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UAF Science Writer 

Innoko is a long river short on people

Its recent peak was around the Gold Rush days of the early 1900s


April 17, 2019

A.G. Maddren/USGS public domain image

Horse-towed freight scows arrive at Ophir, on the upper Innoko River, from Dishkaket on July 24, 1910.

A quick comparison of two great rivers in America: One, the Wabash,

runs 503 miles through Indiana, flowing past four million people on its

journey to the Ohio River. The other, the Innoko, slugs its way 500

miles through low hills and muskeg bogs in west-central Alaska to

reach the Yukon. About 80 people live on the Innoko, all of them in

the village of Shageluk.

The fifth-largest river in Alaska, after the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Tanana

and Porcupine, the Innoko is now at a historic low in human

population. Its recent peak was around the Gold Rush days of the early

1900s, when miners established the town of Ophir on the extreme upper

river, after a strike on nearby Ganes Creek.

About 120 people lived in Ophir in 1910. At the same time, 2,500 were

sleeping in tents in the town of Iditarod on the river of the same

name, the largest tributary of the Innoko. The Gold Rush also crowded

the towns of Dishkaket and Dementi, both on the Innoko.

Those towns came and went, and no one lives in any of them today. More

enduring was the Native village of Holikachuk, about 100 miles up from

where the Innoko meets the Yukon.

The late anthropologist James VanStone of the Field Museum of Natural

History in Chicago visited Holikachuk in 1972. From evidence including

stone tools found on the flat near where a large slough enters the

Innoko, he figured people had lived at Holikachuk since prehistoric


More than 120 people lived at Holikachuk in 1960, but they too are now

gone. The village site flooded often during spring, when the Innoko

swells over its low banks. In 1963, the residents voted to move 15

miles west, to the Yukon River village of Grayling.

The few dozen Holikachuk families chose the Yukon because it had great

runs of king salmon that do not swim up the Innoko, and freight barges

visited Grayling many more times each summer than Holikachuk, if they

made it there at all.

When the villagers moved away from Holikachuk, Shageluk became the

only settlement on the entire squiggly spread of the Innoko, which

features one of the most gradual drops of any Alaska waterway, losing

just one foot of elevation every river mile.

As with Holikachuk, Shageluk has been occupied for perhaps as long as

people have existed in Alaska. After contact with Russian explorers

and American miners, the people in both villages endured both an

epidemic of smallpox in 1838-1839 and the worldwide influenza epidemic

of 1918 that wiped out entire villages on the Seward Peninsula.

Villagers in Shageluk also moved their town site, due to both spring

flooding and a blowing snow problem in winter. In 1966, workers with

the Bureau of Indian Affairs built a school on high ground about three

miles downriver from Old Shageluk.

During his fieldwork on the river in 1972, James VanStone figured the

Innoko had supported as many as 12 year-round Native settlements in

the last few hundred years. One of the largest ancient village sites,

in which about 100 people lived when Russian explorer Lavrenty

Zagoskin visited in the mid-1800s, was right across the river from


In 2019, the Alaska river that drains an area larger than Vermont is

home to fewer people than Vermont's smallest town. The Innoko's booms

busted, and when geologists studied the oil and gas potential of the

Innoko National Wildlife Refuge in the 1990s, they concluded it had

Ned Rozell photo

Shageluk, the only village remaining on the Innoko River.


Despite its lack of people, the Innoko will soon be a noisy place. The

boreal-forest lowlands are pocked with 26,000 lakes, the destination

of more than 100 species of birds now winging their way north.

(Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical

Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF

research community. Ned Rozell is a science

writer for the Geophysical Institute.)


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