Alaska Islands center opens next month

Refuge is represented in stained glass, metalwork ceramics and sculptures

Posted: Monday, November 24, 2003

HOMER - After 15 years of planning, designing and construction, the $18 million, 37,000-square-foot Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center is now complete.

It opens to the public on Dec. 13.

The center will serve as headquarters for both the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, as well as a visitor and educational venue for tourists and students.

"There's this whole concept of a journey to the refuge, then you're heading off to this offshore world of the islands," said Poppy Benson, outreach leader for the refuge, which is made up of about 2,500 islands.

Stained glass, metalwork, stonework, ceramic, glass and sculptures fill the interior. There are life-size models of seals, seabirds and other coastal creatures, and more than 8,000 porcelain cast shells were built into the flooring.

"The artwork is built right into the construction of the facility itself. We didn't wait until the facility was done and then put out a call for artists. We put the call out for artists when the designers and engineers were still formulating the floor plans," said refuge manager Greg Siekaniec.

An old-fashioned wooden dory sits in the entrance of the building, replicating those used in the early days of refuge.

"To think that they were running around the Aleutian Islands in little vessels like this, during the early years of biology," Siekaniec said. "We had some refuge manager and biologist types that could run these things all by themselves. They could pull them up on the shore at night - we're talking a 1,000-pound vessel."

The center's historical exhibits begin with a bidarka - a kayak - and other Alaska Native life replicas.

"We're not really looking at it as a history of people but more how people affected wildlife. When the first people came to the islands, you had the beginnings of subsistence use," Benson said.

A display on commercial use of wildlife in the refuge has a fox farmer greeting visitors from a video screen, so it looks as if he's standing in the doorway of a log cabin.

"If you were to stand here and read all these things, obviously the message we'd want to send you away with is that we realize it was an important part of the era both for Alaska and the United States, but it was very detrimental to the wildlife of the refuge," said Siekaniec, of the exhibit's theme, which explains how refuge personnel are now seeking to reverse the trend, removing foxes from the islands to restore biodiversity.

"I think it also shows, too, the invasive species problem that we will always be dealing with, being an island refuge," said Benson.

There's seabird theater with wind and aroma machines, along with panoramic videos of shorebirds and seabirds sculptures perched in high rock walls.

"This is a room that does indeed have a smell machine," Benson said. "There are little fans that blow out little essences of marine smell."

With more seabirds in the refuge than anywhere else in North America, one single island may hold one million birds.

"Some of the old, historical accounts are that people actually navigated by the smells they were picking up off of bird colonies. They knew they were getting close to rocky areas, and the fog might have been so heavy they couldn't see it," said Siekaniec.

Other displays include past and present military sites in the refuge - some 35 all told.

Also on the premises are administrative offices for the refuge and the reserve; an indoor theater, which seats 120; and an amphitheater.

The facility has space dedicated to education and research, with room for conference and training seminars.

"What we're trying to do with that is transfer information transfer knowledge from the scientist to the people who make decisions about resources," said Terry Thompson, reserve education coordinator.

Some exhibits focus on modern-day activities at the refuge, with virtual visits to different islands.

The refuge exhibit area culminates with "One Big Ocean," a display that includes a lighted dome of the north Pacific and the Bering Sea, surrounded by coastal regions, along with panoramic panels of facts and quotes from conservation leaders.

"Hopefully, well be able to keep it fresh enough that it entices the people that live in the town to continue to come back and see us, as we freshen up a new area or display, or learn new programs," said Siekaniec.

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