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A tale of two villages

This is where visitors hear echoes from Alaska's past.

This tiny Athabascan Indian village, only a 30-minute drive from downtown Anchorage, is a nugget of long-ago Alaska:

+ Here is a Russian Orthodox church of hand-hewn logs that may have been standing when Abraham Lincoln was president.

+ Here is a cemetery marked not with headstones and marble angels but with "spirit houses" painted in vibrant colors.

It is a place, said Ann Chandonnet, an Eklutna historian, "of full lives and bright memories."

Athabascans have occupied Eklutna (ee-KLOOT-nah) for almost 350 years. They were here when Capt. James Cook explored Arctic waters for England, before Russia occupied Alaska _ and long before there was a city called Anchorage.

But now the Eklutna Athabascans are dwindling in number. Only about 60 remain.

"We are working hard to preserve our culture," said Theresa Hartman, operations manager of Eklutna Village Historical Park.

Eklutna Inc., the village corporation, opened the park six years ago to protect the church and the burial ground. Before access was limited, vandals prowled the village, trampling graves and stealing candles and other family items from the spirit houses. One thief made off with the old bell from St. Nicholas Church.

The park is open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. from mid-May to the end of September. Tickets cost $3.50.

Centerpiece of the village is the toylike St. Nicholas Church, built of spruce logs held together with wooden pegs. Historians say the church must have been built between 1844 and 1867.

That's when Father Igumen Nikolai, a pioneering Orthodox missionary from Russia, toiled among the natives of Eklutna and nearby villages.

Whatever the exact date of construction, St. Nicholas is the oldest building in the Greater Anchorage area.

Old St. Nicholas isn't Eklutna's only church.

Because of the fragile condition of the original church, a second church was completed in 1962 to provide facilities for religious services.

The two churches and their Russian-style onion-dome cupolas form a dramatic backdrop for the cemetery and the 100 or so spirit houses that decorate villagers' graves.

Nobody is sure how the spirit house custom began.

"My understanding is that the spirit house is simply a monument," writes Chandonnet in On the Trail of Eklutna. "But," she adds, "perhaps the deeper meaning is that it is a gesture of love."

The handmade structures, looking something like wooden doll houses, are built atop each grave on the 40th day after a villager's death. Spirit houses for adults generally are about 6 feet long and 4 feet high. A mini-house inside a larger spirit house indicates that a mother and child are buried together.

In most cases, there are no headstones. Instead, family plots are identified by colors reserved by each family for their spirit houses.

Red and white are the colors for the spirit houses of Eklutna royalty, members of the Alex family.

Visitors hear the story of Eklutna at the visitors center and tour the grounds on a half-hour guided walkaround. They learn how early-day Athabascans used to fish for salmon in Ship Creek, in the heart of what now is Anchorage, Alaska's largest city,

Outside, on the trail through the cemetery, they hear whispers from the past _ and they hear a church bell.

Yes, there is a happy ending to the story of the stolen bell from St. Nicholas Church. The 200-pound bell was spotted at an Anchorage auction in 1980. The price was $400, more than the people of Eklutna could afford.

An Anchorage real estate company bought the bell and returned it to the village.

If you go

Getting there: Eklutna is 26 miles northeast of Anchorage by way of Highway 1, the Glenn Highway. Take the Eklutna exit, then turn left for the visitor center.

Additional information: Eklutna Village Historical Park, phone (907) 696-2828. Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau, (907) 276-4118.

Stanton H. Patty, born and reared in Alaska, is the retired travel editor of the Seattle Times.