Eek River, Kuskokwim Delta

Eek River, Kuskokwim Delta

by | Jun 14, 2022

Eek River drains a watershed of 408,959 acres (165,500 ha) and flows generally west-northwest for 108 miles (174 km) from a small lake at an elevation of about 2,700 feet (823 m) on the north flank of Mount Oratia to the Kuskokwim River Delta, about 40 miles (64 km) south-southwest of Bethel and 32 miles (51 km) north of Quinhagak, Alaska. The Yup’ik name was first reported as ‘Ik’ in 1826 by Lieutenant Gavril Sarychev of the Imperial Russian Navy and has been spelled ‘Eek’ on U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey charts since 1880. The word translates to ‘our eyes’ or ‘two eyes’ and probably refers to the fall flood tide when the water in the Eek River reaches the top of the north riverbank and is said to be reaching the ‘eyes’ of the riverbank. The community of Eek is situated on the south bank of the river about 11 miles (18 km) east of the Kuskokwim River. The Kuskokwim River Delta is dominantly composed of silt and sandy silt deposited in a nonmarine fluvial environment. The village is located at the transition of permafrost to the east and unconsolidated sediments to the west consisting of alluvial, colluvial, glacial, marine, lacustrine, aeolian, and swamp deposits. Eek is subject to erosion of the river bank at a rate of about 6 feet (2 m) per year due to melting permafrost, and pedestrian and motor vehicle traffic. The Eek River channel is bordered by thickets of alder, willow, and birch and meanders through a low tundra plain with many lakes and small unnamed tributaries. The confluence with the Eenayarak River is about 18 miles (29 km) downstream from Eek village. The Eenayarak River forms part of the Eek-Eenayarak-Kuskokwim water route traditionally used by local residents for hunting, fishing, and trapping. The water route is also used to avoid rough waters on Kuskokwim Bay which is notorious for unexpected squalls that make boat travel along the coast dangerous. During the winter months, many residents travel by snow machines on trails laid out between the villages in the area.

The area around the present-day village of Eek was originally occupied around 2,000 years ago by ancestors of Yup’ik Eskimos. At that time, the area provided a strategic trading route along the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, connecting many communities located on the two rivers. The earliest defined culture in the area is the Norton tradition which was a terrestrial and maritime hunter-gatherer culture that lived in large semipermanent villages. People of the Norton culture hunted and fished with chipped slate tools and fish nets and used pottery for lamps and possibly cooking. Norton tradition people were established at preferred settlement locations in protected bays and sheltered areas within bedrock headlands before the occupation of the wet tundra that constitutes most of the Kuskokwim River Delta. Such coastal localities give quick access to sea mammals and fish, and seasonal access via the major rivers to inland food resources such as caribou and moose. Inland settlements were probably established when the expanding coastal population began to exploit tundra wetlands about 2,000 to 1,500 years ago. About 1,000 years ago, new cultural practices developed indi­cating an adaptation possibly related to the arrival of people of the Thule culture. The Thule cul­tural tradition probably originated farther to the north in the Bering Strait area and in northern Alaska, but through an as yet unknown reason or mechanism, its people or their influence spread through the North American Arctic and Subarctic. The new developments included different material technologies and a greater emphasis on marine resources, particularly significant was a stronger emphasis on sea mammal hunting, the use of dog sleds, and a tradition of combat marked by the use of the bow and arrow and hide and wood armor. When the first Russian explorers entered the region in the late 1700s and established trading posts from 1819 to 1851, manufactured goods were already present due to trade across the Bering Strait that originated in prehistoric times. Since the earliest contact with Europeans, residents of the region have gradually become more concentrated in fewer localities because of trading opportunities, epidemics, growing participation in the cash economy, and most recently access to schools and amenities in established villages. The village of Eek was originally located on the Apokok River and was moved to its present location in the 1920s when constant flooding and erosion forced relocation. In the 1930s, a Moravian Church was established in the new village as well as a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs school.

The Kuskokwim River drainage is the second largest in the state of Alaska and has historically provided residents from 40 communities an abundance of fish for subsistence purposes. Subsistence fishing in the Lower Kuskokwim Delta dates back thousands of years to the original Central Yup’ik occupants. Seasonal fishing is based from either a traditional family fish camp or from a home village. Drift gill nets, fish wheels, and rods and reels are used for harvesting. The first important subsistence fishery of the year occurs soon after river ice breaks up in May when eulachon migrate into the delta. Local residents use fine-meshed nets to catch eulachon and thread them through willow sticks before drying and smoking them. Subsistence sockeye, chum, and Chinook harvesting typically begins by June 1st and is concluded by mid-July. Coho and pink salmon are harvested in August and September. Blackfish and burbot are harvested during the fall and winter months. Dolly Varden are typically harvested from June through December, while trout are typically harvested in the early spring and summer, and again in the late summer and early fall. Whitefish, sheefish, Arctic grayling, and northern pike are harvested year-round. The first commercial harvest of salmon in the Kuskokwim River delta took place in 1913. In 1920, a large commercial season took place with five saltery operators processing approximately 35,000 Chinook salmon. The Kuskokwim area was closed to all fishing for export from 1926 through 1929. In 1930, regulations were modified to allow commercial fishing in part of Kuskokwim Bay. A floating cannery operated for that year, and by 1932, three companies were engaged in commercial fishing. The catch was dried and sold as food for sled dogs during the 1930s when dog teams were still the primary means of hauling freight to villages in western Alaska. In 1952, poor salmon runs prompted the closure of the Kuskokwim River and delta to commercial fishing. Following statehood in 1959, management was transferred to the State of Alaska with a focus on the sustainability of salmon runs, ensuring subsistence needs are met, and in the event of a surplus, there were opportunities for a commercial catch. Harvest levels continued to increase until the mid-1990s, after which time fishing efforts, harvest levels, and salmon prices decreased. Since 2010, Chinook salmon returns to the Kuskokwim River have been some of the lowest on record. Over the last several years, moderate to severe restrictions have been put in place to limit the subsistence harvest and conserve Chinook salmon, however, these restrictions have impacted the subsistence way of life throughout the Kuskokwim River drainage. Read more here and here. Explore more of the Eek River 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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