From the Great Plains, the Great Lakes and the Northeast to the high country of the West and the expanses of Alaska, national wildlife refuges in northern latitudes are special places to celebrate winter.
Many of them are ideal for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Some also lend themselves, in Alaska especially, to dog sledding (aka mushing) and skijoring (more on that later).
Bill Laughing-Bear is a man who celebrates winter. “I always tell people heaven is going to be 365 snow and cold,” he says.
Laughing-Bear, who has lived in Alaska since 2002, particularly enjoys mushing at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Laughing-Bear often sees moose, bears, eagles, owls, ermine (his favorite), ptarmigan, snowshoe hare, fox, coyotes, lynx and, occasionally, caribou. Once, a pack of 13 curious wolves followed Laughing-Bear and his dog team for about 12 miles at Kenai Refuge.
Another night, he and his team were running under a brilliant Aurora Borealis sky. “It was bright enough I could see all the trees, and they were just flocked in hoarfrost,” Laughing-Bear says. “I felt like I was mushing into the gates of heaven. There was no sign of man whatsoever … It was the ultimate high.”
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which has been called “Alaska in Miniature,” is headquartered near Soldotna, about 150 miles south of Anchorage.
Dog mushing is the state sport of Alaska. The world-famous Iditarod sled dog race trail runs through or adjacent to Innoko, Nowitna and Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuges. All told, there are 16 national wildlife refuges in the 49th state.
“I prefer refuges probably over any other place, unless we’re going extreme remote Alaska,” says Bill Laughing-Bear. “I really believe in our Refuge System. I think it’s one of our real treasures we have as a nation.”
Donnie Phyillaier has been snowshoeing at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge since he made himself a pair of snowshoes 16 years ago.
Phyillaier, a longtime volunteer at the refuge, remembers two special winter moments in particular.
“One was introducing a friend to traditional snowshoeing and seeing how much they enjoyed it,” he says. “The other was finding where a fox had been diving headfirst into the snow hunting for voles in the wetlands.”
Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, just 12 miles from downtown Minneapolis and a stone’s throw from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, “is an oasis right in the middle of an urban area and only a short 15-minute drive from my apartment,” says Donnie Phyillaier. “Animals leave a diary of their life on the landscape, and it is there for anyone to read. That is what I love about snowshoeing at the refuge: I can spend my time in the river bottom following the trails of animals and reading that diary.”
“When you start your little adventure you’re cold, but it doesn’t take long for your body to warm up,” says April Oleksy, about cross-country skiing and snowshoeing at Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge on the New Jersey/New York border 65 miles northwest of midtown Manhattan. “It is really peaceful being on the trails in the winter because they are a lot less traveled” than in other seasons, when many visitors are hiking on them.
Oleksy, her husband and two sons volunteer at the refuge and have been enjoying winter there for years.
Kathy Woodward, president of the Friends of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, is similarly fond of winter at that refuge, also in New Jersey, 25 miles from Times Square as the crow flies.
“This is a very special area as nature has her way there,” Woodward says. “With the leaves off the trees and snow on the ground, you can see the ponds and contours of the area. It is beautiful.”
When snowfall cooperates, opportunities to cross-country ski and snowshoe are available at national wildlife refuges in the Northeast, the Midwest, the mountains and prairies and other northerly places.
Skijoring is a winter sport in which a person on skis is pulled by horse, dog or motor vehicle.
Skijoring USA calls the sport a combination of dog power and cross-country skiing: “It’s a cooperative sport that employs the athletic ability of both dog and skier. Assuming you own cross-country ski equipment and an energetic dog, you can simply add the necessary skijoring equipment and you’re ready to begin a thoroughly enjoyable adventure. Skijoring is filled with all the romance of dog sledding with the simplicity of walking your dog.”
Karin Bodony, a ranger at Koyukuk, Nowitna and Innoko National Wildlife Refuges who ski-jors or mushes dogs almost daily in winter, says it is important that your dogs be well trained before you harness yourself to them. However, Bodony says, dogs can be great teammates in the wild. Because of their keen sense of smell and hearing, dogs notice things that people can’t detect: “My dogs have often made me aware of moose, squirrels, otters, birds and other creatures I never would have noticed.”
Yes, we know that skijoring or mushing in Alaska is a remote possibility for most Americans, but winter recreation at a national wildlife refuge often is closer than you think.
Across the country, there are more than 100 refuges within 25 miles of population centers of 250,000 people. To find a refuge near you, click here and type in your Zip Code.