Catalysts & Preludes

My time in Nightmute has passed, though the project is now well underway. The children in that fine community of almost 300 should have a new school before long.

In the meantime, I’ve been busy with my next adventure: a year in an even smaller village at the southern end of Bristol Bay. After a month here, it’s a pleasure to report that this is a place of astounding people, stunning sights, and engaging challenges.

Lake & Peninsula

Flying over Alaska’s Lake & Peninsula Borough is breathtaking. Old volcanoes mix with mountains (potentially new volcanoes!) amid dense forests, oblong lakes, and rolling rivers. Roughly halfway down the Alaska Peninsula, there’s a massive crater mountain called the Aniakchak Caldera. This active volcano of 4,400 feet last erupted in 1931. (More on this explosive topic in upcoming posts). Due west of Aniakchak is my new home: Port Heiden (pop: ~100).

Hark, puppy friend! Volcano ahead!

To explain this shift’s impetus, let’s flash back to the last gasps of 2016 in Anchorage.

I had just climbed my toughest route yet at the Alaska Rock Gym. My wonderful belay buddy, Liz, was lowering me off the 43 foot wall. I floated downward with a deliciously delirious sensation, close to blacking out after a couple hours of hard climbing and exhausted from a series of sleepless nights. Prior to ascending, Liz and I were discussing the state of American politics, but my mind was on work.

The daily office grind had become stagnant and uncomfortable; it was just a begrudging thing that I did, neither real nor engaging.

My feet approached the floor and I came to a stark harsh conclusion about my career’s trajectory: it wasn’t fulfilling. Working for a profit-driven corporation couldn’t cut it any longer. The money was nice, but the slog seemed soulless and only marginally gratifying (though much more so when I got to explore Alaska’s villages). I’m not complaining, it was a great gig with incredible individuals. It simply wasn’t for me.


This was a confounding realization to reach, but formulating a path forward came quickly after juxtaposing my work-malaise against the past several years volunteering for the ACLU of Alaska. My time with the ACLU granted a great introduction to the non-profit world and consistently leaves me with warm fuzzies of altruistic bliss. Helping people is a drug unto itself.

As tender toes touched solid ground, I came back into myself with vigor. I’d reached a new resolve. That night, I began an exciting job hunt in the non-profit and service sectors.

After applying for a few intriguing positions, I stumbled on a remarkable opportunity. As I read the description, my heart leapt a little. Under the auspices of the AmeriCorp VISTA program (Volunteers in Service to America),RurAL CAP (the Rural Alaska Community Action Program) sought someone to live in Port Heiden for a year. The goal: supporting village efforts to write grants and implement/enhance disaster preparedness plans. But why?

To be blunt, Port Heiden faces many unique challenges. Key among them are erosion, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, dependency on outside food sources, exorbitant shipping and airfare costs, cultural loss, population drain, and remoteness. For while Port Heiden is only 440 miles southwest of Anchorage, no roads lead here (as is the case in all of “Bush Alaska”).

Barges arrive on Port Heiden’s shores twice each summer. Though more cost-effective than air cargo, it’s still pricey and comes fraught with hazards: spoilage, order mishaps, and unpredictable arrivals being at the top of that list. Hence, expensive air travel is the only practical means of coming and going.


This reliance on air support is tenuous, and presents a severe concern should something knock out Port Heiden’s airfields. Alarmingly, this area has seen a bizarre amount of earthquakes in the past year; literally hundreds of them, with one rumbling at a magnitude of 6.2 and a hefty handful in the 5 to 3 range. Further, the sea and wind are incurring catastrophic rates of erosion; their shorelines are literally melting away.

Combine these factors with the ever-present threat of starvation, and it could get dire should supply lines get cut. This area is a single natural occurrence away from full-blown disaster. While that might be true of anywhere in the world, Port Heiden is a lot further away from aid in such situations.

“Holy smokes,” I thought after researching the village and job posting. It was perfect. A chance to realign my professional course with deeply-held values while helping others and exploring Bristol Bay (one of the oft-lauded areas of Alaska that I’ve yet to fully experience). Plus, I’m a sucker for adventures.

With a divine sense of purpose – possibly fueled by sleeplessness and the day’s umpteenth cup of black coffee – I completed the application and submitted it the next afternoon. After a phone screening and multiple interviews, I was fortunate enough to be offered the position. Each step only increased my excitement. The more I learned, the more eager I grew to see Port Heiden and dive into their challenges.


Throughout the application and interview process, I learned a lot about Port Heiden. It was tricky managing my expectations while absorbing so much information about a place I’d yet to visit. Despite that, the data was fascinating. I’m looking forward to expounding on these topics in later posts, but below is a little taste of what I initially learned…
  • Port Heiden used to be in an entirely different location and was called Meshik. Influenza epidemics in the early 1900s wiped out most of this population. There were mass graves and generations of history and culture were lost in single seasons. The old site of Meshik is mostly underwater now as a result of climate change.
  • I mentioned the staggering erosion rates earlier, but this force of nature is perhaps the most daunting fact of life here. The coastline recedes each year by 10-20 feet (3-6 meters). Yep, over ten whole feet every year. This places the town at risk of flooding, tsunamis, and storm surge. Depending on how the erosion progresses, portions of the town may have to relocate soon.
  • There used to be an Army base called Fort Morrow just north of Port Heiden. The military packed up and left after World War II, leaving contaminated soils, asbestos-laden materials, and scattered live munitions here and there. Luckily, the United States Army Corps of Engineers has been diligently cleaning up. Which is beneficial, in some ways. This environmental remediation provides the villagers with valuable jobs.
  • The wolf population throughout the Lake & Peninsula Borough is thriving. Unfortunately, this has led to increased encounters with humans. A young teacher was tragically slain by a pack while jogging in 2010. Coincidentally, she kept a blog of her Alaskan experiences as well.

All of this will eventually tie in to upcoming posts and relate to my work here. At a glance, this service as an AmeriCorps VISTA is two-fold. First, I’ll be helping Port Heiden strengthen its disaster preparedness. My previous positions in insurance, legal, health & safety, risk assessment, and oil spill contingency planning roles have been perfect prerequisites for this function and I’m grateful to pass along the knowledge gained. If the worst ever comes to pass, I hope these efforts can save as many lives and as much property as possible.

Second, I get to assist the village in obtaining crucial funds for development projects by writing grant applications. While I have limited experience in this realm, it’s a skill I’m looking forward to learning. As one might guess, I love to write. And legal training has already proven helpful in navigating grant-providers’ intricate requirements.

So, with those two tasks on my mind, I packed up my life before saying farewell to Anchorage and my not-so-friendly neighborhood moose momma (she charged me a few times last year when I accidentally wandered too close to her calves – one of the scariest moments of my life). To be continued…


© Chasen Cunitz and, 2017

Use or duplication of this material without express and written permission is prohibited.

Alaska: Village to Village


  1. Yay!

    I’ve been wondering how you are and what you are thinking about these days…

    So glad to read all is well and you are STILL WRITING!!!

    Sending hugs and high fives from Anchoragua,


    On Wed, Apr 5, 2017 at 5:18 PM, Alaska: Village to Village wrote:

    > Alaska: Village to Village posted: “My time in Nightmute has passed, > though the project is now well underway. The children in that fine > community of almost 300 should have a new school before long. In the > meantime, I’ve been busy with my next adventure: a year in an even smaller > village so” >

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