Refuge Notebook: Loon calls, campfire s’mores and prebooked campsites herald summer on refuge

There’s a buzz in the air. It’s the charged energy of early summertime in Alaska. It’s the murmur of fishermen counting their tackle. It’s the first run of a boat motor readying for the waves. It’s a camper pulling into a campsite for a weekend of wood smoke, s’mores and the great outdoors.

As we round out the first week of training for the seasonal staff at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, their collective buzz of anticipation for a summer of public service, volunteerism, trail maintenance, outdoor adventures, hikes, paddles and floats promises a memorable next three months.

My own excited anticipation lies in three specific weekends. In January, I planned six days of family time when I could preplan time away from my summertime work team and the seven-day-per-week visitor center and hosted campgrounds I oversee. Spontaneous campouts aren’t possible for my family and our summer schedule.

Armed with reservations at our favorite campsites and a prestocked trailer, we are ready to launch into precious, unplugged, nature-filled camping trips without wasting a second.

With reserved spots waiting for our evening arrivals after work ends, I get to log into my memory banks: a daughter catching her first trout from a solo kayak, a puppy now the wise old age of eight snapping at mosquitoes before finding that sitting in the campfire smoke shooed away those pesky biters, and a husband teaching both our girls how to whittle emergency spoons from kindling when I forgot to pack the silverware that one time.

My heart is full of thanks to camping options that fit our family.

Until this summer, we have made all our family camping memories on the Chugach National Forest or in municipal campgrounds in Seward or Homer thanks to the option to reserve campsites for the dates we knew I could schedule off work.

For the first time this summer, I can set up camp in the refuge at Hidden Lake campground at a site reserved on While Lake and Ridge Loop campsites remain first come, first served, the 24 sites of Skyview Loop are reserved online. (Check availability by visiting

While on campground patrol last weekend, I visited with a few early campers soaking up the remarkably sunny day and asked them how their reservation experience had been.

One camper from Kenai was thrilled to be able to reserve her favorite site for a few camping trips this year. It has the best ridge rising behind the site, where a morning cup of coffee tastes better. She plans to invite friends to join her at least once to see how spectacular this campsite is for them.

Another camper, a commercial fisherman getting a family trip in before leaving for Dutch Harbor, was able to plan ahead before driving the two-and-a-half hours from Homer.

As I got ready to head back to Soldotna, a family from Florida waved me over to share their excitement. A common loon in full courtship display was dancing on the sunlit waves of Hidden Lake while a boat cruised by in the background.

They were so enamored they could hardly contain themselves, and many group photos were taken before they headed out. The plaintive trill of the loon’s song sent them on their way to a friend’s home north of Anchorage.

Some of life’s best experiences happen by accident, after a wrong turn, a risk taken or a recommendation accepted. Even in my preplanned summer camping, unknown campsites speculated about via campground maps and online reviews have become family favorites. (I’m looking at you, Tenderfoot site #4.)

So, this summer, look at the Hidden Lake Campground Map, either online at or in person at the Refuge Visitor Center in Soldotna, and take a chance on a Skyview Loop site. Book a night or two and see if you find a new family favorite, or scope out a different campsite to reserve for another time.

Spontaneous or preplanned, can work for all styles of camper. For same-day reservations, Skyview sites are only booked with the help of onsite campground hosts.

If you prefer playing the odds or are super flexible about what site you call home for the night, the other campsites on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge are first come, first served without reservations. Nearly all are free, a rarity these days, and even when hosted, they are the least expensive rate on the Kenai Peninsula at $15 per night.

Anticipating the holiday weekend, our environmental educators will be leading wildlife-themed programs at Hidden Lake Campground, our rangers will be stocking supplies, checking for unattended campfires, and patrolling all campgrounds, and our volunteer hosts will be welcoming every camper to their special place on the refuge.

I’ll be joining them, too, smiling as I witness fantastic memories being made, knowing my family time is coming up soon, booked ahead to ensure I get to stay in my favorite campsite with a perfect mountain view.

There is a buzz in the air. It’s probably those big early-season mosquitoes that seem even bigger than I remember. But it’s also the excitement of camping on our federal public lands, spending time with family and friends unplugged from the noise of everyday life, and leaving your worries behind with the help of a campsite reservation at Hidden Lake.

Call our visitor center at 907-260-2820 for recreation planning help any day of the week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Leah Eskelin is excited to serve as Park Ranger and Visitor Center Manager in her 20th year at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Check for upcoming events, wildlife spotlights, and more on Facebook (@KenaiNationalWildlifeRefuge) or online at The Refuge Notebook is published twice a month, and you can see past Refuge Notebook articles at

If you teach a kid to fish, she will feed you a trout breakfast every morning of the campout. This proved true for this girl, who holds up a rainbow trout while sitting on a kayak. (Photo by Leah Eskelin)