Category Archives: outdoors

Refuge for all — Activity celebrates variety in observing 75th anniversary

Photo courtesy of Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A dad and daughter enjoy the view of the Kenai Mountains from the shore of Skilak Lake during a hike in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A dad and daughter enjoy the view of the Kenai Mountains from the shore of Skilak Lake during a hike in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is preparing to turn 75 in December. That’s a momentous occasion, one that warrants a way to not only celebrate the anniversary, but all the wildlife and wild places that the 1.92-million acre preserve encompasses.

“We do a lot of special events and they’re great to do, but sometimes we miss the mark for what we’re trying to impart on people. So rather than us telling the public what is great about the refuge, we wanted to give people the means to explore the refuge and tell us what they think is great about it,” said Matt Conner, head of visitor services at the KNWR.

To that end, Conner and fellow refuge staff Leah Eskelin, Candace Ward and Michelle Ostrowski came up with a checklist of 75 things to see and do in the refuge.

“We tried to come up with ‘all-user’ activities, and things that were both consumptive and nonconsumptive. This list will also be a good starting point for people who haven’t spent much time in the refuge and found it daunting trying to figure out where to start. And for those who do use the refuge regularly, this will hopefully give them ideas for branching out,” Conner said.

Many of the items are season specific, such as skiing the trails around Refuge Headquarters, seeing the northern lights from Engineer Lake and ice fishing at Hidden Lake, so those interested in attempting all of the 75 may want to get cracking. For those who shoot for the minimum of 25 activities, there also are spring, summer and fall events, such as bear hunting at Mystery Creek, catching a Kenai River salmon or hiking Skyline Trail.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. A hike up Skyline Trail is one of the activities included in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s 75th anniversary activity list. So is seeing a sunset on the refuge, such as this one above Skilak Lake, seen from Skyline Trail.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. A hike up Skyline Trail is one of the activities included in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s 75th anniversary activity list. So is seeing a sunset on the refuge, such as this one above Skilak Lake, seen from Skyline Trail.

“We love the diversity of the refuge and wanted to collect that up and share it with the public in a meaningful way. There is diversity through the year and through the different habitats, so we tried to roll that into the list,” said Eskelin, a visitor services ranger.

Eskelin added that some of the activities on the checklist require prior planning, possibly even a boat, and getting deep into the backcountry.

“We understand that some of the things will be hard to do or get to, like seeing bears at Clear or Bear Creek on Tustumena Lake, but I know from personal experience that seeing them there is a very memorable moment,” Eskelin said.

Other items on the checklist were selected to take mere minutes and be things that almost anyone could do.

“We didn’t want to make them all hard, so we have backcountry and front-country fun. Things like, ‘See a sunrise or sunset from the refuge.’ That’s something that people working in Soldotna can almost walk to come and see, and taking one in from the refuge is a beautiful sight, not an experience to be taken lightly,” Eskelin said.

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No snow, no go — T200 canceled third year in a row

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A sled dog team makes the most of scant snowcover for a training run in the Caribou Hills recently. The Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Board of Directors decided Wednesday to cancel the 2016 race.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A sled dog team makes the most of scant snowcover for a training run in the Caribou Hills recently. The Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Board of Directors decided Wednesday to cancel the 2016 race.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

The 30th anniversary will have to wait. The Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, scheduled for Jan. 30, has been canceled.

“It’s the third year in a row that we don’t have the snow conditions to make the race happen,” said Tami Murray, race director.

The race route from Kasilof to Homer and back through the Caribou Hills is more ice than snow, crossing several large streams that aren’t frozen over. Murray said that the only way to find snow and avoid dangerous water crossings would be to move the race to the upper elevations of the hills, but that’s a federally designated wilderness area of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

The T200 Board of Directors requested an exception from the Wilderness Act stipulation that bans competitive races, in hope of being able to use a 30-mile section of trail on the refuge. But word came Wednesday that the request was denied.

“I don’t want people to be discouraged with the refuge because they did actually do what they could to try to help us but there’s only so many laws that can be bent and that definitely is not one of them,” Murray said.

The area is open to public use, and snowmachiners and mushers have been enjoying the powder up high, but T200 racers won’t be among them. Murray said that Refuge Manager Andy Loranger broke the news to her Wednesday afternoon.

“It was a valiant effort on everybody’s part and the refuge, as well. Andy did all he could, talked to every agency about it and just could not find a way, a loophole, to allow us in,” Murray said.

The board could have postponed the race a week, but the long-term forecast doesn’t promise much snow, nor cold-enough temperatures to count on the stream crossing freezing over.

“We definitely worked hard and looked at every option we could to put on a safe race but it’s virtually impossible in the conditions we have,” Murray said.

Canceling now gives the mushers who were signed up a chance to go train or race elsewhere.

