A breeze tickles alder and willow thickets along the shore, raises goose pimples on the surface of the lake and nibbles your cheek. Fog cloaks dall sheep and goats foraging on the mountain tops and veils stands of white spruce. Somewhere on the other side of the lake the wail of a common loon shatters the silence while the white neck of a trumpeter swan glides by.
Figuring out how to get to that lake shore and what to look for once you get there can be daunting when you're traveling in a land known as "Alaska in miniature." Coming up with a comprehensive guide that tells tourists where to go for great bear viewing or what time to get up if you want to catch a glimpse of a Dolly Varden isn't any easier, especially when you have limited funds.
Rather than spend millions on fancy signs and contractors, Ken Tarbox and more than 50 other volunteers across the Kenai Peninsula researched and came up with 90-plus sites for inclusion in "Alaska's Kenai Wildlife Viewing Trail Guide." Armed with a $125,000 trail initiative grant, the Department of Fish and Game and these volunteers created a road map pointing tourists to the best wildlife hot spots on the peninsula, Tarbox said.
"What we wanted to do was to expose people to the diversity of wildlife we have," Tarbox said. "We have sites that are strictly oriented to intertidal invertebrate organisms, all the way to sheep and goats."
The Kenai Peninsula is only 200 miles long and approximately 100 miles wide, but encompasses every type of Alaska ecosystem except for arctic tundra and hosts more than 200 bird species.
"In this guide you can go whale watching out of Seward and come up through the peninsula and have moose and caribou," Tarbox said. "The purpose is to let people pick what they want to see and use the guide to go find them."
To make sure nothing was left out, Tarbox and Fish and Game enlisted the help of community chambers of commerce, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Mya Renken, executive director for the Kenai Chamber of Commerce, said wildlife tourism enhanced economies in other states by bringing money and development to those communities and the chamber wanted that for Kenai.
"It was amazing how everybody here on the Kenai worked on the program and volunteered to get a guide of this caliber based on the little money from the grant," Renken said. "It's a program we are looking forward to seeing grow over the years."
Renken said she initially approached Tarbox and lodge-owner Ken Marlow on putting together a Kenai birding guide until Karla Hart, watchable wildlife coordinator for Fish and Game, told them about the grant, turning it into a much bigger project.
"What makes us unique is you don't have to travel very far until you're in an entirely different ecosystem," she said. "It's an opportunity where all the communities can work together because together we offer a variety of birding and wildlife opportunities that other places can't touch."
For example, she said, birders might travel from other parts of the country simply to catch a glimpse of a bird in its breeding plumage. Many people also don't realize there's caribou on the peninsula.
"When you get a rare bird in an area," Renken said, "you'll have people travel all over for that sighting."
Even though fishing is world famous on the Kenai Peninsula, Shannon Hamrick, executive director for the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, said wildlife tourism is the peninsula's top draw.
"People are purchasing tours, eating in our restaurants, staying at our bed and breakfasts," she said. "They're spending a lot of money."
Not only are there plans to update the guide on a yearly basis, Marianne Aplin, Island Oceans Visitor's Center manager, said Fish and Game currently plans to include guides for the Southwestern and Southeastern portions of the state as well as along the Alaska Marine Highway.
"The Watchable Wildlife Program is great for us Alaskans and visitors because it's been able to produce all our tools to show off our beautiful natural wildlife," she said.
For information on purchasing a wildlife guide, visit www.kenaipeninsula.org.
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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