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Coldfoot Friends Volunteer Weekend: A 259 Mile Trip Report

By:Pam Seiser, Fairbanks Friend

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!




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Hands on a Duck, Contributing to Science and Fun: Friends LOVED Duck Banding

By: Poppy Benson, Friends Vice President

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. 


pc: USFWS

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!!

 




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Friends Highwater Trip to Tetlin Refuge

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.




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27 Below, Snow to Your Armpits but Fun, Fun, Fun

By: Dan Musgrove; Soldotna, Alaska

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. 




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Duck Banding in Tetlin

By: Susan and George Hedrick

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.





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Camp Goonzhii Volunteer Report

By Lynn Fuller, September 3-7, 2019

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!




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2018 Kaktovik – Volunteer Report

Volunteer Trip Report by Marci Johnson

I just returned from my second trip to Kaktovik as a Friends volunteer. From 9/13 to 9/24 I had the opportunity to return to Barter Island to assist the Arctic Refuge staff in their efforts to manage boat-based polar bear viewing with the community of Kaktovik.  Having spent a month volunteering in 2017, it was a privilege to be able to return and experience another season.  My job was to greet visitors to provide an orientation, and I was pleased to meet several Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges members who had made the trip north. 

I also assisted monitoring efforts on the water as the certified gun bearer and boat operator; this year I brought ski goggles so I could see more clearly, as you have to discern whitecaps from polar bears from far away.  The dynamics of bear viewing on Arctic Refuge waters is complicated, but t
he Refuge and Marine Mammals staff have forged a long-term commitment and dedication to the community, and I feel lucky to have learned from them.  I am grateful to the Friends for this twice-in-a-lifetime experience. 




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2018 Camp Goonzhii, Arctic Village Trip Report

Volunteer Report by Cynthia Sisson

Arctic Village sits on the banks of the Chandalar River and borders the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  It’s here that I went as a volunteer for the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges to participate in the 2018 Camp Goonzhii Science and Culture Camp.  I arrived at the school just in time to observe an elder teaching students how to cut up a caribou leg and make caribou stew. I guess camp had already started in Arctic Village.

The next day began with my facilitating bird nest building with an enthusiastic group of about 12 kindergarten-4th graders. Outside, across from the school, we found some willows, turning a beautiful fall yellow. The bushes were just the right height for these young scientists to construct a bird nest. Weaving sticks, grass and leaves together they eagerly built small cup shaped nests.  They tested their nests with three small stones which represented eggs. Each nest passed the test!


Next came a lively group of middle schoolers. Out into the field we went and they also were intent on participating. They asked pertinent questions such as: how do birds know where to build a nest? How long does it a take a bird to build a nest? Can a bird lay eggs without a nest?  The high schoolers were next and I was pleased to see how much care and diligence they took in constructing their nests. I was so impressed with all the student’s enthusiasm and excitement for learning about bird nests. Some wondered if their nest would last all winter and a bird might come and use it next spring.

The days at Camp Goonzhii were filled with other diverse science activities. There was, “the life of salmon” which included an activity in which students observed how water flow effects the success of egg survival. We had a morning on the creek where students collected and observed aquatic life.  Students also practiced in the art of scientific sketching. And they were informed about how wildlife refuges are managed. The last day village elders came and talked to students about several topics from protecting their land to being successful in school.

The entire experience at camp and visiting Arctic Village was amazing. Thank you to Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to assist with Camp Goonzhii.

(Header photo by Cynthia Sisson; Landscape by Gwich’in Steering Committee – “Unnamed lake along east fork of Chandalar River)








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Kenai River Cleanup – Sept. 7-9, 2018 (Volunteer Opportunity)

Kenai River Cleanup – Do good, have fun and see more of the Kenai Refuge.  September 7 – 9.  Sportsmen’s Landing, Cooper Landing.  

Friends will join Alaska Fly Fishers in doing an end of season clean-up of Sportsmen Landing, and downstream beaches.

