Wainwright is an Iñupiat community on the Chukchi Sea coastline situated on a barrier beach adjacent to Wainwright Inlet and the Kuk River, about 94 miles (151 km) northeast of Point Lay and 86 miles (138 km) southwest of Utqiaġvik, Alaska. The inlet is also known as Kuk Lagoon or lower Kuk River. The Kuk River starts at the confluence of the Avalik and Kaolak rivers and flows generally north-northwest for 35 miles (56 km) to Wainwright Inlet which connects to the Chukchi Sea. The river is an important spawning habitat for pink and chum salmon, and the Iñupiat people have fished at Wainwright Inlet for thousands of years. In 1825, Captain Frederick W. Beechey was appointed to command HMS Blossom and explored the Bering Strait from south to north in concert with Captains John Franklin and William E. Parry who were exploring the northern Arctic coast from east to west. Beechey named the inlet at the mouth of Kuk River after ship officer and navigator Lieutenant John Wainwright.
The village was founded in 1904 when the Alaska Native Service of the Bureau of Indian Affairs built a schoolhouse and established medical services at this location. There were already Iñupiat people living in the general vicinity which they called Olgoonik meaning ‘where the land slopes to the sea’, but the school became the focal point for a new village. The site was chosen by the supply ship captain delivering building materials for the school on the basis of ice conditions favorable for lightering supplies to shore. If small boats could not land on the outer beach, then they would enter Wainwright Inlet and land in the protected lagoon. The original inhabitants of Wainwright came from scattered locations on the coast such as Point Lay, Icy Cape, Kilimantavik, Point Franklin, Noatak River, Utukok River and various inland camps on the Kuk River. Coal was historically mined at several nearby sites for village use as a heating and cooking fuel; the closest source was about 7 miles (11 km) away. During the Cold War, Wainwright was strategically important to the U.S. Air Force as a Distant Early Warning radar station. The station was built in 1957 with an airport logistically supported by the 711th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron based at Cape Lisburne Air Force Station. The radar station was upgraded in the late 1980s with new radars and in 1989 was re-designated part of the North Warning System as a Long-Range Radar Site. The site was inactivated in 2007 due to soil erosion and budget cuts, and a portion was sold to the Olgoonik Native Corporation. The corporation now owns about 175,000 acres bordered on three sides by the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
Wainwright residents subsist on whales, walrus, seals, caribou, birds, bears and fish. During the spring, whaling captains travel north to Point Belcher, where open leads in the ice are closer to the coast. The ice drift along the Arctic Coast conforms with the general polar circulation, but it is affected locally by currents and tides, although the tides here range only 6 to 7 inches (15-18 cm). In the summer, if onshore winds occur with high water and strong northeasterly currents, the ice will move slowly past the village several miles from shore to eventually come aground on points and spits farther north along the coast. For example at Point Belcher, about 20 miles (32 km) north of the village, sea ice is frequently rafted ashore and historically whaling ships have been caught in the pack ice and crushed. Usually the captains sought refuge behind the many reefs and shoals on this coast. Strong offshore winds will blow the ice out of sight, and its presence at the village is then only betrayed by the ‘ice blink‘ on the low-lying stratus clouds over the ocean. The presence or absence of sea ice has a direct effect on the availability of marine mammals in summer. Herds of walrus are usually found hauled out on the ice and seals are found either sleeping on the ice or in the water adjacent to it. Bowhead whales are only found in the leads where they rise to the surface to breathe. Read more here and here. Explore more of Wainwright and Kuk River here: