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Celebrating the call of the wild

Jerry Ting/Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge

The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in California provides critical habitat for migratory birds.

Quick, name three national wildlife refuges.

OK, how about two? One?

That’s what we thought, which may explain why the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, managers of the nation’s refuge system, is inviting the public to celebrate National Wildlife Refuge Week Oct. 9–15.

Originally established with a single unit in 1903, the National Wildlife Refuge system has grown to encompass more than 150 million acres of shorelines, wetlands, prairies and other natural ecosystems. Many refuges encourage fishing, hunting and birdwatching, although the system’s mandate puts conservation above visitation, unlike that of, say, the national parks.

“We’re kind of unique among federal land agencies,” said Joanna Webb, friends and partnership coordinator for the National Wildlife Refuge system. “Our main goal is to conserve wildlife and habitat, but we realize we have to get people out to the refuges so they can start to value and appreciate them.”

To that end, refuge managers and volunteers will be out in force during National Wildlife Refuge Week, leading hikes, offering wildlife-watching tips and sharing environmental insights at many of the system’s 555 sites.

Slideshow: The call of the wild

In fact, there are wildlife refuges in every state of the union, which makes visiting one easy as part of a day-trip or longer vacation. (For a list of National Wildlife Refuge Week activities, click here.)

“Refuges offer ready-made opportunities to experience wildlife and natural areas,” said Evan Hirsche, president, of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, an advocacy organization. Hirsche recommends that travelers go to the Fish & Wildlife website or an affiliated site run by volunteer supporters to see if refuges are along their travel route.

Here are five to get you started:

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge: The agency’s first urban wildlife refuge spans 30,000 acres of bay, salt marsh and mudflat habitats across south San Francisco Bay, drawing hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, millions of migrating birds and even the occasional leopard shark.

In fact, Oct. 8 is Shark Day at the refuge’s Alviso Environmental Education Center where visitors will be able to observe a live shark and explore the species’ local habitat. On Oct. 9, cyclists can join a guided, 11-mile bike ride along the shoreline. 

Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge: This refuge on the eastern slope of Mauna Kea offers an all-natural alternative to another day at the beach. On Oct. 15, the refuge will host an open house offering guided rainforest hikes, tours of a 115-year-old cabin made of koa wood and opportunities to see some of Hawaii’s rarest and most colorful birds. Due to the refuge’s remote location, reservations (and a four-wheel-drive vehicle for transportation) are required.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hakalau Forest as seen from above in September of 2011.

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge: During spring and fall, this 33,000-acre refuge an hour northwest of Milwaukee, Wis., attracts up to 250,000 Canada geese, 50,000 ducks of various species and plenty of birdwatchers.

On Oct. 8, it will also attract runners participating in a 5K run/walk, families interested in kid-friendly nature crafts and others who want to learn about the refuge’s whooping crane reintroduction program.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge: Birding or bluegrass music? This weekend, you don’t have to choose as this refuge in southwestern Washington state hosts BirdFest & Bluegrass, its annual celebration of quacks, tweets and twang.

The festivities include dozens of events spanning the refuge and nearby town of Ridgefield, Wash. Free activities include an Audubon live bird show, birdwatching walks and refuge tours; special events (reservations required) include night hikes, sandhill crane tours and canoe and kayak excursions. For a full list, visit Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge: Considering that the National Wildlife Refuge system was established by President Theodore Roosevelt, it’s only appropriate that he put in an appearance during National Wildlife Refuge Week. On Oct. 8–9, “TR” — or, more precisely, Roosevelt impersonator Joe Wiegand — will be on hand to share his thoughts on nature, conservation and the National Wildlife Refuge system.

On Saturday, he’ll give three presentations at the refuge visitor center in Hardeeville, S.C.; on Sunday, visitors can join him for a narrated paddleboat ride to the refuge on board the Georgia Queen Riverboat. Prices range from $14.30 to $42.95.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.