Event begins Friday evening with a potluck and music in the Sportsmen Landing/Russian River Ferry campground.  After a continental breakfast Saturday morning,  teams will either float the river cleaning beaches or clean around the landing, campgrounds and parking areas.  The Kenai Refuge will bring at least one raft to take Friends downriver to clean refuge beaches.  That evening the Alaska Fly Fishers will put on a free BBQ for all participants with prizes!  Sunday at 10, Friends will sponsor a hike on the Hidden Creek Trail off Skilak Lake Road. 

For more information and to sign up, contact Poppy Benson, Outreach  chair, poppyb.ak@gmail.com or call (907) 299-0092.  Check out our event co-sponsor’s website.

This promises to be a very fun event that will also help build an alliance with the Fly Fishers, Kenai Watershed Forum and other partners.




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Dalton Highway Invasive Plant Removal Effort Comes to an End with #24

Filed by Betty Siegel, Friends Volunteer Coordinator

Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge’s weed pulls on the Haul Road have taken place every summer since August 2006 with dozens of Friends volunteering for the 24 opportunities. After that initial project involving various agencies such as USFWS, BLM, NPS, AmeriCorps, and others, weed pulls occurred twice each year until June 2018 from the Kanuti River MP 105.8 (just south of the Arctic Circle) north to most recently the Dietrich River MP 207(north of the community of Wiseman), more than 100 miles. Recent efforts to eliminate all seed production were concentrated on all river crossings and culverts which moved westward toward the Kanuti Refuge. Staff and Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges (Friends) and others were concerned these waterways would become routes for dispersal of invasive White Sweet clover (Melilotus alba) into the Refuge. This non-native plant readily invades open and disturbed areas and has established extensive areas along early successional, gravel river bars elsewhere in Alaska and rapidly colonized the Dalton Highway corridor. In addition, invasive Bird Vetch (Viccia cracca) is growing within the Dalton Highway Corridor and downriver. These populations are all expanding. Control efforts have focused on manual pulling, but have also included mechanical and cultural control. 

The current political climate has resulted in decreased funding for refuges and other public lands. This translated to many staffing shortages and cuts to various programs each year. Now this shortage has made it impossible to continue the project in 2018.  Additionally, refuge staff indicate future efforts may include conducting early detection/rapid response surveys along rivers downstream of the Dalton Highway and within the Refuge so any newly established colonies of invasive plants can be controlled and eliminated quickly. They hope to involve Friends as these plans are developed so that there may be some volunteer opportunities in 2019.

During the 14 years volunteers signed on to work outside along the highway removing white sweet clover and bird vetch for long hours in dirty, dusty, hot or cold, wet or dry, occasionally smoky, and frequently buggy conditions, sleeping in dry cabins, going without showers. Many returned to do it all again as the benefits were tremendous, primarily having the experience of just being up there. There were opportunities for berrying, wildlife viewing, fishing, cooling off in the rivers, hiking, traveling to the grandeur of Atigun Pass, visiting Wiseman, Galbraith Lake, and Toolik Lake, and spending time in the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center (AIVC) chatting to Haul Road tourists about refuges.

 And then there was the food! Huge burgers and pulled pork sandwiches and shakes at the Hot Spot on the drive from Fairbanks to Coldfoot; breakfast and lunch makings and snacks provided by the refuge; and those fantastic Coldfoot Camp Buffets for dinner!

Perhaps the biggest rewards were the friendships that developed over the shared experiences: Staff from all three Fairbanks refuges, AIVC staff, and Friends volunteers worked side by side, from managers to seasonal interns, volunteers from age 16 to “in the 70s”, all with a commitment to protect our public lands and our wildlife for ourselves and future generations.

While I’m sad for this project to end suddenly, I look forward to hearing about alternative projects for monitoring/control. Stay tuned!


-Betty Siegel (So fortunate to have participated in 22 of the 24 weed pulls!)




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