Samalga, Fox Islands

Samalga, Fox Islands

by | Jun 3, 2022

Samalga Island is 4 miles (6 km) long and 0.5 miles (0.8 km) wide, flat and entirely covered with grass, and situated in the Fox Island group of the eastern Aleutian Islands between Umnak Island to the east and Islands of Four Mountains to the west, about 317 miles (510 km) east-northeast of Adak and 18 miles (29 km) southwest of Nikolski, Alaska. The high water line is strewn with rocks and small boulders, and occasional stretches of sandy beach are found around the island. The entire island is fringed with a rocky ledge that extends at low tide from hundreds of feet to thousands of feet offshore. On the southwest end of the island, this ledge becomes an extensive reef stretching west-southwest along the prolonged axis of the island for nearly 2 miles (3.2 km) into Samalga Pass. In heavy weather there are breakers for a considerable distance over this area. The island is part of the Aleutian Arc, which is the result of northwestward subduction of the Pacific plate beneath the North American plate, and was formed in the early Eocene, about 55–50 million years ago, probably in response to buckling of the Kula Plate. Motion between the Kula Plate and the North American Plate along the margin of the Bering Shelf ended in the early Eocene, and the Aleutian Basin, the ocean floor north of the Aleutian Arc, is the remainder of the Kula Plate that was trapped when volcanism and subduction moved south to its current location. The basement rocks of the Aleutian Ridge is comprised of three stratigraphic units, a sequence of volcanic rocks from the Eocene, a sequence of marine sedimentary rocks from the Oligocene to Miocene, and a sequence of sedimentary and igneous rocks from the Pliocene and Quaternary. Volcanic lava flows occurred episodically with a major island arc-building period in the Eocene. The dominant Aleutian Arc lava ranges in composition from basalt to dacite. The bedrock on Samalga is composed of slightly metamorphosed and deformed layers of argillite and tuff.

Samalga Island is not inhabited although there was a prehistorical and historical human presence. At the end of the Pleistocene glacial period, the eastern Aleutians formed an extension of the current Alaska Peninsula. The sea level was approximately 72 feet (22 m) below present and ocean passes in the Fox Islands were presumably above water. This longer peninsula extended to southwestern Umnak Island where Samalga Pass presented a water barrier to the migration of humans and terrestrial animals. A prehistorical archaeological site on present Anangula Island off southwestern Umnak Island dates to about 8,000 years ago. The Chaluka site near Nikolski documents human inhabitants over a period of 4,000 years. The Unangan people are the descendants of these early humans and inhabited the Aleutian Islands prior to the arrival of Russian explorers and fur traders. They lived a subsistence lifestyle and traditionally hunted sea otters, sea lions, whales, and seals from one-man and two-man boats called baidarkas. These slender boats were made of seal skin stretched over a whalebone frame and propelled by a single or double-blade paddle. The Unangan first encountered Russians in 1741, when an expedition led by Vitus Bering reached the islands. The Russians quickly established control over the Unangan villages, and over the next few years, they organized a hunting serfdom, exploiting the skill of indigenous hunters to collect sea otter pelts. In 1763, a group of Aleuts rebelled against their oppressors, destroying four Russian ships at the village of Unalaska. The Russians retaliated by destroying Unangan villages on Umnak, Samalga, and the Islands of Four Mountains. Thereafter, the Aleut population steeply declined mostly due to European diseases, hunting accidents, and internecine warfare. Towards the end of the 18th century, the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries across Siberia and into Alaska, and soon Unangan Aleuts were being baptized into the church. Russian Orthodoxy quickly became the dominant religion of the region and missionaries provided some protection from exploitation by fur traders, as well as medicines and literacy. Today, a strong Russian influence remains particularly in the Unangan Aleut vocabulary, Russian foods, and Orthodox churches. Since the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, which transferred land claims from the federal government to Alaska Natives, regional and village corporations have re-established guardianship over local lands and communities.

The western Aleutians Islands were the first to be regularly visited and settled by the Russians following Bering’s voyage to Alaska. In 1750, Andrean Tolstykh introduced a breeding pair of arctic foxes from Bering Island to Attu Island, where trapping began after the foxes had multiplied. The next documented introduction of arctic foxes was around 1790 on Atka Island where by 1825, the animals were plentiful. The Russian-American Company encouraged the introduction of foxes and, as early as 1819, orders were given by the governor to import breeding foxes to the central Aleutian Islands. Subsequently, arctic foxes from Saint George Island in the Pribilof Islands were introduced, and red foxes later were brought from the mainland and Unalaska Island. Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the introduction of foxes proliferated when the U.S government began leasing islands for fox farming. In 1881, Samuel Applegate, originally from New Jersey, arrived in the Aleutians to take charge of weather stations for the U.S. Signal Corps. When it came time for him to rotate back to the States, he resigned his post and remained at Unalaska where he built a house, owned a trading post, and was the captain of a schooner from which he mapped stretches of the Aleutian coastline and Prince William Sound. He was attracted to the business of fox farming in the early 1890s and by 1897 he had stocked Samalga Island with blue foxes from the Pribilof Islands and employed Nikolski men to trap them. In addition to island size and trapping effort, the number of pelts from a given island was dependent largely on physiographic features like the extent of beaches, as well as breeding bird populations as a source of food, and predation which on isolated islands was limited to eagles. Applegate had tried to reduce the estimated 75 percent mortality of his fox pups by paying 25 cents for every pair of eagle claws that locals delivered to him. This private bounty cost Applegate a total of $275, for 1,100 eagles. Samalga Island produced 771 pelts in 21 years. In 1936, Olaus Murie began a comprehensive survey of the harmful effects of foxes on seabirds and waterfowl and his findings were corroborated by testimony from Unangan trappers that introduced foxes were destroying seabird populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began eradicating foxes in the Aleutian Islands in 1949, and of the 455 islands in Alaska where foxes were known to have been introduced, foxes currently remain on 46, including Samalga Island. Read more here and here. Explore more of Samalga and the Fox Islands here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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