Selawik River, Kotzebue Sound

Selawik River, Kotzebue Sound

by | Jan 30, 2022

Selawik River is about 140 miles (226 km) long, originating in the Purcell Mountains near the Zane Hills, and flows generally west through the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge to Selawik Lake, about 65 miles (105 km) southeast of Kotzebue and 9 miles (14.5 km) west of the village of Selawik, Alaska. This area is a transition zone where the northernmost boreal forests give way to open Arctic tundra. The approximately 21,000 lakes create a large Arctic tundra lake complex called the Kobuk-Selawik Lowlands. This lowland is characterized by broad river floodplains with numerous thaw lakes and ponds. Selawik Lake is about 31 miles (50 km) across and drains into Hotham Inlet and Kotzebue Sound in the Chukchi Sea. Selawik is an Iñupiat community that straddles the Selawik River in a roadless coastal plain pitted with lakes. A series of bridges connect the otherwise isolated parts of the community to the village airport. The name was first reported in 1842 by Lieutenant Lavrenty A. Zagoskin, of the Imperial Russian Navy, who spelled it ‘Chilivik’. The Iñupiat name comes from the word ‘siilvik’ which means ‘place of sheefish’ first published on a British Admiralty chart from 1854, and possibly originating from one of the search expeditions for Sir John Franklin. The topographic smoothness of the Kobuk-Selawik Lowlands probably reflects the presence of a thick wedge of unconsolidated Quaternary fill and permafrost beneath the river delta, which is underlain by Late JurassicEarly Cretaceous andesitic volcanic rocks and Early Cretaceous sedimentary rocks intruded by Cretaceous plutons. At certain times in prehistory, this area formed a land bridge called Beringia that was up to 620 miles (1,000 km) wide between continental North America and Siberia. A small human population of at most a few thousand people crossed Beringia from eastern Siberia during the Last Glacial Maximum before expanding into the settlement of the Americas sometime after 16,500 years ago. This would have occurred when continental ice sheets still blocked the way south but were retreating, and before the land bridge was submerged by rising sea level about 11,000 years ago.

Prior to European contact, Hotham Inlet was an important trading center. From the middle of July to the latter part of August many boatloads of Iñupiat from the Noatak, Kobuk, and Selawik Rivers would travel to Hotham Inlet where they would meet people from Shishmaref, Cape Prince of Wales, Diomede Islands, King Island, and Siberia. The inland Iñupiat brought furs, dried fish, jade and other products of the interior which they traded for sealskins, seal oil, and other items of coastal manufacture. By the middle of the 17th century, the Russians had penetrated northeastern Siberia and after that time European goods began to flow into Alaska from the Chukchi and the Siberian Yup’ik by way of the Diomede Islands and Cape Prince of Wales. As early as the beginning of the 18th century these latter people became the middlemen of thriving intercontinental trade, and Hotham Inlet became an important distribution center for all of northwest Alaska. In 1825, Europeans arrived beginning with Lieutenant Frederick W. Beechey on HMS Blossom who was tasked with exploring the Bering Strait in concert with Sir John Franklin and William E. Parry who were operating from the east to find a navigable passage through the Arctic. After 1850, whaling ships began to frequent the Arctic Ocean in large numbers every summer, and the inland and coastal Iñupiat traded with these vessels as well as with each other. In 1883, Lieutenant George M. Stoney of the U.S. Navy was detailed to the U.S. Revenue Cutter Thomas Corwin, a ship that had been cruising in the Arctic Ocean each summer since 1880 to protect the whaling interests of the United States and particularly to prevent the illicit sale of liquor to the Iñupiat. The officers of the Corwin were also supposed to enforce the law prohibiting the sale of breech-loading arms and ammunition to the Iñupiat, a law that was a source of hardship since many had purchased rifles prior to the law’s enactment and then found that they were unable to obtain ammunition. Stoney explored the Kobuk-Selawik Lowlands during the summers of 1884 and 1885 and stayed during the winter of 1885-86 to explore the interior country to the east of Kotzebue Sound. In 1980, Selawik National Wildlife Refuge was created by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act with approximately 2.15 million acres (849,858 ha) of land. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 conveyed about 363,000 acres (147,000 ha) of this land to Alaska Native village corporations.

The Iñupiat lifestyle is based on subsistence traditions with many people in depending on the natural resources of the area for a substantial portion of their food and income. The subsistence lifestyle is also about cultural identity, strongly held values, family traditions, self-reliance, spirituality, personal and community health, traditional knowledge and skills, and relationships with time, place, and the natural world. Sheefish, other whitefish, salmon, grayling, northern pike, caribou, moose, seals, small game, and abundant migratory birds are major subsistence resources used by area residents. Pacific salmon have been documented in the drainage but they are not found there in abundance. As a result, local residents depend more on other fish species to meet their subsistence needs including northern pike, burbot, and several whitefish species. Five whitefish species occur in the Selawik River drainage. Sheefish or inconnu, broad whitefish, and humpback whitefish are relatively large and actively targeted in subsistence fisheries. Least cisco and round whitefish are relatively small and not as significant in the fishery. All whitefish species are anadromous broadcast spawners. Spawning takes place in the late fall in flowing water over a gravel substrate. The eggs are cast into the water column where they drift downstream and sink to the bottom, becoming lodged in the interstitial spaces in the gravel. They develop through the winter, hatch in the spring, and emerge into the water column as the high flows of spring and early summer fill the waterways. The tiny juveniles are carried downstream by the rapidly flowing water to a wide array of chance destinations that include backwaters along the river, off-channel lakes, and estuaries. After several years of growth, young whitefish become mature and prepare to spawn. Beginning in midsummer, they migrate toward upstream spawning sites. Major spawning areas appear to be used each year, so fidelity to natal spawning areas is thought to be high. Following spawning, mature fish retreat downstream to overwintering locations, and eventually to feeding areas by the following spring. Spawning is thought to occur every other year or even less frequently for most whitefish species. Read more here and here. Explore more of the Selawik River and Kotzebue Sound here:

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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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