The 2.15 million acre Selawik National Wildlife Refuge is situated on the Arctic Circle to the east of Kotzebue Sound, and occupies a unique variety of landforms in northwest Alaska. The refuge is bounded on the north by the Waring Mountains and Kobuk Valley National Park and to the south by the Selawik Hills and Purcell Mountains. Refuge lands extend eastward to the headwaters of the Selawik River and the continental divide. Only a very small percentage of Alaska is accessible by road, and refuge lands, including the 240,000 acres of designated Wilderness Area, are some of the most remote “wildlands” in the state.
Landscapes found on the refuge include alpine tundra, arctic tundra, taiga (northern forest), lake and wetland complexes, large river deltas, open grass and sedge meadows, and previously glaciated mountains and river valleys. This area is a transition zone where the northernmost boreal forests give way to open arctic tundra. The Selawik and Kobuk river deltas, located on the eastern shores of Selawik Lake and Hotham Inlet (Kobuk Lake), provide valuable habitat for thousands of migratory birds. The essentially undisturbed array of freshwater and brackish lakes, riparian areas, wet meadows, and uplands provide excellent habitat for a wide variety of wildlife species. The approximately 21,000 lakes on refuge lowlands create a very large arctic tundra lake complex that is comparable in scale and ecological significance to any found on Alaska's refuges.
The Selawik Wilderness Area, located in the Waring Mountains, 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. This is one of the most topographically interesting and scenic parts of the refuge due to the presence of spruce forests and foothills that rise in elevation to about 1700 feet. The Waring Mountains are underlain primarily by sedimentary rock, in contrast to the river and lake deposits over glacial moraine that typify most of the refuge. Permafrost is widespread throughout the refuge, creating kettleholes and occasional pingos.
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 Iñupiat and the interior Athabascans used the hot springs for medicinal purposes and as a gathering place. Today, the hot springs are still visited by many local residents as an enjoyable winter destination.
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. Local residents access refuge lands via these waterways by boat in the summer and by snowmachine or dog team in the winter. In most roadless areas across northwest Alaska, river corridors remain important travel routes for humans and wildlife.
Geological, glacial, and wildfire processes have all combined to produce the diverse and productive landscape within the Selawik Refuge. The cyclical occurrence of wildfires has shaped the refuge by releasing nutrients into the ecosystem and by promoting the growth of high quality forage in early successional habitats. This patchwork of habitat types is vital to the fish, wildlife, and avian species that inhabit the refuge. These diverse resources are all used and valued by the people who live and visit here.