ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Where an old graveyard once stood, coffins now jut from Akiak's eroded riverbank along the Kuskokwim River in southwest Alaska.
An occasional human skull rests on Akiak's shore. Swallowed by the river long ago are other village landmarks: a regional hospital and staff housing dating to the 1900s and a field where children played ball.
Like most of Alaska's riverside villages, Akiak is literally losing ground. The Kuskokwim River, fueled by storms and swift water during the spring breakup, claims five to 20 feet of riverbank a year.
"We've been concerned for ages," Akiak elder Andrew Jasper said.
Jetties installed more than 20 years ago have long since failed and federal engineers once estimated that full-scale erosion control would cost more than $1 million.
Villagers in the Yupik Eskimo village, population 350, don't need government studies to document erosion's toll: Their gauge is an orange Dodge pickup that broke down sometime in 1965 and today dangles over the 8-foot bank.
"I'm told there used to be 200 feet of bank between that truck and river," said Andrew Oxford, a soil and water conservation scientist with the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Erosion and flooding affects 184 of Alaska's 213 villages on rivers and coastlines, according to a 2003 Government Accounting Office report.
Now damage to Akiak's old graveyard has rekindled interest in stemming erosion.
Villagers have long wanted to dignify the remains by excavating the site and digging a mass grave in the new cemetery, more than 500 feet from the river, tribal administrator Sheila Williams said.
"But nobody can tell me who (is buried there) or when that graveyard was developed," Williams said.
Akiak once served as a hub for outlying villages, and Williams said local elders think the gravesites belong to victims of a regional tuberculosis outbreak in the early 1900s.
The conservation service surveyed the graveyard in October as the village sought government help to relocate the graves, perhaps as soon as spring, and stall erosion.
About 25 miles to the west, villagers in Kalskag obtained grants to curb erosion by planting trees along the riverbank and installing rock "barbs" — photocopier-size quarry rocks sunk along the shoreline to deflect the current.
Experts say a similar strategy could work in Akiak.
But Jasper has a simpler solution: He suggests dumping gravel in the river before the town to redirect the channel.
"I've been joking around," he said, "but it would work."