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Our Watershed: An Overview

The Knik River watershed is a wide, U-shaped basin that originates in the northern Chugach Mountains of South-Central Alaska and drains into the Upper Cook Inlet. In the remote high country, the watershed is heavily populated with glaciers and mountains, including Mount Marcus Baker, the loftiest peak in the Chugach Range at 13,176 feet.

      Mount Marcus Baker
Photo By Steve Eckert July 1996 

Another remarkable natural feature of the watershed is the area designated as the Lake George National Natural Landmark. http://www.nature.nps.gov/nnl/Registry/USA_Map/States/Alaska/nnl/lg/index.htm For decades, Lake George was the largest glacier-dammed lake in North America. Until 1967, Knik Glacier advanced almost annually, damming and filling Lake George in the process. Eventually the dam would break with a spectacular discharge that carved a gorge adjacent to Knik Glacier and flooded the lower Knik River valley. In recent decades, Knik Glacier has retreated and it is impossible to predict when the glacier will again advance. A 1996 ecological review of the Lake George area suggests that only slight advance of Knik Glacier will result in resumed damming of the lake.

Below the icefield, the watershed includes rugged uplands and cliffs, forests, wetlands, coastal dunes, the braided Knik River floodplain and a variety of interesting deposits such as the well recognized Bodenburg Butte.

The People

Early humans in the watershed included Eskimo and Indian travelers and subsistence villages including Athabascan Dena’ina Indians. A Resource Assessment of the Knik Glacier Area (1993) references a report that “people of Niteh, a village near the mouth of the Knik River hunted from a camp near Swan Lake prior to development of the area. A native salmon fishing site was also identified in the same area referred to by the Dena’ina as “skintu k’ elaha” (meaning spawn over brush). Read Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina for a record of the Dena’ina life and culture in this area.

Primary residential areas today include Butte, Alaska with significant development in the surrounding area, and the South Knik River and Goat Creek communities. While little of today’s harvest in the watershed represents a true subsistence-based economy, hunting, fishing and trapping nevertheless are very important considerations in the local culture. Other resource use in the watershed includes agriculture, logging, and mining. The May 2004 draft Asset Management Plan for Borough Owned Land in the Butte Area provides detailed discussion and analysis of demographics, current use, projections and proposed planning for the Butte community. For a copy of the plan contact the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Director of Planning and Land Use.

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The Knik and Matanuska Rivers join near the Glenn Highway bridges to form Knik Arm. The scenic splendor and close proximity to Anchorage, Alaska’s population center have made the area a very popular attraction.

Landowners

Large rural portions of the watershed are owned by the State of Alaska and managed by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water. Other primary landholders include Eklutna, Inc., an Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporation; the Alaska Mental Health Trust; the Federal Bureau of Land Management; and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Wildlife Resources

For 100s of years, the Knik River Watershed has been a rich source of fish, game and produce. On the north side of the Knik River, warm south-facing slopes are important lambing areas for Dall sheep. Mountain goats also occur in the high elevations. Blueberry, low-bush cranberry and crowberry are abundant in alpine and subalpine areas throughout the watershed. Black and grizzly bear, wolf, coyote, fox, lynx, wolverine and weasel call the watershed home. Moose are plentiful year round with some areas of the watershed especially important for wintering moose. Low-lying, isolated wet thickets may prove to be important areas for birthing moose as these areas are less conspicuous to predators. Snowshoe hare, American beaver, Arctic ground squirrel, red squirrel and the occasional river otter are found as well.

A variety of bird life exists in the area with an exceptional upsurge in species counts during the migratory and summer months. Several species that can be difficult to find elsewhere in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are reliably found in the Jim-Swan area such as song sparrow, American kestrel, Townsend’s warbler (a designated State of Alaska Species of Special Concern), Olive-Sided Flycatcher (Species of Concern) and Blackpoll warbler (Species of Concern). Even golden-crowned kinglet, Hammond’s flycatcher and red-winged blackbird have been recorded a few times. Game birds such as ruffed grouse, spruce grouse and ptarmigan live year-round in the upland and alpine areas respectively. Many species of shorebirds, gulls and raptors also migrate through and nest in the area.

Most notable to the region of course are the waterfowl and fisheries. On the north side of the Knik River, approximately 7600 acres of wetlands including anadromous streams, bogs, sedge meadows, over 20 lakes and ponds, and alder/willow thickets provide food and/or critical nesting habitat for over 20 species of ducks, trumpeter and tundra swans, and geese.

Rainfall, snowmelt and glaciermelt feed springs that trickle down southfacing slopes nourishing and warming anadromous bodies and the wetlands. It is believed these warm springs help keep water bodies ice-free late into the fall and contribute to early thaw in the spring providing staging areas for trumpeter and tundra Swans. Swans arrive in good numbers before other waterfowl species each spring and are among the latest waterfowl to depart the region each fall. In some years, the only productive open staging areas in the region for good numbers of migratory swans are in these wetlands.

The Knik River and its many tributaries including Bodenburg, Jim, and McRoberts Creeks are important fisheries providing spawning and/or rearing habitat for several species primarily silver salmon, and in smaller numbers red salmon, dolly varden and whitefish. While some lakes and streams are closed to fishing, Jim Creek is historically the second largest recreational silver salmon fishery in Knik Arm, second only to the Little Susitna River. Jim Lake, McRoberts Creek and Upper Jim Creek support large spawning populations of silver salmon.

In the wooded uplands, enormous masses of the orchid Calypso bulbosa, flower in mid spring, as well as jacob’s ladder, several species of pyrola, currant, and the expected array of South-Central plant species. Warm southfacing bluffs offer an incredible view but also a variety of very early spring flowers such as saxifrage, arabis, oxytrope and potentilla. Plants such as buckbean, the parasitic sundew, pondlily, and native sedges and grasses are found in the wetlands.

The Knik Arm Wetlands Study dated January 1981 was prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Copies are available at the Palmer Soil and Water Conservation District Office. Check back to this site for a computerized version. 

Recreation

The Knik River Watershed is an outstanding destination for a wealth of outdoor activities. The richness and diversity of wildlife resources offers high value fishing and hunting opportunity. Moose, bear, waterfowl and gamebird hunting are traditions that date back to the earliest people’s subsistence culture and continue today. Outstanding scenic and wildlife photography, ORV recreation, wildlife viewing, flight-seeing, hiking, birdwatching, boating, horseback-riding and airboat tours to Knik Glacier are also popular activities in the region. In the winter, snowmachining, skiing, snowshoeing, trapping, skijoring and dog mushing occur in the area. Often in the winter, however, the area is relatively free of snow and offers miles of continued hiking opportunities as well as mountain bike and ORV riding.