Somewhere under the snow there are trails and boardwalks and viewing platforms, but in the winter, with the snow thigh-deep and then some, the Carl E. Wynn Nature Center is open for some unique exploration and educational opportunities.
"This is my favorite time of year at the Wynn," was the greeting Jenni Medley, school program coordinator and educator at the Wynn, had for students in teacher Lyn Maslow's West Homer Elementary School classroom the morning of March 7.
Never mind the National Weather Service had predicted a storm rolling in that morning. Never mind the wind already was picking up and snow beginning to come down sideways. Medley's excitement and smile, as well as the eagerness of Robin Lohse, a contract educator joining Medley for the event, made it clear they were in for some fun.
"We're going off trail today. The only time we can do that is in the winter," Medley said of being able to view areas where trails don't extend. With snowshoes, visitors are free to roam the center's 140 acres without damaging the habitat.
Once a homestead, the Wynn was donated to the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies in 1990. It sits high above Homer at 1.5 miles on East Skyline Drive. It is staffed from mid-June until Labor Day with busy daily programming. Throughout the winter, naturalist-led walks are offered on Wednesdays. From 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, there is a bonfire.
"We have a campfire pit and usually have s'mores and hot dogs and try to keep around the cabin so families with little kids don't have to hike," said Medley of Sunday activities held near the Daisy Lee Bitter Interpretive Log Cabin. "Families with little bitty kids turn it into a play date and call up friends with kids and meet there. And we have had quite a few grandparents come up with their grandkids and have a lot of fun."
For those wanting to move away from the fire, this winter has provided plenty of snow.
"There is a hill perfect for sledding so we've been doing a lot of that," said Medley. "And there's lots of snow for playing in. Kids want to dig, so they've been digging snow pits and building forts.
This winter participants in HoWL, Homer Wilderness Leaders, constructed an igloo that has drawn lots of attention.
"It's been up for about a month and has been amazing," said Medley of the many visitors, school kids and families that have crawled inside to experience the structure's quietness and the soft blue light filtering through blocks of snow.
Wynn also is a frequent destination for school field trips.
"Classes in our school have done the snowshoe program at the Wynn for the past five years," said Maslow.
"We purchased our own snowshoes four years ago, and since then more and more classes have been going up there in the winter. Coastal Studies has developed a great program for teaching both winter ecology and winter survival."
During this year's visit, Maslow, her students and several parent volunteers strapped on snowshoes and were then divided into two groups by Medley and Lohse. One group explored Wynn, searched for animal tracks to identify and participated in a scavenger hunt; the other group learned to successfully build fires and construct snow shelters. Then they switched places.
Before heading back to school two hours later, everyone enjoyed a few minutes inside the igloo.
Coincidentally, Maslow's class had just read a historical fiction book about World War II on the Aleutian Island of Attu.
"We had spent a lot of time with the setting and thought that it would be cool to imagine ourselves on Attu with all the winds,' said Maslow.
With the help of Mother Nature, Wynn allowed them to do more than imagine.
"They loved the weather," said Maslow. 'We had a few cold kids, but what a perfect way to hammer in the importance of really dressing for the weather."
The snowshoe rental program offered by CACS has proven a popular way for anyone interested in winter recreation, whether at Wynn or elsewhere.
"The community really takes advantage of that rental program," said Medley. "We have people coming in pretty consistently to rent snowshoes."
Although a transition is underway from winter to summer programming, Carl E. Wynn Nature Center continues to offer plenty of outdoor opportunities.
"The month of March is a good window for going up there," said Medley of latching on to winter's coattails.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carl E. Wynn Nature Center
Location: 1.5 Mile Skyline Drive
Owned and operated by: Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies
Trail use fee: $7 adults, $5 kids, free for CACS members
Snowshoe rental: $5 a pair for non-members, free to CACS members. Can be checked out for two days at a time and used wherever there's enough snow.
Upcoming Wynn programs:
• March 17:
St. Patrick's Day celebration,
• March 24:
Easter Egg hunt,
Also owned and operated by Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies:
For membership levels and more information:
Visit www.akcoastalstudies.org or call 235-6667