New fire pits and picnic tables were installed at Jean Lake Campground in summer 2020. (Photo by Nick Longobardi/USFWS)

New fire pits and picnic tables were installed at Jean Lake Campground in summer 2020. (Photo by Nick Longobardi/USFWS)

Refuge Notebook: Adaptation as consistency?

This year has been one for the books. Many of us had to change and adapt the way we function in our everyday lives. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge was no exception.

Going from the Swan Lake Fire in 2019 to a global pandemic that began in 2020, many new safety precautions were implemented for staff and visitors. It’s been a long time since we have functioned “normally.”

My name is Nick, and I have worked at the refuge for seven seasons now. I started my tenure at the refuge in 2014, working as a “fee ranger,” which means patrolling campgrounds and hiking trails, leading interpretive programs and walks, and answering questions at the front desk of the old visitor center.

Moving here from a Pittsburgh suburb, it took a little time to learn about the refuge and Alaska. All the flora and fauna I was taught at Slippery Rock University (yes, that is the name of it and yes, it is a real school) were local Pennsylvania and East Coast species.

I learned quickly about local flora and fauna, and before I knew it, it was 2016, and I was finishing my third season. Most seasonal employees don’t remain at one particular location for more than a few years, but the Kenai refuge is a place that countless people fall in love with, and I was no exception.

I did, however, want new experiences, and it just so happened our Youth Conservation Corp leader position was going to be open the following year. Bingo!

In 2017, I was put in charge of the YCC program. I’d gone from being on a crew of rangers to leading my own crew. The program was mine to mold, and I decided not to focus on any one thing in particular. My main goal was to give the students an overview of all the diverse conservation organizations within their communities and the functions and objectives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I led the crew for three seasons, overseeing 16 different students in that time period, taking on countless projects. We assisted the cabin program several times a year, sanding, painting, building trails, splitting wood, hauling gravel and cutting grass.

The crew worked with the fire program on a few tasks like the Sterling fuel break monitoring project, where we went to many sites on the fuel break and measured the sizes and the moisture levels of the fuels. I led the crew into the Swanson River and Swan Lake canoe systems many times, cleaning up parking lots and trash in campsites and clearing downfall off of the trails.

We built two archery courses on the refuge to provide safe facilities for rangers to teach the skill. You or someone you know may have even used one of these courses recently! The students and I partnered with the Kenai Watershed Forum on invasive plant removal and Stream Watch with river and shoreline cleanups.

They learned about salmon by visiting the Russian and Funny River weirs. We even had an impromptu invasive turkey roundup working with Alaska State Parks while helping them getting their boardwalks up and running for salmon fishing season. There have been countless other projects and programs over the years for the YCC. If I listed them all, it would be too long for this article.

Now that brings us to 2020. The world looked a lot different and there was a lot of uncertainty. Everyone at the refuge was working from home and, if you have a desk job, this is manageable, but if you’re like me and work outdoors most of the time, you weren’t really sure how it would play out.

With some quick thinking by some very capable people, myself and a few other seasonal workers were brought on. With thoughtful safety precautions in place, we began work on repairing the Skilak trails that got burned over by the Swan Lake Fire last summer.

Travel restrictions were still in place as May rolled around, and several of our summer rangers were stuck down in the Lower 48. With my previous experience as a “fee ranger” I was switched back to my old position. This time around, I had more skills and training to utilize and was quickly set loose on the refuge.

With my “keen eye” and knowledge of the refuge’s recreation areas, I made a checklist of all the summer projects that needed focus last summer. The rangers started to trickle in, and we divvied up the tasks and got to work as a crew.

The rangers worked on anything from cutting back brush in the campgrounds, leave blowing pavilions, painting old signs and hanging new ones, fixing roofs on information kiosks, refurbishing picnic tables, replacing fire pits, and even re-establishing campsites in the Jean Lake Campground.

The crew was able to cross off about 85% of the tasks on the list, with only projects remaining that require skills above our abilities as seasonal park rangers.

For those that know me personally, I am a bit of a computer nerd, and as the reader can probably guess from reading this article, I am very goofy. Those skills were also put to good use this season. I worked with our education intern MJ, creating a lot of fun and creative content for the refuge’s Facebook page.

One of the posts that stands out to me was a singalong song for kids called “The Campfire Song, Song.” Feel free to go and check it out! It was a blast to create this content for those of you that follow the page. I really hope you enjoyed the information and diversity in posts last summer.

By the end of 2020, some of us “seasonals” had a few weeks left before our season ended, and we were starting to prepare for winter. Chainsaws were cleaned and sharpened, paintbrushes rinsed, trucks washed and vacuumed, articles written (as you can see), and projects planned for next season.

Even though it was a strange year with a lot of unknowns, I was so grateful I got to work at the Kenai refuge for another season. One can only hope we get back to “normal” in 2021, but as my time working here has shown me, “normal” might not actually exist.

As we are gearing up for this summer, I can only speak for myself, but I am sure that every employee here will agree with me: it has been a great pleasure to have the opportunity to serve you through these difficult times. We hope that being able to escape out into the refuge has made things a little easier for you and your family. Stay safe out there and keep on enjoying the refuge!

Nick Longobardi is a seasonal employee that has worked at the refuge for seven seasons now. He likes to refer to himself as the “Swiss Army Knife” of the refuge as these knives have many tools. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Kenai/community/refuge_notebook.html.

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