Samantha Russell is wearing a light winter jacket and no gloves as she briskly hikes through the snow to Eagle River Nature Center’s Beaver Viewing Deck.
“I moved from Wisconsin to Alaska for warmer weather” she jokes as she untangles her terrier, Ivy, from another tree.
Russell, 28, is the nature center’s newest naturalist. She started in April 2016 and is enchanted with her surroundings.
“This is my office,” she says pointing to the landscape. “What a gorgeous setting. Every day is a different picture.”
Russell graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology. She took a year off to run sled dogs in Wisconsin, and then moved to Alaska to be near family.
So far, Russell loves Alaska – and her job. She’s responsible for helping to develop and teach programming, providing outreach to the community and periodically hiking the trails to be available to answer questions.
Part of Russell’s job is “helping moms feel safe.” She talks to many parents who are new to the state and worried about moose and bear safety. Russell reassures them that with a little information and common sense, they can help their family “learn to Alaska.”
While Russell enjoys working with all ages, she’s particularly drawn to the middle school and high school crowd. She designed a climate change panel for teens with the goal of giving young adults the “tools to talk about climate change and the skills to have high-level science discussions.”
Russell will help host the Outdoor Survival Skills for Teens seminar held on Jan 6. Participants will spend most of the day outside learning to build fires and shelters, cook lunch over a fire and discuss emergency preparedness and response.
Russell notes generally speaking, girls are absent from the more rugged, hands-on programming, such as the survival classes.
“Where are the girls? It’s absolutely built for them,” she says.
Russell also encourages disabled community members to spend time at the nature center. Russell, who has experience working with individuals with a range of disabilities, is hoping to “bridge the gap between the disabled community and environmental education.”
The nature center offers viewing decks and numerous hands-on explorations of animal furs and skeletons.
The Ropak Trail, which is three-quarters of a mile in length, is accessible by wheelchair. Russell describes the hill that leads to the trail as steep, but manageable.
“It’s not perfect but we can troubleshoot problems,” Russell says.
She encourages patrons with accessibility concerns to call if they need help planning a visit.
Russell is enthusiastic about “making sure people who show up represent the community as a whole. Everyone is welcome.”
While Russell’s favorite part of the job is instilling curiosity, her least favorite task is picking up the dog feces that visitors leave behind.
“We encourage people to pick up after their dogs,” she says emphatically, noting that plastic bags are available at the information desk and behind the nature center.
She also doesn’t like reminding patrons that due to higher traffic, the Rodak and Albert Loop Trail require pets be leashed.
Russell has a final request for visitors.
“Ask questions. Engage with us. We’re here to work with you and make your experience great,” she says with a smile.
Editor’s Note: Melinda Munson is a contributing writer for the ECHO News. She and her family live in Chugiak. She is the mother to six children and a journalism graduate from the University of Washington in Seattle.
Contact information for the Eagle River Nature Center
32750 Eagle River Road
Eagle River, AK 99577
Winter Hours for Building (Jan. thru April)
Fri, Sat., Sun: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Trails always open
$5 parking fee or long-term decal available for purchase
Naturalist Samantha Russell’s Guide for Nervous Parents
How to Stay Safe from Moose and Bears
- Be aware of your surroundings and recognize any potential danger. Just like bears, moose are wild animals and can be dangerous if they feel threatened.
- Make noise. (This is easy for most children. If your child is non-verbal or has special-needs, consider giving them an object such as a bell.)
- Give space. Moose and bears are not cuddly. They don’t want to cuddle with you.
- Don’t keep food outdoors. Never intentionally leave food out for wild animals. (Leaving feed out for moose is not a safe practice.)
- Avoid areas where there is a high likelihood of encountering a moose or bear up close. (For example, stay away from bear country during salmon runs.)
- Remain calm. Don’t run. Talk to the animal as you slowly back away.
- For more information, visit the displays at the Eagle River Nature Center. The staff is happy to answer your questions.
Eagle River Nature Center January Classes
Call 907-694-2108 if registration is required.
Find more information at www.ernc.org.
Outdoor Survival Skills for Teens
January 6, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
$20, includes lunch
Learn how to build fires, shelters and prepare for emergencies.
Astronomy Series: Exoplanets
January 6, 7 p.m.
Explore planets that orbit stars other than our sun.
Shelter Building (Junior Naturalist Program, ages 6 and up)
January 7, 2 p.m.
Learn how to build a “quinzhee” snow shelter.
Cryptozoology: In Search of Bigfoot
January 8, 2 p.m.
Does Bigfoot exist? Discuss evidence and explore portraits.
Historic Iditarod Roadhouse Day
January 14, noon to 5 p.m.
The nature center will turn into a 1917 roadhouse as various activities throughout the day celebrate the Iditarod Trail.
Midnight Sun Zombies
January 14, 7 p.m.
Bluegrass music, food and local beer. Must be over 21. Members only. Tickets are $25.
A Life of Climbing, Special Author Visit
January 15, 2 p.m.
David Stevenson will read from his essay collection.
Homemade Herbal Products
January 16, 1-4 p.m.
Learn how to make your own natural products from herbs in your kitchen and Alaska’s back yard. Cost is $25.
Animal Puppet Storytelling (Junior Naturalist Program, K-6)
January 21, 2 p.m.
Spend the afternoon using puppets and shadow play to tell animal stories.
Visiting Cuba, Armchair Travel Series
January 22, 2 p.m.
Join Photographer Jesse Oxendine and his wife, Connie Peterson, as they discuss a recent trip to Cuba.
Snowshoes and Hares (Junior Naturalist Program, K-6)
January 28, 2 p.m.
Learn how animals get around in the winter and make tracks.
Open House at the Cabin
January 29, 12:30-3:30 p.m.
Depart at 12:30 p.m. on foot or skis for a 1.25 mile journey to Paradise Haven Cabin. A warm fire, hot cocoa and s’mores will be served.