist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, tells a group of winter solstice walkers at Headquarters Lake about wolves Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

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