For as long as anyone remembers, Napakiak has been retreating from the Kuskokwim. The village of about 400 people sits on a bend in the river, and every year that bend grows deeper. In recent years, the erosion has accelerated. As the land has fallen away, Napakiak has picked up its homes and buildings and moved them further from the water.
Napakiak City Council Member Walter Nelson and Napakiak Mayor Joann Slats stand in the brisk September wind, their feet on the edge of a cut bank carved out by the Kuskokwim River.
“We’re going to take normal footsteps to the closest building from the shoreline here,” Nelson explained.
“Okay, here we go,” Slats said. Walking forward across a narrow strip of mud tangled in broken willow roots, they begin counting their steps. It doesn’t last long. “Twenty-three feet from the erosion is the next building,” Slats said, putting her hand against the faded gray paint of the old armory.
In May, less than four months prior, the community’s multi-purpose building stood in the small patch of land they'd just crossed. A spring storm nearly wiped it away when about 30 feet of land was lost to the river overnight.
“It was during the day of Memorial Day,” Nelson remembered. “At the end of May, and that’s when we got word to go down and check the erosion. Sure enough.”
“Overnight,” Slats added.
“It ate up so much,” Nelson finished.
The city, tribe, and Native Village Corporation moved the building the next day. It didn’t take long; they all knew the drill.
City of Napakiak Heavy Equipment Operator Harold Ilmar is helping rebuild Napakiak’s unpaved roads. Wearing a reflective vest and a hard hat, Ilmar explains that it takes a crew of six to move a building. “It’s easy,” he said. Just jack up the home, slide a steel trailer underneath, and drive on. When asked how many buildings he’s moved, Ilmar responded, “I don’t know. Over a dozen. And still got more to move.” With that he returned to a hulking yellow bulldozer.
The rebuilt roads will provide a stable surface for relocating more buildings this winter when the ground freezes. Napakiak has been picking up and moving buildings for decades. That is, when they’ve had the equipment and crew to do it. Otherwise, the structures were lost to the Kuskokwim River.
Clarence Rickteroff was 10 years old in the 1990’s when his and his mother’s house was nearly swept away.
“And I can hear her: ‘II-ali. Wake up! Wake up!’” Rickteroff said, imitating his mother. “And as soon as I woke up, I was like, ‘What? What?' And she was like, ‘Look! Look! It’s flooding! It’s flooding!’”
The river was at their porch. His neighbor rafted over to check on them, and both his and his neighbor’s houses had to be moved to the other side of the village.
In the Napakiak City Office building, Nelson and Slats unroll a stack of maps to show what’s been happening. The edges of the maps are frayed and torn.
“Our poor maps,” said Nelson, giving the maps a fond and pitiful look. “They’ve been opened so many times with different entities.”
“They’re just worn out,” Slats said.
On one map, a series of long, hand-drawn lines stretch across the paper. Each mark where year after year, more land has been washed away. The last line is dated May 2018. Nelson picks up a blue pen and adds another line, further inland, for September.
“This was the boat landing area for the whole community, but it’s all gone now,” he said, striking a blue line across the page.
As of December, 82 feet of riverbank has been lost since the May storm. In the last decade, about 500 feet has disappeared. To prepare for October’s notorious storms, the community laid sandbags and tarps over the crumbling bank. But even community leaders didn’t expect them to hold.
This story is occurring across Western Alaska. Rising temperatures are weakening the land’s natural reinforcements, like permafrost and shore ice, and strengthening the eroding forces, like rising water and storms.
Currently, the river has frozen in place, giving the community time to plan. And one of the biggest questions to answer is what to do with the critical, immovable building that now sits 196 feet from the ice: the Napakiak school.
This story is part one of a four-part series on erosion in Napakiak.