Established in 1980, Becharof is located in the Aleutian Range of the Alaska Peninsula in southwestern Alaska and adjacent to Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Within its boundaries sits the largest lake in the National Wildlife Refuge System and the 14th largest in the U.S. At ~300,000 acres, Becharof Lake nurtures one of Bristol Bay's largest salmon runs. Dolly Varden char and Arctic Grayling grow to impressive sizes on a salmon-rich diet, along with brown bears, cormorants, terns, and bald eagles. Several places around the lake are popular angling sites. The drainages feeding into the lake provide habitat for moose, caribou, nesting waterfowl and songbirds, small mammals, and other species in a rich matrix of vegetation types.
The Becharof Wilderness extends from the northeast shore of Becharof Lake south to the Pacific Ocean and makes up roughly one-third of the Becharof National Wildlife Refuge. The Pacific Ocean boundary is lined with swathes of sandy beach, rocky coastline, and steep cliffs. Uplifted layers of fossil-bearing rock tilt into the sea. In summer, the cliffs are packed with thousands of murres and kittiwakes, their calls reverberating over the surf. The boundary on the north follows the knife-edged peaks of the Kejulik Mountains that separate the Refuge from Katmai National Park. These uplands shed meltwater from the winter snows into the Kejulik River and its valley, spurring vigorous growth of brush that provides shelter and food for moose. Extending almost to Whale Mountain to the west, the boundary line follows the shore of Becharof Lake, out to the end of the Severson Peninsula that divides Island Arm from the open water. Sockeye salmon mass in the streams well into the fall, drawing char and grayling, bears and cormorants. The flat tundra by the lake bears tiny wind-compressed blossoms in summer, and scattered berries later in the year. The southern boundary line crosses the Arm and the Aleutian Range, back to the coast at Cape Unalishagvak.
Designated in 2012, the trail has been used for at least 2,000 years to cross the coastal mountains between Becharof Lake and the Pacific Ocean. Archaeologists have found evidence of villages on both sides of the pass, some repeatedly inhabited for centuries. Kanatak Village, on the ocean shore, saw its last permanent residents in the 1950s. Elders in the region today remember childhoods walking or riding horses over the trail, following the seasonal rounds of their families as they traveled to find work or subsistence. The trail today is used most often by bears and other wildlife. No road leads here and hikers are unlikely to see other people on the trail. The challenges of access, weather, and terrain ensure a unique and wild experience. Cairns of piled rocks mark the route through the pass, past Summit Lake. Scenery is spectacular: glacially-carved Ruth Lake is surrounded by sharp, iron-stained peaks; and views from the pass encompass mountains, ocean, lake, and tundra. The pristine water of Ruth River is seasonally packed with bright red sockeye and draws bears, char, and grayling.
Mt. Peulik, Ukinrek Maars, and the Gas Rocks
4,835 foot Mt. Peulik can be seen from vantage points in King Salmon. Cone-shaped and capped with snow even in summer, this active volcano is younger than the Ugashik Caldera adjoining it. Surrounding the volcano are fields of old lava flows. Close by are the Gas Rocks, emerging from the edge of Becharof Lake. Around the Rocks are bubbling torrents of carbon dioxide, easily visible on calm days, leaking up from deep cracks in the bedrock. Between the Gas Rocks and Mt. Peulik lie two unusual craters: the Ukinrek Maars. Maars form when groundwater meets a hot spot in the earth and causes a steam eruption. For 11 days in 1977, plumes of steam and ash rose high over the Refuge. Today, the craters have cooled, leaving distinctive landmarks in a geologically active landscape.
Big Creek drainage
From headquarters at King Salmon, only one part of the Refuge can be readily reached by boat: Big Creek. Its exaggerated curves and shallow depth make it a challenge to navigate even with a jet boat. Emptying into the Naknek River, this waterway is important for salmon spawning and rearing, and includes key moose, caribou, and brown bear habitats. Big Creek drainage is one of the most heavily visited parts of the refuge for subsistence purposes and is a favorite trapping area for local residents. Recreational hunting for moose is popular in this area of the refuge. The final fringe of the boreal forest fades away in the upper part of the drainage. Spruce trees are not found in any other part of the Alaska Peninsula south and west of here, except for those planted in the villages.
The mission of the Refuge is to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity; fulfill international treaty obligations of the United States with respect to fish and wildlife and their habitats; provide opportunities for continued subsistence uses by local residents; support scientific research; and protect water quality and quantity.
Each unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System is established to serve a statutory purpose that targets the conservation of native species dependent on its lands and waters. All activities on those acres are reviewed for compatibility with this statutory purpose. Alaska’s 16 Refuges conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity; fulfill international treaty obligations of the United States with respect to fish and wildlife and their habitats; provide opportunities for continued subsistence uses by local residents’ support scientific research; and protect water quality and quantity.
President Jimmy Carter established the 1,157,000 acre Becharof National Wildlife Monument in 1978. On December 2, 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act changed Becharof into a wildlife refuge and made it part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
In 1983, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to manage the Ugashik and Chignik units of the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge, the Becharof Refuge, and the Seal Cape area of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge as a "complex" because these areas share resources and common issues.
The Refuge preserves a rich historical legacy. Fossils from the Refuge date back to the Jurassic period, the heyday of dinosaurs. Bones of a pliosaur (a giant extinct marine reptile) were found in the Kejulik Valley of Becharof Wilderness. Marine fossils are widespread; and plant fossils from the coast reveal the climate of the long-distant past. Large sections of fossilized trees erode from the shore of Becharof Lake. Much more recently, the lands that now comprise the Refuge served as a crossroads where prehistoric cultures from the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak, western Alaska coast, and interior Alaska met and merged, creating unique local cultures. There are currently five Native villages within the refuge's boundaries, and numerous other known prehistoric and historical sites on the Refuge. The area was important in the early history of Alaska, with Russian explorers and trappers active in the region. Later, the area played an important role in the early development of Alaska's commercial fishing industry and was the scene of some of the earliest scientific oil exploration efforts in the world
On Becharof’s eastern coastline, the Pacific village of Kanatak boomed in the early years of the 1900s, growing to hold perhaps 200 people, as a result of oil exploration. The ancient trail over the mountains was enlarged in places to allow wagons and motorized vehicles to cross the pass. A primitive road was constructed to oil drilling sites. When oil drilling proved unprofitable, Kanatak shrank again to just a few families. By the 1950s, no permanent residents remained. Yet the trail saw continued, if much reduced, use. The imprint of the route remains visible, followed now by bears and other wildlife. A Recreational Trails Grant in 2011 made it possible for the Refuge to bring in a Student Conservation Association crew to clear four miles of encroaching brush from the route. In 2012, the ancient pathway was designated a.
Signs of the past are scattered across the Refuge. Traces of old roads may be seen from the air. The wreckage of tractors and trucks crumble to rust where they were left. Covered in summer grasses, ring-shaped mounds reveal where barabaras (traditional semi-subterranean houses) once stood. Lush meadows and brush conceal trash middens layered with bones and shells, evidence of human presence dating back thousands of years.