The Economic Times

Santa gets chopper ride to remote Alaska village

AP|
Santa Claus arriving in Alaska
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Santa Claus arriving in Alaska

A school employee wearing a traditional pink Alaska Native smock called a kuspuk breezed through the hubbub in the cafeteria adorned with murals of purely Alaska scenes, zigzagging through children clutching presents and past uniformed soldiers wearing Santa caps.

"Napakiak is happy today," she proclaimed to principal Sally Benedict.

That's a rare emotion of late for the 300 or so residents of this western Alaska community. "We're falling into the Kuskokwim River," Benedict explains, because of erosion that is forcing everyone to move their town farther inland.

In pic: Santa Claus arriving in Napakiak, Alaska, on an Alaska National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.

AP
​Operation Santa Claus
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​Operation Santa Claus

For one day this month, the Alaska National Guard gave folks a reason to smile, thanks to its "Operation Santa Claus" program, which featured the jolly old elf himself distributing gifts to the children.

"This lightens the load," said Benedict, a former Detroit educator who arrived last summer. "This is sunshine for us. It's a brightening of our day."

In pic: Santa Claus having his photo taken with Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard during a visit to Napakiak, Alaska.

AP
​Handing gifts
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​Handing gifts

Now in its 63rd year, Operation Santa Claus has become a rarity among National Guard units. Defense officials have shut down the program everywhere but Alaska, where the mission survives because the state is so large and some communities are so remote.

The program started in 1956 when the residents of St. Mary's, Alaska, had no money to buy children Christmas presents after flooding severely impacted hunting and fishing. Since then, Guard members try to visit at least two rural communities a year, delivering Christmas gifts and other needed supplies.

They've been to remote burgs with names like Koyukuk, Savoonga, Illiamna, Kwethluk and Tuntuliak. The visit to Napakiak involved two aircraft: a 400-mile (644-kilometer) trip in a small airplane from Anchorage, then a five-minute helicopter ride to the village.

In pic: Alaska National Guard Staff Sgt. Joseph Sallaffie handing a gift bag to Corban Jimmy while Marlene Black looks on during Santa's visit to Napakiak, Alaska.

AP
Other participants
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Other participants

The Guard isn't the only Santa's helper in the nation's largest state.

The Salvation Army is celebrating its 50th year of helping the Guard, collecting gifts, book bags and other items to be distributed. Major corporate sponsors like Costco and Walmart contribute to the program, and Rich Owens for years has provided the ice cream from his Tastee Freez restaurant in Anchorage.

In pic: Four-wheelers parked outside the public school in Napakiak, Alaska.

AP
Serving ice cream to people
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Serving ice cream to people

Climate change is a contributing factor in the erosion caused by the Kuskokwim, a 700 mile-long (1,125-kilometers) river that becomes an ice highway for travelers in the winter, has been an ongoing problem in Napakiak, but the pace has accelerated in the past few years. It's a dilemma seen in numerous Alaska communities affected by a warming climate that is thawing permafrost - permanently frozen soil - and compromising river banks.

This year alone, Napakiak's erosion has been responsible for more than 100 feet (30 meters) of lost shoreline.

Erosion also threatens the school, which sits less than 200 feet (60 meters) feet from the river.

In pic: Alaska National Guard Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, left, 2nd Lt. Ryan Newton, middle, and Anchorage restaurant owner Rich Owens serve ice cream to the townspeople of Napakiak, Alaska.

AP
​Focusssing on smiles
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​Focusssing on smiles

The village also has applied for permits to relocate the boat harbor, which was destroyed by storms in May. The five-year plan, Benedict said, is to move everyone to the other side of an air strip.

But at least for one day, the residents of Napakiak didn't have to worry about the erosion creeping ever closer to their homes, and instead could focus on the smiles or even smudges of chocolate from the ice cream sundaes on their children's faces.

In pic: 6-month-old Rebecca Ilmar having her photo taken with Santa Claus in Napakiak, Alaska.

AP

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