Sledge Island is about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) across and situated in the Bering Sea, 5 miles (8 km) off the south coast of the Seward Peninsula, about 95 miles (153 km) southeast of Wales and 25 miles (40 km) west of Nome, Alaska. Sledge Island is like neighboring islands in the Bering Sea such as King Island, Fairway Rock, and Little Diomede in the Bering Strait, which are all granitic plutons and extremely resistant to erosion. In geology, a pluton is a body of intrusive igneous rock that slowly crystallized from magma cooling below the earth’s surface. A pluton forms a distinctive mass typically several kilometers in dimension. Specific types of plutons include batholiths, stocks, dikes, and sills. The rock cliffs provide nesting habitats for abundant seabirds such as kittiwakes, murres, and puffins. The birds congregate in colonies and each species has a specialized nesting site such as rock ledges, crevices, boulder rubble, pinnacles, or burrows. The abundance of seabirds and bird eggs, as well as proximity to walruses and seals, attracted people to live on the island for thousands of years. The island was named by Captain James Cook in 1778 for a sledge or sled found on the shore. In the early 1900s, another sled was found on shore associated with a burial site and photographed by Beverly B. Dobbs. The Iñupiat name for the island is Ayak, meaning ‘pushed off or detached’, and the people that lived there were called Ayakmiut or Sledge Islanders by Europeans. The village was located on the east side of the island perched on a steep slope and facing the sea. The semi-subterranean houses were set on a slope of rocky talus at the base of a high bluff that extended to the top of the island. The island population primarily hunted seals and walruses, and occasionally whales. In 1842, Lavrenty Zagoskin said that the roar of hundreds of walruses around his ship off Sledge Island was deafening. In 1880, Ivan Petroff reported the island population to be 50, and in 1890 the population was reported as 67, of which 43 were native to the island; however, the census included the main village of Sinuk on the adjacent mainland and two smaller mainland villages that were closely associated with Sledge Islanders and King Islanders. In 1898, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, during the overland expedition for the relief of the whalers in the Arctic Ocean, stopped at Sledge Island and made a photograph of the village.
Sinuk was a very old but small village inhabited year-round and situated on the east bank at the mouth of the Sinuk River, about 6.5 miles (10.5 km) north of Sledge Island. The Sinuk village name means ‘point’, and was also known as Sinrock by Europeans. The river was important for providing access to expansive tundra that reputedly provided excellent pasturage for caribou herds. Fishing was carried on in the river during winter and summer. The inhabitants of Sinuk on the mainland and Ayak on Sledge Island traveled back and forth constantly. Sledge Islanders went regularly to Sinuk for fishing and gathering berries in late summer, and crabs were brought from Sledge Island to the mainland in the spring. Sledge Islanders, as well as King Islanders and the villagers from Wales, were active in trade with the Siberian Yup’ik. Alaska Athabaskans living along the Yukon River traded furs to those living along the Unalakleet River, who in turn traded with Norton Sound and northern Iñupiat traders. The Sledge Island Iñupiat were important intermediaries in the coastal exchange of foreign products that added to their material culture. Sinuk was once thought to be a large village but apparently, this stemmed from the early days of reindeer herding when it became the headquarters for the first Iñupiat-owned reindeer herd in 1895. Charlie Antesiluk built a large herd from an original loan of 100 reindeer. After the reindeer herds became established at Sinuk, a Methodist mission and public school were established on the right bank of the river. Antesiluk died in the 1900 measles epidemic, and his widow Changunak who was a Russian-Iñupiat woman, also known as Reindeer Mary or Sinrock Mary, continued the herding with approximately 500 animals. Mary moved the herd south to sell meat to the U.S. Army at Fort Davis near Nome when gold was discovered. The gold mining industry caused many problems, including diseases brought by the white miners, so in 1901, Mary relocated to Unalakleet with her family and reindeer. Under her management, the reindeer herd grew to 1,500 at its peak, and Mary became one of the richest women in Alaska. In 1918, Sledge Island and the village of Sinuk were depopulated by the influenza epidemic and the survivors settled in the town of Nome.
In 1928, the human remains of 19 individuals and 7 funerary objects from a historical burial site on Sledge Island were collected by Henry B. Collins of the U.S. Museum of National History and stored by the Smithsonian Institution. In 2011, the human remains and funerary objects were repatriated to the Nome Eskimo Community. During World War II, the civilian airport at Nome shared a runway with Marks Army Airfield. The military airfield was built in 1942 and was intended primarily to support the transfer of Lend-Lease aircraft to the Soviet Union and for air defense of the western coast of Alaska. Marks Army Airfield included the 404th Bombardment Squadron of the 28th Bombardment Group and the 56th Fighter Squadron of the 54th Fighter Group. Supplying the Nome airfield was especially difficult during the war when the sea was patroled by Japanese submarines in addition to the normal hazards of navigating through the ice. On September 1, 1942, the U.S. Maritime Commission ship SS Crown City became stuck in ice and went aground on a reef with a minimum depth of 3 fathoms (5.5 m) about 1 mile (1.6 km) northeast of Sledge Island. Crown City was a cargo vessel 410 feet (125 m) long and 5,433 tons built in 1920 and crewed by 34. The vessel was carrying foodstuffs, mobile machinery, Quonset huts, clothing, coal, ore, gasoline, airplane parts, and had a deck load of lumber. All of the crew survived and much of the cargo was salvaged. In 1989, a Cessna 402 operated by Ryan Air contacted Nome flight service during arrival and about 15 miles (24 km) west of the airport. The pilot was advised that the weather at Nome was below basic visual flight rule minimums and to standby for a clearance. Later, when flight service personnel tried to contact the pilot there was no reply. Subsequently, a search was initiated for the aircraft, and four days later it was found where it had crashed at an elevation of about 450 feet (137 m) on the east slope of Sledge Island. An examination of the wreckage revealed the aircraft had crashed into rising terrain while in level flight and no preimpact mechanical problem was evident. Today, Sledge Island is part of the Bering Sea Unit of the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which represents the largest designation of public lands for conservation uses in U.S. history. The law created the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge by combining 11 existing wildlife refuges and adding additional lands to form the world’s largest seabird refuge. Read more here and here. Explore more of Sledge Island here: