Refuge Discovery Trip Report by Poppy Benson, FANWR Outreach Coordinator and Barb Veeck, Friends Member
The first ever Friends Discovery Trip to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge was a success! Eleven Friends met on a rainy Saturday fall morning with the Kenai Refuge manager Andy Loranger and staff to learn about the unique volunteer opportunities within the Refuge: from front desk, to adopt a trail, to refuge advocacy. This most visited and accessible refuge in Alaska has experienced budget and staff cutbacks. Visitor center manager Leah Eskelin shared a laundry list of volunteer opportunities suitable for locals with an afternoon to spare or Anchoragites who could give a weekend.
The clouds parted just in time for us to drive through golden fall leaves to launch our canoes at the Swan Lake Canoe Route trail head, 20 miles north of Sterling. We paddled across Canoe Lake to set up camp for our evening activities. Lots of awesome Dutch oven cooking and late night fraternizing around the campfire followed, including Robert Service poems dramatized by Friend member Tom Choate. We were accompanied by two refuge staff who coordinated our volunteer trail clearing.
The next day, we paddled to Waterfall Lake to do some trail clearing and exploration of the lake and its’ lovely island. The calm and clear waters offered a perfect reflection of the beautiful fall colors of the lake.
(click to enlarge photos)
Barb Veeck reports, “As a new member, I felt that I gained awareness of the purpose of the Friends program and enjoyed meeting other members. It was fun to discuss future volunteer and group trip activities such as this one.
Prior to this trip, most of us were only familiar with 1-2 people in the group which hailed from Anchorage, Kenai, Anchor Point, and Homer. By the end of the trip we all felt we had new “Friends” and were already planning our next refuge trip.”
As a Board member and trip organizer, Poppy Benson says, “I felt we met the objectives of familiarizing ourselves with at least part of the vast and wonderful Kenai Refuge and its volunteer opportunities, increasing communication and collaboration with the Refuge, and facilitating and building relationships between Friends. I think refuge familiarization trips should be an annual part of the Friends program. Email me with your ideas for future refuge trips at poppybenson@alaskarefugefriends. This trip was cheap ($20) and easy because participants only needed a weekend and a way to get to Soldotna. Other refuges such as the Arctic Refuge would take more time and money.”
We encourage all of you to get out on a refuge through Friends sponsored trips or volunteer opportunities or with your own family. The Refuges need us and we need them.
We just returned from our June 2017 week of pulling invasive weed species for the Friends of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. The volunteer work took us from Homer all the way north almost to the Arctic Ocean. It was a great experience and we hope we contributed to keeping invasives from spreading even more.
Monday morning we left Fairbanks early in two vehicles with the full weed pulling crew. A Fish & Wildlife biologist was the agency head for the crew, there was a summer intern working with him, and two other Friends volunteers. This is a typical view of the Dalton Highway or Haul Road. The reason it is called the Haul Road–lots of big trucks bringing stuff up to and down from Prudhoe Bay.
Typical Black Spruce forest- some of these trees are 200 years old! Growing on permafrost tends to make for a hard life and stunted growth.
Made it to the Arctic Circle. We pretty much had 24 hours of daylight the whole time we were up there.
This is what we were looking for– white sweetclover. For about 150 miles of the highway, anywhere a river crossed the road, we pulled the clover we found. We split up into pairs and pulled weeds about 100 yards up from the bridges on both sides. The idea is to not allow the sweetclover to flower and go to seed so the seeds can’t travel down the rivers and invade the refuges. One mature sweetclover plant can produce 350,000 seeds and they are viable for 80+ years.
The crew working a particularly heavily grown-over area.
Our final morning and we headed north out of Coldfoot (the two previous days we worked to the south.) The mountains you can see are the start of the Brooks Range. The views were spectacular, like Sukapak (mountain – below).
The mission of Salmon Camp is to educate Kodiak’s youth about the natural and cultural systems that define Kodiak’s geography and empower learners to investigate their own connections to this special place through hands-on learning, self-reflection and group discovery. Since 1996, Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, in conjunction with Alaska Geographic and the Kodiak community, has sponsored the Kodiak Summer Science and Salmon Camp. Within two years of its inception, Salmon Camp became the largest science-based camp in Alaska. In 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized Salmon Camp as one of its top five environmental education programs in the nation. This camp serves students from kindergarten through 8th grade. The Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges has supported the camp for several years, providing funding for educational experiences.
