When travelers and explorers think about Alaska, their gaze naturally turns to the wide expanse of undeveloped “wide open spaces” throughout the state.
Whether for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, hiking, birding, photography or skiing, there are literally thousands of places to start your next adventure.
For many travelers, the front door to Alaska’s majesty is its network of national parks. Denali, Kenai Fjords, Wrangell-St. Elias and Katmai National Park are at the top of the list. Other spectacular parks are more remote — and more expensive to access: Lake Clark, Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley and Glacier Bay.
There are many other brands of public lands around the state, including state parks, BLM land and national forests. A big chunk — almost 80,000,000 acres — has been set aside for conservation of fish and wildlife.
Alaska’s national wildlife refuges offer the adventurous traveler unparalleled opportunities to get close to nature.
This network of 16 distinct refuges throughout Alaska is different than the parks.
David Raskin is president of the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, one of 180 friends groups around the country. He said that while many national parks are designed to attract tourists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the refuges, focuses on biology.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service won’t build facilities,” he said.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, “the National Wildlife Refuge System is a diverse network of lands and waters dedicated to conserving America’s rich fish and wildlife heritage.”
Although there are refuges in all 50 states, Alaska has the vast majority — 80% — of the refuge acreage. The biggest refuges in Alaska include the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Yukon-Delta Refuge, each of which comprises about 20 million acres.
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is the most-visited refuge in the state, primarily because it’s one of two refuges accessible by road. The other road-accessible refuge is the Tetlin Refuge, along the Alaska Highway near the Canadian border.
In the Kenai Refuge, unique features include 14 rustic cabins for rent. Additionally, the Swanson River and Swan Lake Canoe Trails offer a unique way to explore the wilderness.
If you’ve been to Homer, it’s hard to miss the big building overlooking the Beluga Slough with a nice view of Kachemak Bay. It’s the Islands and Oceans Center, hosting the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.
“The Maritime Refuge encompasses 2,500 islands and pinnacles, plus 4,500 miles of coastline,” Raskin said. “It’s home to 40 million seabirds.”
The center is home to historic and interpretive displays of the refuge, which extends all the way to the end of the Aleutian Islands. It’s remote and expensive to access. So the center is an important component for visitors to learn more about the refuge.
Although the building is temporarily closed, Melanie Dufour, program director for the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, hopes it will be open in May. That’s when the 30th annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival runs, from May 4-8.
The Friends group co-sponsors the festival, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The festival is the state’s largest wildlife festival and offers seminars, guided tours, workshops and kids’ activities.
“Kachemak Bay is a prime stopover for these birds on their way to the Arctic,” Dufour said.
Dufour works hard to get kids and teens interested in the festival. There’s a “Junior Birder” program specifically designed for children 5-15 years old. There are special prizes, a Junior Birder Notebook, coloring projects and a chance to earn your Junior Birder badge.
“Learning about birds is a great step to conservation,” said Dufour. “If you love birds, then you want their land to be healthy.”
Over the years, I’ve hunted, fished, hiked and explored in the refuges — without knowing about them beforehand.
The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is the smallest in Alaska, located around Cold Bay, Alaska. On a hunting trip, I learned the importance of the eelgrass which grows in the nearby Izembek Lagoon. Dufour said the eelgrass nourishes many seabirds, including the Pacific black brant, on their journey from the Arctic to Baja California.
While watching polar bears outside of the village of Kaktovik on Alaska’s North Slope, I was at the northern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
I have not floated rivers like the Kongakut, the Hula Hula or the Canning River, but they are popular floats that go deep in the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Whether it’s watching seabirds on the Alaska Peninsula or seeing bears in Kodiak, there’s a good chance you’ll be in or around a National Wildlife Refuge.
Learn more about Alaska’s refuges at the upcoming Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival — and see what the Friends group is doing to make sure more Alaskans know how to explore public lands dedicated to conservation.