Larry Evanoff was away at boarding school the day the sea rose up to carry his village away.
He always wondered if he would have run into the woods when the mountain began to shake and the surf sucked backward across the gravel. Or would he have gone with his parents into the Russian Orthodox Church to die?
Three seismic sea waves struck the Aleut fishing village of Chenega within minutes of the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, destroying the church and every other building in town except the schoolhouse on the hill. Twenty-three of Chenega's 80 residents, including 12 children, were swept to their deaths. It was the worst disaster of the Alaskan earthquake, which registered 8.5 on the Richter scale.
Like the survivors who huddled around a fire in the snowy woods all night, Evanoff was cast homeless into a Native American diaspora. He grew up to be the chairman of the Chenega Village Council, once the oldest settlement in Prince William Sound, now a government in exile that meets once a year. He dreamed of going home again.
"The idea of moving back was always there, but for years it was just an idea," Evanoff said. "We saw we were going to be losing people here pretty soon if we didn't do something."
This summer, the lost village of Chenega was reborn. Set in a splendid circumference of mountains 15 miles south of the old village site, the new village of Chenega Bay is the result of Evanoff's long fight against fading memories and reluctant government agencies.
But the trials of the Chenegans are not ended. Rebuilding the houses of the lost village was tough enough. Reconstituting the old ways of village life after a 20-year interruption will be even more difficult, Chenega Bay leaders said.
Some $5 million in state and federal funds has been spent so far to rebuild Chenega, and the cost could reach $9 million when a new airstrip is completed. The modern village is coming equipped with gravel roads, a harbor, electricity, running water and telephones -- conveniences the old village never knew.
Operating those services will cost money the Chenegans never needed in the days when they based their living on the rich sea life of the sound. Economic support for the remote new village is uncertain. Village leaders said they hope to come up with jobs in fishing, timber and tourism.
Equally uncertain is the shape that traditions of cooperation and subsistence will assume after so many years of life in bigger towns and cities.
"I'm not going to see women packing five gallons of water every day and chopping wood, that's for sure," said Gail Evanoff, Larry's wife.
"They've got to learn what to eat out in the woods, instead of steak and hamburger every day," Joe Kompkoff, 59, said of some of the younger arrivals.
Kompkoff was getting ready for a steam bath the afternoon the earthquake struck old Chenega. He looked out at the dry cove and could see the rocks on the bottom where he used to handline for halibut. His wife started to dress their two small boys.
"I told my wife never mind that, let's start walking up the hill. It's a good thing the snow was hard enough to walk on that day or none of us would have made it. We were about 100 feet from the house when the first wave took it down. I didn't look back anymore. I just listened to the rumble of the houses going out."
The first wave to strike Chenega was 35 feet high, according to a U.S. Geological Survey account. The wave broke through the village and washed 70 feet above tideline, up to the footings of the schoolhouse. Kompkoff's brother was holding two young daughters under his arms and lost one when the wave struck. Joe Kompkoff's 4-year-old daughter was visiting a neighbor and never returned.
Two more waves followed, and when the giant waves were over, a skim of wooden debris filled the cove. Survivors in a skiff rescued one woman from the roof of her floating bedroom; the first floor of her house had been demolished. The flotsam collected in one mass and drifted out that night with the tide, carrying away most of the bodies.
"There were no graves, no place people could go to pay their respects," said Gail Evanoff. "On Memorial Day in Cordova, a fishing town 90 miles away, they would go down to the docks and throw wreaths in the water."
A government attempt to resettle the Chenegans in Tatitlek, another Aleut village in Prince Williams Sound, did not stick. Within two years, Chenegans were scattering to bigger towns.
A few village leaders kept alive the possibility of a return to the old site -- until 1976, when a memorial visit to the island became so tearful that a return was deemed impossible.
"It would be too much memory for everybody," Joe Kompkoff said.
Chenegas today say the village would have died out except for Larry Evanoff and the persistence of his wife, Gail, who was not even a native of Chenega.
Gail Evanoff is an Eskimo from the gold-rush town of Candle, north of Nome. Shortly after the couple met at a boarding school for young natives, Candle burned to the ground. The town site was later churned up by gold dredges.
"Going back really tugs at your innermost feelings," she said. "When I go up to Nome to visit my mother, I always feel myself going toward Candle, and there's nothing there."
Larry's job was to supervise the design and engineering of the new village, but first Gail had to pry the money for the project from a variety of state and federal sources, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
She contended that Anchorage and other towns had received federal money to rebuild immediately after the quake, while Chenega had been shunted aside.
"These people were hauled away with other people's clothes on their backs," she said. "They had just nothing. They wanted to return home. That was the beginning and the end of the argument."
Construction of new roads on Evans Island finally began, and on Aug. 25, one week after the Evanoffs moved into one of 21 new homes, Larry Evanoff presided over a dedication ceremony for Chenega Bay. This Christmas, he said, villagers will be able to go starring -- the Russian Orthodox tradition of Christmas caroling.
Alaskan native leaders say the return of the Chenegans is a sign of growing attention to village origins.
For Alaska natives, the sense of belonging still revolves around village traditions, said Anchorage anthropologist Rosita Worl, a Tlinget Indian. "The whole consciousness of being a collective native dates from the late '60s or early '70s. Now you have the first generation of native kids growing up in the urban center, but there isn't an invented tradition for them yet."
"I went out and got a seal first thing when I got here," said Michael Vigil, 31, who lived in Denver and Seattle after the earthquake. The grandfather who raised him, killed in the quake, was one of the great hunters in old Chenega, he said.
This summer Vigil shot two small deer on the island and distributed the meat among villagers. At another point, he responded to a request from his neighbors and returned from a trip to Anchorage with a bag full of Big Macs.
But there are difficult moments -- like the afternoon when Vigil and Gail Evanoff were building a fire in the community steam bath. Evanoff prepared to take the first bath, and Vigil stopped her.
"I've been taking steam baths for 31 years, and always it's been the man who goes first," he told her. Evanoff protested that women went first where she grew up. She proposed that men and women take turns going first in Chenega Bay. Vigil cut her off.
"Hey, it's tradition," he shrugged and went ahead into the bath house.
"That's not tradition, that's his personal problem," she fumed later.
Gail Evanoff, who is now president of the village council, said Chenega Bay will have to be flexible in its new environment.
"We're dealing with second-generation Chenegans," she said. "The Aleuts have a beautiful culture, but why not make our own?"
Chenega Bay is planning to build a Russian Orthodox church from local rough-cut lumber. And Larry Evanoff hopes the project will pull Chenega Bay together. In contrast to every other undertaking in the new village, money and labor for the church will come from the villagers themselves.
"I think making the whole community work is going to be a group project this first winter," he said.
"We never had to lock doors in the old village. If a neighbor wasn't home, you could go in and borrow something if you needed it. You were more than welcome. But it's all padlocks now. I guess you can't expect to go back to the same thing after all these years. I had hoped it would be the same."