Fiords, bays, lakes, glaciers, mountains and hundreds of islands provide a rich and unspoiled beauty
Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is a place of great distances and greater dramas. Extending across most of the 47,300 miles of coastline along Alaska's Aleutian Chain, the refuge comprises grasslands, islands, glaciers, fiords and active volcanoes. It is a place of contrasts, where relics of World War II slowly rust in deserted valleys, while, nearby, great forests of kelp team with life. This area has long been a place of refuge, and has seen some of the most dramatic wildlife conservation stories in our nation's history.
More than 9,000 years ago, marine mammals and birds fed and clothed Alaska's earliest coastal peoples and gave rise to prosperous Native civilizations. Unangan, Sugpiac, Yup'ik, Inupiat, Dena'ina Athabascan, Haida and Tlingit all have roots on this refuge.
From the 1700s-1900s, fur-seeking trappers encroached on Native lands and decimated fur-bearing wildlife populations. In response to this, Teddy Roosevelt established some of the first units of the refuge in 1909. During World War II, allied forces fought the long and bloody Aleutian Campaign to take back the islands of Kiska and Attu from the Japanese.
The legacy of the war remains in spite of ongoing cleanup efforts. Debris, toxic chemicals and historic remnants are scattered throughout the chain. The military remained after the war building a large base, now decommissioned, on Adak in response to the Cold War threat posed by the nearby Soviet Union. In the 1960's and 70s three underground nuclear bombs were tested on the refuge island of Amchitka. The ecological consequences of these blasts are still being investigated.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter created the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge as we know it today by combining 11 existing refuges plus some additional land. The refuge now supports national and international scientific research on marine ecosystems.
The refuge’s environment includes a mind-boggling assortment of more than 2,500 islands, islets, spires, rocks, reefs, waters and headlands that extend from Forrester Island, to the north of Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands deep in the southeast tongue of the state, to the westernmost tip of the Aleutians, and north to Cape Lisburne on the Arctic Ocean. Traveling between its farthest-flung points would be the equivalent of taking a trip from Georgia to California.
The refuge's 4.9 million acres includes the spectacular volcanic islands of the Aleutian chain, the seabird cliffs of the remote Pribilof Islands, and remote coastlands washed by the Chukchi Sea. It consists of five separate units and ranges from Forrester Island near Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands to the westernmost tip of the Aleutians and north to Cape Lisburne on the Arctic Ocean. No other maritime refuge in America is as large or as productive.
The Gulf of Alaska Unit contains scattered small islands extending along 800 miles of coast from Southeast Alaska's rainforests across the arc of Prince William Sound and the fjord-edged Kenai Peninsula to islets off Kodiak Island. The Alaska Peninsula Unit extends more than 400 miles along the south coast of the Alaska Peninsula from just west of Kodiak Island to the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula. The Aleutian Islands Unit extends more than 1,100 miles in a chain of volcanic islands from Unimak Island at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula westward to Attu Island. The Bering Sea Unit extends more than 600 miles from islands and lands on Norton Sound along the Seward Peninsula to islands far into the Bering Sea and the Pribilof Islands, the best place to watch marine birds and mammals from land on the refuge. The Chukchi Sea Unit contains scattered islands, spits and mainland areas extending along 500 miles of coast from southwest of Barrow on the Arctic Ocean and includes the mountainous mainland area and sea cliffs of Cape Lisburne and Cape Thompson at the western end of the Brooks Range.
Stretching from the Arctic Ocean to the southeast panhandle, the refuge protects breeding habitat for 40 million seabirds, representing more than 30 species, a variety of marine mammals and other wildlife on more than 2,500 islands, spires, rocks and coastal headlands. Some of these isolated islands host unique species not found elsewhere.
Some of the most prized species on the refuge include puffins, fur seals, walrus, brown bear, stellar sea lion, otters, eagles, whales and harbor seals. Birds include auklets, kittiwakes, Asiatic birds, murrelets, ptarmigan and albatross.
There are a number of opportunities to explore the expansive refuge. Wildlife viewing, bird viewing and hunting are popular activities within the refuge.
Abundant, unique and charismatic species make wildlife watching on this refuge a joy. Although access is difficult, the birds and mammals are easy to see once you get there. Cliffs swarming with seabirds, rafts of sea ducks offshore in winter, otters, sea lions, birds blown in from Asia, and rare and unique species are viewing highlights.
Although the wildlife viewing is excellent, access is difficult and visitor facilities are sparse throughout most of the refuge. There are, however, a number of places located near towns that have become popular destinations with birders and other wildlife enthusiasts.
In Homer is the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center (907-235-6961; www.islandsandocean.org). Dedicated in 2004, this impressive visitor center features interactive exhibits including a room that's a replica seabird colony, complete with cacophonous bird calls and surround-view flocking. The center also offers educational programs and guided walks along trails that access slough and beach habitats utilized in season by seabirds and shorebirds.
Homer is also the site of the annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival. Held in early May each year to celebrate the return of huge flocks of migrating shorebirds, the four-day festival is Alaska's largest wildlife festival and offers guided bird walks, viewing stations, workshops, boat viewing tours and many other activities. Homer-based boat tours offer birding excursions in Kachemak Bay or you can hop the Alaska Marine Highway ferry for Kodiak and along the way pass through the Barren Islands, part of the refuge and the largest seabird colony in the northern Gulf of Alaska.
Also on the Kenai Peninsula, the Chiswell Islands are accessible from Seward. The rugged and rocky Chiswell Islands rise from the Gulf of Alaska at the mouth of Resurrection Bay and are the most visited seabird colonies of the refuge. Many boat tours include the Chiswell Islands as well as portions of the Kenai Fjords National Park to view calving glaciers, nesting bald eagles, seals and sea otters. In Southeast Alaska more than a dozen charter boats tours provide visitors easy access to St. Lazaria Island from Sitka. More than 500,000 seabirds nest on this 65-acre island, including 1,500 pairs of breeding tufted puffins.
The Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea are home to myriad seabirds and the northern fur seal. Sometimes referred to as the 'Galapagos of the North,' these islands are a mad scene each summer as a million fur seals swim ashore to breed and raise their young, the largest gathering of sea mammals in the world. The islands' ocean-cliffs are also home to extensive bird rookeries. More than 2.5 million seabirds ranging from common murres and crested auklets to tufted puffins and cormorants nest here, making the Pribilofs the largest seabird colony in the Northern Hemisphere. Visitor services are available on both St. Paul and St. George islands with several flights a week from Anchorage. Several small cruise ships offer itineraries that include the Pribilofs.
Unalaska/Port of Dutch Harbor is the gateway to refuge lands on Unalaska Island and the rest of the Aleutians with scheduled jet service from Anchorage and once a month ferry service in summer. Spectacularly craggy cliffs, sea stacks, pinnacles and snow-topped volcanoes make up the scenery while rare whiskered auklet colonies along with countless other birds offer entertainment. Near Nome lies Safety Sound, a unique mainland birding hot spot with road access from Nome. Many commercial birding tours visit Nome, especially in late May to see the thousands of migratory birds that descend on the area each year.
There are no fees, although in some areas where crossing Native lands is required, a fee may be required by the Native corporation or organization.
Most of the refuge is remote and access is usually by boat. The most visited areas of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge are highlighted in the previous section. For more detailed information and planning assistance, contact the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge headquarters (907-235-6546) at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center in Homer.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/alaska_maritime/