Kotzebue lies on a 3-mile-long spit ranging in width from 1,100 to 3,600 feet located on the Baldwin Peninsula near the discharges of the Kobuk and Noatak Rivers. It is 549 miles northwest of Anchorage and 26 miles above the Arctic Circle.
The population of Kotzebue is 3,135, 75 percent of which is Iñupiat Eskimos among whom subsistence activities are an integral part of the lifestyle. Each summer, the North Tent City fish camp is set up to dry and smoke the season’s catch. As a regional economic center, it offers a mixture of private sector business and traditional subsistence activities found nowhere else in the region.
The site of Kotzebue, or Qikiktagruk (as it is called in Iñupiaq), has been occupied by Iñupiat Eskimos for at least 9000 years and is believed to be the oldest settlement in both North and South America. “Qikiktagruk” was the hub of ancient Arctic trading routes long before European contact due to its coastal location near a number of rivers. The German Lt. Otto Von Kotzebue “discovered” Kotzebue Sound in 1818 while sailing for Russia. The community took its name from the Kotzebue Sound in 1899 when a post office was established. Since the turn of the century, expansion of economic activities and services in the area has enabled Kotzebue to develop relatively rapidly.
Kotzebue is the service and transportation center for the eleven villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough. It has a healthy cash economy, a growing private sector, and a stable public sector. Due to its location at the confluence of three river drainages, Kotzebue is the transfer point between ocean and inland water shipping and also the air transport center for the region. Activities related to oil and mineral exploration and development have contributed to the economy. The majority of income is directly or indirectly related to government employment, including the School District, Maniilaq Association, NANA Corporation, and city and Borough governments. The Red Dog Mine is also a significant regional employer. Commercial fishing for salmon, sheefish, and other seafood, as well as processing at Kotzebue Sound Area Fisheries, provide some seasonal employment.
Air is the primary means of transportation year-round. The state-owned Ralph Wien Memorial Airport supports daily jet service to Anchorage and Nome as well as nine other daily flight service companies and air taxis to the region’s villages. The airport has a 6,000′ main runway and 4,000′ crosswind gravel runway. A seaplane base is also operated by the state. Plans are under way to build a 5,000′ taxiway alongside the runway, and to pave the crosswind runway as well as the remaining taxiways. The shipping season lasts 100 days, from early July to early October, when the Sound is ice-free. Due to river sediments deposited by the Noatak River four miles above Kotzebue, the harbor is shallow. Deep draft vessels must anchor fifteen miles out, and cargo is lightered to shore and warehoused. Crowley Marine Services operates shallow draft barges to deliver cargo to area communities. The city is examining the feasibility of developing a deep-water port, since the cost of cargo delivery is high with the existing system. There are 26 miles of local gravel roads, used by automobiles, ATV’s, and motorcycles during the summer. Snow machines are preferred in winter for local transportation. Also in winter, the Kotzebue Sound and all rivers and lakes freeze, allowing transportation over them via snow machines and ATV’s.
Kotzebue has several restaurants, grocery stores, churches, and an auto parts store. Maniilaq Association is headquartered in Kotzebue, and most of the organization’s facilities are located in the village. These include the $42 million Maniilaq Health Center, completed in 1995, the Frank R. Ferguson Building, and the Putyuk Children’s Home. Water is supplied by the 150 million gallon reservoir, located 1.5 miles from the city, and is treated and stored in a 1.5 million gallon storage tank. Piped sewage is treated in a 32 acre zero discharge facultative lagoon west of the airport. About 80% of homes are fully plumbed, and served by the city’s system. The PVC pipe that had supplied the city water and sewer for thirty years has just been replaced by a much more advanced, high-quality system. A new landfill with a compacter and baler has recently been completed. The privately owned Kotzebue Electric Association supplies electricity. A series of new windmills has been installed to help provide electricity to the city.
Kotzebue Elementary School has classes ranging from Pre-K through 5th grade. Pre-K is 1 1/2 hours 5 afternoons each week. Kindergarten is from 8:30-1:00 Monday-Friday. All other classes are in session from 8:30-2:45 Monday-Friday. In addition to regular classroom and bilingual services, special education and enrichment programs are also available to qualified children. The school has a library, multipurpose room and playground. After school activities include Battle of the Books, science fair, spelling bee, and basketball, wrestling, and gymnastics.
Kotzebue Middle and High School serves 6th through 12th grade. In addition to academic classes and electives, there are a large number of after school activities including basketball, volleyball, wrestling, Battle of the Books, student council, cross-country running, pep band, National Honor Society, cheerleading, Native Youth Olympics, science fair, yearbook, photography, and FCLA/HERO. The school has a full-size gym, library, a wood, engine, and metal shop, weight room, deli, school counselor, and a music room.
The High School has recently begun a summer school program, offering classes in a range of sciences, Iñupiat Studies, Japanese Language, and others. Throughout the summer athletic sports camps, including wrestling, basketball, cross-county, and cheerleading, are offered through the school.
Alaska Technical Center provides post-secondary training in office occupations, administrative work, building maintenance, health occupations, and services to obtain an ABE/GED.
University of Alaska, Chukchi campus provides a large variety of college and vocational courses both on-site and through teleconferencing. Associates’ and Bachelor’s programs are available.
The City of Kotzebue runs a Family Entertainment center that provides a safe, drug, alcohol, and tobacco free environment with movies, dances, video games, pool tables, concessions and special events for children and teenagers. The Family Entertainment Center also has two racquetball courts, full basketball court, softball field, full fitness center with weights and treadmills, and two saunas. In the summer there is an organized softball league for children from age 5 through 16, and adult leagues and tournaments. Winter sports include community basketball, snow machine racing, and dog-sled racing.
The Boys & Girls Club of Northwest Alaska offers many educational and recreation opportunities to children of all ages, and members of the community have recently begun a local Boys Scouts group. The city has several safe playgrounds and softball field. The Lions Club sponsors intramural basketball for grades 3 through 6, as well as adult dances, races, and bingo.