The little painted houses sit close to the ground, shaded by the alder and birch trees, fresh with new growth.
The tiny houses, some nearly enveloped by early summer grass, sit atop mostly unmarked graves of Dena’ina Athabascans who lived in Eklutna, a historic village 24 miles northeast of Anchorage.
Those flying by on Alaska’s Highway 1 will miss this cemetery, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Fortunately, my cousin Panu, and her husband, Mark, want to show it to me and my husband, Jerry. We are so glad they did.
Eklutna is a microcosm of Alaska’s history — a meeting of the native population and the Russians settlers who arrived in the early- to mid-19th century. The pioneers and missionaries brought the Russian Orthodox religion, and when a smallpox epidemic killed half of the Dena’ina, they converted.
Prior to conversion, it was the custom to cremate the dead. After all, it was difficult to bury people in a place where you hit solid rock 3 inches below the topsoil.
The Native Alaskans also believed that cremation released the spirits of the dead, but Russian orthodoxy forbade cremation. As a compromise, the Dena’ina built spirit houses over the graves as a place for the spirits to reside until the little houses deteriorated and the spirits were set free.
Some of the graves display Russian Orthodox crosses next to their spirit houses, and our guide explains that each color on the spirit houses denotes a certain Eklutna family. While these colors substituted for tombstones, it makes family identification today difficult.
According to the guide, there is a current attempt to find out who is buried and where in the historic cemetery.
Visitors to Eklutna Historical Park can also see the site’s two Russian Orthodox churches. The Old St. Nicholas Church was constructed in the town of Knik (17 miles northeast of Anchorage), possibly as early as 1830. In 1900, the building was moved to Eklutna, then replaced by the New St. Nicholas Church in 1962. This more modern church features the characteristic onion domes. (No one seems to be able to explain the shape; some think it discourages snow from sticking.)
Further north and off the beaten path is the Independence Mine State Historic Park.
Set against a spectacular backdrop of grandiose Alaska mountains, the grounds of the mine operation give a fascinating look into the life of the miners and their families who lived and worked there, even in the deadest of winter.
We get a good workout climbing up and down the walkways and trails that wind all over the landscape, stopping to take photos of the dramatic peaks and valleys that lay before us. Today there are tiny white blossoms on the low-growing blueberry bushes, but visit in late summer and you’ll find shrubs heavy with fruit.
Eklutna and the Independence Mine State Historic Park are just two reasons not to take a cruise to Alaska.
You just can’t see people, places and things like this from a boat or a quick tour.
Best to base in Anchorage and venture out on one- and two-day trips.
For information on all things Anchorage and Alaska, visit visitanchorage.net or call (907) 257-2363.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at firstname.lastname@example.org