KENAI NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
This gem of a refuge located in south-central Alaska is only two and a half hours by car from Anchorage. In Kenai National Wildlife Refuge's almost 2 million acres, you can hike, birdwatch, fish, pick berries or kayak on inland lakes and rivers. Created in 1941 to protect the Kenai moose, sixty-five percent of refuge lands are designated wilderness.
But Kenai is not without its problems. Oil discoveries in 1957 led to drilling and industrial development on some refuge lands. Over the years toxins - including polychlorinated biphenyls, triethylene glycol, xylene and benzene - were released into the soil. Today wood frogs born on refuge oil fields have an abnormally high rate of deformities - the largest ever recorded in Alaska or in any of the other 43 US refuges sampled - and contaminants are suspected as the cause. Kenai, however, remains one of Alaska's most beautiful and most accessible wildernesses.
EXPLORING KENAI NWR
Hiking: Kenai offers many opportunities for hiking. Trails range from easy, relatively level hikes along the Upper and Lower Kenai River to a short, steep hike on Skyline Trail.
Camping: The Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area has ten campgrounds. The smallest has three spaces; the largest, at Hidden Lake, has forty-four. There are also three small free campgrounds on Swanson River Road. Backcountry camping is permitted, but you must be at least 1/4 mile from the Sterling Highway, Ski Hill Road or Skilak Lake Road.
Wildlife: In Kenai's river valleys and boreal forests, listen for the howls of wolves and watch Alaskan brown bears and bald eagles fish for salmon. You may also see black bears, coyotes, porcupines, weasels, snowshoe hares and the ever elusive lynx. And keep an eye out for moose: Reaching heights of up to 7 1/2 feet at the shoulder and weighing up to 1800 pounds, Kenai's moose are the largest herbivores in North America. Resident birds include great horned owls, spruce grouse, hairy and downy woodpeckers and boreal chickadees.
In the hundreds of small lakes and wetlands found in Kenai's northeastern section, watch for common and Pacific loons, beautiful trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes and shorebirds. You may also see aquatic mammals - beavers, muskrats and mink. Fish include rainbow trout, Arctic char and red and silver salmon.
Portions of the Harding Ice Field also border Kenai NWR. And there is life even in the glacial ice: tiny ice worms feed on pollen, fern spores and red algae.
Refuge managers have also reintroduced caribou to the refuge, and five herds - including a mountain herd - now roam the Kenai peninsula. Other herbivores include Dall sheep, found in the eastern Kenai Mountains, and mountain goats.
For more information about Kenai and the wildlife it supports, watch the NPS video shown via YouTube below or visit the National Fish and WIldlife Service website. A bird check list is available at this USGS site.