By Jenny Neyman
Matt Conner, chief of visitor services at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, concluded his synchronizing of the scissoring of ribbon at the grand opening of the new Kenai Refuge Visitor Center on Saturday by welcoming the audience with a greeting that could have been an oxymoron.
“Welcome to your visitors center” he told the crowd of mostly central Kenai Peninsula locals. But as the various speakers at the ceremony iterated, the new facility really is for both residents and visitors, just like the refuge itself.
As Refuge Manager Andy Loranger explained, the new facility is intended to serve as a gateway for the hundreds of thousands of visitors the refuge sees each summer.
“The center provides a window into the refuge. Giving visitors deeper understanding of how refuge helps conserve the rich fish and wildlife recourses that we all enjoy is a big part of the quality of life here. It’s designed to spark interest in learning more about this amazing place, its history and its natural resources and to encourage visitors to get out and further explore this spectacular landscape,” he said.
But at the same time, the nation’s refuges are managed for use year-round, and that means by its neighbors.
“The refuge has been the backyard of the people of the Kenai Peninsula since 1941 when it was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For 74 years you have been refuge’s extended family. This visitors center is a way for us to say thank you for the decades of support, for the conservation of wildlife, the mountains, the streams, the forests of the refuge,” said Karen Clark, deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service in Alaska. “Always remember that we had you in mind when we were envisioning this center. … I think you will find a visitors center that inspires you to see the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in ways that you haven’t ever before.”
Jim Kurth, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the center can be a way to give context to the vast, vibrant and varied refuge, and instill the values of stewardship and conservation.
“I think about what it’s like when you go out there and you explore the wild reaches of this place, and it makes you feel small, and it fills you with that awestruck feeling. You kind of almost have to believe and have faith that there’s something bigger out there, and we’re all connected to this planet, and it’s important,” Kurth said. “The thing with our dreams, though, is sometimes they’re hard to understand, to find the meaning and relevance of what you’re thinking about, and that’s what this place can do.”
With the ribbon cut, it was time to explore.
First and foremost, outside the entrance is a life-sized statue of a bull moose, nameless until
the grand opening ceremony. Kenneth Brown, of Soldotna, entered the winning suggestion.
“Majesty of the Kenai is what I picked out, and I was just lucky enough to win it,” he said. “The moose means a lot to me — I love moose, I love photographing the moose and hunting the moose and every aspect of it.”
Entering the building, the front desk and gift shop are to the left, stocked by Alaska Geographic. To the right is an 80-person conference room, in which the Jabila’ina Dancers from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe performed, followed by the Del Dumi Drummers outside under the flawless blue sky.
Straight ahead is a giant table map of the refuge, with light-up LEDs to accent various
aspects of the landscape. Next to that is a seating area in front of a wood-fired Greenstone masonry fireplace, one of many ecofriendly features of the building, which was built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. Dominating the view in the lobby, though, is the view — a bank of windows looking out on an outdoor terrace amphitheater and the woods beyond.
For Candace Ward, information and education supervisor, that’s her favorite part of the building.
“I love being out on the little balcony and looking out into the natural world. That, to me, is a really special, nice feature that you wind your way into this visitors center, you go out into nature, you come back and learn a little bit more,” she said.
Or a lot more, as an educational exhibit titled “From Icefields to Oceans,” takes 1,800 square feet of the public space. There are giant dioramas of fish and wildlife, including a mounted brown bear that surveys the room.
“It’s right around the bend and as you walk through the visitors center it’s like, ‘Whoa, surprise, it’s here,’” Ward said.
There are maps and pictures and displays to read, on geology and cultural heritage and much more. But the eyes aren’t the only things that have something to experience. The exhibit has lots of things to touch and hear and even smell up close and personally.
Kids on Saturday scrambled around on a scavenger hunt, triggering bird songs, looking for spawning fish, peering through binoculars, crawling into a beaver lodge, making prints in sand, deputizing themselves as future biologists with the contents of a dress-up box, and much more.
“I think one of the cool things about this one (is) it’s so much tactile and very visual, and that’s very different than how things were done 30 years ago when we had the other visitors center,” said Ward, whose career with the refuge is in its third decade now. “And even upgrading the other visitors center, since so much was behind glass it was kind of hard to get to that tactile world. So it’s trying to embrace a lot of different learning styles.”
Cori O’Brien, of Soldotna, brought her grandkids to the opening and found it plenty engaging for all ages.
“I think there is lots to do, lots to see, a good safe area for them to enjoy themselves, and there’s lots of trails for them to walk on and enjoy themselves, too,” she said.
Twelve-year-old Ariel Hamer, of Soldotna, was a fan of the glacier display that serves as the entrance to the exhibition area, and she liked one of the animal displays, too.
“The two moose, the baby moose and then the mom, and the pond. When you looked at the water it was rippley on top but underneath you could see all the salmon,” she said.
Older sister Amber Hamer, 17, was drawn to the brown bear display, while 10-year-old Gus Miller, of Kenai, and 8-year-old Luke Miller, of Kasilof, could have spent all day making prints.
“It was really fun, the sand thing,” Gus said.
“The sand place, where you put down prints,” Luke added. “’Cause we just stayed at the sand place for like one hour.”
“I think it’s awesome. I think it’s going to be great for the community and the kids. I hope everybody enjoys it. I thought all the exhibits were really well done. It’s pretty exciting,” O’Brien said.
After about four years in the making, that’s just the kind of response Ward wants to hear about the new facility.
“I think we’ve launched into a new era entirely where the level of quality is something that people are going to appreciate, whether they’re traveling and seeing us for the first time, and also folks that live here and enjoy the refuge and want to come back again and again,” Ward said. “It will be a really nice place for them to learn about the natural world and appreciate the refuge. I think it puts us on the map more than before, both in terms of people traveling and our local folks.”
The Kenai Refuge Visitors Center is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Sept. 7.