The camp kicked off in early June with “Fishing Day,” with 125 attendees. Bird TLC from Anchorage was on hand with a live bird demonstration, featuring a merlin and a peregrine falcon. Check out some photos below.
May 20-23, 2017 Selawik National Wildlife Refuge hosted its annual Spring Bird Walks. The Friends sent expert birder George Matz of Homer to Kotzebue to lead several walks.
“Thanks to everyone who ventured out on one of our bird watching events this weekend! We enjoyed looking at birds in their bright breeding colors, visiting with folks, and learning a bit more about the feathered travelers that are flying home to Alaska to nest. Thanks to Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges volunteer George Matz (center of photo above) for being a part of the fun!” -Susan Georgette, Selawik NWR Manager
June 3, 2017 Friends gathered for an encore screening of “The Million Dollar Duck,” with host Adam Grimm, at Morris Thompson Cultural Visitor Center in Fairbanks. Refreshments were served, duck stamps were sold, and fun was had by all!
BELOW: Friends in Action: Sarah Mathews, Joseph Morris, and Adam Grimm (signing duck stamps).
What does it take to grow new birders and public lands users? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with Alaska Geographic aim to figure this out through immersive experiences for youth on and about public lands. In this spirit, a group of 9 young people, accompanied by Helen Strackeljahn of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Eileen Kazura and Reth Duir of Alaska Geographic, attended the 25th Annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival with generous support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The group of current high school and college students from Anchorage, Alaska, were all first time birders when they arrived in Homer for the Shorebird Festival. Over the course of the Festival, they learned how to use binoculars, spent time in kayaks, and discovered their own personal bird story in a workshop with keynote presenter J. Drew Lanham. These activities and more were made possible through a generous grant from the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges.
Throughout the weekend, the group spotted Sandhill Cranes, Western Sandpipers, Greater White-Fronted Geese, and many more migratory species. They also had a number of close-up encounters with Homer’s resident Bald Eagles.
Highlights of the trip included kayaking around Yukon Island, pictured above, which began with entertainment on the water taxi provided by Dave Aplin of World Wildlife Fund, and culminated in a kayak race back to the shore. The group also enjoyed exploring Homer and attending the On the Wing Concert, Birder’s Breakfast and Keynote Speeches.
Many thanks goes to the array of partners and sponsors, who made it possible to connect these urban youth to their Alaska Refuges.
Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge submitted a proposal for two teens involved in outreach at the refuge to present at the 2017 Alaska Forum on the Environment (AFE), February 12-16, 2017. After being selected and with financial support from AFE partners and assistance from Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, the Kodiak Refuge was able to secure funding for flights and per diem for Kodiak sophomore Nia Pristas and 2016 high school graduate Joshua Barnes to travel to Anchorage and participate in the Forum. Their presentation was about Kodiak Refuge Salmon Camp and Pop-Up Salmon Camp. To help prepare youth for their presentations, AFE created a weekend of leadership and public speaking development for participating teens from all over Alaska. On Monday on the first day of the conference, Nia and Joshua presented to a packed and enthusiastic audience. They shared information about Kodiak Refuge Salmon Camp including giving a brief salmon lesson, leading a salmon hat craft and they even had the whole audience singing and acting out the Salmon Song. Joshua also had his short film about climate change impact on Kodiak’s natural resources in the AFE film festival.
(The Kodiak Refuge wanted to give a special shout out to Jason Sodergren with Friends of for his prompt assistance!)
“Don’t walk out to the truck yet, there’s a polar bear under the porch.”
That’s something you don’t get to say to your roommates very often. But when it’s one o’clock in the morning and the local polar bear patrol needs help nudging bears out of people’s backyards, this is a logical conversation to have when one of those bears has moved under the bunkhouse porch (which has to be traversed in order to reach the truck used to assist with said patrol). It was not long before the bear moved to another location and we were able to get into our vehicle and assist with driving laps around the village in an effort to keep bears away from houses. As exciting as this moment was, at the time it felt like just another day in Kaktovik.
