There’s a moose on our patio and a bear near our RV steps. Life can be an adventure as a volunteer host.
As we write this, our fifth July as Kenai National Wildlife Refuge hosts is unfolding, which means Bill is fishing as often as he can, and our freezer is filling up.
Where once we had a recliner in our RV, we now have a freezer. This decision lets us eat salmon, halibut and rockfish all winter in sunny Florida until we return to Alaska for the next season of volunteering.
After five years of volunteering at the refuge, we have come to appreciate all parts of our season: the quiet beginning of renewing friendships and making new friends; hiking the familiar trails with their stunning vistas; and getting ready for fishing.
Early on, we didn’t know much about the gear, the flies, the waters and how to best catch, prepare, preserve and eat salmon.
Bill has been an avid fisherman for most of his life, but some techniques are a bit different here. Lucky for us, the refuge staff and our new local friends were a help during those early days.
Even better, the refuge hosts “Fish Week” in mid-July (this year on July 18 to 23), where novice anglers can try out new skills at the visitor center.
Here, experts lead activities like knot tying, casting, fish filleting and canning, including tribal elders and local folks who have fished these waters for many years. Attending this event allows us to make the best of the salmon fishing season, and preparing and preserving the catch.
In 2017, our first volunteer season, Bill learned the “Kenai flip” alongside some college interns. They made all the usual mistakes, shared what they learned with each other, and had help from refuge staff.
The first sockeye Bill caught was at the River Center public access boardwalk. He wasn’t sure how it happened, but he was hooked on fishing for sockeyes!
After that first sockeye, he ran up the stairs, drove home and had Gail take a picture. When the interns got off work that day, it was back to the River Center; Bill landed another sockeye, and the intern caught his first.
Between those two trips to the River Center, Bill bought a fishing net. The intern netted Bill’s fish, and Bill netted the intern’s fish, which included chasing that fish up and down the river because he could not get the fish any closer.
Finally, the fish made the mistake of swimming right at Bill. He fell backward into the river, put the sockeye in the net, and held the net above the water so it couldn’t escape.
The people on both sides were laughing. As they left, one of the men asked, “Do you bathe here often?” It was so much fun they fished whenever they got the chance. Since then, Bill learned a little more about catching sockeyes and now helps youngsters at the casting yard during Fish Week.
When not at the riverbank, we head up mountains. These past few years, we have had the pleasure of leading Discovery Hikes, primarily in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area.
Here, people gather because they want companionship on the hikes, to learn about the refuge or the particular area of the hike, or for guidance in seeing landmarks and vistas as they photograph their memories.
As volunteers, we hike these same trails early in the season to learn if anything is different, such as changing views from the Swan Lake Fire, a reworked staircase by the trail crew, or the abundance of fireweed that is a must-see.
As the season begins, we have training about bears, allowing us to share bear safety knowledge with visitors. The outdoors of the refuge is a great classroom, and we are privileged to lead visitors to understand better what they see here.
Whether hiking refuge trails with their beautiful vistas, making roving interpretations (which means stopping at overlooks, campgrounds or other locations in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area to talk to people and help them enjoy the refuge), or meeting people from all over the world at the Visitor Center desk, volunteering here has opened new worlds.
At the same time, we can give back to the public lands system that has meant so much to us, our children and our grandchildren. We can do our small part to ensure that people have their best experience in the refuge and that these public lands are preserved and conserved for generations to come.
If you are new to the area, visiting this week or just want to enjoy a celebration of all things fish, please stop by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center at 33398 Ski Hill Road in Soldotna.
Join us any time between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. during Fish Week, coming up July 18 to 23. We will host hands-on activities all day long, and a detailed schedule of demonstrations, storytelling and other programs are available by calling 907-260-2820 or checking the Refuge’s Facebook page.
See you there!
Bill Farrell and Gail Easley call Florida home in the winters and have been Visitor Services volunteers at the Kenai National Wildlife in summer since 2017. Find out more about refuge events, recreation, and more at kenai.fws.gov or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge. To find more Refuge Notebook Articles go to https://www.fws.gov/kenai-refuge-notebook.