Matt Conner, chief of visitor services at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, concluded his ribbon cutting at the grand opening of the new Kenai Refuge Visitor Center by welcoming the audience with a greeting that could have been an oxymoron.
"Welcome to your visitors center" he told the crowd of mostly central Kenai Peninsula locals. But as the various speakers at the ceremony iterated, the new facility really is for both residents and visitors, just like the refuge itself.
As Refuge Manager Andy Loranger explained, the new facility is intended to serve as a gateway for the hundreds of thousands of visitors -- including lots of kids -- who see the refuge each summer.
"The center provides a window into the refuge. Giving visitors deeper understanding of how refuge helps conserve the rich fish and wildlife resources we all enjoy is a big part of the quality of life here. It's designed to spark interest in learning more about this amazing place, its history and its natural resources and to encourage visitors to get out and further explore this spectacular landscape," he said.
But at the same time, the nation's refuges are managed for use year-round, and that means by its neighbors.
"The refuge has been the backyard of the people of the Kenai Peninsula since 1941 when it was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For 74 years you have been refuge's extended family. This visitors center is a way for us to say thank you for the decades of support, for the conservation of wildlife, the mountains, the streams, the forests of the refuge," said Karen Clark, deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. "Always remember that we had you in mind when we were envisioning this center. … I think you will find a visitors center that inspires you to see the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in ways that you haven't ever before."
Jim Kurth, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the center can be a way to give context to the vast, vibrant and varied refuge, and instill the values of stewardship and conservation.
"I think about what it's like when you go out there and you explore the wild reaches of this place, and it makes you feel small, it fills you with that awestruck feeling," Kurth said.
Outside the entrance to the center is a life-sized statue of a bull moose, nameless until the opening ceremony. Kenneth Brown of Soldotna had the winning suggestion.
"Majesty of the Kenai is what I picked out, and I was just lucky enough to win it," he said. "The moose means a lot to me -- I love moose, I love photographing the moose and hunting the moose and every aspect of it."
Entering the building, the front desk and gift shop are to the left, stocked by Alaska Geographic. To the right is an 80-person conference room, in which the Jabila'ina Dancers from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe performed, followed by the Del Dumi Drummers outside under a blue sky.
Straight ahead is a giant table map of the refuge, with light-up LEDs to accent various aspects of the landscape. Next to that is a seating area in front of a wood-fired Greenstone masonry fireplace, one of many ecofriendly features of the building, which was built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. Dominating the view in the lobby, though, is the view -- a bank of windows looking out on an outdoor terrace amphitheater and the woods beyond.
Candace Ward, information and education supervisor, said it's her favorite part of the building. "I love being out on the little balcony and looking out into the natural world. That, to me, is a really special, nice feature that you wind your way into this visitors center, you go out into nature, you come back and learn a little bit more," she said.
Or a lot more. An educational exhibit titled "From Icefields to Oceans," takes 1,800 square feet of the public space. There are also giant dioramas of fish and wildlife, including a mounted brown bear that surveys the room.
"It's right around the bend and as you walk through the visitors center it's like, 'Whoa, surprise, it's here,' " Ward said.
Tactile and visual
There are maps and pictures and displays on geology, cultural heritage and much more. But the eyes aren't the only things that have something to experience. The exhibit has lots of things to touch, hear and even smell up close.
Kids scrambled around on a scavenger hunt during the opening, triggering bird songs, looking for spawning fish, peering through binoculars, crawling into a beaver lodge, making prints in sand, deputizing themselves as future biologists, and much more.
"I think one of the cool things about this (center is) it's so tactile and very visual, and that's very different than how things were done 30 years ago when we had the other visitors center," said Ward, whose career with the refuge is in its third decade.
Cori O'Brien, of Soldotna, brought her grandkids to the opening and found it engaging for all ages.
"I think there is lots to do, lots to see, a good safe area for them to enjoy themselves, and there's lots of trails for them to walk on and enjoy themselves too," she said.
Twelve-year-old Ariel Hamer of Soldotna was a fan of the glacier display that serves as the entrance to the exhibition area, and she liked one of the animal displays too.
"The two moose, the baby moose and then the mom, and the pond. When you looked at the water it was ripply on top but underneath you could see all the salmon," she said.
Older sister Amber Hamer, 17, was drawn to the brown bear display, while 10-year-old Gus Miller, of Kenai, and 8-year-old Luke Miller, of Kasilof, could have spent all day making prints.
"It was really fun, the sand thing," Gus said.
"The sand place, where you put down prints," Luke added. "'Cause we just stayed at the sand place for like one hour."
"I think it's awesome. I think it's going to be great for the community and the kids. I hope everybody enjoys it. I thought all the exhibits were really well done," O'Brien said.
That's just the kind of response Ward wants to hear about the new facility.
"It will be a really nice place … to learn about the natural world and appreciate the refuge," Ward said. "I think it puts us on the map more than before, both in terms of people traveling and our local folks."
The Kenai Refuge Visitors Center is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Sept. 7.
Jenny Neyman is editor of The Redoubt Reporter, where this first appeared.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing