Three Fairbanks Friends took up the invitation to visit the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center at Coldfoot to help with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Celebration last month. This two day event was organized by Patrick Magrath, Student Conservation Association Intern with the Arctic Refuge. Patrick’s goal was not only to show off the interpretative resources at the center but also outdoor resources surrounding the center. So, Don Kiely, my husband Randy Lewis, and I alternated shifts volunteering at the visitor center with exploring the surroundings.
Arctic Interagency Visitor Center at Coldfoot. pc. Randy Lewis
The visitor center highlights the neighboring public lands of three agencies: the Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) three National Wildlife Refuges, the famous Arctic Refuge north of the visitor center and the lesser known Kanuti and Yukon Flat Refuges that straddle the Arctic Circle; the Bureau of Land Management’s Dalton Highway corridor; and the National Park Service’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. It is an inviting center, with a small auditorium, a wonderful array of interpretive displays and a cozy corner with a wood stove, chairs and a pile of reading material. Geologists involved in the construction of the road and pipeline will love that large rocks in front of the building are labeled! Also, the tour guide tells us that the center is known for having the cleanest bathroom in 200 miles.
Patrick Magrath of the Arctic Refuge with some of the exhibits about Wild and Scenic Rivers. pc Randy Lewis
The drive to Coldfoot in late August is spectacular. We left Fairbanks in full flower power, but as soon as we hit the Dalton Highway, we drove right into fall. The air was crisp and hills were ablaze with color. We made the obligatory stops at Arctic Circle Sign Post, Yukon River Bridge, and Finger Mountain. With all the photo stops, It certainly took us more than the predicted 6 hours to get to Coldfoot. While Randy captured the fall colors with his camera, I searched for mushrooms. There is a wealth of mushrooms above the Arctic Circle!
During this trip, I tried to wrap my head around the local topography. We traveled through boreal forest and tundra but the Dalton Highway corridor lacked low wetlands, which both the Kanuti and Yukon Flats Refuges are valued for. That was because the road and pipeline traversed a finger of mountains extending southward from the Brooks Range. This band of mountains separates the watersheds of the Kanuti and Yukon Flats Refuges. As we drove up the Dalton Highway, I could feel the presence of the wild refuges, Kanuti to the west and the Yukon Flats to the east, although we were 10 to 15 miles away from them. The Yukon Flats Refuge could be seen up the hill from milepost 86, but there was no convenient pullout spot to view Kanuti. We concluded that if you don’t have the opportunity to fly, hike or paddle into these road-less areas, a road trip to the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center is a nice consolation prize!
At the end of the first day we arrived at FWS cabins provided for visiting staff just north of the Marion Creek Campgrounds and Coldfoot. We helped set up displays the morning of the event and then served as greeters while Don hiked along the Chandalar Shelf. On Sunday, Don was the greeter, and we drove to Atigun Pass. The evening talks for Wild and Scenic Rivers drew a crowd of 30 people, which was a success. About 75-80 visitors a day dropped by the center. Visitation is high at the start of the summer and drops sharply after July 4th, the start of the mosquito season. When we had no visitors we pumped the staff for information on hikes. We learned Kanuti has hot springs! Milepost 103 is the jumping off point for the 14-mile hike/packboat trip to the hot springs.
Inside the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center at Coldfoot. pc. Randy Lewis
Overall, we volunteers received more than we gave. Patrick and Jen Reed, FWS coordinator for Wild and Scenic Rivers, provided us the experience we needed to become ambassadors for the area. We definitely recommend earmarking the August trip to the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center. We are certainly coming back to the Arctic!
Five friends helped the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge band ducks this past August. Each team took one- or two-week shifts working with Ross Flagen, Tetlin Deputy Refuge Manager and duck banding guru. Here’s what I heard back: From Carol Damberg of Anchorage “what an excellent experience I had . . . Ross did an amazing job at leading and teaching me on all things associated with the art of duck banding”; from Moira O’Malley of Fairbanks “Had the time of my life bird banding. Ross is a hoot!”; from George and Susan Hedrick of Sterling returning for their second year “Volunteering on Tetlin refuge provides a firsthand ” behind the scenes” glimpse of how a federal refuge works. – Ross Flagen, deputy manager, provided a super fun and educational experience!”; and Dan Musgrove of Soldotna said “I highly recommend it to anyone . . . . . The people were all great to work with. The education on the ducks was tremendous.”
