Encompassing a transition zone, this refuge weaves together boreal forest, arctic tundra, wetlands and hot springs
Selawik National Wildlife Refuge is situated in remote northwestern Alaska on the Arctic Circle to the east of Kotzebue Sound. The 2.15-million acre refuge is encompassed by an arctic landscape rich in cultural heritage and natural beauty.
The refuge is an awe-inspiring land of vast tundra, spruce forest, birch and alder lined foothills; its sweeping waterways and wetlands give shelter and provide habitat for a wide array of migratory and resident arctic fauna. The Waring Mountains and Kobuk National Park border the refuge on the north, and to the south are the Selawik Hills and Purcell Mountains.
Northwest Alaska has played a key role in North American history as a travel route, as a home for northern peoples, a rich trapping ground, and as a reindeer herding area. Historically, the Kobuk and Selawik rivers served as important travel corridors from the coast to the more mountainous areas to the east. This is still true today, as locals access these lands via waterways by boat in the summer and by snowmachine or dog team in the winter.
Like many other National Parks, Preserves, and Refuges, the Selawik Refuge was officially established in 1980 with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. This land designation and subsequent management by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the most recent chapter in the long history of this northern landscape.
The refuge covers a transition zone, where the northernmost boreal forest gives way to Arctic tundra, lake and wetland complexes, open grass and sedge meadows. Selawik's landscape is so diverse it even includes a set of rolling, vegetated sand dunes that were formed by the last glacial recession. These dunes are the remnant of a much larger system that once included the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes to the north. Most of this habitat is tundra, with approximately 24,000 lakes and wetlands.
The hot springs near the headwaters of the Selawik River are an interesting feature of the refuge. During even the coldest months of the year, the stream in this area remains open due to the thermal springs that erupt from beneath the earth's surface. Historically, both the coastal Iñupiaq and the interior Athabascan peoples used the hot springs for medicinal purposes and as a gathering place.
One of the main reasons the refuge was created was for the protection of the Western Arctic caribou herd, the largest herd in Alaska at 490,000 animals. The Western Arctic caribou migrate through the refuge on their way between calving and wintering grounds, traveling hundreds of miles annually. Other large mammals on the refuge include moose, which began using the refuge in the 1940s, and occasionally musk-oxen. Both black and grizzly bears are present due to the occurrence of both forest and tundra habitats, as are wolves, Arctic and red fox, lynx, wolverine, beaver and marten.
The Selawik and Kobuk River deltas also provide invaluable habitat for hundreds of thousands of migratory bird species. During the short Arctic summers, large numbers of white-fronted geese and majestic tundra swans arrive along with sandhill cranes and a horde of other shorebirds. Large populations of sheefish and other whitefish inhabit the waters of the refuge with some sheefish approaching 60 pounds.
The Selawik Wilderness Area has no trails or public facilities. Summer access is difficult due to the area’s remoteness and rough topography. The refuge's Wilderness adjoins the 190,000-acre Kobuk Valley Wilderness in the Kobuk Valley National Park. Hiking in from the Kobuk Sand Dunes is one way to access the Selawik Wilderness Area. While hiking, visitors can enjoy viewing and photographing the wildlife and wilderness.
Selawik Hot Springs is an enjoyable winter destination for local residents and visitors to the area in the winter months. Methods to access the springs are primarily by snowmachine, although dog sledding and skiing are also options to reach the hot springs.