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Port Heiden, Alaska: the town that moved

A community in Alaska's Bristol Bay adapts to a changing climate

Erosion in Port Heiden

My first view of Port Heiden, Alaska, is from a thousand feet above. It’s a grey, wet day, but that doesn’t mute the bright green and brilliant blue below. We fly in to the village over hundreds of lakes, ponds, and free-flowing rivers and streams. All of this freshwater feeds Bristol Bay, the eastern arm of the Bering Sea, and its adjacent lush landscape.

No roads lead to Port Heiden, and there’s no safe harbor to dock a boat in. The only way for an outsider like me to reach this remote community on the Alaska Peninsula is to fly. A well-worn red and white single-engine plane that would struggle to seat more than a dozen people has just shuttled us 140 miles, from King Salmon.

We land on a gravel airstrip built during World War II by the United States Army, which stopped using it by the 1970s. I’m here with colleague Dave Aplin, director of education and outreach for WWF’s Arctic Field Program, to learn how communities in Alaska are adapting to climate change—and how WWF’s work in the region can better support such efforts.

Kosbruk family

Gerda Kosbruk stands with her mother and daughter, Lillionna, in front of a home that had to be relocated due to eroding coastline.

From the airport, a dirt road takes us past a smattering of buildings and houses strewn across the landscape. Our first stop is Ray’s Place. Named after the local man who designed it, this is the cultural and community center for Port Heiden’s 100 or so residents. We sit down with Native village administrator Gerda Kosbruk, who tells us she has landed in Port Heiden more times than she can count. A few times she almost didn’t make it—she crashed twice. She mentions this in passing as she recounts the history of her community.

Kosbruk’s family has lived in the village for generations, and they’ve been active leaders for just as long. Her mother, Annie Christensen, held the administrator position before Kosbruk.

Christensen tells us that the village isn’t what—or where—it used to be. “Where I played as a child is not there,” she says. “We watched homes go into the ocean.”

Beginning in 1981, the coastal community was forced to uproot and move inland when it became clear that erosion, accelerated by retreating sea ice and strong storms, would one day take the town altogether. They made the move themselves, using heavy construction equipment—whatever they had around town—to haul entire buildings.

The faded, wood-shingled house with newspaper-lined walls where Christensen was born is one of the homes that was saved. Today the structure sits outside Ray’s Place while the family looks for a permanent place to locate it as a local museum.

“I used to hear the waves pounding on the beach from where we lived,” Christensen remembers.

The last person left the old village site in 2008. Today the homes may be a few miles from shore, but Port Heiden is still losing 60 to 80 feet of shoreline every year in some places. Alaska is warming faster than almost any other place on the planet, and that instability is making life here unpredictable.

“When does it stop?” Kosbruk asks. “You have to think about, is it gonna stop?”

It’s a question with no real answer. For now, the people of Port Heiden are left to plan for more of the inevitable change that’s become their only real constant in recent years.

Behavior Change

An aerial view of the interaction between land and water near Port Heiden.

Port Heiden lies in the shadow of Aniakchak volcano, a national monument that draws hardcore hikers from around the world. The vista, framed by tall tundra grass and fireweed, greets us each morning outside the duplex we’ve rented, which is the only way to stay longer than a stopover in a town with no hotel.

On our second morning I spot something darting across the horizon between our front door and the bay. After searching through a pair of borrowed binoculars, I discover that we’re having breakfast with a brown bear. The animal, in the midst of its summer feasting, chases after what appear to be half a dozen cranes.

In south central Alaska, brown bears are an iconic species, and guided wildlife tours promising hope of a glimpse generate big bucks; conservative estimates put the revenue at $34 million a year.

The brown bear’s morning run is an unforgettable glimpse of Bristol Bay’s natural wonder, but it may also be a sign of a warming world.

“The animals act different,” Kosbruk says. “The bears are coming over here. They’re hungry, they’re acting different, they’re more aggressive.”

The changes go beyond bears. According to residents, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, for example, Port Heiden began getting sea otters for the first time—lots of them. Around the time they arrived, the ice covering Bristol Bay began retreating. While there’s no hard scientific data to confirm it, locals report that the otters liked the warming environment, so they stayed and multiplied, eating most of the clams in the process. A recent survey claims there are now 6,000 to 8,000 otters.

