Refuge Notebook: It’s more fun than walking

I’m not sure which one of us was more excited about the fresh snow, my ski partner or me. We rushed out the front door to see just how much had accumulated overnight. The cold air slapped our faces, but it didn’t matter. There was enough snow for cross-country skiing!

We shuffled toward the garage through the light, airy snow to grab the “early/late season” skis, the ones that it doesn’t matter when you glide over a couple of rocks or roots along the way. We decided to wait until the afternoon, which would give the sun time to rise and hopefully warm the frigid air.

Plus, the boots and skis needed time to thaw out, allowing the glide wax to cover the scrapes and scratches left from previous seasons’ eagerness.

Finally, the sun was high in the sky. Well, as high as it gets in Soldotna in November, and we couldn’t wait any longer. I laced up my boots, zipped up my jacket, pulled a beanie over my ears, and grabbed my gloves as we headed out the door. Just like that, we were off, skiing the first day of a new season!

It didn’t take long for our first wreck of the new season either! My skis crossed and my ski partner kept going, pulling me to the ground and then a few feet farther. As I lay in the snow laughing at how it was only five minutes after we started, she quickly looped around to lick my face. Yes, my ski partner is my dog. We untangled our mess of poles, leashes and skis, and kept moving along.

After about 30 minutes and three more wrecks, we were back in our groove of skiing together and I found myself reflecting on a conversation I had earlier in the week. Someone had asked why I liked cross-country skiing so much, mainly because I despise running. I didn’t have a great answer at the time, so I responded, “It’s more fun than walking,” and shrugged my shoulders.

The truth is it’s so much more than that. It’s something to bring excitement instead of dread to more snow in the forecast. It’s something to warm you up despite the single digit outside temperatures. It’s something to inspire curiosity about the natural world in our collective backyard on the Kenai Peninsula.

I quickly looked up as a small shadow came across the snow in front of us. A pair of Canada Jays (Perisoreus canadensis) landed in the spruce just ahead of us. As we watched them hop around from branch to branch, I thought about a couple of interesting facts I learned last year when I looked them up after a ski, much like today.

Canada Jays, also known as gray jays, eat a large variety of food, ranging from berries and seeds to small animals and carrion. It’s not uncommon for them to swoop down and grab unattended human food, giving them another common name — camp robbers. Like a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) stashing spruce cones for winter, Canada jays store food against tree branches using their sticky gluelike saliva.

Counting this pair of Canada jays, I had seen five different species (four bird, one mammal) during our short ski. The bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and common ravens (Corvus corax) were easy to spot when they soared overhead.

I had to search a little harder to find the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) after I heard its characteristic chickadee-dee-dee call from the spruce. This tiny songbird, weighing only as much as a pen (12 grams), is another year-round resident on the Kenai Peninsula.

The characteristic call I heard is an alarm call, designed to alert other members of its flock to perceived threat. Interestingly, other bird species will respond to these alarm calls!

Not too far down the trail, the red squirrel was another easy one to spot while it chattered loudly and jumped from branch to branch. There were also countless moose (Alces alces) and snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) tracks crisscrossing the trail.

If you find yourself searching for something to change your perspective on these cold, snowy days, I’d recommend cross-country skiing. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is great place to start!

At the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters and Visitor Center off Ski Hill Road, there are about 10 miles of trails waiting to be explored by two-legged skiers and snowshoers (no dogs, please!). If your ski partner has four legs, try heading out Skilak Lake Road/Swanson River Road or simply going for a walk on the Ski Hill Multi-use Trail.

You never know what you might see on the trail. For me, cross-country skiing is something to look forward to during the cold, dark days of an Alaska winter. And of course, it’s more fun than walking.

Ashley Lutto is an Administrative Support Assistant for Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at