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Santa makes early visit to rural Alaska villages

Posted: Sunday, November 28, 2004

 

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  Alisha Roberts, 4, left, and Lezzie Rustad, 3, play with the gifts they received from an Alaska National Guardsman dressed as Santa Claus in the remote Neets'aii Gwich'in Indian community of Venetie, Alaska north of Fairbanks during Operation Santa Claus, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2004. The Alaska National Guard's Operation Santa Claus will bring heaps of donated toys, books, school supplies and goody bags filled with fresh fruit, bottled water, toothbrushes and pencils, to 18 villages across the state betweenNovember and mid-December. AP Photo/Al Grillo

An Alaska National Guardsman dressed as Santa Claus rides in a dog sled a from the airstrip to the school in Venetie, Alaska, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2004, where he will deliver gifts to the children in the remote Neets'aii Gwich'in Indian community of 300 north of Fairbanks. The Alaska National Guard's Operation Santa Claus will bring heaps of donated toys, books, school supplies and goody bags filled with fresh fruit, bottled water, toothbrushes and pencils, to 18 villages across the state between Novemberand mid-December.

AP Photo/Al Grillo

VENETIE, Alaska Not a reindeer in sight, but six dogs hitched to a sled waited as the jolly round man descended from the C-130 transport plane, his red suit offering scant protection from the biting chill of Interior Alaska.

From the snow-covered tarmac, the dogs whisked the man along a winding trail to the Venetie village school, where children and their parents sat on bleachers, whispering and watching the gymnasium door. After a harsh summer of wildfires, they were eager for this day, when Santa Claus came to call.

As he has for almost five decades, Santa and his helpers are visiting places too remote even for St. Nick's fabled mode of travel. Between early November and mid-December, they will have dropped in on 18 villages across the state, bringing heaps of donated toys, books, school supplies and goody bags filled with fresh fruit, bottled water, toothbrushes and pencils, courtesy of the Alaska National Guard.

"The kids are really excited, especially with Santa coming in on a dog team like that," Dennis Erick, the village chief, said as the Air Force Band of the Pacific played a snappy "Jingle Bell Rock."

Venetie, a largely Neets'aii Gwich'in Indian community of 300, was among the first on the list this year. The Guard chooses different villages each year, although St. Lawrence Island is always included and so is Little Diomede Island, a tiny dot just east of the Russian boundary.

"Little Diomede is so remote and they live such a tough life on that rock, it's the least we can do," said Maj. Mike Haller, who joined the project in 1986. "We also pay attention to places that have experienced fires, floods and other disasters."

Such as Venetie, threatened by a 404,000-acre wildfire last summer that came within three miles of the village and pushed heavy smoke over the region. Another year, the Yukon River village of Koyukuk was singled out after severe flooding.

The Santa tour was born out of such disaster.

In 1956, floods and a drought ruined the hunting and fishing season for residents of St. Marys, a Western Alaska village. There only was enough money to pay to have food shipped in and nothing left over for Christmas until operators of a Roman Catholic mission in the village got involved, Haller said.

The mission's mother superior wrote a letter to the National Guard in Anchorage, asking for help. Word spread, and within days the Guard was inundated with donations of new and used toys. It was only natural to have Santa make the delivery.

The mission closed in the late 1980s, but the gift-giving effort just grew and grew.

"Now we have 300 volunteers working throughout the year collecting donations, organizing and cleaning them," Haller said.

Guard officials say they know of no similar effort spreading holiday cheer over such a wide area much of it far from the state's limited road system.

"No one has the challenges we have here in Alaska," Haller said.

So it takes a village to welcome Santa and his entourage. In Venetie, about 160 miles north of Fairbanks, practically everyone got involved. Some people showed up at the airstrip on snowmachines to drive 45 Guardsmen and volunteer elves to the school a couple miles away. The temperature hovered around 20 degrees below zero this November day, but it felt much colder with the wind chill of a speeding snowmachine.

 

Alisha Roberts, 4, left, and Lezzie Rustad, 3, play with the gifts they received from an Alaska National Guardsman dressed as Santa Claus in the remote Neets'aii Gwich'in Indian community of Venetie, Alaska north of Fairbanks during Operation Santa Claus, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2004. The Alaska National Guard's Operation Santa Claus will bring heaps of donated toys, books, school supplies and goody bags filled with fresh fruit, bottled water, toothbrushes and pencils, to 18 villages across the state betweenNovember and mid-December.

AP Photo/Al Grillo

Inside the heated gym, villagers set up an elaborate feast of moose-salad sandwiches, salmon macaroni, spaghetti and fresh fruit and chocolate cake.

Then came the moment the children had patiently anticipated all morning: sitting on Santa's lap. Some sat smiling shyly or staring at the floor. Others giggled as they told Santa what they wanted for Christmas.

Venetie may be an isolated community where many homes have no plumbing and residents hunt and fish for much of their food. But as in most of Alaska's 230 or so villages _ it has plenty of TVs and computers. The children's wish lists were decidedly high tech, leaning toward CD players and video games, even Halo 2, the sizzling new offering from Microsoft Corp. that's flying off shelves across the nation.

The youngsters also asked Santa for puppies, stereos and snowmachines. There were a lot of I-don't-knows, too.

"Some kids want guns. That's really important here in the Bush," said Santa, a Guard member whose identity is a top secret. "One girl said she wanted fun for Christmas. I told her that was my favorite thing."

As soon as they got their gifts, the kids scampered to the bleachers to see what everyone else got.

"Holy Cow! Awesome," 10-year-old Tiliisia Sisto said when Tony Roberts ripped the wrapping off a remote-control car. The 11-year-old boy wasn't as impressed.

"Halo 2 is way better," he said.



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