Salmon aren't the only pink things at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Summer Science and Salmon Camp in Alaska. "I dye my hair hot pink every year" in anticipation of camp, says sixth-grader Audrey Lonheim.

The Kodiak camp, one of 16 refuge- related annual summer camps in Alaska, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Audrey has been attending since kindergarten and, like her second-grade brother, Simon, plans to attend again this summer.

“I like going on hikes, and I like all of the art projects we do,” says Audrey. She also likes learning about internal organs by dissecting salmon and about bird diet by dissecting owl pellets. She likes sea otters “because they are really awesome and cute and fluffy.” She especially enjoys making stick-and-driftwood frames for photographs she takes of wildlife and wildflowers. The Alaska rose is her preferred flower because, like her hair, “it’s pink, and that’s my favorite color.”

Each summer, the Kodiak camp conducts seven sessions on road-accessible portions of the island. Those sessions are designed for four age groups: kindergarten and first grade; second and third grade; fourth through sixth grade; and seventh and eighth grade. Kindergartners through sixth-graders attend weeklong day camps; seventh- and eighth-graders camp on a nearby island for part of the week. In addition, staff and volunteers travel by mail plane to six rural Kodiak communities with small populations to conduct camps for all age groups.

Last summer, the theme was the water cycle. Campers learned about the properties of water through games, experiments, songs and exploration. Learning about salmon and fishing are annual camp favorites. Campers also learn about the culture of the Alaska Native Alutiiq people, and in 2015 the refuge partnered with the Baranov Museum on something new: allowing campers to throw atlatls, ancient Alutiiq hunting tools.

“It’s hands-on science in an outdoor setting,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seasonal employee Kari Eschenbacher, the camp’s director. “They do a lot of fun stuff and learn a lot as well, but they don’t necessarily realize that they’re learning.” Among the ways they get a taste of science is by visiting biologists on active fish weirs to learn about methods of salmon research.

All told last summer, 187 campers spent 3,081 hours outside in nature and experienced 208 hours of Service-led environmental education at the Kodiak camp, which was supported by 15 partner agencies. Eleven teen or college interns contributed 2,120 volunteer hours.

Holly Lonheim, a lifelong Kodiak resident and mother of Audrey and Simon, says the camp “gets their brains working in the summer.” They get to play, hike and fish with their friends outside, she says, “and you never know what they’re going to come home talking about.” Simon loves to fish, especially for king salmon, and always has a good joke, Holly says. Audrey takes beautiful photographs and is showing signs of being a budding conservationist.

“When I grow up I either want to be a marine scientist, because I love marine life and tide pooling, or I want to be a baker, because I like baking and cooking,” says Audrey. She likes marine creatures because they are “different from all of the life on land because they have special adaptions that let them live in the water.”

Unlike his older sister, second-grader Simon is not yet considering conservation as a career. When he grows up, he says, “I’ll either be a chemist or I’ll work at McDonald’s.”


Shelley Lawson is an environmental education specialist at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Bill O’Brian is managing editor of Refuge Update.