Three generations of women stand in front of an empty building in the village of Port Heiden.
The old, faded home is small and stands on a skiff surrounded by heavy equipment. It is one of the last relics of an Alaskan village that has all but disappeared into the ocean.
Life-long residents Annie Christensen, her daughter Gerda Kosbruk and her granddaughter Lillionna Kosbruk are strong and defiant. Although the building is vacant, it has also been saved, and these three are determined that the story of their home, both old and new, will not be forgotten.
There are no roads that lead to Port Heiden, and there’s no safe harbor to dock a boat. The only way for outsiders to reach this remote community on the Alaska Peninsula is to fly.
Alaska, like the rest of the Arctic, is warming faster than most any other place on the planet. That instability is making life even more unpredictable here. Port Heiden, as it is known today, didn’t exist until its residents decided they had to leave the old Meshick Village and move inland because coastal erosion was taking the land from beneath their homes.
There is almost no trace left of Meshick.
We watched homes go into the ocean. Where I played as a child is not there.
Eroding cliffs along the shoreline of Bristol Bay near the former village of Meshik. Because of coastal erosion, the village was completely relocated several kilometres inland.
Things have been changing for a while in this part of the world. The sea ice doesn’t come as early or stay as long and storms are stronger, eating away at the coastline until the community decided it was time to uproot and move inland beginning in the late eighties. They made the move themselves and used “loaders” and other equipment to haul entire buildings.
I used to hear the waves pounding on the beach from where we lived.
Houses were not the only things to move. The community also had to relocate their ancestors. “We sat down there, and we watched the tide,” says Gerda. “One day we said, ‘Let’s move them.’ We all volunteered. We went down and we dug up our ancestors and moved them.”
The last person left the old village site in 2008. There is almost no trace left of Meshick and the only road to the site is now crumbling into the ocean.
A temporary solution?
The new village moved about 5 km away from shore, but Port Heiden is still losing 18 metres of shoreline every year as the effects of climate change become more extreme.
Gerda has replaced her mother, Annie, as the town’s administrator. She survived two plane crashes and cancer, but she only gets emotional when she talks about the loss of her childhood home and what might happen to her community.
Do we have to keep moving? When we started, we were so many miles away from the ocean. Leaving the ocean was different for us. We lived by the bay and so we had to move way up, but now it’s coming in again… when does it stop? You have to think about, is it gonna stop?
People in Alaska have always lived with change. The changing seasons and changing migration patterns for traditional food sources like caribou, shellfish, berries and salmon. Although there could be good years and bad years for some things, there was always enough food available to support the community until now. The amount of change taking place in the Bristol Bay area, and across the Arctic, is happening so fast and becoming so unpredictable that traditional foods can no longer be relied upon.
When I was little after school, with my gram, we’d go berry picking. We’d get big buckets. We don’t go berry picking like that anymore.-Lillionna
The community still hunts, fishes, and picks berries. But it’s not enough. Flying in food is expensive. So, the new generation in Port Heiden is doing something they’ve never done before – they’ve started a farm.
©Chris Linder / WWF-US
©Chris Linder / WWF-US
©Chris Linder / WWF-US
"This is our place."
Like so many other things, the subsistence lifestyle throughout much of Alaska is changing. Port Heiden is an example of a community adapting to climate change as best they can.
“A lot of people don’t understand that climate change in Alaska is bigger. It’s different, it’s real people having to move,” explained Adrianne. “You can’t build a wall against this tide because the ocean will just take it. It’s not like we can just move to the next town over either… there’s not enough infrastructure in place for that and we don’t want to move away. This is our place. And our culture is really tied to this land and to our food and so that’s going to be really hard to hold onto, and we’re doing everything that we can to keep that alive.”
Gerda and her family want people outside Alaska to understand that climate change is real and it’s happening right now. “We’ve been on this land forever and they don’t take into account what we know. You know, like when they say there’s no climate change and we’re sitting there thinking, come look at, come look at what it’s doing… it’ll affect everybody in the long run.”