It is cold outside. The wind blowing across the lake brings this cold into my coat, up the sleeves, under the hood and I am thankful, a little bit. I am leading a snowshoe hike on the Kenai Refuge's Visitor Center trail system and with 15 eager middle-schoolers in line behind me, our pace is brisk. I welcome the chilled air on my exercise-heated skin, at least until we stop for some games out on Headquarters Lake.
Stopping for a moment along the Keen-Eye Trail, I kneel by a tiny set of tracks that run across the hard packed snow, up a little hill and into a small hole beneath a spruce tree. These, I explain to the rosy cheeked children huddled around me, are the little footsteps of a red-backed vole. We talk briefly about how these little rodents don't make a tail print in the snow like a shrew would, and how they prefer to stay hidden beneath the snow (in the subnivean layer) where predatory owls and coyotes don't see them. This process of excited hiking mixed with quick stops along the way to check out the cool animal evidence we spot in the forest and out in the wetland continues until we get to the lake. Nervous chattering starts about how we are walking on the ice, not the boardwalk, and our smart little line of snowshoe prints fans out in the openness.
I give a quick run through of the rules before releasing the pack of kids to run and test their snowshoeing prowess on the untrammeled snow, knowing their ears will be pricked for the sound of my wolf howl, the signal that it is time to return to the trail for the second half of the hike. Snow flies, and not even the cackling of the raven watching our group from the spruce-lined lakeshore overpowers their happy shouts and laughter. I hang back with several chaperones to let the class explore on their own. The white expanse of the lake gives me a clear view of everyone without having to hover over their play, or worry about calling them back from a distant exploration.
Thwump! A snowsuit clad student hits the snow, fits of laughter instead of pain come bouncing over the soft snow to me. I head their way, knowing the oversized snowshoes are going to make it hard to get up. In a practiced maneuver, I set my feet and reach for the child's outstretched hands. Up they come, and off to catch up with what looks like an impromptu race that has captured the interest of half the group.
After some more snowshoe races and a chat about the distant Kenai Mountains with some tired kiddos, I howl like a wolf to call back the distant explorers. "Ow, ow, owoooooooh!" I hear as they howl back and start making their way to us. Gathered back together, we return to the trail, urged on up the last hill by my promise of a unique set of tracks I spotted earlier in the day near the Visitor Center. Different guesses come my way. It is a two-print, I hint. They talk about how that is different from us, since we make an alternate track pattern. The animal that made these tracks turns white in winter, I offer as another hint halfway up the hill. Like camouflage, a little voice called from the back.
A smile came to my face -- yes, this is why I love my job as a ranger -- these relaxed, excited experiences where kids learn, explore and enjoy the outdoors on their Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. We return to the parking lot, where, along the snow berm, an ermine, my mystery animal, had busily run back and forth between two alder patches. Several students poked two of their fingers into the snow, mimicking the ermine's two-step print before we headed back to the building and removed our oversized, icy snowshoes.
The activity around headquarters certainly changes when the snow melts and summer comes to the Kenai Peninsula, but the exciting work here on the Refuge continues, and even accelerates as summer visitors arrive to recreate. Instead of leading snowshoe treks, I guide hikes in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area, and plan fun Saturday nature programs in our Hidden Lake Campground. We investigate tracks in mud instead of snow, and watch the buds pop into bright wildflowers during summer hikes on the trails.
I am not the only ranger meeting visitors on the Refuge in the summer. In fact, a whole group of summer seasonal rangers see more wildlife, make more visitor contacts, and spend more time outside working in our recreation area that I do each summer. This team of friendly, hard-working college students help keep the campgrounds running, maintain the fee collection program, patrol the recreation areas and staff both visitor centers over 16 fast paced weeks. Hired under the Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP) these rangers earn between $13 and $15 per hour and work 40 hour weeks. There is still time to join the team by applying for summer employment by Jan. 27.
To be eligible for the Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP), you must be 18 years of age or older and have completed one full year of college and be currently enrolled as a half to full time student (6 or more semester credits) at a college or university during spring 2012 and be returning to a college/university enrolled as a half to full time student (6 or more semester credits) in fall 2012 (school year 2013). STEP rangers also need a valid driver's license, experience in oral and written communications, experience in handling money and doing simple record keeping, and skill and experience in the safe operation of motor vehicles and hand tools. To keep a professional appearance, rangers are required to wear a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uniform provided by the agency. Successful applicants will undergo security clearance and background check. Finally, our STEP rangers must have housing in the local community.
If you want to work on the Refuge this summer as a STEP park ranger in Visitor Services, or know someone who might, please contact me by January 27th to discuss the openings for summer 2012 and pick up an application form. More details are available at http://alaska.fws.gov/aba/dcr/students.htm.
Leah Eskelin is a Visitor Services Park Ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.