National Wildlife Refuges of the Interior
Nine huge national wildlife refuges and part of a tenth are located south of the Brooks Range and north of the coastal ranges. Six of them are distinctly Interior in location and character, with lowland and foothill areas dominated by spruce forest. Three are associated with the largely treeless Arctic coastal eco-regions, fronting as they do on the Bering and Chukchi Seas. The tenth is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the Brooks Range and includes coastal mountain and Interior lowland areas. Numerous smaller refuges, game preserves, and critical habitat areas are identified by the state and BLM.
The boundaries of the six Interior refuges almost can be seen as a large-scale topographic map of the heart of the state. Just about all of the land within them is lowland forest and wetlands, while elsewhere are rugged hills and low mountains. Each of the six refuges is associated with a river or confluence of rivers, floodplains, and characteristically Alaskan lake-dotted flats with willow-choked bogs and tufty muskeg.
Migratory birds from throughout the world come to Alaska by the millions to nest in the refuge wetlands. Some rest, feed, and move on, while others set up shop and get about the business of procreating. The seasonal rhythms and consistent wetness of the Alaskan bottomlands provide an essential anchor in the cycles of avian life.
Few people visit any of the refuges except wildlife harvesters, fish and game officials, researchers, and birders. All except the Tetlin are inaccessible by road, and none offer land routes for exploring outside of winter. Moose and bear hunters are frequent visitors, while sport fishers find freshwater species in abundance. Many residents of native villages subsist on the bounty of the refuge lands. The main activities for eco-travelers are birding and river trips in areas most often accessed by air drop-offs. Recommended river runs vary according to the seasons, water levels, challenges, and rendezvous points. Those planning river trips should consult outfitters, pilots, and refuge managers.
Difficult access, remoteness, and the attractiveness of other regions make the wet Interior basins uncommon destinations for visitors. Those who opt to spend time traveling through a refuge are likely to enjoy a truly Alaskan and very wild journey. Though there are many settlements in the remote parts of the Interior, the ones listed in this chapter are those that best serve as bases or transit points for access to the refuges and other areas.
Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Location/Size: Straddles Porcupine River and northernmost loop of Yukon River, centered by Fort Yukon, 150 miles north-northeast of Fairbanks, contiguous with Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, shares border with Canada. 8.6 million acres.
Main Activities: Canoeing and rafting, fishing, hunting, charter
Gateway Towns/Getting There: Fort Yukon/river access from Circle, Eagle, and Dalton Highway, scheduled air service from Fairbanks; Circle/vehicle access via Steese Highway (AK 6), regular small-plane air service; Stevens Village, Chalkyitsik, Venetie, Beaver/regular and charter small-plane air service. Refuge access by charter air drop-offs; river access via Yukon, Porcupine, Sheenjack, Chandalar, and others; snowmachine access via winter roads.
Facilities, Camping, Lodging: No facilities. Primitive camping. Limited facilities at several settlements within refuge bounds.
The main body of the refuge encompasses a 200-mile-long floodplain where spring meltwater spreads out relatively unconfined from the Yukon River, the Porcupine River, and their tributaries. The area hosts one of the highest densities of nesting waterfowl on the continent, including over 2 million ducks and geese that come and go via migratory routes that reach the lower 48. By August, many of the 40,000 lakes fill with molting adults and their young.
The Yukon River reaches its northernmost point near Fort Yukon in the heart of the refuge, just above the Arctic Circle. Athabascan Indians have long harvested wildlife here, hunting and constructing fish wheels to catch the king, coho, and chum salmon that are returning to Canadian streams to spawn. The refuge has several large inclusions of native and village corporation lands which are essentially private property. Several settlements along the rivers offer possible put-ins or destinations for river journeys.
River adventures are indeed the recreational option of choice in Yukon Flats since the flooded summer status of much of the refuge makes access in many areas problematic. Dawson City, Eagle,
Circle, and the Dalton Highway offer points of road access to the shores of the Yukon. Outfitters offer combinations of motorboat and air shuttles, routes, guides, and rentals to suit most interests and schedules (see the Appendix for listings).
Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge
Location/Size: Just west of the Dalton Highway, 150 miles northwest of Fairbanks, straddling the Arctic Circle, Kanuti River, and Koyukuk River. 1.4 million acres.
Main Activities: Hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing.
