Jim Hall, deputy manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, examines the log book from the porch of the Upper Ohmer Lake Cabin last month to asses what wildlife visitors of the public-use cabin have seen. Numerous bear sighting were recorded in the ledger.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
The early morning air was so still and the reflection on Bottenintnin Lake so crystal clear, it was difficult to tell where the water ended and the azure sky began. Even the one and only cloud a thin, white, wispy thing way up high was perfectly mirrored in the calm water. A small ripple at the surface emanating from where an emerald-colored dragonfly darted a little too low in pursuit of a mosquito meal was the only giveaway.
Jeff Pritchett, of Anchorage, poured himself another cup of coffee before reclining back in his camp chair at the shoreline campsite he and his wife, Dar, had set up the night before. The two quietly sipped their steaming beverages while taking in all that nature had to offer at the start of this summer day. From the hard-not-to-hear honking of sandhill cranes flying high overhead to the more low-level laughter of a loon somewhere on the far side of the lake, it was clear by these natural sounds they had left the city, and all thoughts of the concrete and steel world, far behind.
"We were looking for a quite place to camp and this is a pretty darn nice place," Pritchett said.
Highbush cranberries are beginning to ripen in the Skilak area, which could make a tasty treat for humans and animals alike.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
The two were alone at campsite in the middle of summer on the Kenai Peninsula an area that is visited by hundreds of thousands of Lower 48 tourists annually and is billed by the tourism industry as "Alaska's playground."
"We try to get out every weekend and we'll come to this area a half dozen times over the course of the summer. The Skilak area is one of our favorite places," Pritchett said of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area.
A fresh pile of firewood awaits users of the public-use cabin at Engineer Lake. This cabin is not visible from many vantages around the lake or from the Seven Lakes Trail, which users must hike a portion of to get to, making stays at the log structure secluded.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Tucked away in the geographical center of the Kenai Peninsula, the Skilak WRA is a jewel in the crown of the much larger Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Skilak WRA encompasses 41,780 acres, or roughly three percent of the entire refuge. Most of the area is taiga forest made up of a mix of white and black spruce, as well as birch, aspen and other hardwoods. The fauna of the Skilak area is as equally prolific as the flora, as more than 200 wildlife species make this area their home for at least a portion of their life cycle.
"You can see a lot of wildlife here, especially at the other end of Skilak Loop Road. We've seen a lot of moose and black bear there and we even saw a lynx a few years ago," Pritchett said, referring to the west end of the 18.8-mile road, which serves as the main artery for people accessing the recreation area.
Jeff and Dar Pritchett, of Anchorage, sip steaming beverages while taking in the morning view from Bottenintnin Lake in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area earlier this month. Tucked away in the geographical center of the Kenai Peninsula, the Skilak WRA is a jewel in the crown of the much larger Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
He and his wife weren't the only ones to witness wildlife while visiting the area. Jana Sokale and Greg Scott, on vacation from California, said they had been fortunate in their pursuit of finding feathered, flying creatures.
"Shhhh. You here that? If you listen you can tell how good the birding is here," Sokale said while standing as still as a marble statue with her head cocked to the side so her ear was directly facing a loud and lively "jit-jit-jit" call emanating from a ruby-crowned kinglet not far away in the foliage.
Sokale rattled off close to a dozen species of birds she had observed while hiking the southern stretch of the Seven Lakes Trail that hugs the western shore of Engineer Lake. Some were songbirds like the kinglet, others were waterfowl such as surf scoters, red-necked grebes and trumpeter swans that she had to view through binoculars as they floated across the lake, far from shore.
"Compared to where we are from, this area is fantastic. This trail on the lake edge is nice and intimate, and very quiet, which is part of the reason we came. That, and to see birds, of course," she said.
Like Pritchett and Sokale could attest to, compared to some recreational areas where spotting animals may take a keen eye and the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time, in the Skilak area it is almost more rare to not see wildlife.
Flipping through the pages of a log book in one of the three public-use cabins in the Skilak area is another way to confirm just how frequently wildlife makes itself known. In one of the more recent entries in the log book at the Upper Ohmer Lake Cabin, the Humecky family wrote on Aug. 4 "We saw a big, beautiful, bald eagle, a duck, a large moose and a big brown bear while we were here. He kept to himself on the lake to the west of the cabin."
In an entry in the same log book the Heath family recorded their interaction with bruins. "Observed a black bear with three little cubs on the hillside across the lake yesterday and this morning," they wrote in early July.
So much bear activity in the Skilak area is one of the reasons some people opt to rent one of the public-use cabins, as opposed to pitching a tent or open-air camping under the celestial canopy.
"We stayed for the safety. I don't feel really safe with four kids in a tent in bear country," said Nichole Dreyer of Soldotna, who last month rented the cabin on the north shore of Engineer Lake for the weekend.
She said peace of mind wasn't the only reason she paid the $45 per-night cabin fee, though. It was also for the peace and quite.
