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Kotzebue, Alaska

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In the middle of nowhere, town is in middle of everything

Kotzebue, Alaska, sitting on a 3-mile-long spit at the northwest end of Baldwin Peninsula in Kotzebue Sound, may look isolated.

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But this town of 3,082, above the Arctic Circle by about 30 miles, is the hub of commerce, culture and outdoor activity for the northwestern Arctic region.

It's a popular stop for visitors on airline package tours who want to see a bit of the Arctic landscape and visit the Innaigvik Education and Information Center to learn about the people.

The Noatak, Kobuk and Selawik rivers flow into the sound near Kotzebue, allowing boat traffic to carry cargo and residents into the valleys where such villages as Noorvik, Ambler and Noatak lie. Kotzebue is also the center of air traffic in the region.

Wildlife and wind

A casual eye may see a windswept, forsaken district full of mosquito-laden lakes on the flat tundra and long gravel beaches. But what a treasure lies there.

The northwest Arctic is a haven for wildlife and a heaven for who subsist on it or merely want to observe it. Birders come with binoculars to see the migratory waterfowl. In this flat area, the Inupiat Eskimos devised their own way of seeing: the blanket toss, in which a group flings an observer high into the air to look for walrus, whales or other game.

There isn't much to block the view -- or the wind. Novelist Stan Jones, who lived a number of years in town, writes in his Kotzebue mystery "White Sky, Black Ice" of the "toothachelike persistence" of the west wind.

Kotzebue has long winters and cool summers, which means there's ice in the sound from early October until early July. The average low temperature during January is minus 12; the average high during July is 58. The record temperatures are minus 52 and 85. Snowfall averages 40 inches, with total precipitation of 9 inches per year.

History of Kotzebue area

The new federal census shows the population of Kotzebue is three-quarters Native, mostly Inupiat Eskimo. The area, occupied for 600 years as a fish camp and trading base, was known long before the German Lt. Otto Von Kotzebue ''discovered'' Kotzebue Sound in 1818 for Russia. According to the Alaska Place Names Dictionary, a reindeer station was established in 1897, and the new permanent community got a post office named after Kotzebue Sound in 1899.

With the three big rivers nearby, Kotzebue was a trading hub for groups subsisting on nature's provisions. Chum salmon are important to the subsistence lifestyle, as are the enormous herds of caribou. Musk oxen, bears and smaller mammals also live in the area. In the summer, waterfowl and other migratory birds arrive by the millions to nest in the thousands of lakes and ponds on the tundra and river deltas; some end up on the table.

National parks and refuges

Kotzebue Sound is surrounded by federal lands, several of which protect both wildlife and archeological sites indicating the arrival of humans over the Bering Land Bridge perhaps 13,000 years ago.

Cape Krusenstern National Monument, northwest of Kotzebue on the coast of the Chukchi Sea. Noatak National Preserve, north of Kotzebue. The Noatak River, classified as a national wild river, is protected its entire route. Kobuk Valley National Park, east of Kotzebue. The park is home of a 25-square-mile patch of sand dunes and the Onion Portage archeological dig. Selawik National Wildlife Refuge, east of Kotzebue and south of Kobuk Valley. Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, south of the sound. In addition to its archeological value, the preserve is an important nesting ground.

Rivers are good for floating

The Kobuk, Noatak and Selawik rivers are favorites of rafters and kayakers. Another option is the Squirrel River, which flows out of the Noatak preserve's Baird Mountains.

Canoes and rafts can be rented in Kotzebue and flown out by Arctic Air Guides Flying Service, 907-442-3030. The rate is about $300 an hour.

A good source of river information is the guidebook "The Alaska River Guide," which covers many of the state's scenic and raftable rivers. The author, Karen Jettmar, directs Equinox Wilderness Expeditions, based in Anchorage.

Hikers, hunters, anglers

Hikers have almost unlimited access to the national lands, although they should not intrude on housing, fish camps or hunting camps. Local guides can be hired, and transportation into the Bush can be arranged by boat or aircraft.

Anglers pursue chums, pike, sheefish and grayling in the region's lakes and streams. Again, guides who know the rivers can be hired.

Innaigvik center attends to parks, wildlife

Visitors to northwest Alaska can stop at the Innaigvik Education and Information Center and offices for the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service to learn more about Kotzebue and nearby wild lands.

Where to stay, how to get to Kotzebue

Overnight visitors, especially tour groups, often stay at the Nullagvik Hotel, operated by the NANA regional corporation. Its rooms run $95 to $145. The Bayside Inn and Restaurant, Bibber's Bed and Breakfast and Sue's Bed and Breakfast also take guests.

Kotzebue's Arctic Tours and Alaska Airlines Vacations have tour packages that visit the NANA Museum of the Arctic near the airport. Including airfare from Anchorage, a one-day tour of Kotzebue starts at $366 through early September. The tour can include a program at the museum, clothing demonstrations, a culture camp and a walk on the tundra.

Somewhat off the beaten path is a tour of a fish camp, provided by Arctic Circle Educations Adventures, 907-442-3509. The campers get to net, dry and smoke salmon, watch for birds, pick berries and hike in a rustic camp on the Chukchi Sea -- in 24 hours of daylight most of the summer -- five miles down the gravel beach from Kotzebue.

Project Chariot

The area has another site of interest, but one where nothing happened. Kotzebue is a short air hop south from the Project Chariot site, where the post-World War II federal government intended to demonstrate the peaceful use of atomic power by blasting out a harbor -- "geographic engineering" -- within an hour's flight of Siberia. Local resistance helped overcome the project, which is described in Dan O'Neill's 1994 book, "The Firecracker Boys."

Since 1900, expansion of economic activities and services have enabled Kotzebue to develop relatively rapidly. The city was formed in 1958, and an Air Force Base and White Alice Communications System station were later constructed.

Mineral exploration

Oil and minerals exploration and development have contributed to the economy. Most income is directly or indirectly related to government employment, such as the school district (three schools attended by about 800 students); the Native-operated nonprofit Maniilaq Association; the city; and Northwest Arctic Borough. The Cominco Alaska Red Dog Mine, operated north of Kotzebue near Cape Krusenstern by the Native corporation NANA, is a significant employer.

Miscellaneous

Because of the reliability of the air currents, a series of windmills is being used as a test program for generating electricity.

NANA -- the Northwest Arctic Native Association -- is the regional corporation for Kotzebue and 10 area villages: Ambler, Buckland, Deering, Kiana, Kivalina, Kobuk, Noatak, Noorvik, Selawik and Shungnak.

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