Odious’ wild rumour-mongering is, for a change, true: I have returned. And a delight it is, I must say, to be back where a spot in the sun actually deigns to warm the skin; where raindrops intrude into the air and not the reverse; where the North Star isn’t glaring balefully at me from an imperious height. But I oughtn’t to convey the impression that Alaska wasn’t wonderful. It was, and I have many stories worth telling.
Take, for instance, my whereabouts in the second week of December. I spent that week in Karluk, a very small and isolated Native Aleutiiq village on the west side of Kodiak Island. I and three others flew out to do some much needed repair on Karluk’s Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension.
The half-hour flight from Kodiak to Karluk was a great treat all by itself, the maps I had been salivating over coming to life below me: dozens of spider-fingered fjords piercing far inland into unfriendly-looking knots of snow covered peaks. The abundant spruce forests which carpet Kodiak’s north-eastern end thinned out and disappeared as we travelled west. We descended below the heights and flew down the Karluk River, over a forlorn cluster of buildings beside a tidal estuary, over a bluff crowned by a white church with blue onion domes and one surviving gold cross. We wheeled out over the ocean and swung back to land on a snowy dirt strip encircled by the starkest landscape I have ever seen. Only leafless alder bushes protruded above the snow, and nothing else darkened the mountains' whiteness until they fell in sheer cliffs into a slate-grey sea.
In former times, Karluk was one of the largest and most prosperous villages in the Aleutian chain, thanks largely to the rare blessing that all five salmon species spawn in the river. There were once several hundred inhabitants, a cannery, and a good harbour. But decades of slow decline culminated in a disastrous storm in the late ‘70s, which drowned most of the houses, drastically changed the river mouth, and eliminated the good harbourage. Supply ships became rare arrivals, and the place has such a history of accidents that few captains are interested in attempting to come to the town. “There’s good luck, there’s bad luck, and then there’s Kar-luck,” runs a local saying. The village was relocated two miles up the estuary, where it sits today, two rows of characterless government project housing and satellite dishes.
Our host in the village told us that Karluk’s fortunes worsened even further with the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, but in a way quite opposite from what most people would expect. With all sorts of agencies swarming to monitor the spill, any Native with a skiff suddenly found himself able to earn $5000 to $8000 per week. Nothing in their lives had prepared the people to manage such largesse: vast sums were squandered on alcohol and drugs; many who suddenly had the means to move away did so; divorce became an epidemic. If any money was invested in the village and everyday life, no one can tell. In 2000, the Juneau Empire pessimistically reported:
Karluk's very survival is in question. There are few jobs, and in the quarter century since ANCSA passed, the village has lost half its population. It's down to about 45 people now, and the school is in danger of closing because too few students are left. Only seven students attended last fall.When I was there, we were told that the town’s population is 23, and half of those were away. The school is indeed closed.
"When you take the school away, you do basically tell the village it's a dead village," teacher Jerry Sheehan said.
The village’s decline has been reflected in, and connected to, the recent history of its church. In the old days, our host related, services were so well attended that the parishioners' hand-held tapers would start melting from the heat of their bodies. Every Nativity (Christmas) season, they happily practiced starring, an Alaskan Orthodox tradition in which a decorated, rotating wooden star is carried from house to house to accompany the singing of hymns (a practice which I saw in action in Kodiak). But when the town was relocated after the storm, the church was no longer adjacent, but two miles removed. There has not been a resident priest in decades. There was a very dedicated reader who continued simple services for years, but she moved away in the ‘80s. For a time the more devout people came to church on Sundays to venerate the icons, but even this small devotion fell by the way. The most recent service had been held in March (by Fr. Yakov, a Yupik hieromonk whose company I several times enjoyed, history's first Alaskan Native monk). When we arrived, the church had been leaking badly for several years, and it’s contents were in disarray. These two worldly afflictions were what we had come to repair.
(Since the church’s historic importance is great, many federal dollars could easily be had for its restoration. But such a pact would require that actual worship be discontinued, and the church be preserved as nothing more than a museum piece. The building’s guardians have wisely and bravely resisted this temptation.)
Working on the church proved far more pleasant than I ever expected outdoor labour in an Aleutian December would be. Weather forecasts, from both the radio and the Natives, were all stoic pessimism, but chilly winds and dry snow flurries were the worst that ever materialized. The clouds often cleared enough to see out across the Shelikof Strait to the big sunlit volcanoes on the Alaska Peninsula. From the rooftop we could watch the tide submerge the river mouth and flood the estuary, rising up above the window sills of a house which the big storm had deposited in the middle of the lagoon. When the tide was out, the collision of the river’s current with the ocean waves formed a beautiful standing breaker framed by black shingle beach and snow-laced cliffs.
Daylight, like everything else in Karluk, was in short supply, so we set up shop-lights in the bell-tower and worked late into the evenings. Since I have never been blessed with any healthy, sensible acrophobia, I had the privilege of perching out on the hard-to-reach spots; and quite a feeling it was to balance on a steep-sided tower as the mountains faded wraith-like into deepening darkness; the sea roaring three hundred feet below; all the world vanished except our little sphere of light, and the cross on the other tower gleaming gold in the night.
Cleaning and straightening the church was an ordeal, as years of neglect and moisture had bred a hideous frozen slime in the closet and attic. But we did unearth a few treasures. We found a hand-stitched American flag with forty-eight stars neatly placed six-by-eight, and a forty-ninth added off-centre and overlapping the others, a fitting commemoration of an addition as eccentric as Alaska. We found several square frames assembled from hundreds of large, hand-carved toothpicks (if you will), and put together in an intricate three-dimensional pattern, laced with holes, and all prickly points to the touch. I was told that they symbolize, quite aptly, the Crown of Thorns, and are placed on icons during Lent.
Most fascinating were the contents of the reader’s stand. There were many beautiful, ornately printed 19th Century service books in Slavonic. There was a stack of around two dozen notebooks, all filled with hand-copied transcriptions of services in someone’s personal transliteration of Slavonic, with a few services in Aleutiiq as well, an immense labour of devotion from some past reader’s hand. And the old parish register contained an understated reminder of Karluk’s persistent misfortune: a glance at the record of deaths saw the word drowned repeated over and over, “drowned… drowned… drowned…” beside almost half the names commemorated.
The Church of the Ascension contains one other marvel, which speaks volumes about the situation of both the church and Karluk. The front door has a large split in it, and across the carpet on the right side of the nave (Orthodox churches have no pews) is a line of enormous grizzly tracks, leading up to the reader’s stand. Three years ago, a bear had let himself in the front door and left again without causing any other damage. Our host considered the incident a vital warning. He said that the new, relocated Karluk had been placed in what had always been the bears’ territory, and that the bears were now beginning to take the church and old Karluk for their own. He intended to preserve the tracks as long as he lived as a reminder of what the village is losing by its neglect of its heritage and its Orthodoxy.
Karluk in 1938.