Snowshoers talk with Ranger Leah Eskelin during a December snowshoe walk at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Catie Shelden)

Snowshoers talk with Ranger Leah Eskelin during a December snowshoe walk at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Catie Shelden)

Refuge Notebook: Take it from the hare, snowshoes are the way to go!

The holidays are behind us, but there is still a whole lot of winter ahead. I love the rush and excitement of the early winter months, and who doesn’t love seeing the arrival of the winter solstice and lengthening days?

This year I am working hard to also love all the midwinter days that are still white with snow.

How am I loving the rest of our Alaska winter? Snowshoeing, skiing, icy walks to the mailbox and back, and making some pretty fabulous snowballs with this super cool snowball maker my kids found under the tree. Our upcoming snowball fights are going to be epic!

I should add that snowy winter fun is something I have learned to enjoy as an adult after growing up in sunny Florida as a child. That means I am very aware of how I turned the “dark, long, cold days” people warned me of before I moved here 18 years ago into “full-moon illuminated snowshoe walks with friends,” which I actually look forward to very much.

It started with a mind-set, a dedicated effort to find the good in the Alaska winter.

I studied the wildlife, perfectly built for winter, and saw hares hopping around the woods, moose stilt walking above the snow then burrowing in for shelter, and I followed the tiny tracks of a rodent as it crossed my driveway from a tall spruce all the way to, wait, my garage door!

I definitely also learned how cohabitating with humans has made winter easier for some animals. I learned that lesson the hard way after finding house mice in the garage that early winter. But I digress, back to finding the good in the Alaska winter.

I studied how my fellow Alaskans filled the wintertime, without being forced to stay indoors for months on end. With the right gear and company, outdoor winter recreation can be incredibly fun.

I lucked out to have friends with lots of winter experience to help ease me into spending time in the winter woods. I got a quick start my first winter here by joining a guided snowshoe walk at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

“If you can walk, you can snowshoe!”

My ranger guide smiled as I fumbled with the bindings, and I learned quickly that it’s easier to secure them without gloves. Then, off we went down the Keen Eye Trail, snow crunching under our big feet.

The world became so very big that day! Wetlands that were distant barriers all summer are endless corridors once frozen and covered in their protective snow blanket. Another fantastic realization was how the reflecting light from the snow makes full moon nights bright and somehow short winter days feel longer than the space between sunrise and set.

I also found that winter forest exploration was less daunting because I could see farther without leafy underbrush masking my view. The brown of moose on snow made them more obvious and I could back away without trouble. Bears, all snug in their dens, are less of a concern in winter, too.

The claws of my snowshoes were the only clawed tracks I would see on the trail for months. Those claws helped to make my world larger, as well, allowing me to walk out on frozen lakes without feeling the nervous worry that came to this former Floridian when attempting to ice skate on the same slippery surfaces. Snowshoeing was quickly my favorite way to make winter in Alaska a fantastic few months.

Later I would be introduced to cross-country skiing, and wow, that felt like a perfect blend of the access of snowshoeing with the glide of ice skating (by a skater more proficient than me). But, that’s a topic for another time.

Snowshoeing on the trails where I first experienced that ranger-led walk all those years ago remains my favorite. Now that I am the ranger leading such walks, inviting new Alaskans, or longtime Alaskans new to snowshoeing, to our ranger-led winter snowshoe walks is one of my favorite things.

I smile as I remember the friends I have made over the years while we crunched through the snow on our way to Headquarters Lake. I enjoyed the company of a 90-year-old elder who joined me every week for a one-mile snowshoe and was regularly at the head of the pack.

I met a couple with effervescent smiles who would become that next summer’s volunteer hosts at Hidden Lake Campground after they tried out snowshoeing with me for the first time.

Earlier this year, I watched a mom and her kiddos join me for a similar walk right after that first deep snowfall. While her daughter dug through the powder to find the lake ice during our midway rest, she beamed at me and shared that she was going to buy snowshoes of her own; she was having such fun.

I end this look back at my early years of snowshoeing with an invitation. I want to meet you on the trail. I want to laugh together over silly demonstrations of how to get up once I fall into the deep powder. I want to share the bright points of the Alaska winter with you. I want you to experience the fun of winter snowshoeing on the Keen Eye Trail.

So, if you want to hear the crunch of ice under your claws, hear the wind whistle across Headquarters Lake and follow where the little rodent tracks lead as they cross your path, please call the Refuge Visitor Center at 907-260-2820 to sign up for a Wednesday (noon to 1:30 p.m.) or Saturday (2 to 3:30 p.m.) snowshoe walk with me and our fantastic community volunteers. It’s excellent free winter fun that just might become a favorite.

Leah Eskelin is a Visitor Services Park Ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more informatio t the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge. Look for Refuge Notebook Articles on the first and third Fridays of each month or Find past Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/kenai-refuge-notebook.

Two young snowshoers make their way across Headquarters Lake during a ranger-led snowshoe walk. (Photo by USFWS)

Two young snowshoers make their way across Headquarters Lake during a ranger-led snowshoe walk. (Photo by USFWS)

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