George Hedrick hauling fencing for the traps. pc Susan Hedrick
The volunteers also spoke favorably about the “other duties as assigned.” The Hedricks mentioned enjoying painting the picnic tables in the campground and Dan Musgrove of Soldotna loved being Campground Host for a day and all-around Friends Ambassador to other campers. This later role in reaching out to other travelers and explaining the mission of the Refuge was valued by Refuge staff. Ross Flagen said “Friends . . . created many positive encounters with the traveling public. This was an intended part of the project, and it worked out even better than we had hoped.” Meeting other staff members and volunteers, getting to know Tetlin Refuge and camping for the week at the Refuge’s Deadman Lake Campground were other highlights.
The first week crew enjoying a rare day of sunshine, l to r, Moira O’Malley, a student volunteer, Dan Musgrove and Tetlin Deputy Refuge Manager Ross Flagen, pc USFWS
Tetlin Refuge started waterfowl banding in 2018 to assist the Pacific Flyway in meeting banding objectives. Ducks are banded so that wintering areas and migration routes can be determined when banded birds are resighted and identified by their discrete band number. It is banding that allowed the North American flyways to be discovered and mapped forming the basis for much of modern waterfowl management.
Friends catching trapped ducks. pc USFWS
Capturing birds and banding five days a week for a month is very labor intensive and that is where Friends came in. In 2019 two Friends, the Hedricks, helped with banding. Then came Covid. This year the project geared up using five Friends over four weeks. In all 278 Mallards, 84 Northern Pintail, 11 Green-winged Teal, 2 Blue-winged Teal, 2 Lesser Scaup and 1 American Wigeon were captured and banded. Friends aided in all things associated with the operation of the banding station, from filling buckets with barley for bait and assembling traps, to species identification, banding and disease sampling. Swab samples were collected from most ducks and sent off to US Department of Agriculture lab to be tested for avian diseases particularly bird flu.
Be on the lookout for this exceptional volunteer opportunity to come up again next August. As Carol said, “Thanks for an incredible life experience!!! Can’t wait to visit Tetlin again!!
By: Nancy Deschu, Friends member and retired hydrologist from Anchorage. She is the refuge liaison for Alaska-Peninsula/Becharof Refuges.
Our Friends’ trip to Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge Memorial Day weekend was all about water. It was sunny and hot and the refuge was in flood stage. Our original plan to canoe and flag a trail along Desper Creek changed – the water was so high camp sites would be flooded and it would be impossible to paddle back upstream. After bringing breakfast to the refuge staff, we eight Friends helped Ranger Tim Lorenzini with the annual roadside cleanup. We then trailered refuge canoes to Deadman Lake for use by refuge visitors, and set up camp at Deadman Lake. Over the next four days, we made site visits to check on trails and flood conditions along the refuge’s north boundary all the way to the border of Canada.
Water from snow melt, glacial melt, and rainfall in the Nutzotin and Mentasta mountains drives the vast wetlands of the Tetlin Refuge. The Chisana River (meaning “Rock River” in Upper Tanana language) and the Nabesna River (meaning “Along the Muddy River” in Ahtna language) head in high peaks in Wrangell St Elias National Park and Preserve, then flow north about 70 miles, and pour into the refuge. Hot, sunny weather in May caused extreme melting in a year with high snowpack so we found high water wherever we went. The boat ramp at Scottie Creek was two feet underwater.
We estimated the high flow at the Scottie Creek bridge by dropping sticks from the bridge and timing the flow of sticks over a set distance with a stopwatch. We estimated the surface flow to be nearly three feet per second, which is quite fast for the low gradient and otherwise sluggish Scottie Creek. The lake level at Hidden Lake had risen so much that it floated and then swamped two jon boats stashed in the lakeshore spruce woods.
Friends in the birding blind in Tetlin Refuge’s Lakeview Campground. pc: Poppy Benson
We canoed the entire shoreline of Deadman Lake looking at birds and potential backcountry campsites. Highlights were several species of warblers flying out of spruce trees over the water to feed on insects, horned grebes, swans and Hudsonian godwits. We sighted 40 bird species on the refuge including a diversity of ducks. Ducks were abundant on Yarger Lake, but noticeably fewer were observed on Deadman Lake. No waterfowl were observed on Hidden Lake.
Nancy Deschu and two girls from the campground examine captured aquatic invertebrates. pc: Tom Chard
At Deadman Lake we sieved the shallows for aquatic invertebrates. A joyful happenstance was meeting two girls who were fascinated with invertebrates and netting their own trove. We exchanged specimens in our makeshift aquaria and spent considerable time identifying and observing the creatures. The girls’ knowledge was impressive!
Although our Tetlin trip was not what we had planned, we were able to contribute our observations on the refuge during unusually high water and enjoy camping and birding on the refuge.
In March of 2022 I joined Ralph Kiehl along with Ranger Tim Lorenzini of the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge for the purpose of maintaining remote cabins on the refuge. Over a one week period the work involved cutting firewood, repairing a cabin porch, inventorying cabin supplies, hauling propane and a generator and taking snow depths for biologists. The fun involved meeting new people, seeing a refuge I had not been to, ice fishing, snow machining and sharing meals.
Stuver Lake Cabin jhkhhhhhh Jatahmund Cabin
Once in Tok, Ralph and I attended a snow machine safety class, gathered gear for the trip and enjoyed eating at Fast Eddies, the one restaurant in town. Our destination for this project was approximately 80 miles towards the Canadian border, with our first stop for staging at the Seaton Roadhouse. Once the snow machines were unloaded and packed we proceeded along for another 25 miles, stopping along the way to take snow depth measurements that would help the biologists.
The first cabin we reached was the Stuver Lake Cabin with a stunning lake view. After two days at this cabin shoveling snow, cutting wood and making repairs we headed another 15 miles to Jatahmund Lake Cabin where we spent another 2 days. We were greeted with the sight of 15 caribou on the lake. At this cabin in addition to cutting wood, shoveling snow off roof structures, our repairs included building a new toilet seat for the outhouse!
Tim measuring snow depth. hhkkkkkkkkkkkhjkk Repairing Stuver Lake cabin porch floor.
Other duties as assigned. Dan builds an outhouse seat.
Dan was a wood-splitting machine.
Ralph stacking wood.
Jatahmund Cabin provided amazing mountain views, sunsets, and daily sightings of caribou near the cabin. The ice fishing here was incredibly fun! Maybe a few fish tales to tell!
Ranger Tim kept Ralph and me well-fed throughout the trip, cooking was done inside the cabins on propane stoves. Gathering clean snow for drinking and cooking was a daily occurrence.
Tim and Jahtumend Lake pike.
My favorite part of this volunteer opportunity was seeing new country and sharing in the work of maintaining a refuge. Volunteering with the Refuge was gratifying and satisfying. I highly recommend volunteering if an opportunity comes your way.
I took advantage of a personal trip through Dulles last Thursday to speak to our Alaska Senators on behalf of Friends as our Vice President.Neither Senator Murkowski or Senator Sullivan were available but I met with their staffers.Senator Murkowski’s staff was particularly engaged with my message about the FY2021 budget currently under consideration.Refuges in Alaska are down 25% in staffers since a decade ago, and we are seeing that in the work refuges are able to do and even in our ability to help them as volunteers.
Three refuges, Yukon Delta (second largest in the nation), Togiak and Koyukuk-Nowitna, have been without Refuge Managers for up to three years.Tetlin doesn’t have a full-time biologist.Izembek’s staff is down to 3 permanent employees.Administration priorities, particularly the Izembek road land exchange and drilling in the Arctic Refuge are taking funds and people away from refuge work in what could be accurately characterized as an unfunded mandate.
The good news is that the proposed 2021 budget provided a nice bump up for refuges.However, after 10 years of flat budgets, the spending power of Alaska’s refuges is still below that of a decade ago and the backlog of unfilled positions is enormous.
My message was three fold:support the nationwide refuge system budget at the $586 million level advocated by the National Wildlife Refuge Association; thank you for the extra money for invasive species management for Alaska; and Friends support Alaska refuges and will continue to advocate for them.Since my return I learned about the Great American Outdoors Act which would permanently fund the Lands and Water Conservation Fund and provide $950 million over 5 years to address the refuge system’s nation-wide maintenance backlog of $1.4 billion.
The dynamic wetlands of Tetlin Refuge in Tok provided a stunning backdrop of sunshine and nesting trumpeter swans for the Hedrick’s 2 week volunteer opportunity. As Kenai based Friends of the Alaska Refuges, George and Susan assisted refuge biologists with the often muddy tasks of duck capturing and banding. Motoring across a Tetlin Passage lake, tromping in the mud and corralling ducks within an enclosure all provided fun and a terrific experience for learning about duck ID, habitat and the importance of the national duck banding program to support migration data.
I have lived in Alaska since 1982 and had never seen a wild polar bear until this year. Thanks to Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, I not only assisted with education and outreach efforts in 2019—but I also saw many wild polar bears!
In the last decade, the number of people visiting the village of Kaktovik (on the Arctic Ocean coast) to view polar bears has increased dramatically. This is due, in part, to the listing of the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. It is also due to the increasing number of polar bears in the Kaktovik area, especially during August, September, and October when they are drawn to barrier islands and beaches in search of food. Kaktovik (population less than 300) is surrounded by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which creates unique challenges and opportunities for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Alaska Native residents to manage increased tourism in this area. Visitors—up to 35 a day—travel here, usually in small tour groups that stay from 7 hours to 3+ days.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has one employee, Refuge Ranger Will Wiese, based in Kaktovik. He is assisted in his education and outreach efforts by one or two people who present information to visitors, answer questions, observe visitation, and estimate daily tourism numbers (among other tasks). These assistants are often members of the Student Conservation Association. Occasionally others are needed too—and this is why I was invited to travel to Kaktovik.
I was in Kaktovik August 23-September 5 and had an AMAZING experience!
Here are some highlights:
I saw my first polar within an hour of arrival.
I saw as many as 20+ polar bears in one day.
I interacted with visitors from all over the world, from Italy, Israel, and Brazil to Atlanta, Tucson, and Kotzebue.
I was in Kaktovik when villagers harvested two of the three bowhead whales they are allocated each year. I observed the excitement and great cultural significance these harvests bring to the community.
As an active birder, I was excited to see Snow Buntings and Greater White-fronted Geese throughout the village, Common and Red-throated and Yellow-billed Loons in the lagoon, Sanderlings on the beach, hundreds of Snow Geese preparing to migrate, and lots more!
And here are a few things I learned: • Although some subpopulations of polar bears appear to be holding their own, the Southern
Beaufort subpopulation (found in this area) is declining.
Polar bears are coming ashore on the North Slope earlier, and in greater numbers, in recent
Late summer is a “lean” time of year for polar bears, and they are drawn to this area in search
Arctic Ocean sea ice was at its second-lowest extent in summer 2019; in August/September
sea ice was 300+ miles offshore. So polar bears that come ashore are stranded until shore
ice returns in late fall.
Kaktovik residents and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service continue the challenging “dance” of
allowing tourists in guided boats on the waters (which are managed by the Fish & Wildlife
Service) while providing respect for—and input from—local residents.
The people of Kaktovik were unfailingly kind to me as I walked around the village with my
binoculars and bear spray looking for birds.
Will is really good with boats and he really knows his bears and birds!
This was an AMAZING experience. And I learned early on that my travel expenses were paid by Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges! Thank you, Friends, for making opportunities like this possible and for supporting—in many ways—our state’s National Wildlife Refuges!
I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of Camp Goonzhii earlier this fall. The annual Science and Culture camp was held at the school in Arctic Village in early September. For three days, the students and teachers at the school, the camp instructors, and members of the community shared activities and stories about the environment, traditional culture and the refuge.
The six instructors took turns filling in all the blocks in the school schedule, alternately doing activities with the different age groups. I led the session on Aquatic Macroinvertebrates, starting with a field trip to the stream by the school to see what we could get into our bug nets.
After our collected samples settled overnight, we observed and sorted what we found and talked about what the aquatic organisms needed to live, and what needed them, and their role in the river environment overall. The fast moving scuds and erratic water boatmen were by far the favorites!
Related activities included traditional fishing and how to build a fish trap and an art project where the students did invertebrate art based on what we saw in the stream. There were also class activities and games such as learning about lynx, soundscapes and plastic pollution.
A big thank you to Allyssa Morris and Katherine Monroe at USFWS for all the organizing, to the school for hosting us, and to Friends of AK Wildlife Refuges for sending folks out on these volunteer opportunities. The Friends group also supported a community dinner at the school.
There were a number of hugs from small people when school ended on Friday!
My name is Lindsay, and I’ve been working as an artist in residence with USFWS for four years. You have supported a few of my projects in the past, and I’m so grateful. Most recently, you reimbursed my airfare to and from Ft Yukon so that I could attend and assist Julie Mahler in her Culture Camp at 8-Mile for one week. I wanted to send a quick writeup on what was accomplished there, a few photos, and express my gratitude for your continued support for my work in Alaska.
Julie’s camp is 8 miles outside of Ft Yukon, located on a slough off the Porcupine River. This is what the backyard looks like 🙂
Recently, Julie’s cabin burned down, but this didn’t stop this intrepid woman from bringing 14 kids out to camp to learn, play, practice their Gwich’in culture, and enjoy the magnificent land. Here’s a shot of Julie in the outdoor kitchen where we cooked every meal every day:
The wood burning stove, made out of a split oil can, served as both the provider of food and a space for gathering.
We all camped in tents, and the elder who joined us to teach Gwich’in language and sewing to the kids, Freeda, stayed in a canvas tent with a wood burning stove. We all piled in there to do art and listen to stories on a particularly rainy day. Otherwise the kids were outside from morning to night, playing traditional Gwich’in games, building forts in the forest, swimming in the river, learning about the native plants, fishing, and more.
I even taught the kids (and the adults) yoga! Here’s a pic of Stella, the camp dog, enjoying her version of yoga too.
Julie taught them about some of the edible and medicinal plants that are found in the area on a nature hike, and the kids brought back specimens and learned how to draw them.
I brought a bunch of art supplies with me, and we did drawing every day. We stitched together a massive quilt of their drawings that showed their love for Culture Camp at 8 Mile!
I absolutely loved my time at 8-Mile. I learned so much from both the adults and the children and enjoyed sharing the skills that I can. Here’s to many more successful years of Culture Camp at 8-Mile. Thank you for your support!
It’s 85 degrees in Bethel, Alaska, and we’re sitting in the back of a hot van in June, banding tree swallows, getting pooped on by the birds, and getting bitten by mosquitoes. Thinking I would escape the sweltering Florida summer, I instead arrived in the middle of an Alaskan heat wave.Banding these beautiful, iridescent, freestyle-flying birds was a dream come true for this former Alaskan.I had the time of my life, and I couldn’t have been happier.
Traveling long distances, aerial insectivores (which includes tree swallows) have seen significant population declines.They are being monitored statewide and nationwide to determine if climate impacts, habitat loss, pollutants or pesticide usage has changed hatch timing, or insect abundance, which is the tree swallows’ main source of food.The Bethel project is the westernmost range of the tree swallow study in North America.
The birds migrate north in the summer, and have a short window of time to mate and hatch their chicks.The bird banding takes place during the mating season in June, and both the adults and chicks are banded.
