Bucket list! Once-in-a-lifetime! Saved up for years! Not enough time to see it all! Dream destination! I hear these exclamations at the refuge’s visitor center front desk every summer as we welcome families on their Alaska vacations.
They are right, you know. This is a dream destination. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is awe-inspiring and inspirational and all those wonderful adjectives we each have used at least once when looking out at a mountain vista, or hooking into that elusive fish, or listening to the breeze flutter the aspen leaves, or watching a mother moose and her calf wander among our backyard roses.
The best part is that it is ours.
Not exclusively ours but ours as Americans, shared with every other citizen as part of the greater National Wildlife Refuge System and further shared with our visitors just as they share the public lands in their states with us when we travel Outside. We also share this land with those that came before us, those who have demonstrated how to live lightly on the land with respect and gratitude.
Sometimes, we forget that our “backyard” is a shared place. It is easy to feel that a certain special place is “our spot” or “our trail” and not think that anyone else feels the same. Public lands are blessed by those deep-set emotions because they usually lead to people wanting to protect them so that their kids can share that same awesome view in the future.
Sometimes, though, that feeling of ownership leads to piles of trash, campfire scars in parking lots and graffiti on trees.
Local travel restrictions combined with warm, sunny days this summer have encouraged everyone outside to enjoy the great land we are lucky to call home. Refuge campsites have filled up with trailers, trucks and tents to overflowing every weekend since mid-May.
Paved campground loops are a joy for kids on bikes used to riding on bumpy gravel. Shallow gravel beaches along Skilak Lake that become swimmable on the warmest days have been a relief for these same kids after being cooped up inside and away from friends. Refuge trails have hosted well-worn boots, sidewalk-primed running shoes and beach sandals.Skyline Trail saw over 40 hikers on its reopening day alone.
Local visitation has been high on Kenai refuge this year, even before the Fourth of July holiday weekend arrived.
It was a different kind of Independence Day weekend this year, missing some of the larger gatherings and municipal festivities that we’ve come to anticipate with any holiday weekend. Instead, hundreds of Alaskans set their sights on Hidden Lake, or Skilak, or the Russian River Ferry, or the Swanson River, or that little unnamed lake that is “their spot,” all destinations on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
How do you explore this incredible national wildlife refuge? Are you a weekend warrior? A midweek solace seeker? A morel hunter with a secret spot still producing a new flush? An island inholder? A no-wake boater? A backcountry cabin camper? A campground glamper? A first-time, “What’s this place about?” “Where are we?” or “What’s here to see?” Road-tripper?
However you identify yourself, the refuge is here to welcome you and its staff is here to help you make the most of your visit.
As you explore the nearby nature of your state, many people have set the stage for you to have an incredible time. Pit toilets are stocked and cleaned (you know that’s a big deal with our drive times!) and new hand sanitizer is installed to increase your safety.
Rangers have altered their typical procedures to increase their availability to campers but decrease their risk of virus exposure to themselves and to you. Interagency teams have collaborated so the same expectations exist for visitors to Kenai Peninsula public lands no matter what agency manages the site.
Signs at every recreation area encourage simple ways we can recreate responsibly in campgrounds, picnic pavilions and on trails. We know them well by now: give everyone space, wash your hands, avoid crowds, keep your social bubble small, pack out what you pack in.
So many of the hundreds of visitors to the Kenai have returned home without leaving evidence of their stay. To them, I extend a huge thank you.
While locals haul trash out of bushes, break up rock fire rings, shovel ashes from parking lots and power wash paint off of picnic benches this week, I am reminded that we were all new to something once.
We were all learning the ropes, practicing something and getting better. Alaskans have a unique opportunity to explore their own state this summer, with little competition from outsiders for prime fishing spots or trailhead parking. Yes! What an opportunity!
Conversely we have no one but ourselves to assign the blame of overflowing dumpsters or green trees left smoldering in illegal fire rings. It’s on us. It’s our land, our Alaska, our national wildlife refuge.
It’s our summer to recreate responsibly and practice our best camping, hiking and road-tripping habits. We can keep bears wild by not leaving food unattended. We can avoid human-caused fires by putting them out cold every time. We can follow campground rules so everyone has a great time.
With small efforts, we can recreate responsibly in our “dream destination” backyard, a place of refuge during the new coronavirus pandemic, and enjoy our national wildlife refuge and all public lands without someone else coming behind to clean up. Learn more about how others are pledging to #recreateresponsibly by checking out the hashtag on social media or by visiting https://fws.gov/refuges/visit/recreate-responsibly.html.
Leah Eskelin is the lead visitor services park ranger for Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. For more refuge information, trip planning help and virtual nature-based activities call 907-260-2820 or find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.