Nothing caps a trip to the Kenai Peninsula quite like getting a good look at some of the many wildlife species that call the peninsula home. Conversely, nothing ruins an otherwise enjoyable outing like having one’s hopes set on seeing a bear, moose, sandhill crane — or, heck, a porcupine even — and striking out no matter how many places the binoculars or camera are pointed.
Though there are plenty of critters large and small, airborne and ground-bound to see, it isn’t always a sure bet to find them. Animals’ location, habitat and behavioral patterns change throughout the year. Being aware of these changes and the areas of the peninsula that provide likely wildlife habitat during certain times of year increases the odds of success in choosing where to look.
But that doesn’t mean wildlife viewers have to become experts in the peninsula’s ecology, geology and animal biology. That work has already been done, in “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail Guide.”
“The idea was to make a road-based trail where people could drive along and stop and have a guide to show them what to see at the different sites, plus bear safety, the habitats they may encounter on the Kenai Peninsula, how to see what there is, and how to view what’s there,” said Ken Tarbox, a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist and one of the participants in the trail guide project.
The guide lists 65 sites divided into four sections: Raven’s Earth, covering Turnagain Arm and the northeast peninsula; Dena’ina’s Way, covering the northwest peninsula, including the Kenai-Soldotna area; Eagle’s Outlook, covering the southwest peninsula, including Homer; and Whale’s View, covering the southeast peninsula, including Seward.
Each section lists road-accessible sites and directions on how to get there, as well as a list of facilities or features available, such as campsites, boardwalks, boat launches and campgrounds. There are field notes describing the area, the wildlife that may be there and the times of years they’re likely to be found; a habitat description; list of notable species; photos; and other useful information, like mentions of area hiking trails and warnings about poisonous plants.
“In summer, listen for the loud, whistled ‘quick — three beers!’ song of olive-sided flycatchers at Rock Lake near milepost 6. In early spring, listen for the hoots of great horned owls.”
And one from Quartz Creek: “Take polarized glasses to see fish in the creek. Spend time along the boardwalk at Quartz Creek campground or the trails at Crescent Creek campground to listen for bird songs and watch for Alaska’s most widespread amphibian species, the wood frog.”
The trail guide isn’t just for the big guys, like moose, caribou, Dall sheep and bears. That information is certainly included, but the guide covers much more — birds, fish and all variety of mammals, like snowshoe hares and coyotes. There’s a birding checklist and more than 300 photos donated by area photographers to help identify what is seen.
“Around here, we take eagles for granted. For people from Outside to see a nest with chicks in it is pretty thrilling. People said it made their whole trip. And residents use it, too,” Tarbox said.
The purpose is to not only suggest where people can go to see wildlife, but to increase their chances of finding it when there.
“What the trail has done in a positive way is make wildlife viewing available to a lot of people who didn’t know what was available on the peninsula. The goal of the trail is for people to enjoy viewing wildlife, and to promote additional tourism opportunities on the peninsula. There’s an economic incentive to it and obviously an awareness and educational part of it,” Tarbox said.
The book is designed to be a year-round resource. After all, animals don’t just exist in the height of summer. Other times of year are actually better for viewing certain species.
“It’s not just July. In fact, the shoulder months are as productive as July. If you’re a birder and want to see rock sandpipers, which are very hard to see unless you go the Pribilof and Aleutian islands, you come to the Kenai and Homer in winter,” Tarbox said.
Tarbox and his wife, Connie, have volunteered at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center during the summer to help promote the trail guide to visitors. They haven’t met a disappointed trail guide user yet, he said.
“A couple from Spain came in and were really struggling. They’d been here a couple days, wanted to see Alaska wildlife, came back and said we made their trip for them, because it told them exactly what to do. And we get that comment a lot, ‘This was really neat, you really did a good job for us taking the time to put this together,’” Tarbox said.
Copies of “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail Guide” can be obtained from visitor centers on the peninsula, various retail stores and ordered from online book retailers and at kenaipeninsula.org/attractions/wildlifeViewingTrailGuide.htm. There’s also on online component of the guide, available at www.kenaipeninsula.org/kenai_guide.