The combined delta of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers fans out in a sprawling realm of marsh and slough within the protective borders of immense Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

On the refuge interior the two rivers feint to within 25 miles of each other. Then they diverge to meet separate destinies nearly 250 miles apart at the Bering Sea. The color of well–creamed coffee, these massive rivers are fed by alpine streams so clear that one can see the scutellations on the legs of wading tattlers.

Across the delta’s diverse wetlands, the flashing black–and–white of Sabine’s gulls ripple in the shimmering heat reflected from a frozen spring landscape; the wild, wistful cries of loon and crane pierce the lavender stillness of summer twilight; and brightly clad Alaska Native women stoop over the tundra to harvest the bounty of late–summer berries.

At nearly 2,000 miles, the Yukon is America’s third–longest river; while at 724 miles, the Kuskokwim is the nation’s longest free–flowing river. The abundance of lakes and ponds on the delta still defies enumeration by the most advanced technologies, and the intertidal mudflats alone cover more than 1,200 square miles.

The biomass of large breeding water birds may surpass that of any comparable area in North America, and the largest expanse of wetlands on the continent’s west coast supports the highest density and diversity of breeding shorebirds in the New World. At more than 19 million acres, the refuge is home to Emperor geese, spectacled eiders, gyrfalcons and bristle–thighed curlews.

The Size of Maine

The Yukon and Kuskokwim are the lifeblood of southwestern Alaska for wildlife and for humans. Once the winter ice goes out, five species of salmon surge upstream, tracking obscure olfactory currents to their natal streams, while skiffs laden with fishing gear patrol the same routes, returning each summer to traditional sites for netting the annual harvest. Most of the 25,000 people who live in this roadless area the size of Maine are Yup’ik Eskimos. The delta is the heartland of their culture.

As a boy, Gene Peltola Jr. became intimately familiar with this vast, watery landscape. He grew up along the Kuskokwim, where visits with his Yup’ik relatives, trips to harvest spring geese, summer berries or autumn moose, and long hard days working the family’s salmon nets were all dependent upon the moods and meanders of the Kuskokwim. Today, his life is still intimately tied to the river. He lives in the town of Bethel on the Kuskokwim where he serves as Yukon Delta Refuge manager.

In a landscape so immense, in an ecosystem so dominated by the persistent power of moving water, habitats themselves cannot be managed to maximize wildlife resources. Instead, human behavior must be. Every day, Peltola juggles salmon politics, liberal moose–hunting regulations, flyway–wide waterfowl controversies, mining proposals and regional energy planning—all in an effort to fulfill the refuge’s mandate to conserve wildlife, fulfill treaty obligations, safeguard the delta’s water and provide subsistence opportunities for rural residents.

Through the challenges, recollections of the past and a vision of the rivers’ future sustain him.

“I’ve always loved to hunt and fish,” he says. “Bringing food home to my family is so important to me, and to our culture. One of my most cherished memories, however, is of a trip with my late uncle when we didn’t catch a moose. We awoke on a still, frosty September morning. Scanning across the river, we saw two grizzly cubs perched patiently atop a beaver lodge, while their mother splashed wildly through the shallows in pursuit of a fleeing beaver. I was just 14, and, although I’ve spent most of my life along the rivers, the special moment my uncle and I shared that fall morning remains vivid to this day.”

Thirty years later, Peltola mentors his own children about the ways of the great rivers, rivers he hopes families will cherish and protect for generations to come.

Brian McCaffery is a ranger at Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.