Conserving the Nature of America
Alaska, as You Pictured It
For Adventure, It’s Tough to Beat a Stay at a Remote National Wildlife Refuge Cabin

January 22, 2015


Vanessa Kauffman 

Mountains surround you. The float plane that brought you has left. Civilization is hours away. The only sounds you hear are the calls of loons on the lake outside your door. What do you do now? 

  • Catch Dolly Varden and sockeye til your arms give out.
  • Spy eagles, fox and brown bears.
  • Shove off for hours – or days – in your pack boat, returning only to feast and cozy up by the fire.
  • Thank your lucky stars you snagged a week’s stay in a coveted public-use cabin on scenic Kodiak or Kenai National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska.

But if you’re thinking of reserving, don’t wait. The refuges’ 22 low-cost cabins ($45 a night) typically book up as soon as they become available online, six months in advance. Summer and fall are high season, especially for anglers, photographers and hunters. The easiest-to-reach cabins go first.

“I’d love to do the same trip again, frankly,” says Steve Hartmann, who, with his brother and a friend, rented Kodiak Refuge’s South Frazer Lake cabin for a week last July. “The fishing was excellent,” says the Bureau of Land Management’s Fairbanks district manager. “We caught Dolly Varden, rainbow, hooked a few king salmon unexpectedly. They gave us quite a fight.” Wildlife spotting lived up to legend, too. “We’d take the raft across the lake later in the evening when the larger bears came out.”

It’s not just Alaskans who make use of refuge cabins. Mississippi State University professors Chris Ayers and Alix Hui joined their friend Nathan Svoboda and his dog Kio at Kodiak Refuge’s Uganik Lake cabin in June. It was Ayers’ and Hui’s first trip to Alaska, their first time on a float plane. They stayed three days at Uganik, fishing and hiking, then scored another first:

“My favorite part of the trip was that we decided to load our boat and float out of the lake down the river to the bay,” says Ayers. “We had oars to help us work the rapids and rocks. The Dolly Varden and cutthroat fishing on this stretch of the river was outstanding. …We used a satellite phone to call the pilot service and arrange to be picked up on an island in the bay.”

Sure Beats a Tent

What makes refuge cabins so popular?

For one thing, sleeping inside four walls has an undeniable appeal in bear country. For another, the warm, dry cabins (Kenai cabins have wood stoves; Kodiak cabins, oil heaters) offer shelter from the coldest and wettest of Alaska’s often cold, wet weather; even families with young kids stay there, The clincher, says Kevin Painter, interpretive specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska region: The cabins give people a safe, affordable way to experience the 49th state’s raw beauty.

“Staying in either the Kodiak or Kenai cabins is like having your own piece of real Alaska,” says Painter. “The cabins are in places of solitude that are wild and beautiful. It is what most people think of when they envision that ideal Alaskan experience.”

You needn’t take his word for it. Sneak a peek at some random entries in Kodiak cabin logs:

August 8-11: “Incredible sockeye spawning on the N Fork inlet stream. Pink salmon coming thru in waves…” — Dan Murch, Bolinas, CA

August 11-18 (in large print): “I can’t imagine anything better than this place…” — James G. Miekel Pruitt

Any-Season Escape

Some cabin enthusiasts prefer it cold.

Every Thanksgiving for the past six years, Simone Owens has rented a Kenai Refuge cabin with her husband Chris, and their son and daughter. “We sled and we explore and ice fish on the lake,” says the Nikiski, AK, resident. “It’s an escape, no matter the time of year you go.”

Carmen and Conrad Field look forward to their family’s annual winter visit to Kenai’s Engineer Lake cabin. The Homer couple began the tradition when their daughter Eryn was 1. She’s now 9. “She feels like it’s her cabin,” says Carmen. “We go every January, February or March so we can ski and ice fish. In a typical year, you can drive across the lake in your car…or pull a pulk [sled] behind skis to the cabin. That way you don’t have to hike a mile in.” Last year they hitched Eryn to their black lab and the puppy pulled her on skis across the lake.

Alaska cabins attract hardy souls, willing to rough it to experience a storied wilderness setting. If you can’t do without indoor plumbing and gas heat, better look elsewhere.

As to the area’s star attractions – the bears – not everyone spots one. But leaf through a cabin logbook and you’ll find plenty of entries from visitors who do. Most are pretty tame. Then there’s this one: A writer recounts how a “magnificent” sow with two cubs charged and backed him into the water, “popping jaws, woofing and bouncing up and down.” Then she gathered up her cubs and continued upriver. Concludes “Daddy O,”: “Five days without a shower must [have] convinced her I wasn’t worth eating.”

Getting there:


Kenai Refuge cabins:

Kodiak Refuge cabins:

Amenities: Bunk beds, outhouse, wood stove or oil heater

Cost:  $45/night plus transportation, gear and food

Air transport:     Sea plane operators, such as Andrews Airways, 907-487-2566 charge by cargo weight (generally 800 pounds or 1,200 pounds) and distance.

Other costs:  Airfare to Alaska, satellite phone

Changes: Little River Cabin at Kodiak Refuge is no longer available

General info: Spotlight – Alaska’s recreation cabins


Flickr photo set:

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