“They can head up north where they have ample snow,” she said.

Murray said the T200 board will just have to start planning for next year’s race and hope the wimpy winter weather streak doesn’t continue for a fourth year.

“I don’t think we’ll have any problem with our sponsors, they understand that weather is a huge part of what we’re doing. And the volunteers will come no matter what. It’s disappointing to them because it’s a fun event and they like to be a part of it. And the community itself will be disappointed, I’m sure,” she said.

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Common Ground: Take your ‘time’ in adventures

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Time takes on a different meaning in the outdoors.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Time takes on a different meaning in the outdoors.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

We had been on the boat for 11 hours when the captain suggested we stay out longer and fish for king salmon. We had already caught a limit of halibut. That was the plan for the day. I had agreed to fish for halibut. No one had once mentioned fishing for kings or spending more than 11 hours on a boat. I briefly felt that I’d been kidnapped. While the three others assembled the down riggers necessary to fish for kings, I mentally began to fashion means of escape by assembling an array of useful objects.

Dare I ask, I wondered, how long we were going to be out? The invite to go fishing only had a start time. I’d failed to ascertain when the party would end. These uncoordinated expectations could cause three people to be having the time of their lives, while the person who didn’t pack three square snacks (me) to be like Daffy Duck sizing up the others for a meal.

The more time I spend outdoors on uncoordinated fishing expeditions, the more I realize that the clock on the wall at the office is no longer valid. Time in numbers is meaningless in the outdoors. Even the terms used to describe time cannot be taken literally. Based on my experience working in offices, time is very literal to me. It’s not just the hours and minutes. There is lunchtime and break time and other designated times. All of that was clearly out the window, since the boat didn’t have a window. We were on fishing time, and that was a very scary form of timekeeping. Because I care about my fellow human beings who may count time as I do, it is necessary to share some of the things I’ve learned about declarations of time in the outdoors.

  • Early. If you ask what time we will be leaving the next morning and the answer is “early,” beware! Early is an adverb, not a noun, and it is closer to the word “soon” than “morning.” Some people think 8 a.m. is early. It is not. Early can be any time after midnight.

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Birds on the brain, nature at heart — Exploration leads to stewardship

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A visit from a male grosbeak can lead kids down the path of curiosity and care for their environment.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A visit from a male grosbeak can lead kids down the path of curiosity and care for their environment.

By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter

Human beings, possibly above all else, excel at being absorbed in themselves and the minutiae of their lives. It’s a habit I’ve worked hard to ensure doesn’t become instilled in my daughter, and not just because I’ve always preferred national parks over theme parks, but so that she understands there is another world beyond the din of our society’s increasingly urban lifestyles.

As part of creating an awareness and appreciation of this world, starting with the wild places near home, we started taking daily nature walks before she could walk. Now, nearly 3 years old, she wouldn’t let me miss one of our field forays even if I wanted to. We go regardless of weather, because there is always something to be seen and learned, even in inclement conditions.

We follow trails left by moose, collect treasures like tiny spruce cones or unusually shaped stones or pick berries and mushrooms when they’re in season (only after I’ve identified them as safe.) All these capture my daughter’s attention, but of all her favorite outdoor activities, few compete with the curiosity she holds for the birds that visit our feeders.

All of it seems to enchant her — from the careful selection of on which branch a chickadee will wait while awaiting its turn to claim a sunflower seed, to the nuances of where a nuthatch chooses to cache its cherished meal and, especially, any new avian arrivals.

A small flock of grosbeaks flew in. Hardly a life-list species for most birders, but its year-round commonness in the boreal forests of Alaska didn’t make the sighting any less spectacular to my daughter.

They’re a beautiful and charismatic bird, quite large and plump for a member of the finch family, and with a stubby bill. The males have a chokecherry-red back, breast and head, even in winter, which is what caught our eyes in a seasonal world of white and various hues of blue. The females are more grayish with a bit of olive coloring to their heads and rumps.

Grosbeaks are tame by wild bird standards, not easily perturbed by human movement, but I still steadied my daughter by placing my hands on her shoulders, since the birds landed mere yards from where we were standing.

We froze, still as statues and silent enough to hear the natural wind chime of the last few dried leaves still clinging to branches above blowing in the gentle breeze. The grosbeaks flitted on the ground around us, sorting still-good seeds from empty hulls under the feeders. Through my palms I felt my daughter’s pulse increase as her wonder-filled heart picked up pace from the exciting spectacle.

Time pooled in the present as we stared, completely in the spell of these birds, until — as toddlers are wont to do — my daughter finally broke the silence to ask a question. At the sound, the birds flushed before the first word completely left her tiny lips. It was an ephemeral experience to witness that she clearly thought about for weeks afterward, as evident by the litany of questions that followed, which I used as teachable moments.