“We used to have a lot of clams,” says Kosbruk, “but the sea otters took the clams.”

And the otters aren’t the only ones reshaping the local food chain. The community still hunts, fishes, and picks berries, but it’s not enough. Take salmon, for instance. While commercial salmon fishing in Bristol Bay remains strong, subsistence fishing in the rivers that feed into the bay is getting harder as warmer waters make it more difficult for the fish to survive.

“There’s years that we haven’t gotten fish, and that is very traumatic,” says Kosbruk. “I think it affects us socially, you know, because when we are doing those things, there’s a lot of family interactions and lots of storytelling and carrying on and laughing.”

Mossberry plants are abundant in Port Heiden, but the berries themselves are less plentiful due to the changing climate.

The composition of Port Heiden’s coastline is no match for strong fall storms and the resulting wave action. The gravel, sand, and layers of pumice from historic volcanic eruptions erode rapidly.

The subsistence lifestyle is changing throughout much of Alaska as traditional food sources become harder to come by, says Davin Holen, a coastal community resilience specialist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. For food sources that are still around, it’s often harder for communities to access them, he says, because climate change makes getting around more difficult. A frozen, snow-covered ground is easy to navigate with snowmobiles.

“In the wintertime, the entire landscape is open to you,” he says, but “with summer, you’re really locked into four-wheeler trails and rivers.” As Alaska warms, that winter window is getting smaller. “The loss of a snow cover, or late snow,” he says, “is really detrimental.”

In recent years the winters have been muddier, with less snow making snowmobiles virtually useless at times. The changes Holen sees in the data on subsistence economies bear out in Port Heiden.

Gerda Kosbruk’s niece Adrianne Christensen backs this up: “We lived and thrived here for thousands and thousands of years on local food, and now that our food is changing and going away we’re having to do things like drink cow milk. We didn’t need to drink cow milk before, and cow milk costs $30 a gallon here.”

And the expense of flying in food is just the start. “Now, eating store-bought processed food, we’re not as healthy as we could be,” Adrianne says. “We’re not asking for ice cream; we’re asking for vitamin D for our kids.”

Still, Holen cautions, it’s not all bad news. “I think there are changes going on in the subsistence economy, but I do not think there is actually a decline,” he says. “I think there is an adjustment.”

Coastal communities are subsisting on what’s available, he says, and adapting to the changes.

Eroding projections

The erosion taking place along Port Heiden’s shoreline is closely monitored by community members and scientists. Over the years, the data collected have been used to estimate future erosion. But it turns out those estimates were off by an order of decades. As of December 2019, parts of the shoreline had pushed past projections for 2035 and beyond, and wave action continues to further erode the coast. The most notable impact is on Goldfish Lake, which has now largely emptied into Bristol Bay.

Bristol Bay
Goldfish Lake
Old village site
New village site 3 miles ->
1957 Shoreline
1963 Shoreline
1973 Shoreline
1983 Shoreline
2002 Shoreline
6 / 11
2009 Shoreline
2011 Shoreline
2013 Measured Shoreline
2020 Projected Shoreline
2025 Projected Shoreline
2035 Projected Shoreline

MAP DATA COURTESY OF DGGS STAFF, 2015, ALASKA SHORELINE CHANGE TOOL: ALASKA DIVISION OF GEOLOGICAL & GEOPHYSICAL SURVEYS DIGITAL DATA SERIES 9, HTTP://DOI.ORG/10.14509/SHORELINE. HTTP://DOI.ORG/10.14509/29504

Growing With Climate Change

Sandhill cranes meander through Port Heiden in search of plants, insects, and small animals to eat.

As Port Heiden adapts, it is anticipating and planning for what comes next. “The community has a very clear vision for where they want to be in the future,” says Erica Lujan, of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Lujan coordinated a vulnerability assessment for Port Heiden, to identify how climate change will impact the environment and traditional ways of life. She then worked with the village to integrate adaptation strategies into existing community goals, which produced plans to address inevitabilities like changes in wildlife and a coastline that continues to erode.

