A hiker takes in the view of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Joseph Suarez/USFWS)

A hiker takes in the view of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Joseph Suarez/USFWS)

Refuge Notebook: Let’s go! Camping, fishing, hiking, hunting, EVERYTHING!

Do you feel it? A hum of anticipation has been getting stronger and stronger as the snow piles melted down smaller and smaller into muddy rivulets.

It’s an itch to tie leaders and pack daypacks, and trade skis for bikes in the garage. It’s an eagerness that has us all dreaming of long summer days even while we drive through snow flurries in Turnagain Pass.

May snuck up on us, I think. We saw the days tick off the calendar, but it didn’t quite feel real with our forests still blanketed in snow. As early as last weekend, hikes on the refuge were abruptly halted by crusts of old snow still coating the trails, forcing a decision to post-hole a way forward with ice cleats and gaiters or turn back and seek flatter ground.

Smaller lakes that tend to hold their ice longer are joined by the mighty Tustumena, where a foot of rotting ice still thwarts wilderness adventure.

Then, BAM, just like that, we hear the first rumble of RV tires on Sterling Highway, geese start winging their way north overhead, and the sun regains its warmth. This spring feels like a rebound with an intensity not seen or felt in a while.

Want a chance to socialize at a weekend festival? Here are three stacked into one Saturday! Want to camp with friends and roast marshmallows over the fire? So do all your neighbors!

One thing I see on the horizon is a recreational summer that is full — full of people, full of campers, full of fishing, full of hiking, full of kids on bikes, and bears sniffing out picnic baskets.

So over the past week, when our volunteer campground hosts and seasonal visitor services staff arrived at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, I have been checking our plans and diving into the details that will hopefully help our visitors enjoy a safe, relaxing, exciting, refreshing and altogether awesome summer.

We are all a bit out of practice on this socializing near others thing. We’ve made so many changes these past couple of years sometimes my head swims with it all. So, I make lists. Then, I follow them, so I don’t miss the marshmallow sticks or something more important on weekend trips.

(Ask my husband about the crazy cool, if splintery, whittled spoons he had to fashion for our first campout dinner last year when no one grabbed the camping silverware from winter storage!)

So many folks have new-to-them camping trailers. How in the world do you plan that first campout of the season when your entire setup has changed?! Well, let’s review some basics that I know you know but just haven’t used over this long, cold winter.

First, start with the intention of having fun in our amazing state. However, not the kind of fun that starts wildland fires or dogfights or noise complaints, but the unique fun that makes memories that need no photos to recall a decade from now.

The taste of s’mores and the smell of hotdogs on a stick are easy memories to give your family and friends this summer while still respecting neighboring campers. Ask a host if you need help knowing what kind of fun is permitted at your campground of choice!

Our camp hosts are looking forward to meeting you and chatting about the local rules that keep everyone safe and happy. If you pick a spot where hosts are not in residence, look for bulletin boards that help, albeit in a less personal way.

Second, remember the campfire bucket. I never seem to forget the matches, but tools to safely put out an evening fire can easily be overlooked. To do it right, remember this: Drown-Stir-Feel.

Drown your fire with water (using the bucket you brought along), then stir the ashes so water reaches the embers deep in the fire pit. If needed, add more water and stir again, then feel for heat just like a wildland firefighter does before they deem a hot spot “out.” After a full day of fun, resting is all the sweeter, knowing your campfire is also “put to bed.”

Third, take advantage of all the opportunities you have on your refuge this summer. Take a paddle into the Swan Lake and Swanson River canoe systems to escape the sounds of the town and slow down for a bit. It’s less than 30 minutes from the Sterling Highway to a world where nature’s serenity surrounds you.

Fish for salmon, trout, grayling and Arctic char in refuge lakes or the turquoise waters of the Kenai River. Just remember to leave no trace along the riverbanks by packing a wag bag or stashing a toilet bucket in the boat, so tp and poo piles don’t ruin the day.

Lots of free adventure is back on the event calendar! Starting in June, take a guided walk with a ranger to an amazing overlook and earn a point in a summerlong “View the Vistas” hiking challenge. View as many vistas (viewpoints) on the refuge as you can and document them with a quick snap of the camera to earn some 80th anniversary refuge swag.

(We will tell you more about this challenge if you call the Visitor Center at 907-260-2820 or stop by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge booth at the Sports Rec and Trade Show this weekend.)

So whatever calls you to the refuge, wherever you soak up the summer, enjoy it thoroughly. Let’s go!

Leah Eskelin is Lead Park Ranger and Visitor Center Manager at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find out more about refuge events, recreation and more at kenai.fws.gov or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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