Winter in Alaska: an Kenai refuge intern's experience

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2011

As an aspiring biologist, I have worked some great seasonal jobs throughout my college career. I have banded ducks in Canada; I have seen many different types of wildlife while working as a biological technician for the South Dakota Game Fish & Parks and the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service; I have planted, monitored, maintained and harvested prairie grasslands in South Dakota; and I have spent many days riding ATVs while doing these jobs. But my dream has always been to move up to Alaska and work in the wilderness studying moose.

Little did I know my first opportunity to work in Alaska would come so soon, and in the dead of winter, studying the soundscape of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. And little did I know my first experience working with moose would be picking up their scat to look at glucocorticoid (GC) hormone levels to see how stressed they were.

Some people called me crazy for going to Alaska in November for 6 months as a volunteer to pick up moose poop when I was offered a job in Georgia doing water bird surveys all winter for Ducks Unlimited. But I knew what a great opportunity this could be so I headed North. I had no idea what to expect when I got here - all I knew is that I wasn't in South Dakota any more. I went from hunting white-tailed deer from a stand in a lone tree overlooking a cornfield to picking up moose scat under snow-covered trees in the shadow of the Kenai Mountainsit was quite a change.

When I arrived in Alaska, everything was blanketed in snow and I questioned what winter in Alaska was going to be like. Then, to top it off, on my second day here all of the power in my cabin went off and I had no heat for more than 24 hours. By the time the electricity was restored, my cabin was 38 degrees. I was starting to second guess my decision, but I was still excited to get out and see the wildlife and landscape that the Kenai Peninsula had to offer.

I began my work as a field assistant to Tim Mullet, a doctoral student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who is studying the ecological effects of snow machines, including their impacts on the natural soundscape. I knew that I would gain a lot of experience and knowledge working with him. So far I have learned many new things and have experienced the Alaskan wilderness in ways that many seasonal volunteers have not been able to, on snowmobile and snowshoes.

Throughout this project, I have gained a lot of experience in many different parts of the wildlife field. I learned a bit about riding snowmachines. I learned that you could look at the stress level of moose by testing the GC levels of their fecal samples. I learned a lot about animal behavior including some of their tendencies and habitat selection in the winter. I have also been able to travel to many remote locations on the refuge, from Chickaloon Flats to the Caribou Hills, where I have learned to appreciate how noise varies hourly, daily, and seasonally.

While up here, I have been able to see a season of Alaska that a lot of tourists don't -- the Alaskan winter. Most people come to Alaska for the summer and all of the great fishing and hiking opportunities, but there are still a lot of both activities in the winter. The Kenai has many lakes that are great for ice fishing, and even though I haven't had very much luck the times that I went out, I still enjoyed the experiences. I still believe that if I actually knew how to fish for trout, instead of walleye, I would have actually caught more fish. I have also experienced some great hikes, observed many new wildlife species, and enjoyed landscapes that I could not have imagined while living in the Midwest.

I came up to Alaska thinking I was going to a place with cold, unbearable winters, but instead I found out how great winter can be without a 30 mile per hour wind every day. My new perspective makes it easier to get out and enjoy the many winter activities there are to do here. With two months left of the winter, we are still working hard picking up scat and trying to get all of our sound level meters to work properly. I am also trying to take in all of the natural beauty that Alaska is known for and gain as much experience as possible to help me with future jobs. Hopefully I will get another opportunity to be in Alaska soon, whether to work, hunt, fish, or continue with my schooling as a professional wildlife biologist.

Ryan Park is a biological intern at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He has a B.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences from South Dakota State University. For more detailed information about the Refuge, check the refuge website at http://kenai.fws.gov, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.



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