St. George welcomes Santa

Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2001

ST. GEORGE (AP) -- Santa Claus flew 670 miles in a droning C-130 Friday to deliver toys and Christmas dinners to this dot of land in the Bering Sea. It's part of a long tradition in Alaska.

A good share of the Aleut village -- more than 100 people -- turned out on a chilly, rainy afternoon to meet Santa in the school gym.

Kids ripped into wrapped toys and listened to carols sung by members of the Air Force Band. Parents and grandparents visited with each other and the planeload of volunteers who spent four hours in the village.

Operation Santa Claus, a 44-year-old partnership between the Alaska Air National Guard and the Salvation Army, delivered on its mission to ferry toys, books and clothing to children in rural Alaska.

''It's brought the whole community here,'' said principal and teacher Mark Carrell.

''Op Santa'' makes trips to mostly remote, economically strapped communities. The last visit to St. George was in 1998.

St. George and neighboring St. Paul were uninhabited until the late 1700s, when Russian traders forcibly settled Aleuts on the islands to hunt, skin and tan the hoards of northern fur seals.

Now, with the commercial fur seal harvest a relic of the past, St. George residents say they are struggling. A scarcity of jobs on the island has triggered a recent population decline from more than 200 people to around 150.

The visit from Santa was meant to bring some cheer in the dark days of winter.

A three-hour trip by air, the island defines remote. People here make occasional trips to Anchorage despite the $800-plus airfare. Some shop mainly at the canteen. Others order supplies from Anchorage or even Seattle retailers.

On Friday, a few northern fur seals hunkered on tundra-covered bluffs overlooking the Bering Sea.

The Alaska Air Guard's C-130 landed on a gravel airstrip five miles from the village. The visitors were ferried by an armada of pickup trucks, Subarus and taxis to the school.

Friday's trip was the last one for Air National Guard pilot Lt. Col. Dave Montague, an American Airlines employee who is a 22-year veteran of the 144th Airlift Squadron. Capt. Duane Hoefling, the navigator, and flight engineer Sgt. Anthony Fortney said this was also their last flights.

About 40 ''elves'' made the trip -- business people and military personnel who took a day off to dish up turkey and stuffing and hand out gifts.

The kids loved it, said Bone and Stefanida Lekanof, who sat with their 4-year-old grandson. Little Anthony Lekanof marveled at his new toy van.

''Anthony was looking forward to it last night,'' his grandmother said. ''We didn't want to tell him too early -- he wanted to get his elf hat on.''

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