Thursday, December 3, 2015

Alaska's Kobuk Valley National Park

Alaska's Kobuk Valley National Park  began as a national monument in 1978 and was elevated to national park status on December 2, 1980. It is named after the Kobuk River valley which runs through its center. "Kobuk" is an Inupiaq Eskimo word meaning "big river."

The park includes 1,750,716 acres (2,735 square miles) which is approximately the size of the state of Delaware. Much of the southern portion of the park south of the Kobuk River is managed as the Kobuk Valley Wilderness which contains 174,545 acres. The Selawik Wilderness lies to the south in the adjoining Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve lies 32 miles to the east. The tallest mountain in the park is Mount Angayukaqsraq at 4760 feet in height.

The park consists of the broad wetlands valley of the Kobuk River which runs along the southern edge of the western Brooks Range known as the Baird Mountains. The boundary of the park runs along the Baird Mountains in the north and the shorter Waring Mountains in the south that form a ring enclosing the Kobuk Valley. The middle two-thirds of the Kobuk River from just above Kiana to just below Ambler is included in the park, as are several of its major tributaries such as the Salmon River and the Hunt River. The valley floor is mainly covered by glacial drift.

While no glaciers currently exist within the park, at least five major glaciations have been identified.  Sand created by the grinding action of the ancient glaciers has been carried to the Kobuk Valley by wind and water and thus dunes that are naturally stabilized by vegetation now cover much of the southern portion of the valley. River bluffs composed of sand and standing as high as 150 feet hold permafrost ice wedges and the fossils of Ice Age mammals.

Three sets of sand dune fields are located on the south side of the Kobuk River. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, Little Kobuk Sand Dunes, and the Hunt River Dunes are remnants of dunefields that covered as much as 200,000 acres immediately after the retreat of Pleistocene glaciation. A combination of outwash deposits from the glaciers and strong winds created the dunes which are now mostly covered by forest and tundra.

Active dune fields currently cover about 20,500 acres. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes comprise the largest active Arctic dune field in North America. NASA has funded a study of the dunes as an analog for Martian polar dunes. The Kobuk River on the north side of the dunes meanders roughly 61 miles through the park providing a means of travel for people and wildlife.

Weather in the park is subject to extremes. The average low temperature in January is −8 °F and can reach nighttime lows of −50°F. Summer temperatures average around 65°F and can reach 85°F. Since the park is north of the Arctic Circle, the sun does not set from June 3 to July 9, and the sun is visible for only one and a half hours on the winter solstice, with long periods of twilight on either side of sunrise and sunset. As is the case over all of northern Alaska, the aurora borealis is often visible on winter nights when solar activity is high. Snow can happen at any time of the year, and wind and rain are common in summer. The park lies in a transition zone between boreal forest and tundra.

Human habitation in Kobuk Valley is believed to extend back at least 12,500 years. The present inhabitants of the valley are the Inupiat people who subsist on hunting and fishing. The first inhabitants of the Kobuk Valley were people of the Paleo-Arctic Tradition who hunted caribou at Onion Portage. The region was apparently deserted for about 2,000 years until people of the Archaic tradition appeared in the valley from the south and east. By about 4,000 years ago, people of the Arctic Small Tool tradition arrived but departed between 1,500 and 1,000 years ago, again leaving the valley unoccupied.

New people arrived by about 1200 AD as documented by the Ahteut site 25 miles downriver from Onion Portage. People remained in the valley until the mid-19th century when the caribou population declined and people moved closer to the coast. These people were the Akunirmiut and Kuuvaum Kangiamirnuit. One of their villages was located in the present park at the mouth of the Hunt River. Their descendents, now known as the Kuuvangmiit, have mostly moved out of park lands. About 32 prospectors' camps were established during a short gold rush in 1899 and 1900. Surveys have not yet located their camps, although debris associated with the miners' boats has been found. The park's headquarters are at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue about 100 miles west of the park on the Bering Sea coast.

The Kobuk River is a low gradient, slow-moving river. Starting in the village of Ambler, boating through the park and ending in the village of Kiana will take five to seven days. The best time to float the Kobuk River is July through early September. Be cautious about ice beginning to form on the river in September. Ice break-up and freeze-up times can vary, so pay close attention to weather data before and during your trip.

The park does not have an entrance gate, nor does it collect any fees to travel or camp in the park. There are no designated trails, roads, accommodations, or public facilities within the park, and backcountry camping is the only way to spend the night. Visitors can find minimal supplies in the villages of Ambler and Kiana. Many “visitors” are local residents traveling through the park from village to village or entering for subsistence activities.

The most visible animals are the 400,000 caribou of the Western Arctic herd which migrates annually through the park twice a year – north in the spring and south in the fall - between their winter breeding grounds south of the Waring Mountains and their summer calving grounds north of the Baird Mountains. The herd's annual crossing of the Kobuk River is central to the Inupiaq people's subsistence hunting. Caribou tracks crisscross the 25 square miles of the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. While hunting is not usually associated with national parks, local area residents are allowed to hunt and trap in Kobuk Valley National Park and local Alaskan residents still feed their families with caribou from the river crossing in the fall.

The fish and wildlife in the park are typical of arctic and subarctic fauna. River drainages on the north side of the Kobuk River support a healthy chum salmon run. River drainages on the south side of the Kobuk are better suited for whitefish species such as sheefish that can weigh 60 pounds.  Fish species include chum salmon, Pink salmon, sockeye salmon, with other salmonids including Dolly Varden, Arctic char, lake trout, and Arctic grayling.

Large mammals in the park include caribou, moose, gray wolf, black bear, brown bear, and Dall's sheep. Smaller mammals include wolverines, mink, porcupine, snowshoe hares, and voles.

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