AKHIOK, ALASKA -- For Rena Cohen and Judy Simeonoff, some of the most difficult days of sobriety came last July. Village fishermen returned from the opening of a summer salmon catch, and a few began to drink beer, not discreetly in their homes but on the gravel road in front of Cohen's house.

"They really tested us," Cohen said. "Drinking in public . . . We could see them, and they were thinking we'd probably join. But me and Judy, we kept ourselves back. If we were weak-willed, we'd be among them right now."

Cohen and Simeonoff are among survivors of a three-year sobriety movement tested severely by upheavals here after last year's Exxon Valdez oil spill. The movement has achieved remarkable success in helping to curb an epidemic of severe alcohol abuse that for decades ravaged the Aleuts of Akhiok, a remote Kodiak Island village of 93 people. Health officials have long been concerned about the high rate of alcohol abuse in Alaska. The state ranks fourth among the 50 states in per capita alcohol consumption, said Loren Jones, director of Alaska's Divison of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

Precise estimates of the extent of alcohol abuse are hard to come by, Jones said. But health officials are alarmed by "surrogate measures," such as the state's unusually high rate of suicide, because "very few suicides in Alaska take place where alcohol or drugs aren't involved." In addition, the incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome among Alaskan native tribes is about triple the national average, he said.

Akhiok's turnaround began in 1987 when a few villagers stopped drinking. By August 1988, more than 32 of the 37 adults had done so, according to island alcohol counselors. They viewed Akhiok as one of the success stories among the many Alaska native communities hit hard by alcohol-related child abuse, suicides and other violent acts.

Today, most of Akhiok's adults do not drink, according to Lydia Abbott, an alcohol counselor with the Kodiak Area Native Association. Overall, relapses have been far below what would be expected among recovering alcoholics, she said.

For many, however, maintaining sobriety has proved difficult. "Once I got high, it was like there was no two years of sobriety," said Nick Peterson, the town's former mayor who, with his wife, Annie, helped to launch the dry movement. "I just started right up." Peterson had been a kind of village spokesman, chronicling Akhiok's success to groups of Alaska natives in regional conferences elsewhere in the state. But he and other villagers also found that the battle of the bottle was complicated by the unexpected struggle involving oil spilled in March 1989 by the Exxon Valdez.

Although Akhiok is more than 400 miles from the spill site near Valdez, currents carried weathered slicks of North Slope crude oil to the village's coastal waters. The village sits near the southern tip of Kodiak, where the ragged edge of interior mountains meets a boggy coastal plain.

"Some days, you could just see the film floating in with the tides," Simeonoff said. Other times, chunks of oily tar washed onto the beach, prompting parents to keep their children from swimming in a shallow lagoon.

Exxon Company USA funded a village cleanup effort that involved nearly every able-bodied adult. Peterson was appointed village foreman and worked 12-hour days to supervise daily patrols that shoveled oily debris and dead birds from miles of isolated beaches.

In a village shed, women went to work tying "pompoms," floating oil absorbers made from red, white and blue streamers of synthetic fibers. They were joined by Ephraim Agnot, a village elder then in his second year of sobriety after nearly a half-century of drinking. "I had to have alcohol in my gut all the time," Agnot had said of his life before he stopped drinking.

Island alcohol counselors said few villagers drank during the busy summer months, and some villagers said they welcomed the cleanup work and the chance to earn extra cash. "It brought employment to the village," said Martha Rozelle, who earned $16.69 an hour after a lifetime of labor for much lower wages at a nearby salmon cannery.

But the spill also caused major chaos that set the hard-working villagers on edge. Commercial salmon-fishing grounds were closed and, while subsistence fishing was allowed, few villagers found time to throw out a net. Fat red salmonberries ripened amid the deep green foliage of the hills behind the village, yet almost no one bothered to pick them. Children sometimes were neglected as their parents worked away the summer, and neighbors who had joined cleanup crews began to bicker with each other about how the work was progressing. "It was a real negative environment during that whole period of time," Abbott said. "Tempers flared, and it was pretty hard not to become part of all that."

In the fall, Exxon closed down the cleanup and sent out the last salary check. Then the drinking began, sometimes for weeks without end. Agnot flew to Kodiak (population 6,774) and used his Exxon dollars to finance a fierce bender that ended only when he was taken to the hospital.

In Akhiok, people were drinking much more openly. One of the biggest shocks to the sobriety movement was the loss of Nick Peterson, who began drinking last summer as the cleanup ended. "What really got me was the stress and strains. . . I can't blame it all on Exxon but, without a doubt, that had something to do with it," he said.

Peterson's marriage of more than 20 years, strained even before the spill, also was falling apart, and Annie Peterson said she feared that she might eventually join her husband in drinking. In September, she gathered her belongings, her three children and a grandson living at home. She chartered a plane and moved into a housing complex in Kodiak. Grieving over her failing marriage, Peterson lost nearly 50 pounds. "I prayed a lot and went to AA {Alcoholics Anonymous} meetings every chance I could get," she said. "Then one night, I came in and just wanted a cold beer. I called up Lydia {Abbott, the alcohol counselor} and told her a cold beer would really taste good right now. And she said, 'Keep talking, keep talking.' "

Abbott said Annie Peterson has remained sober despite the new demands of a more urban life style in Kodiak. But Agnot, after a winter spent drying out in Anchorage, went on another binge. Day after day, he sat on a bench at a Kodiak plaza, sipping vodka from plastic quart bottles that he shared with a small group of other drinkers. This month, he again quit drinking and plans to return to Akhiok.

Nick Peterson avoids AA meetings but said he is determined to reclaim sobriety. "Alcohol was a way of life," he said. "We grew up with it, and nobody thought we could change it. Now, we know there is another way."