"We also rented it for the seclusion, so we wouldn't have to put up with other campers' noise and people drinking all night long. All we heard when we were there was wildlife all around. You feel totally alone," she said.
Dreyer said her family's stay was worth every penny, considering how many amenities they got for the price. The 16-by-18-foot cabin built in 2005 includes two bunk beds, a table with benches and a small wood stove. Outside there is an established fire ring, a boat to take out on the water in pursuit of the landlocked salmon and Dolly Varden that provide fair fishing, and an outhouse behind the cabin with dutch doors for taking in the aesthetics of nature while answering its call.
"It was awesome. Everything was very clean and in really good condition. Even the outhouse was nice," she said.
Dreyer said the cabin also proved a sanctuary from saturation when the weather turned wet during their stay in the woods.
"It rained our second day there, but we were able to kick back and stay dry and warm. The wood stove heated the cabin up really well. We just sat around playing games we had packed in. Someone left behind a chess board, too," she said.
When the storm clouds finally broke, Dreyer said she was left with one last memory of mother nature's magnificence.
"We saw a gorgeous rainbow. It was the brightest I have ever seen," she said.
Establishing these types of personal connections with nature are what make the public-use cabins Upper Ohmer Lake Cabin, Engineer Lake Cabin and the historic Doroshin Bay Cabin on the eastern shore of Skilak Lake so popular.
Gary Titus, cabin historian for the refuge, said anyone thinking about staying in one of these cabins shouldn't wait until the last minute before applying for the permit.
"I'd recommend people book at least a month ahead at this time of year, and maybe consider weekdays because weekends book up fast. In July, the Upper Ohmer Lake Cabin was booked for more than half the month. They're all very heavily used, and they become more known every year," he said.
While anyone who doesn't plan ahead is welcome to camp in one of the nine campgrounds in the Skilak area, staying at one of the cabins isn't an option for these latecomers.
"These cabins require reservations and are permit only. Tickets will be issued for anyone found squatting," he said.
When not camping, there is plenty to do in the Skilak are besides wildlife watching. The 24,512-acre Skilak Lake is a hub of fishing activity throughout the year. There also are several day hikes in the area where people can get out and stretch their legs while picking berries on the way to taking in the landscape from the top of a mountain or high up on a canyon ridge.
"The Skilak area has 11 designated hiking trails which total 19.5 miles," said Scott Slavik, a backcountry ranger for the refuge.
Slavik said a few of these trails could be considered a little tough to tackle, all of trails in the Skilak area were designed to be do-able within one long Alaskan summer day by anyone in fairly descent shape.
"We try to make them all family friendly hikes where people can easily get to some dramatically scenic spot with a good chance of seeing wildlife along the way. They range in terms of difficulty. Some go up into some elevation and could be rated as moderately strenuous, but they're short hikes, so they can still be done in a day. Some of the hikes are easy ones, as well. Some, like Hidden Creek Trail, are relatively flat or with only a few hundred feet of elevation gain," he said.
Hearing that not all of the hikes in the Skilak area are quad-throbbing uphill humps was good news to Mike Schneider of Eagle River, who stayed at the Hidden Creek Campground recently.
"I like hiking a lot. I've got two dogs so I walk five to seven miles a day, but I'm too old for the vertical stuff. I look for nonstrenuous hikes to go on," he said.
Schneider said he was enjoy hiking in the Skilak area because it feels off the beaten path, but still has places that are easy to walk, and even a few that could be rolled when pushing someone in wheelchair such as the paved areas around Hidden Lake and the packed gravel road of Upper Ohmer Lake Trail, which ends at a pubic-use cabin with a ramp for the disabled.
"I'm here with my son and his family, and my daughter-in-law is handicapped, so it's important to us to have places we can all go," he said.
Unlike some refuge areas that have strict moratoriums on developing new places to hike, Slavik said the existing trails in the Skilak area aren't all there will ever be.
"There are other trails proposed that are still being looked at and may develop as more funding becomes available," he said.
In the meantime, Slavik said he and members of the Student Conservation Association a nonprofit organization that offers conservation internships and summer trail crew opportunities to more than 3,000 people each year are involved in a monthlong project to put in three-quarters of a mile of new trail as part of a longer, multi-year project to connect two existing trails in the area.
"The project is attempting to connect the roughly half-mile-long Burney's Trail out of Hidden Lake Campground, with the roughly one-and-a-half-mile-long Hideout Trail. We haven't flagged the entire route yet, but the connector should add one-and-a-half to two miles of new trail," he said.
This sounds easier than it is, according to Slavik. He said the eight-person SCA crew, which has members from as far away as Nepal, has been working hard breaking trail for the past two weeks and they are still only halfway done with their assigned section.
"It's all by hand. They're using Pulaskis to mine out giant boulders and they're taking out stumps with axes. It's a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get a nice, wide, rock-free trail for others to use," he said.
Slavik said that, in the end, it will all be worth it because the trail will be much like the Skilak recreation area itself.
"It'll be a good one," he said.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at email@example.com.
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