Sheshalik Spit, Kotzebue Sound

Sheshalik Spit, Kotzebue Sound

by | Jul 28, 2022

Sheshalik is a spit about 6 miles (10 km) long consisting of accretionary beach ridges with some lagoons situated in Cape Krusenstern National Monument, about 40 miles (64 km) south of Noatak and 10 miles (16 km) northwest of Kotzebue, Alaska. The spit has been used for generations as a summer hunting camp by the Iñupiat people from Noatak and Kotzebue because of the proximity to wood, water, and a rich marine hunting area. The camp on the end of the spit is called Nuvuuraq, meaning ‘the point’, and is traditionally used by the Noatak people. The name of this village was recorded as ‘Sesualik’ by Captain Frederick W. Beechey in 1831. However, another camp about 4 miles (6 km) toward the base of the spit is called Sisualik, meaning ‘where there are white whales’, and is traditionally used by the Kotzebue people. The Noatak cabins and tents are set up on the two beach ridges nearest to Kotzebue Sound. This coastal area consists of unconsolidated sediments deposited during the Pleistocene and Holocene that are widespread throughout Alaska. The beach ridges of Sheshalik Spit and Cape Krusenstern are formed by the longshore drift of sediments originating from rivers and areas of shoreline erosion south of Cape Thompson and transported southward and eastward. The contributions are probably cumulative. Coarse and poorly sorted sediment is largely reduced to sand by the time it reaches Kivalina, about 68 miles (109 km) to the northwest, and the gravel component of the Cape Krusenstern to Sheshalik Spit beach ridge complex is evidently mostly derived from sources south of Kivalina. Sediment supplied during the last 3,500 years by coastal retreat between Kivalina and Krusenstern Lagoon may be equal to the quantity of sediment deposited during the same period in the Cape Krusenstern to Sheshalik Spit beach ridge complex.

In 1732, the Russians Mikhail Gvozdev and Ivan Fedorov made the first sighting by Europeans of the northern Alaskan mainland near the present-day village of Wales from the little ship Saint Gabriel. Although this event was acknowledged on a few early maps, it has been relegated to com­parative obscurity compared to the offi­cial discovery of Alaska in 1741 by Vitus Bering. In 1778, Captain James Cook sailed along the coast as far north as Icy Cape and landed at several locations. The Russian Empire considered northern Alaska for a possible eastward expansion of Siberian territory, and in 1785, Catherine II hired Joseph E. Billings, who was an able seaman on Cook’s third Voyage of Discovery, to explore northern Siberia and Alaska and establish a Russian land claim. In 1791, Billing arrived in the Bering Sea and traded with several different groups of Iñupiat people. By the early 1800s, furs were being sent to Russia by independent Iñupiat traders of northern Alaska and by the Russian-American Company and its hired hunters and traders in southern Alaska. In 1818, an expedition commanded by Otto van Kotzebue departed Russia to search the Arctic for an all-water passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. He did not find the water passage but did explore much of the north coast of the Seward Peninsula and the embayment that now bears his name. Several subsequent expeditions followed but none were successful in finding the northwest passage. In 1824, John Franklin was preparing an expedition to explore the Arctic from east to west, and the Royal Navy dispatched Frederick W. Beechey to the Bering Strait to assist in the event that Franklin made it through the Arctic ice. Although this mission was not fulfilled, the results of Beechey’s voyage overshadowed all previous expeditions for geographic discoveries and ethnographic observations. In July 1825, Beechey entered Kotzebue Sound with the HMS Blossom and traded with several groups of villagers.

Prior to 1900, the Iñupiat in northwestern Alaska lived in small scattered communities consisting of one or a few extended families. These family groups migrated seasonally, constantly in pursuit of wild game animals. The people who lived along Norton and Kotzebue Sounds and the western tip of the Seward Peninsula depended on the spring hunts for seals, whales, and walruses and on fishing at other times of the year. Inland people from the upper Kobuk River Valley, and along the Fish River on the Seward Peninsula exploited their geographic position to act as the principal traders between Bering Sea tribes and those farther inland. Sheshalik was the site of an annual trading fair that attracted more than two thousand people from throughout the region including Siberia. The trading tradition continued with the arrival of European explorers and New England whalers and by the 1880s, the Bering Strait people had incorporated numerous western goods into their daily lives. The promise of western goods drew people from the far upper parts of the Noatak and Kobuk valleys who took jobs with the whalers. For several years in the late 1890s, perhaps as many as half of Alaska’s Native people north of the strait were seasonally involved in the whaling industry. However, this intensive whaling activity quickly wiped out the primary food source of the coastal Iñupiat diet. In 1890, Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary and head of the U.S. Bureau of Education in Alaska, recruited missionaries who would also serve as teachers. When the agency built schools and stores along the Noatak, upper Kobuk, and Selawik rivers in 1907 and 1908, the people immediately followed and built permanent homes, creating villages such as Kotzebue, Wales, and Point Hope but consequently leaving many abandoned communities like Sheshalik along the coast. Read more here and here. Explore more of Sheshalik Spit and Kotzebue Sound 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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