In the initial stages, the adult birds are banded.This is done fairly quickly to ensure the adults return to feeding their young as soon as possible.Each bird is banded.The beak length, wingspan, weight and sex determination (male or female) is done within the span of a few minutes. Over the coming days as the chicks reach maturity, we start banding the chicks.At times the broods are large, sometimes up to 5 or 6 chicks.At the end of the two-week period, nearly all the birds in the 40 or so boxes had been banded.Information will be analyzed and sent to the Alaska Songbird Institute and its network of cooperators.
It is always exciting to capture a bird that has previously been banded.We came across several banded birds this year, and they were really happy occasions for us.
Citizen Science – The Education Component of the Tree Swallow Project
In order to encourage residents of Bethel, particularly youth, to get involved and learn more about their natural environment, USFWS partnered with the 4H Club to assemble the bird boxes that were distributed throughout town.Residents throughout town agreed to put boxes near their homes, where they could enjoy watching the swallows’ activities right in their own backyards.Children in particular were enthralled with the birds, and enjoyed watching us band them. The Boys and Girls club joined us one afternoon while we were banding the chicks, and the kids were fascinated. It was fun to have them around, and see and feel their enthusiasm.An important element of the project, their involvement helps generate interest in nature for the next generation.
Salmon Fishing on the Kuskokwim
One Saturday afternoon there was a fish opener on the Kuskokwim River, and it felt like the entire city of Bethel was out on a boat that day! The parking lot for the fishing boats was jam-packed with trailers and trucks.We were out on the water in mid-afternoon, and it was a productive and fun few hours.A net was put up, and we waited for a signal. The water started to bob around a couple of the buoys. In all, four Chinook (Kings), and a couple of Sockeye (Red) salmon were caught. A good day’s catch !! And a lot of fun.
The year before, I had the opportunity to visit a few Native fish camps along the river, and talk to Bethel residents about catching, cutting up salmon, and smoking the fish in the traditional way.We also discussed the shorter amount of time that residents were allowed to get on the water to fish, and the types of fish that were being rationed.What an incredible lifestyle. Family time out on the water, and delicious fresh fish cooking on the camp stoves. It was heartening to see salmon drying in the yards of the fish camps, with the knowledge that there would be fish to eat throughout the winter.
We were invited to have fresh salmon stew at one family’s camp, which was an honor, and truly memorable.Not to mention that the stew, cooked up with onions and vegetables, was delicious.
Museum and Gallery
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a small museum attached to the offices, and it is packed with wonderful information about fish migrations throughout the state, as well as specimens of various wildlife that inhabit the area.It’s well worth a visit.
Things I Enjoyed Doing Around Town
Many boardwalks meander throughout Bethel, and being on foot is a great way to see the town.There are lots of beautiful lakes and sloughs, all across town. Walking along the Kuskokwim River was very meditative.
There is a new, state-of-the-art swimming pool and sports complex, and it’s a fun way to spend an evening (or two).This particular Floridian wasn’t used to cold pool water any more, but the hot shower afterwards more than made up for it.
Bethel is not known for its Four-Star dining experiences, but regardless, there are lots of restaurants to choose from. (In an ironic twist, one cannot find fresh fish on the menu).
The Bethel Farmers Market, an organic farm, is open Wednesdays and Saturdays.Their homegrown strawberries, sweet and delicious, are to-die-for.Their potatoes are incredible- sweet, hearty, and firm.Their lettuces are wonderful too.
I was told by a coworker to go to the hospital for lunch.While initially a bit skeptical, I went anyway one afternoon and had a delicious caribou stew.
Saturday mornings, there is a birdwatching tour, leaving from the Fish and Wildlife Service office. On visits to the sloughs, we caught glimpses of a few songbirds and waterfowl.
Many thanks to Jason Sodergren and Betty Siegel of the Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges, and Patrick Snow from the Yukon Kuskowkwim National Wildlife Refuge in Bethel.I hope our studies will be part of a larger body of research to help better understand the decline of bird populations and other species worldwide.