(photo by Anita Ritenour, 2015)
I am incredibly fortunate to have worked with Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Marine Mammal Management staff on the Kaktovik Polar Bear Conservation Project. Thanks to the support of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, I was able to spend over three weeks on the Arctic Coast assisting with this vital effort. Duties included partaking in daily bear counts, monitoring bear viewing activity on Arctic Refuge waters, meeting with visitors from around the world to share information about the Arctic Refuge and the challenges facing polar bears, teaching about bears in local schools, and working with the Kaktovik Youth Ambassadors in their effort to share their community with tourists.
Early into my stay in Kaktovik, we counted 69 polar bears on a single morning count. While bears and people have coexisted in Kaktovik for a long time, a combination of decreasing sea ice and the availability of whale remains from the subsistence hunting that takes place in the fall has yielded a much higher density of bears near the village in recent years than ever before. Simultaneously, this village with less than 300 residents is suddenly seeing upwards of 1,000 people in a six-week time span to see the infamous polar bear. The physical and social climate could hardly be changing more rapidly.
I will soon be defending my Master’s thesis on human-bear interactions on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge on Kodiak Island. My time in Kaktovik reinvigorated my passion for my research, and the importance of understanding the inseparable role that people play in wildlife management. In addition to having the privilege to work with so many talented staff and volunteers in the Fish and Wildlife Service, spending time with the local community was truly a gift. Whether it was running up and down village streets with the kids after school, sitting with elders and listening to their stories, or standing with others on the edge of the village watching bears feed across the glassy Arctic waters, it was a joy to experience this community.
I could not be more thankful for Marine Mammal Management and Refuge staff members who have worked so hard to build positive relationships with such a special community. I am honored to have been able to witness and partake in this project. Thanks again to the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges for enabling this partnership and many others like it!
The Kaktovik Polar Bear Conservation Project is a collaboration between the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Marine Mammal Management Program to address increases in polar bear concentrations and visitor use around the native village of Kaktovik. Friends is sponsoring Jacqueline Keating to volunteer for three weeks, assisting with daily bear counts, visitor education, and school outreach. She is completing graduate work on managing bear viewing on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge and is really thankful for the opportunity to experience a different type of bear viewing management.
Friends Volunteer Brenda Dolma had the opportunity to work with youth, refuge staff, and community elders of Arctic Village, during their annual Science and Culture Camp. Camp Goonzhii (meaning “wisdom and knowledge” in Gwich’in) took place in late August 2016. Thirty youths ranging from kindergarten through twelfth grade participated.The Science and Culture Camp includes curriculum in western science and traditional ecological knowledge, combined with indoor and outdoor learning experiences through demonstrations and hands on environmental education activities. Community elders share their wisdom about the land and animals, while Refuge staff offer exposure to new technologies.
Some camp topics and activities included:
Animal tracking and drawing
Dog sled construction
Caribou butchering and processing
“I had the opportunity to meet Sarah James [community elder and Friends member], who has been speaking to protect the habitat for the future. It was a treat to get out on the field trips and experience the beauty of Arctic Village in fall,” says Brenda.
To learn more about the Camp, check out this article by News Miner, in Fairbanks.
The Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges provided funding for nightly community dinners and Brenda’s travel. Membership comes with the chance to Volunteer. Check out our current opportunities.
Board Friends, past and present, joined current and prospective Fairbanks members and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff to float several miles into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge via the Atigun River from the Dalton Highway. The outing,proposed by National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA) Director David Houghton, had a two-fold mission:
Reward members for long-time Board service, and
Recruit and engage Fairbanks individuals as active Friends members
This intrepid and diverse group of 14 met in Fairbanks on July 15, 2016 and ventured up the Dalton Highway in a van and several pick-ups, first stopping at the Hot Spot Cafe for the establishment’s notably huge burgers, and then touring the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot. After a night camping at Marion Creek, the group drove on to the Atigun River, where they inflated rafts and prepared for the three hour boating journey.
The following photos exemplify some of the beautiful scenery and exciting moments experienced, as well as the challenges of enduring mosquitos, rain, and an arduous hike back to the road the next day.
Everyone felt this event achieved its goals in every way, as the camaraderie and shared experience reinvigorated the Board, past and present, while Fairbanks members brought new ideas and commitment to the Friends organization.
A huge thank you goes to NWRA and the Wilburforce Foundation for encouraging and funding the trip, and to Steve Berendzen and Barry Whitehill of Fairbanks for planning and coordinating logistics and equipment for the float.