A community is the people who cut the wood, mend their nets, go out in their boats, clean the schools and worship on Sunday morning.
It is the people who live and have their being in a place they call home. Their heart leaps for joy when the name of their town is mentioned in a faraway place.
The people bring their histories to the public square and have a part, no matter how inconspicuously, in determining the character of their town or village.
The community of Port Lions is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and the Native Village or Port Lions and the City of Port Lions have planned various anniversary events throughout the year that will culminate in a celebration Dec. 4.
On Friday, July 4, the governing bodies are sponsoring a community-wide festive celebration which will include a parade, contests, a barbeque and an official greeting of the ferry, Tustumena, which also is celebrating its 50th year.
One cannot congratulate the citizens of Port Lions without acknowledging the old village of Afognak, roughly 15 miles across the sound on Afognak Island.
Communities pick up and leave for various reasons. In the case of Afognak, it was a natural disaster.
On Good Friday, March 27, 1964, a cataclysmic tidal wave took houses out to sea. People fled to the hills for refuge. No lives were lost, but due to the destruction of many of the homes and the contamination of fresh water sources, the villagers sadly concluded that their niche of refuge would no longer protect and sustain them as it had in the past.
In the following days, people moved in with relatives in other parts of the archipelago; some stayed at the Port Wakefield cannery. Some set up tents near their damaged houses, while others remained in intact residences. They were all temporary lodgings.
Villagers scouted the forested coastline of Afognak Island and neighboring Kodiak Island for a new home. When they came upon a protected cove in Kizhuyak Bay with plenty of fresh water and a good place for a boat harbor, they realized they had found their spot.
Moving an entire village would cost more money than Afognak residents had. Potential funding agencies required that some of the families move to the new location on Kodiak Island, while others live elsewhere.
But Afognak was a unified community. All the families would stick together.
Moved by the plight of the Afognak residents, who had become refugees in their own village, the Lions Club offered to help them make the expensive move. In the middle of April, a delegation from Anchorage met with the residents at a special meeting called. The village council, consisting of chairman Oscar Ellison, Jr., Frank Sheratine, John Nelson, Alfred Nelson and John Pestrikoff, drafted a resolution accepting the generous offer.
A Lions official recalled that many of the grateful people of Afognak “wept openly” as the council signed the document. In honor of their benefactors, the council decided to name the new community Port Lions.
Other humanitarian organizations also helped out. Furniture, lumber and other materials poured in from all over the United States. The U.S. Navy at Kodiak, the Salvation Army, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Mennonite Disaster Service and other groups all worked together to build the new town.
By mid-December, 1964, 40 families moved into their partially finished homes. The village was dedicated to God in a service, led by long-time church reader, Sergay Sheratine, at the community hall.
Port Lions was a modern village. It had electricity, lights, indoor plumbing and other conveniences unknown in the old village.
As people settled into their new community, an ancient, restless longing haunted the dreams of the older residents. They missed Afognak. Some of them boated over to the village in the summer, camping out in their abandoned houses as they put up fish and relived some of their finest memories.
At an elder gathering in 1986, Julia Pestrikoff spoke on behalf of many of her peers when she said, “I was born in Afognak and that was my home until the earthquake came. Then we all moved to Port Lions, and we live there now, but our hearts are in Afognak.”
Even the younger generation had deep sentiments for the old village.
In 1980 a group of high school students went with chaperones, Rhea Knagin and Thayo Brandal, to the old village for a field trip.
They were dismayed to see how vagrants had vandalized the houses and desecrated the Orthodox church.
But vandals weren’t the only ones to blame.
Time and the forces of nature mercilessly ate away at the church.
In 2005 (one hundred years after the church was consecrated,) a group from St. Herman’s Seminary, led by the dean, Father Chad Hatfield, and other priests, took boats over to Afognak to do what was probably the best thing: they burned the church down.
The church seemed to be the last holdout for those ancient longings for the old village. People remember the church as they recall the village — a beautiful place that shaped their lives.
Port Lions is continuing to shape lives too.
Somewhat like the child who strikes out on his own, gratefully using the knowledge his parents endowed him with yet blazing new trails, Port Lions has created its own legacy.
In its 50 years of existence, Port Lions has boasted of restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, lodges, charter operations, state championship basketball teams, a library, a community center, a clinic named in honor of one of its elders and now a new ferry dock. But its ties to the old village can never be severed.
As long as the older generation passes down the stories, the people of the community will proudly tell you that they’re from Port Lions, but their roots go way back to Afognak.
Mike Rostad is a freelance writer and longtime Kodiakan who writes a weekly column examining the in-depth stories of Kodiak residents. You can read more about other Kodiak islanders in Rostad’s book, “Close to My Heart-Writing and Living Stories on Kodiak Island, Alaska.