Alaska: Kobuk Valley National Park

Kobuk River
Kobuk River

Courtesy of National Park Service

Kobuk Valley National Park in northwestern Alaska is the site of the historic Onion Portage. Here, for thousands of years, Native Alaskans have come to hunt the caribou whose footprints continue to paint the landscape of the Kobuk Sand Dunes. The Onion Portage has preserved over 10,000 years of human activity, providing valuable archeological resources to help us understand the history and culture of Alaska’s aboriginal peoples. Kobuk Valley National Park preserves and interprets the archeological sites of the Onion Portage, while protecting the natural features of the Kobuk River Valley, the Kobuk Sand Dunes, the migration of nearly half a million caribou, and the plant and wildlife that have supported the Native Alaskans' subsistence lifestyle for thousands of years.  

The park encompasses the Baird Mountains, the Waring Mountains, and the Kobuk Valley that lies between both mountain ranges. The most important feature is the Kobuk Valley, where most of the park’s archeological sites are located. The Kobuk River, one of the major rivers in Alaska, flows through the heart of the valley. The Hunt and Little Kobuk rivers are also in the park. South of the rivers, the park’s sand dune field, where the caribou often leave their tracks includes three groupings: the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, Hunt River Sand Dunes, and the Little Kobuk River Sand Dunes. Despite their location 40 miles above the Arctic Circle, the sand dunes can experience 100 degree temperatures in the summer.

North of the sand dunes on the Kobuk River is the historic Onion Portage. Renowned archeologist J. Louis Giddings discovered the site in 1961. A hunting ground for Alaskans for thousands of years, the portage is one of America’s most important archeological sites in the Arctic Circle preserving over 70 stratified layers of history. Studies of these layers have provided valuable information on the progression of the arctic communities living in the Kobuk Valley. To date, archeologists have excavated nine cultural complexes, which have confirmed that humans have lived and hunted in the Kobuk Valley for at least 12,500 years from the Akmak Period (ca. 8,000-6,500 BC) to the Arctic Woodland Eskimo Period (ca. 1000-1700 AD).

Artifacts from these cultural excavations tell the story of the lifestyles of the different peoples who took advantage of the Kobuk Valley’s abundant resources. The earliest inhabitants, the Akmak peoples of the Paleoarctic tradition, lived in a treeless environment and were mostly hunters who subsisted off the valley’s large caribou population. After the Akmak came the Palisade and Portage cultures from the Northern Archaic tradition, who took advantage of the spruce forest and Kobuk River, sustaining their diets by fishing, hunting, and gathering. Following the Palisade and Portage cultures were the peoples of the Arctic Small-Tool tradition, a coastal people, who journeyed on the river to Alaska’s coastal waters to hunt marine mammals.

When the arctic-oriented people moved back into the Kobuk Valley 500 years after their previous occupation of the valley, they settled 25 miles south of the Onion Portage. The Ahteut, an archeological site in the area, provides evidence of people living in pithouses, which marks the transition into the Arctic Woodland Eskimo culture that traditionally hunted caribou in the winter and fished salmon in the summer. Woodland Eskimos were the last prehistoric culture to inhabit the Onion Portage, perhaps leaving the region after the caribou population began to decline. The Akunirmiut and Kuuvaum Kangianirmiut cultures from the post-Columbian period eventually settled the valley. Their descendants, the Inupiat, still live in the Kobuk Valley where they hunt the caribou and otherwise continue to practice a subsistence life style.

Subsistence living defines the culture and history of the Inupiat and other native Alaskan societies. According to the Subsistence Advisory Council, “Subsistence is the very blueprint within our souls that describes who we are as a people, and how we depend on our brothers and sisters of earth, air and water.” From a very young age, the Inupiat learn the ways of a subsistence lifestyle. Traditionally, this includes fishing, hunting, and gathering the resources that the land has to offer their people. The Inupiat rely on the wild creatures and plant life of the valley and on the marine mammals off of Alaska’s coast. Whaling is an ancient tradition that is not only significant for the food it provides, but also for its spiritual meaning.

The Inupiat show great respect for the land and sea, since the “creatures of the earth give themselves to the people, who in turn share with family and friends, shaping relationships that celebrate life.” (Helga Eakon). To show their respect, after harvesting the meat, the Inupiat return the whale’s carcass into the sea so that its spirit can tell other whales how well the Inupiat treat their kind. These spiritual beliefs and the practice of subsistence living create a sense of community among the Inupiat who continue their ancient tradition of sharing their food with neighboring families. Today’s visitors can learn about these ancient traditions as they visit Kobuk Valley and the National Park Service’s Northwest Arctic Heritage Center.

Kobuk Valley National Park is only accessible by plane or boat in the summer and by snowmobile during the winter months. Visitors can participate in outdoor activities such as boating, camping, fishing, hiking, and backpacking. Hiking in the Baird Mountains in the summer and boating along the Kobuk River are especially fine ways to experience the park. Visitors are welcome to photograph Kobuk Valley’s wildlife and natural landscape.

The park has no developed facilities. Tourists are encouraged to visit the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue, Alaska. A plane ride away from Kobuk, the facility offers community and junior ranger programs throughout the year that cover topics ranging from the park’s cultural and environmental history to the research performed at Kobuk’s archeological sites. Other services include a gift shop, a multipurpose conference room, and an exhibit hall that highlights the natural and cultural history of Alaska’s northwestern peoples. At the center’s main entrance, the exhibit hall consists of a large room lined with environmental scenes and displays that showcase the animal life of northwest Alaska and the traditional tools that the natives have used for thousands of years.

Kobuk Valley National Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located in a remote area in Kotzebue, AK. There are no roads into the park, which is only accessible by plane, boat, or snowmobile. The Kobuk Valley park grounds are open year-round. The visitor center located at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center is open daily from 8:00am to 12:00pm and from 1:00pm to 5:00pm. There is no admission fee. For more information, visit the National Park Service Kobuk Valley National Park website or call 907-442-3760.

Last updated: August 23, 2017