Friday, August 28, 2015

Kanuti Picture Project

Updated 8.28.2015 - At 1.64 million acres Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge is about the size of Delaware; it provides crucial habitat for bird, mammal, and fish species. Kanuti has no designated trails, campsites, or public use cabins within its boundaries. Its huge and untouched; places like this are why we live here.

If there is enough light to work and enough water to measure, we work in Kanuti nearly every month. Like the Prince William Sound Picture Project, this post is made up of unique and memorable moments that stand out.

I lost my camera last September in Kanuti, this is one of the last pictures I took with it. In July my coworker Jasper found it. I'm looking forward to taking it back up there next month.


The Jack White Range is a subrange of the Brooks Range. That's just about all I could find about these mountains. This sort of unknown makes Alaska special.

Floatplanes bound for Bettles used to land on a straightaway of the Koyukuk River. But then, as they tend to do, the river meandered. A floatplane lake was constructed to replace the lost "airport".

Two-mile wide Sithylemenkat Lake is the only confirmed structure in Alaska that was formed by a meteor. Alaska's vigorous crustal movements and extreme climatic conditions have obliterated any others.

Rock glaciers can be made up of angular rock debris where empty space is filled with ice, or they can be ice glaciers buried in debris. Like traditional glaciers, they move downhill by deformation of the ice within. Flow lobes are visible in this one.

Almost back home on the flight to Anchorage: Mount Marcus Baker in the distance, then Pioneer Peak, and the Palmer Hay Flats in the foreground. Marcus Baker is the tallest peak in the Chugach Mountains. On a good snow year one can ski over 6,000 uninterrupted vertical feet off the summit of Pioneer. The predominant flow that brings copious amounts of maritime snow to Marcus Baker leaves the Palmer Hay Flats and the west side of the Chugach dry.

Colored blue by a winter of overflowing ice, a river snakes its way through the Ray Mountains before joining the Yukon downstream.

Under 3 feet of snow and another 2 feet of ice, the Chinook spawning gravels of Henshaw Creek are visible through the clear winter flow. Salmon travel 1,400 miles from the Bering Sea to spawn here.

Due to a lucky tailwind, our flight back to Anchorage was early. So, we had time to do a figure 8 around Denali and Foraker. Foraker, below, is the third highest peak in the United States.
133.94 dollars/14.965 gallons = 8.95 dollars per gallon.

Braided rivers require the combination of erodible banks and a threshold sediment load or channel slope. Over this threshold of sediment, braided streams are created, below it meandering streams form.


The response of bears when they are startled can be explained by their evolution. Brown bears evolved in open country with nowhere to flee, so they tend to confront threats. Because black bears evolved in woodlands and forests, they tend to flee or climb trees when threatened.

Thermokarst lakes are a mixed bag for climate change. Over short time scales, when permafrost melts greenhouse gases are emitted. Over thousands of years, the vegetation that grows in these lakes soaks up carbon. When the lakes drain, the exposed vegetation can refreeze preventing the decomposition of organic matter and the release of greenhouse gases.



Male mosquitoes never bite, and female mosquitoes only bite during egg production. Otherwise they feed on plant nectar, playing a roll in pollination throughout Alaska.






We use the R44 Raven II to access streams surrounded by otherwise impenetrable swamps. They have a payload capacity of 700 pounds; that's three comfortable passengers, or two workers wedged around their equipment.


Man always kills the things he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. - Aldo Leopold


Thermokarst lakes are sealed by the permafrost underneath them. These worlds provide essential habitat for migrating and breeding birds, and overwintering habitat for fish. With climate change, permafrost is melting and these lakes become "tapped": draining via underground plumbing systems to nearby rivers.

Built in 1969, the 900 km long Hickle Highway was meant to provide a link between the North Slope and the outside world. Within 2 years it was abandoned; but 45 years later it remains a vivid scar on the landscape. Impassible in the summer, a snow road is packed over it in the winter to provide the only ground access to Bettles.

Fractals and branching patterns are everywhere in nature: snowflakes, coastlines, Romanesco brocolli, and river networks. When two first order streams come together, they form a second order stream, etc. Here sloughs along the Knik Arm come together to form higher order sloughs. Branching patterns between streams exemplify the physical parameters that govern a region.

The growing season in Kanuti is short; green up starts in late May, by mid-August leaf fall will begin.


Oxbow lakes are constantly in transition. They start as a meander in a river. Eventually the meander will be abandoned by a cutoff in the river's path, then deposition will seal the oxbow from the main channel. Over time the oxbows are filled by sedimentation. Oxbow lakes can form in as little time as a few years.

Kanuti's boreal forest is made up of black and white spruce, alder, birch, willows, and poplar. These successional forests support 37 species of mammals including wolves, brown bears, wolverine, and caribou.


Born in the Endicott Mountains of the Brooks Range, the Koyukuk River flows 690 km before joining the Yukon. Two days after taking this picture, a rain on snow event in the mountains upstream produced extreme runoff that drowned the seemingly dry gravel bars.


To catch the bush plane to Bettles, we flew north from Anchorage to Fairbanks, passing immediately to the east of high peaks of the Alaska Range. Mount Foraker (5,304 m) and Denali (6,194 m) high above the Ruth Glacier:

As rivers meander, they erode and undercut the outside of bends while depositing sediment on the inside of the bends. On the bush plane from Fairbanks to Bettles, we passed this river that had meandered away from its old channel.


Stan's bush plane company started out as a one man operation that grew to encompass 60 pilots serving 120 villages. After selling that business he started ranching in Oregon. He decided that a helicopter would be a good tool to have around the ranch, so he traded his plane for a helicopter and learned to fly it.


Prepping equipment at our first site of the day on a tributary of the Kanuti River. March is a great time to be outside, lows are around -20 C with highs climbing towards freezing.


With average January temperatures of -24 Celsius, ice builds quickly on the rivers of the refuge. We hit liquid water after boring 6 feet into the ice. The water continued to flow up out of the hole for the two hours we worked at the site.


This sled team cross the Koyukuk River as we worked. Under two feet of snow and another two feet of ice we found a flowing river 280 feet wide.


Less than 15 inches of precipitation falls on the refuge during an average year. But, the permafrost seals off the ground and prevents surface water from draining. This forms a landscape of water, filled with bogs, ponds, and lakes.


Despite straddling the Arctic Circle, Kanuti experiences hot, albeit short summers characteristic of interior Alaska. These summers result in thunderstorms, lightning, and wildfires - leading to a continuous cycle of burn and recovery. The fires create diverse habitats that support a variety of wildlife.


The Brooks Range, stretching 1,100 miles from Alaska into the Yukon, lies immediately north of Kanuti. These mountains form their own continental divide - dividing streams that flow to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans.


To be continued...