Floating along the gentle Nowitna River is the most popular way to explore this refuge
Nowitna possesses more forested lands than most Alaskan refuges, while each spring, the arrival of thousands of migratory songbirds and waterfowl fill the refuge’s 14,000 lakes and ponds with life.
Located near the Native villages of Ruby and Tanana, the refuge protects about three-quarters of the 283-mile Nowitna River, which is a congressionally designated Wild River. Along with 15 other refuges in Alaska, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act established this refuge in 1980.
Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge is characterized by the Yukon and Nowitna Rivers floodplains. But from the air the nearly 2 million-acre preserve appears like a mosaic of wet meadows, oxbow lakes and black spruce muskegs broken up by dense stands of white spruce as well as paper birch, balsam poplar, alders and willows.
The heart of the refuge is the Nowitna River. The main channel of this meandering river is 283 miles long and 223 miles lie within the refuge. The headwaters of the Nowitna are in the Kuskokwim Mountains and from there the river ranges from 150 to 450 feet wide, and has a mild gradient and Class I water before flowing into the Yukon. Along the way this nationally designated Wild and Scenic River passes through an impressive 15-mile canyon with peaks up to 2,100 feet.
Spring flooding brings nutrients into the area’s wetlands, which yields plants that are feasted on by thousands of waterfowl. The grassy margins of ponds and lakes and the many miles of rivers and streams are important breeding habitat for waterfowl, including ducks, geese, swans and cranes. Raptors, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, northern harriers and both rough-legged and red-tailed hawks, also call this refuge their summer home.
The Nowitna River supports king and chum salmon, northern pike and one of the only three non-migratory populations of sheefish in Alaska. Sometimes called "tarpon of the north," sheefish reach 10 to 15 pounds, and are much sought after trophies with sport anglers. Arctic grayling are in most clear water streams on the refuge while forested lowlands are home to marten, moose, wolves, lynx, wolverine, black and grizzly bear.
River trips are the main method of exploring the refuge with sport fishing, hunting and wildlife photography and viewing the most popular activities. The lush riverbanks provide an important corridor for wildlife, and floating gives visitors up-close experiences with the surrounding nature and wildlife.
The refuge has also become a draw for outdoor photographers, who enjoy the opportunities to photograph wildlife against the refuge’s dramatic backdrop in vivid light of summer. The region is particularly stunning when autumn colors peak in late August or early September, and when northern lights ignite across the winter skies.
There are no trails, roads, public-use cabins or visitor facilities in the refuge.
There are no fees nor are any permits required to visit Nowitna.
Nowitna Refuge is 150 miles west of Fairbanks, connected only by air and river to the rest of Alaska. Refuge headquarters are located in Galena, but Ruby and Tanana are the nearest communities. You can visit the refuge in summer by boat on the Yukon and Nowitna Rivers, or by floatplane, landing on the larger lakes or rivers. Wheel-equipped planes can land on some gravel bars during low water. Galena, Ruby and Tanana have air charter operators. In winter you can reach the refuge by snowmachine or by ski-equipped aircraft. Small planes can land on rivers and larger lakes until ice melts in mid-April.
For more information contact the Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters (907-656-1231, 800-656-1231; nowitna.fws.gov) in Galena.