Belkofski, Belkofski Point

Belkofski, Belkofski Point

by | May 5, 2022

Belkofski is an abandoned Aleut Unangan village situated on the south coast of the Alaska Peninsula between Belkofski Bay to the southwest and Volcano Bay to the northeast, about 62 miles (100 km) southwest of Sand Point and 11 miles (18 km) east-northeast of King Cove, Alaska. The village name is from the Russian ‘Selo Belkovskoe’ which is derived from ‘belka’ meaning ‘squirrel’ for the Arctic ground squirrel. Volcano Bay was named in 1880 by William H. Dall of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey for its proximity to Pavlof Volcano. The village was built on a relatively level glacial moraine consisting of volcanic rock fragments ranging in size from coarse boulders to fine sand and silt. This moraine is underlain by bedrock of the Belkofski Formation from the Middle Miocene or Late Oligocene, which consists of sandstone, siltstone, and conglomerate containing layers of tuff and volcanic breccia. The rocks of this unit are dominantly red, pink, and purple. A few miles north of the village, the Belkofski Formation is intruded by the Moss Cape pluton that formed about 3.2 million years ago during the Early Pliocene and consists of granodiorite and quartz diorite. During the Pleistocene, the Alaska Peninsula was largely covered by an elongate glacial complex that extended over the now-submerged continental shelf of the Gulf of Alaska and may have terminated in the open Pacific Ocean as a calving ice margin. The western Gulf of Alaska may have been deglaciated as early as 17,000 years ago, possibly opening a coastal migration route along the Aleutian Archipelago and eastward along the Alaska Peninsula. The archaeological record indicates that over the past 5,000 to 6,000 years there have been villages on the lower Alaska Peninsula. These villages were most likely inhabited by sedentary inhabitants supported by a rich and diverse marine ecosystem.

Russian fur traders learned of the abundant sea otter grounds along the southern Alaska Peninsula from an Aleut slave aboard the ship of Stepan Glotov in 1762. In 1771, Ivan Solov’ev brought the first crew of Russians to survey the Alaska Peninsula for people and resources and found a few hundred Aleuts and hundreds of thousands of sea otters. Solov’ev had already killed a number of Aleuts in the Aleutian Islands as retribution for destroying Russian ships, and he renewed his violent reputation on the Alaska Peninsula but fled the area in 1772. Other expeditions, such as Captain James Cook and the Billings-Sarychev Expedition, had uneventful encounters with the Aleut in the following decades, but reports of the wealth of sea otters had sparked great interest in the waters around the islands. The sea otter was the primary reason for Russian expansion into the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula. Aleut hunters from the Shumagin Islands were pressed into harvesting sea otters from the islands off the coast of the peninsula. In 1808, these hunters were organized into an artel, or work group, of sea otter hunters based on Sanak Island. These artels were each led by a Russian baidarshchik, or captain, and his Russian and Aleut employees supplied the company. Traditional Aleut hunting methods were used in which hunters would quietly surround the otters in their baidarkas or kayaks and spear them. High producing hunters, and especially the Creole hunters, those of Russian and Aleut descent, received status within the Russian-America Company. In 1823, administrators of the Russian-America Company began fearing that they had overharvested the sea otters in the offshore island waters. The Russians imposed conservation measures on sea otter harvesting, which included quotas, timing of harvests, traditional hunting methods, refusals to pay for females and pups, a rotation of hunting grounds, and the relocation of the entire Sanak Aleut population to Belkofski.

In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States. When the Americans took over the administration of the area, Sanak Island was re-settled and the islands and reefs near Belkofski became the center of the sea otter trade. Belkofski quickly became the most important village in the region and in the 1880s, at the height of the maritime fur trade, Belkofski had three stores reputedly stocked with goods imported directly from San Francisco. The first Russian Orthodox church was built in 1843 and a new one in 1880. The Holy Resurrection Church was built according to a design dating to the 1732 Church of the Resurrection on the Mosva River, near Moscow. The church was richly adorned with bells and holy icons. In 1880, the settlement was described as situated on a bluff on the south slope of a mountain rising immediately behind it. Nearly all the houses were neat frame cottages, erected for the Aleut hunters by fur trading companies, and painted in bright colors. In less than a decade, the sea otter pelts collected at this station went from thousands to dozens per year as the animals were hunted to extinction. A school was established in 1901 and closed in 1976. The loss of revenue caused the community to decline, and the main occupations shifted to trapping foxes, bears, wolves, and land otters for fur, and commercial fishing for cod and salmon. In 1913, a salmon cannery was built in King Cove which provided a stable source of employment and gradually people from Belkofski moved away, mostly to King Cove and Sand Point until in 1980 there were only 10 residents remaining. When the last Belkofski residents moved away, they took the church bells and iconostasis to King Cove, about 12 miles (19 km) away by boat, where a new Orthodox church called St. Herman Church was built in 1984. In 2015, the Rasmusson Foundation funded the construction of the Elders’ Bell Tower to St. Herman Church. The bell tower is approximately 30 feet (9 m) high and designed to house the seven historic bronze church bells from Belkofski that were cast in San Francisco in the 1880s. The largest bell has a diameter of 35.5 inches (90 cm) and weighs an estimated 850 pounds (386 kg). Belkofski is now used as a summer fishing camp by King Cove residents and other Unangan people. Read more here and here. Explore more of Belkofski here:

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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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