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.