KOTZEBUE -- When it’s sunny and temperatures are in the 70s, it’s not hard to imagine the Chukchi Sea is the Mediterranean.
It helps that the sea wall, with its paved walkways and sleek railing, makes the town feel a bit more like a resort than the hub community of 10 villages in the Northwest Alaska Arctic.
The sea wall runs for about a half-mile down the shoreline, looking out over Kotzebue Sound, paralleling the aptly named Shore Avenue. It was constructed in 2012 at a cost of $34 million to help offset coastal erosion and protect the community from encroaching sea ice.
It’s here that the sea wall becomes more than just a wall and more of a gathering place. It’s where visitors mingle and locals congregate. Where kids ride bikes, splash into the water or dive in, bikes and all. It’s where some people walk their dogs, go for a run or stick a fishing line in the water.
None of that is different from what you’d find in any seaside community but little things set Kotzebue's waterfront apart from a typical coastal town. Next to NANA Regional Corp.’s newly renovated Nullagvik Hotel is a row of log cabins in various states of repair. Some have collapsing roofs and broken windows, others a few caribou antlers -- skulls and all -- stacked precariously on their tops in neat lines. Between the trucks and SUVs on the paved road are people piled on four-wheelers.
Along the street are rusted-out cars and a few molding mattresses left to the elements. Trash sometimes piles up, a sign of the wall’s popularity among locals. Some people will walk from their homes across the street and dump a bucket of fish parts into the water to be swept out to sea.
Even the watercraft that speed along Kotzebue Sound are a mix of the surprising and the usual. Aluminum and fiberglass skiffs mingle with personal watercraft and sea kayaks. Once in a while, even a snowmachine -- called a sno-go in this part of the world -- will make a brief appearance, skipping along the water.
Subsistence fishing is important in this community, and the wall doesn’t seem to prevent that activity from happening. A few setnets dot the shore near the edges of the wall, scooping up abundant salmon, sheefish and herring for families.
The August weather has been unseasonably warm, keeping kids out late into the evening, especially since the sun doesn’t set until after midnight.
Wednesday night, Officer Norm Hughes of the Kotzebue Police Department was out watching a group of about a dozen teenagers jump off the sea wall about 5 feet into the water. He said he mostly has to worry about cellphones and bikes getting stolen from the shore. Bikes are especially a big problem. He said when they dredged the nearby lagoon harbor recently, they drug out a mountain of stolen bikes, all pitched over a nearby bridge.
But the kids were being respectful Wednesday night, with no immediate signs of trouble. Dressed in T-shirts and shorts, they took turns jumping off of the wall into the 60-degree water. They swore it wasn’t too cold but quickly hustled to climb out of the water as fast as they had cannonballed into it.
When one boy started pulling his bike over the metal railing, a girl came over to Hughes, worried that the boy would get in trouble.
“Don’t throw that in there,” Hughes told the boy.
“But it’s my bike,” the boy yelled back as he started pulling the rubber handles off the bike.
“Don’t throw it in there,” Hughes told him. “If you throw that in and somebody lands on it, I’m going to have to jump in to get you. You don’t want me jumping in to get you.”
“OK,” the boy yelled back as he wrapped a small child’s life preserver around his bike’s frame.
A minute later he rode it over the edge, dragging it with him as he climbed back up and over the wall to do it again.
Marquay Delacruz, 9, also rolled his bike up the wall Thursday, looking for fish. He hopped off his bike and headed for one of the wall’s boat ramps, fishing pole in hand. He normally likes to fish from the beach shore, just down from the wall, but his dad told him he could only go to the sea wall.
Nearby, Pat Moore, a fly fisherman from Montana, was trying his hand at catching fish too. He’d spotted his friend fishing earlier, taking in a haul of three good-sized sheefish in about two hours, and hoped to get in on the fishing with his fly rod. The moment Delacruz showed up, Moore knew the little boy was all business.
“He’s going to catch one right away,” Moore said as he flung the lure of his rod back and forth along the water.
Sure enough, Delacruz knew what he was doing. No sooner had he dropped his little lure into the water than he began tugging on his pole, pulling out a little sheefish, about a foot in length.
He dropped it on the concrete boat launch and pulled the hook out of its mouth, gently pushing it back into the water, where the fish found its bearings and headed into the sea.
“I don’t want to bring it home,” Delacruz said. “I just want it to be free.”
People sometimes say they miss the old beach. Lifelong Kotzebue resident Ruth Nelson said people used to line their fish racks along it and dry fish right off the water. Nelson’s mom used to cut up beluga whales right on the shore. People still harvest with setnets that connect to the shore but those are farther down the beach. Only a handful of people still set up a little table and process fish right on the shore, and only once in a while.
Even with the changes, Nelson, 53, enjoys the sea wall, walking back and forth and meeting with friends along it on a sunny Thursday. They had a rainy July -- usually the warmest part of the year -- she said, and though August is known for its rain, for some reason that hasn’t been happening this year.
“But I’m not complaining,” she said as she walked down the path, off to meet other friends enjoying the day.