Akiak erosion measured in skulls

Posted: Sunday, November 27, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Where an old graveyard once stood, coffins now jut from Akiak's eroded riverbank along the Kuskokwim River in southwest Alaska.

An occasional human skull rests on Akiak's shore. Swallowed by the river long ago are other village landmarks: A regional hospital and staff housing dating to the 1900s. A field where children liked to play ball.

Like nearly all of Alaska's 213 villages perched along the coast or riverbanks, Akiak literally is losing ground. The Kuskokwim routinely claims from five to 20 feet of riverbank a year, leaving Akiak elders like Andrew Jasper to recall the village that once was.

Jasper is a city councilman and lifelong Akiak resident. He likes to walk newcomers along the mossy tundra to the banks of the Kuskokwim, where a 90-year-old Moravian church once stood. It was hauled far from the river to the center of town years ago.

"We've been concerned for ages," Jasper said.

Damage to the old graveyard, once located between the river and church, has rekindled interest in stemming erosion in the Yupik Eskimo village 25 miles northeast of Bethel.

Sheila Williams, Akiak's tribal administrator, said villagers have long wanted to dignify cemetery remains by excavating the site and digging a mass grave in Akiak's new cemetery, more than 500 feet from the Kuskokwim.

"But nobody can tell me who (is buried there) or when that graveyard was developed," Williams said.

Akiak once served as a hub for outlying villages, and Williams said local elders think the gravesites belong to victims of a regional tuberculosis outbreak in the early 1900s.

"There are people from all over," Williams said of the old graves.

Jetties installed more than 20 years ago have long since failed and federal engineers once estimated that full-scale erosion control in Akiak, population 350, would cost more than $1 million.

But villagers don't need government studies to document erosion's toll: Their gauge is an orange Dodge pickup that broke down sometime in 1965 and today dangles over the 8-foot tall bank.

"I'm told there used to be 200 feet of bank between that truck and river," said Andrew Oxford, a Bethel-based soil and water conservation scientist with the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Storms and swift water during spring breakup cause most of the erosion, Oxford said.

Scattered fish racks and smokehouses are within 25 to 50 feet of the river; the nearest homes sit within 100 feet of the water and aren't considered in imminent danger.

"If (the riverbank) keeps eroding at its current rate, they'll have to look at installing a more permanent erosion control structure or move buildings and houses further back," Oxford said.

The conservation service surveyed Akiak's graveyard in October as the village sought government help to stall erosion and relocate the old graves, perhaps as soon as spring.

A Government Accounting Office report in 2003 found that 184 of Alaska's 213 villages on rivers and coastlines endure erosion and flooding. Best known is the Seward Peninsula village of Shismaref, on a barrier reef less than a quarter-mile wide facing the Bering Strait. Villagers say storm erosion, which once claimed 125 feet at once, is an ongoing emergency. The cost to relocate Shismaref is estimated at $180 million.

In Kalskag, 25 miles west of Akiak, villagers obtained $40,000 from a National Park Service grant and $10,000 from the Middle Yukon-Kuskokwim Soil and Water Conservation District to stop erosion three years ago by planting willows and alders along the riverbank and installing rock "barbs" - photocopier-size quarry rocks sunk along the shoreline to deflect the current.

Jasper said Akiak erosion seems to have worsened in the past few years as more gravel-laden barges headed for Bethel travel the Kuskokwim. Used for roadways, gravel is sometimes unloaded in the river if barges become stranded in sandbars, Jasper said. His idea is to simply dump gravel in the river above Akiak to redirect the channel.

"I've been joking around, but it would work," he said.

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