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Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Exploring Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Hi Blog!

The Fourth of July has come and gone. Our friends, Don and Julie, have continued on their travels. While here in Seward, there were a couple of things we really wanted to do. One was to explore more of the Kenai Fjords National Park, which we did on our nine hour cruise. The other was to explore the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The two parks sit side-by-side and protect most of the Kenai Peninsula.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge contains over 1.92-million-acres to explore. We had only one day to do it, so we decided to get a little help. We contacted Kenai Backcountry Adventures and arranged for a combination wild life viewing boat ride and hike. Our adventure started at the boat launch on Upper Skilak Lake.

On our drive down Skilak Lake Road, we came across a momma bear and her two cubs. The cubs were two year olds and they were beginning to show their independence. While momma munched on the right side of the road, the two cubs were on the left.

As we approached, we had to drive between them. The two cubs looked back to momma to see if they were in trouble for straying too far. Momma continued to munch. She obviously is used to traffic. The cubs took their cues from her and went back to munching.

Soon after we arrived at the boat launch, our guide, Kyle, came and launched the zodiac we would be riding in today. As it turned out, we would be the only passengers. Kyle is an accomplished backcountry guide and we really enjoyed swapping stories with him.

The small island just beyond the boat launch is a gull rookery. The small grey fluff balls are actually baby gulls.

A few cormorants decided that gull island would make a good nursery. The cormorants like to build nests with sticks and grass. The gulls just find a nook in the rock. If you look at the cormorant in the center of the photo, she is sitting in a nest with two little chicks.

The cormorant on the right also has two chicks in the nest, but they are much older.

There is a wide variety of terrain in the refuge, including muskeg and other wetlands, alpine areas, and taiga forest. The refuge protects several large mammals, including wolf packs, brown bears, black bears, dall sheep, moose, lynx, and caribou, as well as thousands of migratory and native birds. There are numerous lakes, as well as the Kenai River.

As we mentioned in previous blogs, the Swan Lake Fire south of Anchorage has been burning for several weeks, making this area very hazy. Upper Skilak Lake was used by tanker planes to scoop up water and drop it on the fire. While there was no evidence of firefighting planes in the area, we decided to hug the near coast rather than boat across the lake. This gave us a chance to do some bear watching. This black bear was easy to spot as he walked along the ridge line.

Being in a boat made it easy to get up close and personal.

As we motored around a cove, we came across a momma merganser with her brood of chicks.

We cruised by a couple beaver lodges, but they were fast asleep.

Skilak Lake is part of the Kenai River system. It contains glacial runoff, being fed by meltwater from Skilak Glacier. With the recent high temperatures, snow melt has increased, causing the lake levels to rise several feet. These islands once had rocky beaches.

The katabatic winds coming down from the Harding Icefield, push driftwood up on the beach.

We spotted several more bears and bald eagles as we worked our way around the lake shore. Before long, it was time to land the boat at the trailhead. We decided to have lunch on the beach before heading into the woods. Nothing says hiking like a trailhead photo by Kyle!

While there hasn't been much rain, the snow melt has raised the lake level, inundating parts of the lake shore trail. Lucky for us, the park rangers brought in some boards. Unfortunately, once you stepped on the board, it sunk!

On our drive in, we passed several willow ptarmigan with broods of chicks. Unfortunately, we never got a photo. However, as we hiked along, we saw this one in a nearby tree. Their summer colors make it easy for them to blend into the trees.

After our hike, we headed back along the lakeshore to spot more wildlife. If you look over Kathy's head, you can see a bald eagle perched on a rock.

Here's a close up of the eagle on a rock.

As we came back to the boat launch, we had to wait for several other rafts to be taken out. As we circled about, we caught this eagle in flight.

We also spotted an eagle on a nest. While we didn't spot any brown bears, we did see a moose cross the road this morning.

Now that we have a better understanding of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, we are hoping to be able to get out and explore the area while we are camped in Kenai near Soldonta. Stay tuned.

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