When she wondered aloud where the grosbeaks were in the following days, I asked her questions, not just about the birds themselves, but the world they live in. Why had they been there at that time of day? Where did she think they were before we saw them, and where did they fly next? What were they eating when not at our feeder? Did they have friends and families? Did they have enemies, such as predators?

To be sure, even I didn’t know the answers to some of the questions I posed, but that wasn’t the point. The goal was to stimulate her brain, to get her to think about what she will one day learn to call an ecosystem.

We could have stayed indoors by the warmth of the woodstove, reading books to learn about the world rather than from it. Likely the same folks who don’t get any more specific than lumping everything with wings into “birds,” and everything with bark and trunks into “woods.” But for me, as someone who enjoys identifying a grosbeak as well as noticing it in an isolated stand of cottonwoods mixed into a sea of spruce, it’s my belief that knowing these details adds to the texture and delight of the encounter. And I hope to pass this acknowledgement and appreciation of the nuances of nature on to my daughter.

In the future, she and the rest of her generation will face many complex issues, from climate change to protecting endangered species, shifting food-production methods to feed the ever-growing global population, and myriad more. But the first step to raising adults who believe in stewardship enough to attempt to solve these nature-related problems must first come from encouraging children to be in nature. To think globally, they must first learn to care locally.

Like Henry David Thoreau once said, “The more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core.” I hope my daughter will remember, as an adult, down to her core, the sights of the birds and other creatures she sees daily, remember the sounds of their whistles and warbles, and remember to care about them and protect their wild habitats. Perhaps, one day, she’ll then share her interests and concerns for the natural world with her own children.

Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx. He and Colleen operate Rouges Gallery Kennel.

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Glacial skate escape — Rare conditions create cool Alaska experience

Photos by Cary Restino, Homer Tribune. Daniel Perry and Sabina Morin play with a chunk of ice while skating on the frozen lake at the toe of Grewingk Glacier across Kachemak Bay from Homer last week.

Photos by Cary Restino, Homer Tribune. Daniel Perry and Sabina Morin play with a chunk of ice while skating on the frozen lake at the toe of Grewingk Glacier across Kachemak Bay from Homer last week.

By Carey Restino, Homer Tribune

Arguably the most notable feature of the view from Homer, after the Homer Spit, is the glacier that looms large in the center of the Kenai Mountains ringing Kachemak Bay. It sparkles blue in the summer sunshine and reveals deep, waving ribbons of dark rocks and debris like a child’s finger-painting. On those rare, brightly moonlight nights, it glows almost as brightly as the moon itself.

But while many have made the trek up to the glacier’s lake in the summer, far fewer, and more adventurous, have experienced the glacier up close. That’s a feat for those who know how to seize the perfect moment to visit.

Anyone who loves skating on the southern Kenai Peninsula knows the drill — catch the first deep freeze of fall, when the smaller lakes of Homer freeze first, before the inevitable slushy snow falls to ruin the ice. If you’re lucky, as many were last week, you catch the larger lakes, like Beluga, frozen solid and smooth for a few precious days. And if you are even luckier, one of your fellow skaters will mention that they are planning a trip across to Grewingk Glacier the very next day, and ask if you would like to come. The only response possible if all those stars align is to let go of whatever you were supposed to do that day and say “yes.”

Crossing Kachemak Bay to the Saddle Trail in Kachemak Bay State Park in the winter is nothing like going across in the summer, especially if it is cold enough to freeze a lake solid. Only a few water taxis operate this time of year, and with good reason. Ice quickly builds up on the windows of Gart Curtis’ boat Blue Too as waves splash across the deck. But inside, passengers are warm and dry. As the boat pulls up to the trailhead, two whales surface nearby. Eagles swoop in air currents and bright-billed seabirds paddle at the water’s edge. Hiking in the off-season is quieter and certainly less buggy, and there is still plenty going on in the park in November.

Skaters get an up-close look at the face of Grewingk Glalier skating on the frozen lake at the toe of the glacier.  The lake surface froze clear and smooth last week.

Skaters get an up-close look at the face of Grewingk Glalier skating on the frozen lake at the toe of the glacier. The lake surface froze clear and smooth last week.

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View from Out West: Bored to run — Training off the road system is exercise in monotony

Photo courtesy of. Andrew Berkoski. Andrew Berkoski competes in a marathon in Antarctica in 2010.

Photo courtesy of. Andrew Berkoski. Andrew Berkoski competes in a marathon in Antarctica in 2010.

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

I yearn for the diversity of a Tsalteshi-type trail system in Bristol Bay.

Here in Dillingham, active runners — and I will tentatively include myself in that category — surrender variety for redundancy. They run, ad nauseam and mostly alone, on a limited selection of paths, city streets and road shoulders. And cross-country skiers here have it even worse, with little history of the sport and no established trails, only open tundra and mountain passes bounded by private property along roads with few plowed turnouts.