Gateway Towns/Getting There: Bettles/regular air service from Fairbanks. Refuge access by river from Allakaket and possibly from the Dalton Highway.
Facilities, Camping, Lodging: None.
The Kanuti Flats are an area where several small rivers come together, flowing into the Koyukuk, which eventually drains into the Yukon. Rolling plains are interspersed with lakes, ponds, and swampy flats. Canada and white-fronted geese and ducks nest in the refuge. Other wildlife in the refuge include moose, black bear, grizzly bear, wolf, and wolverine.
The Koyukuk River, Jim River, and Bonanza Creek offer good river runs, including road put-in options. Access to the Kanuti River is discouraged from mid-June through early July because of nesting activity. Check with the refuge manager on water levels and for general advice. See the Appendix for outfitters.
Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge
Location/Size: 200 miles west of Fairbanks, bordered by the Yukon River to the north. 1.56 million acres.
Main Activities: Nowitna River float trips, hunting, fishing.
Gateway Towns/Getting There: Galena and Ruby/regular small-plane air service from Fairbanks, river access via the Yukon. Park access by river via Yukon and lower Nowitna; charter air drop-offs.
Facilities, Camping, Lodging: No facilities. Primitive camping only.
Though established primarily to protect the wide wetlands of the lower Nowitna River valley south of the Yukon, the refuge includes a fair-sized area of rolling uplands in the south, as well as a narrow corridor surrounding the central Nowitna. The refuge hosts large concentrations of migratory waterfowl, black bear, moose, marten, mink, wolverine, beaver, and muskrat. Hunting and fishing are important subsistence and recreational activities.
A designated National Wild and Scenic River, the Nowitna River offers good opportunities for river trips. A standard 250- to 290-mile route puts in at the confluence with Meadow Creek, with take-out options at the confluence with the Yukon or 40 miles downstream in Ruby. The Nowitna Canyon is a highlight, though whitewater challenges above Class I depend on high water. Outfitters in Fairbanks and Galena are good sources for information on trips, as is the refuge manager.
Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge
Location/Size: Encompasses lower Koyukuk River and surrounding flats, just north of Galena and the Yukon River. 3.55 million acres (400,000 acres designated wilderness).
Main Activities: Moose hunting, fishing.
Gateway Towns/Getting There: Galena/regular small aircraft service from Fairbanks, river access via Yukon River. Park access by river via Koyukuk River from Galena; charter air or floatplane service to lakes or airstrips.
Facilities, Camping, Lodging: Landing zones. Primitive camping; cabins may be available.
A vast wetland spreads around the meandering Koyukuk River north of its confluence with the Yukon, most included in the Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge. Fourteen rivers, hundreds of streams, and over 15,000 lakes are encompassed by the refuge, as are the 10,000-acre Nogahabara Dunes. Spring floods saturate the lowlands, providing ideal nesting habitat for ducks, geese, and other water birds. By the end of the summer, 400,000 birds abandon the refuge on their annual migration to wintering grounds to the south. Black bear inhabit the forested lowlands while grizzlies roam the tundra and brush-covered uplands. The refuge is contiguous with Selawik National Wildlife Refuge to the northwest.
Rarely visited by anyone but fishers and hunters, opportunities include river travel, air drop-offs for dune camping or wilderness exploration, and charter flightseeing. The Koyukuk River can be floated from the Dalton Highway to the Yukon, or from river settlements in between. Contact the refuge manager and area outfitters and pilots for details.
Innoko National Wildlife Refuge
Location/Size: 300 miles northwest of Anchorage in the central Yukon River valley. 4.25 million acres.
Main Activities: Innoko River float trips, fishing, hunting.
Gateway Towns/Getting There: McGrath/scheduled air service from Anchorage and Fairbanks; Galena/scheduled small-plane air service from Fairbanks. Refuge access by river via Yukon River; floatplane.
Facilities, Camping, Lodging: None. Primitive camping only.
Bounded on the west by the Yukon River, this refuge is 80 percent wetlands. At least 250,000 waterbirds nest in the refuge, while the regular flooding in refuge streams nurtures the willow thickets that are the food source for a large population of moose. The best way to experience this refuge is by float trip down the Innoko River (see the Appendix for outfitters). Exceptional viewing of birds, moose, and other wildlife is all but assured in season.