Refuge Notebook: Just another day at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

Posted: Friday, March 04, 2011

Last summer, I and the rest of the staff at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge were located in a portable trailer while our main building was being renovated. A woman walked in holding a cup with Glad wrap over the top with a hole poked in it. She saw me behind the desk and handed the cup to me. Looking down I saw a very large yellow spider staring up at me. I took a huge gulp and asked, "How can I help you?"

Photo Courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Photo Courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Donna Handley, right, and Debbie Perez do radio dispatch last summer for field crews involved in a brown bear study.

"I found this spider. Can you tell me what kind of spider it is?" The woman was interested in identifying the spider for her grandson.

Where is the entomologist when I need him?! Not at his desk at the moment; out in the field doing his job. I did the next best thing: Googled the yellow spider. "Yellow spider with black back markings Alaska" and a wealth of information popped up. "Hurry," I said silently to the computer. "That hole is big enough for the spider to get out."

Just another day at the Refuge. How did I end up behind the desk?

About a year ago I was job hunting, and I heard that the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge was looking to hire a college student to be the office automation assistant. I applied, although I have to admit that I knew very little about my own back yard, even after growing up in Nikiski. The refuge was hiring a college student through the Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP) and I was lucky enough to get in by the deadline. I've been able to combine academic study with on-the-job experience, and been able to earn money while continuing my education locally at the Kenai Peninsula College. With STEP, employment opportunities need not be necessarily related to your academic field of study, which was great because I still am not sure what career direction is right for me.

I've developed a much broader horizon of career choices through my experiences working at the refuge and the opportunity to see what employees of the refuge do on a day-to-day basis. Not only did I get job experience, I got more outdoor opportunities last summer because the seasonal summer staff that worked on the trails or biology projects kept dragging me out to see Alaska. Most of these kids were from Outside, and their excitement at seeing Alaska inspired me to just take advantage of what is all around me. Hiking to Kane's Head beach out of Seward, or fishing on the Kenai, I truly never realized how lucky I was to live here until I saw it through the eyes of young people who had never experienced the beauty of Alaska, especially our own amazing Kenai Peninsula.

When I was hired, I had some office skills, and much to learn about the wildlife of my home state. I had a much bigger learning curve in front of me than I thought. As the main receptionist, part of my job is to answer the phone that rings all day. I also help people who walk into the Visitor's Center. The huge variety of questions I get has taught me an incredible amount. Sometimes -- oftentimes -- I just don't know the answer. It's a question I have never heard before, or one that has never occurred to me to ask.

Questions like, "Where are the animals?" demonstrate that many people think that the refuge is a wild game park, rather than 2 million-plus acres of protected wildlife refuge land. I don't know exactly where the bears are, although our biologists have a pretty good idea due to the intense bear studies they completed last summer (I monitored the radio for this project last summer; another unexpected job skill with some tense moments as bears can behave unpredictably).

Another question I did not anticipate is, "Why are there so many cars in the parking lot?" Many people (like me before I started working here) don't realize all of the services and projects that the refuge provides, including field trips for schools, summer camps, raptor rescue and rehabilitation, and trail restoration, just to name a few.

Every question I get is a good one. They show the interest that people have in the resources and wildlife of our wonderful area. The more I know, the more I find myself enjoying what the Refuge and the Kenai Peninsula in general has to offer. It has been an unexpected benefit of this job and something I will use for the rest of my life. I have learned an incredible amount working for the Refuge and it's a good thing.

Next question? "Do you have any pictures to help me identify animal scat?" Sure. Just another day at the refuge.

Donna Handley is the office automation assistant at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. She is also a student at the Kenai Peninsula College. For more detailed information about the refuge, check our website at or on Facebook at

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