Small Russian Community

Kenai, AK

August 2nd, 2002

Having pulled out of Anchorage, we headed into some of Alaska's most beautiful lands. The Kenai Peninsula is a rich fishing area that attracts sports fishermen from all over the world. There are two key cities on the coast: Seward and Homer. We decided to stay on the road between the two and travel by truck to each. The town we picked was Kenai. It is a small village at the mouth of the Kenai River that dumps into the Cook's Inlet. We found a trailer park high on a bluff overlooking The Inlet. The town is small enough that we could walk to just about any place we wanted. By chance we passed the visitor's center and stopped by to see what was there. To our surprise, it has one of the best one-room museums we had ever seen. Many of the questions, which had been generated from seeing other  places, were answered by the plaques and items, which were displayed there. There was a Samovar (Russian tea making machine), which was a fixture in Russian homes and a symbol of hospitality and warmth. Many early settlers in Kenai treasured their lovely samovars and used them daily for their tea. There was a lot of information on the local Indians, known as the Kenaitze, or Kenai Indians, descendants of the Dena'ina who were Athabascan, who moved to Cook's Inlet from the north before recorded history. They brought with them hunting practices perfected over millennia and designed to efficiently obtain the fish and meat needed to sustain them. The Athabascan people were great travelers preferring to follow game rather than settle down. Their ancestors can be found in New Mexico in the Navaho and Apache tribes. The Kenai Indians broke with that tradition and built permanent log structures along the riverbanks. One of the items I found, I had seen before but didn't know much about it. It looked like a translucent rain suit top. Here I learned that it is a Kamelika. This garment was fashioned from sea lion intestines and exhibits the raglan sleeve style typically used by Nikolski women. Both the material and the sewing method ensured a waterproof product, herbs were used to color the trim. Blanche Ryan describes how the gut was prepared; after the kill the intestines are put in a pail of water. With a slanted board and spoon, the lining is pressed out and the thin membrane is left. One end is tied shut. Wind is blown in, then the other end is tied too. This is taken inside and suspended from the ceiling and left to dry. It is then cut into strips and wrapped on cardboard to be saved until later. When there is a sufficient amount it is made into a garment. One of the neat things we found were two old Russian Orthodox Churches. The older is retired and marked as a memorial. This memorial chapel was built around 1906 over the grave of Kenai's first resident priest. Igumen Nicholai (Father Nicholas). Makary Ivanof, a church leader and one other parishioner are also buried here. It sits on a well-manicured yard behind a white picket fence. I found the door open and stuck my nose inside. There was only an old wooden altar inside. The upper part of the church was exposed revealing a fascinating construction method of holding up the roof. The history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai began prior to the church being built. With the creation of Ft. St. Nicholas or Nikolaevsky Redoubt in 1791, Priests visited from Kodiak only once in several years from 1795 to 1846. The Russian American Company built this first chapel in 1841, and a company representative conducted services. In 1845 the missions' first resident priest, Hieromonk Nicholai (Father Nicholas) arrived to assume his duties. It would require two years for him to make the rounds of his people who lived as far away as Prince William Sound. Father Nicholas (later to become Igumen Nicholas) began a school in his home around 1864, which closed after his death in 1867, when the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia and the Russian American Company pulled out of Kenai, leaving the Church without support. Under Nieromonk Nikita, the remodeling of the church was begun in 1883 and the school was reopened. The priest's residence that was constructed in 1886, is still in use today. It stands across the street from the church. In 1894 the old church was torn down and a new building was dedicated in 1896. The Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church is a marvelous example of early Russian Orthodox architecture. With three spires and its bright blue and white color scheme, which contrasted against a green well manicured lawn, it was definitely postcard material. As I was working my way around the church, looking for that perfect angle, the priest came out of his residence across the street. We talked for a few minutes, during which time I learned that he was about to preside over a local wedding. He agreed to let me into the chapel for a few pictures if I promised to be quick. Before I even got to the front door an early arrival was posting a "Service in progress" sign on the front door. The inside was of a small one room design with the alter area decorated with many icons and stands. It was colorful, even in the reduced light. I would like to have talked with the priest about religion and history and life on the Peninsula, but he had duties and time was short. Outside the church, across the street was a row of flowers. One bunch seemed to almost be a part of the religious scene. The colors were a perfect balance to the overall color scheme between nature and man. So our quiet stay in Kenai got extended to 4 days so we could rest and catch up with a lot of things we had let go along the way.

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