Scott Anderson, Port Heiden’s environmental director, spends his day finding ways to bring those plans to life. “We’re willing to grow with climate change,” he says, “and however it affects us, we want to be able to survive and, you know, survive well.”

Anderson says he’s always searching for grants and government funds to bring opportunity to Port Heiden. “This is money to put people to work,” he says. “We’ve been cleaning up the environment and people want to help me.”

The village recycled two oil tanks, turning one into an airplane hangar and the other into a recycling center, where Anderson is trying to make heating fuel that’s cheaper and more sustainable by creating wood pellets.

“When plans are made locally, people are better able to identify and speak to the importance of the relationships with the landscapes; they can design plans that maintain those relationships,” says Lujan. “And that’s a key component of resilience.”

Shangen with chicken

Candace Shangin spends the day on Port Heiden’s startup farm, which is designed to provide jobs, increased food security, and opportunities for the area’s younger residents to learn farm skills.

The reboot of the Old Meshik Farm is one example of Port Heiden trying to adapt to a changing food system. When Dave Aplin and I pull up to take a look, the first thing we spot are the birds: turkeys, geese, ducks—and chickens. Aplin perks up at the sight of poultry, particularly chickens. He raises them back in Homer, more than 300 miles up Bristol Bay and across Cook Inlet.

“Chickens are great birds,” he says with a knowing smile as we walk toward a squawking chorus of flapping wings. The henhouse is next to a rooster coop, both made with recycled and repurposed materials. There’s a pigpen a few hundred feet away, and across the street a barn, where Coco the cow lives along with some rabbits.

It doesn’t take long for Aplin to sniff out the farmer in charge and strike up a friendly conversation about those chickens.

“I’m not exactly sure how to farm,” Gerda Kosbruk’s 20-year-old daughter Lillionna Kosbruk admits.

But that hasn’t stopped her. A few years ago Port Heiden decided to get back into the business of farming—it’s been tried once or twice before to varying degrees of success—only no one really knew how to farm. They found the pigs on craigslist.com and flew in Coco in a dog crate when she was a calf. Lillionna is learning as she goes.

“I look it up, I call people, call other farmers,” she says.

The goal is to provide affordable protein to the community—and generate jobs. If farming takes off, it could help feed not only the village but also tourists coming to hike the nearby national monument.

“We gotta get you to Homer,” Aplin tells Lillionna at least twice during our visit, angling for a chance to share what he and others have learned about farming in Alaska.

This Is Our Place

A dog keeps watch outside the village’s only store.

Adrianne Christensen sits on a parcel of land she purchased in 2019, where she plans to build a home. The parcel runs along a creek that empties into Bristol Bay.

Our week in Port Heiden ends where it began, on the airstrip. It’s a cool, wet, foggy day, the kind of day that could dampen plans to fly out. But the local airport contact—who also runs the village clinic—tells us that the plane will come, and here you learn to trust the locals.

As we load up to take off, I mull over something Adrianne Christensen said. “We’ve been managing these animals, this land, for thousands, tens of thousands of years,” she told me. “This is our place. And our culture is really tied to this land, to our food, and so that’s gonna be really hard to hold on to. And we’re doing everything we can to keep that alive.”

The people who live in Port Heiden know it best and are also best placed to protect their environment and conserve wildlife populations.

There is more change coming, and the community is planning to keep up. In fact, adaptation to climate change could create some opportunities. As a small sliver of land washes away between Bristol Bay and the freshwater Goldfish Lake, it could help diversify Port Heiden’s economy. The village might get a safe harbor, which could also benefit the local fish processing center. If all goes according to plan, Port Heiden could one day be a hub on the Alaska Peninsula.

While the community has a handle on its home and needs, it’s clear that outsiders like me have a role to play too. Sharing their stories of survival can motivate change in the cities, where decisions are made, and there are never enough people advocating for the needs of Native coastal communities. There is value in sharing experiences and resources, too.

A few weeks after I say goodbye to Port Heiden, an email from Aplin makes its way to my inbox.

“FYI,” it reads, “Lillionna just wrapped up a week with us in Homer, visiting farms and meeting our local food experts. It was terrific.”

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