Dillingham’s three main paved roads total 28 miles, plus three short segments of multiuse paths that parallel the pavement. There are also a few gravel roads, the longest being eight-mile Snake Lake Road, the only connection to four primitive hiking trails. A lack of regular maintenance makes these trails problematic for running, and throughout the winter they are difficult to reach because only the first half mile of Snake Lake Road is open to traffic. The rest is buried deep in snow.

Consequently, in order to log their requisite miles, local runners must repeatedly travel the same main roads, the same backroads, the same pothole-filled city streets and fractured sidewalks.

Still, some athletes here do more than just survive on what they’ve got. They thrive.

Andrew Berkoski, 46, traveled in 2010 to Antarctica to compete in a marathon. A few months later he ran in an ultramarathon in the Gobi Desert in China. To prepare for these two wildly different events, he trained exclusively in Dillingham, a community with no running culture and no indoor exercise infrastructure.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Berkoski. Andrew Berkoski competes in a an ultramarathon in the Gobi Desert in China in 2010, following a marathon in Antarctica a few months earlier. He trained for both by logging miles on the few running routes in Dillingham.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Berkoski. Andrew Berkoski competes in a an ultramarathon in the Gobi Desert in China in 2010, following a marathon in Antarctica a few months earlier. He trained for both by logging miles on the few running routes in Dillingham.

Berkoski, who lives about 13 miles outside the city, ran to work at the Dillingham City School District several days a week, throughout the year, in order to maintain his training. To prepare for the desert, he sometimes trained inside his family’s tiny sauna, jogging in place and performing situps and pushups in 140-degree heat.

Every other day during the winter, regardless of the weather, Berkoski ran to the school, leaving his house at 4 a.m., headlamp alight and work clothes in a knapsack, in order to beat the traffic on the shoulderless and mostly unlighted Aleknagik Lake Road. On nonrunning days, he rode his bicycle to work and back, then went for a short run (five to six miles) to keep his mileage up. On Saturdays, he logged roughly the equivalent of a marathon on foot.

He trained this way for at least two years in preparation for Antarctica.

Dillingham’s Cindy Tuckwood, who was preparing for a triathlon in Wisconsin in July and the Lost Lake Trail Run (near Seward) in August, trained by running and biking along a road construction zone at 5 a.m. every day, hiking and climbing mountains with her three young daughters, and, once the winter ice had melted, donning a wetsuit and swimming three times a week in a lake 20 miles from her home.

Even now, Tuckwood’s alarm wakes her at 4:30 every morning. A few minutes later, she clips a leash onto her dog’s collar and is out the door, in the dark except in summer. A veritable exercise machine, the 46-year-old substitute teacher logs each week about 50 miles on foot, several hours on her bicycle and six days of P90X workouts, in addition to the summer swims.

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Long rein — Saddling up for endurance horse ride

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Jayne Hempstead, of Cantwell, and Katie King, of Nikiski, ride together during the inaugural Midnight Sun Challenge endurance ride, an equine distance event which took place in Nikiski on Saturday.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Jayne Hempstead, of Cantwell, and Katie King, of Nikiski, ride together during the inaugural Midnight Sun Challenge endurance ride, an equine distance event which took place in Nikiski on Saturday.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

“Endurance sport” plus “animals” in Alaska usually means dog mushing. And that’s true for Iditarod veteran Jane Adkins. But for the past five years, it’s also meant horse riding.

While there is no shortage of rodeo events for horse enthusiasts around the state, Adkins has instead spent her mushing “offseason” participating in endurance-themed equestrian challenges that hold a similar appeal as covering 1,000 miles by dog team.

“I’m drawn to endurance, I think, because I’m not fast. I’m slow, but I can complete things,” she said.

But she’s not a huge fan of having to travel long distances to participate in long-distance races. So she organized the Midnight Sun Challenge endurance ride in Nikiski on Saturday.

Seeing others participate in competitive trail-riding events around the state, such as the Challenge of the North in Fairbanks and the Bald Mountain Butt Buster in the Wasilla area, Adkins decided to provide an opportunity to saddle up on the Kenai Peninsula.

The Midnight Sun Challenge covered 30 miles in a series of loops through the woods off of the Escape Route Road, and there was a 12-mile event for those not quite trained up to the full distance. There was a maximum time limit of six hours to finish, which Adkins said should be more than enough time for teams trotting at an average speed of 5 miles per hour.

“The horses had to be in good condition, but this being our first year, we wanted to keep things small, simple and low key so we could evaluate everything along the way. We tried to make it easy on the riders and horses, so it’s mostly flat trail and we’ve done what we could to avoid mud,” she said.

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