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Refuge Notebook: Winter walks: lessons learned in sand and snow

Posted: Friday, February 05, 2010

Growing up in Florida, my idea of the perfect winter stroll included sugar sand between my toes, a light breeze in my hair and temperatures in the mid-50s. A weekend afternoon often included exploring some park boardwalk, where the fiddler crabs ran between muddy holes and egrets fished in the nearby wetlands. Mangroves were the familiar local tree and I never thought about needing more than flip flops to wear on my walk. A jacket, however, was essential, because those 50-degree winter temperatures were cold!

Later on, family trips up the Eastern seaboard opened my eyes to colder winters, but snow was still a rare occurrence, studs were still a type of earring, and engines overheated, they didn't have heaters. As a relative newcomer of five winters, Alaska has introduced an entirely new world to me. Now I not only have studded tires and an engine block heater, but also a sincere appreciation for what Alaskans, animals and humans, must endure before the first buds of spring make their appearance. I still enjoy my winter walks, though I admit that Alaskan walks in February do bring to mind warmer footwear than flip-flops.

Crunching down the Keen-Eye trail at the refuge headquarters in Soldotna on one such walk, the tracks of snowshoe hares mingled with the ones left by my snowshoes and I forgot temporarily about the cold wind. Instead, I found myself searching for other animal evidence, a practice I learned as a child with the Florida fiddlers, and one that is second nature now that I lead others on guided hikes professionally.

It is not much further down the snowy walk that I found a large fallen branch that has been stripped of its bark. Little brown pellets and packed down snow show that this is one of the popular spots for the hares to stop for a snack. The rest of the walk revealed moose tracks, the loping two-prints of an ermine and then, as I reached the refuge parking lot, an adult bald eagle called out from a nearby tree, a special end to my mid-day stroll.

Admittedly, sometimes it is so hard to want to layer on the parkas, hats and gloves needed to explore the Alaska outdoors this time of year. The cold can be biting, the days are short, and it seems almost a scientific fact that if your child will stay outside for 10 minutes it will take a minimum of 15 minutes to get them all bundled up.

Keeping this in mind, the upcoming Family Winter Fun Day at the Refuge, on Feb. 13, is the perfect balance of indoor activities for those kiddos who prove similar to my layer-shedding toddler, and fun guided snowshoe walks on the trails. Staying warm in the Environmental Education Center, visitors will learn about winter birding, find out how some animals survive in the Arctic climate, get creative with fun winter crafts and snack on tasty treats.

The more adventurous visitors will have the opportunity to bundle up and join a guided snowshoe walk down the Keen-Eye trail. This hour-long activity requires advance registration, and will be offered at 1 p.m for ages 7 years and older. It is sure to be a fun adventure, and I bet you will find that same hare-browsed branch that I just saw on my walk. Keen observers may even spot one of the local hares while they play a game of freeze, just before darting off in a zigzag through the forest. Of course, if you do plan on taking this walk, you'll need more than flip-flops. Be sure to bring warm layers, and prepare to be on the trail for a full hour. Snowshoes will be provided or you can bring your own.

If the Alaska winter awakens your creative spirit, our Winter Fun Day special event this year will be enticing. Three soap carving clinics will be held throughout the day, at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. At these hands-on clinics participants will learn the methods of carving, and have personal instruction while they produce their own small-scale sculpture. Pre-registration is also needed for these clinics, but all supplies are provided and this and all the other activities are entirely free.

To sign up for the snowshoe walk or soap carving clinics or for more information about Family Winter Fun Day, please call Michelle Ostrowski at 260-2839.

I was encouraged as a child to get out and explore the natural world in Florida, and those winter walks along the estuary boardwalks revealed an exciting world impossible to see from the pavement. It isn't sugar sand below our snowshoes this February, but I hope to see you and your family on Feb. 13 to take in the winter world at the Environmental Education Center and along the winding path of the Refuge's Keen-Eye Trail.

Leah Eskelin is a Visitor Services Park Ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge Web site http://kenai.fws.gov/. You can check on new bird arrivals or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline at 907-262-2300.



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