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!