Akhiok, Kodiak Island

Akhiok, Kodiak Island

by | Nov 5, 2021

Akhiok is the southernmost Sugpiaq Alutiiq village on Kodiak Island, situated on Akhiok Bay which is on the western shore of Alitak Bay, about 167 miles (269 km) east-northeast of Chignik and 87 miles (140 km) southwest of Kodiak, Alaska. This location was settled in the late 19th century, and the population increased significantly in the early 20th century when residents moved here from Kasukuak, a village about 9 miles (15 km) southeast across Alitak Bay at Humpy Cove. Kasukuak was a sea otter hunting settlement established by Russian fur traders in the 18th century. The abandonment of several neighboring villages after the 1837 smallpox epidemic helped to sustain the population of Kasukuak. The virus arrived from New Archangel (Sitka) on ships of the Russian-American Company. Efforts were made to innoculate the Alutiiq population on Kodiak Island but many villagers refused the vaccine because of suspicions about the Russian’s motives. Over 738 people died, and the Russian-American Company became concerned about losing their sea otter hunters. Starting in 1840, survivors of the epidemic from 65 small villages were concentrated in larger communities. People from Kaguyak, Sitkinak, Ubachvik, Tugidak, and Kashkak were sent to Aiaktalik. People from Aiakolik and Paiskoe were sent to Kasukuak. The village of Aiaktalik became one of the largest Alutiiq communities on Kodiak Island and had an Alaska Commercial Company store where furs were traded for food and supplies. There was also a Russian Orthodox chapel named the Apostle Andrew the First-Called. After the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the sea otter fur industry waned and fishing gained economic importance. In 1878, the village of Akhiok was founded with the construction of the Holy Trinity Church by people coming from Tigalda, and Chulka village on Akun Island. The Holy Trinity Church burned and was replaced in 1912-1918 by the Protection of the Theotokos Chapel. Much of the lumber in the present church was salvaged from the former 1878 building. With the collapse of the fur trade and a devastating flu epidemic in 1918, many families from Aiaktalik and Kasukuak moved to Akhiok to be closer to the new Alitak Packing Company salmon cannery at Lazy Bay that provided employment. During World War II, the U.S. Postal Service briefly renamed the community Alitak, to avoid confusing it with Akiak, a Yup’ik village in Western Alaska. The residents of Akhiok include the descendants of several families from Kaguyak, a village destroyed by the tsunamis that followed the 1964 Alaska Earthquake. Today, Akhiok is home to the federally recognized Alaska Native Village corporation of Akhiok-Kaguyak.

The Protection of the Theotokos Chapel is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as an important structure related to the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska from the Russian America period to the present. Church buildings of the Russian Orthodox order vary widely in size, opulence, and decorative detailing, however, they all include basic elements of identification that provide easy recognition. These elements include the three-bar cross and, in many cases, the onion or bulb-shaped cupola or steeple dome. The cross, one of which always occupies the highest point of every church or chapel, is the most distinguishing device. The small bar at the top represents the “title” of Jesus, the inscription which was placed on His cross. The bottom bar represents the footrest. The end of the bar points upward, signifying that Christ directs the way to heaven from the cross. It is the right end of the bar which points heavenward, commemorating the thief who confessed Christ on the cross, and so was saved. In Russian America, virtually all of the church structures were of modest scale, designed and constructed with a scarce supply of design talent, skilled manpower, and materials. At a relatively early stage of development, the process of designing churches and chapels in Russian America was dominated by the vision of Father Ivan Veniaminov. The interior design of the churches and chapels are adaptations that have evolved over eight centuries, and regardless of size, the builders attempted to maintain the symbolic meanings of Russian Orthodox architecture. For example, the oblong interior shape of the church is intended to resemble a ship. This signifies that the Church is a vessel of salvation, and the believers are the ship’s passengers who, after stormy and rough journeys are saved by Christ through the Holy Church. Whenever possible, the sanctuary of each church was built to face east, on the theory that the true faith came from that direction and because the rising sun signifies the coming of Christ. At the west end of the nave is a rectangular two-tier bell tower covered by a truncated pyramidal roof that rises to just below the ridgeline of the altar section. The tower is surmounted by a cupola covered by a pyramidal roof from which rises the high cross. While the first church at Akhiok had a bank of 12 bells, the current chapel has a single bell hung on a simple horizontal rack from the northwest corner of the building. Since trees do not grow on southern Kodiak Island, the construction of the chapel at Akhiok must have been a formidable undertaking. Virtually all of the pioneering missionaries and priests kept journals and many of these are now being identified and translated, providing a view of Russian-America from the perspective of these men devoted to the Russian Orthodox Church of the 18th and 19th centuries. These stories relate much about the way this country developed before and since its acquisition by the United States, and particularly how the Russian Orthodox Church became such a forceful influence on the culture of over a third of Alaska.

Akhiok faces many natural hazards including coastal flooding, coastal erosion, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanism, landslides, and sea-level rise. Coastal flooding and erosion are mainly attributed to storm surges which are increasing in frequency and magnitude as the local climate changes in response to global warming. Akhiok experiences coastal erosion caused by seasonal storms and wave activity, but high tides and vehicle and boat traffic are also contributing factors. Severe storms, which can achieve sustained winds of 50 to 85 mph (80-136 kph), are common from December through February in the Gulf of Alaska, and east-facing shorelines on Kodiak Island are particularly vulnerable to erosion. Erosion along approximately 350 to 500 feet (107-152 m) of beach next to the community has been a problem since the 1960s. Erosion reached serious proportions in 1983 when floodwater covered the road and eroded house foundations. It was reported that waves, tidal actions, storm activity, and runoff periodically wash out the gravel behind protection structures made of barrels and logs. A November 2007 storm combined with high tides destroyed 100 feet (30 m) of the 350 feet (107 m) long log retaining wall. Three roads used by residents to access the beach on the west side of the lagoon were damaged during that event. Vehicle use on the road along the lagoon is contributing to erosion by causing the edge of the road to slide. In the northwest corner of the lagoon, erosion is less than 8 feet from the road that connects the airport and community. Continued erosion in the area where the retaining wall was damaged may also threaten the boat ramp and sewer outfall pipe. The only erosion protection measure used was the wood retaining wall in front of the road and fuel tanks in 1983, which was mostly destroyed in the November 2007 storm. Akhiok also faces dangerous sanitation issues because of decreasing freshwater supplies due to lack of rain and reduced snowpack. Residents are now traveling greater distances to find drinking water. During a recent summer, a reservoir that typically stores more than four weeks of water supply was reduced to less than half a day’s supply due to lack of rain. Health officials warned residents to not use the reservoir water because of contamination. However, with no alternative drinking water supply, residents had no choice but to continue drinking the unsafe water. Read more here and here. Explore more of Akhiok here:

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