SAINT MICHAEL, Alaska – It’s not easy to get to Saint Michael, Alaska. Not even if you’re Santa Claus.
Luckily, jolly old St. Nick could hitch a ride on a military transport plane to the tiny island community that’s closer to Russia than Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage.
Santa and Mrs. Claus brought goodies that most Americans take for granted but come at a high cost in remote parts of the nation’s largest state: toys, books, personal hygiene supplies, fresh fruit and even ice cream.
For some children, the toy they received during the visit last week will be the only one they get this year. Others hadn’t had real ice cream in years and have never seen Santa Claus in person.
The visit marked the 61st year of the Alaska National Guard’s Operation Santa Claus, a community outreach program that tries to bring Kriss Kringle to two villages every year if the weather cooperates.
A magical visit
Like celebrities, Santa and Mrs. Claus, dressed in their red and white suits, waved as they stepped off the plane in the snow-covered Alaska Native village.
Nearly the whole town, which is more than 400 miles west of the nearest mall Santa, packed the school gym and welcomed St. Nick with raucous applause.
Every child, and even a few elders, got the chance to sit on his lap and whisper what they want for Christmas. Some kids just bawled their eyes out as they stared at Santa.
The approximately 400 people of Yup’ik Eskimo and Russian heritage who live in the community off Alaska’s western coast subsist on seal, beluga whale, moose, caribou, fish and berries.
Getting to cities like Fairbanks or Anchorage is a major expense, whether to see Santa or gather supplies, because of the state’s limited road system.
So Mayor Bobbi Andrews jumped at the chance to host Santa in the town, which was once the farthest north Russian settlement in Alaska in the 19th century, according to a state database of communities.
Saint Michael later boasted a population of nearly 10,000 when it served as an entry point during the 1897 Gold Rush, when miners used the nearby Yukon River to travel to interior Alaska.
Planes, pickups and dog sleds
The Alaska National Guard does the heavy lifting of getting Santa and his helpers to remote villages. Once the plane lands, however, it’s up to the community to get people to the event.
In Saint Michael, a passenger van and pickup trucks ferried folks the 2 miles into town. In other villages, the transportation has ranged from a warm vehicle to sitting on a fur-lined dog sled pulled over snowy, bumpy roads by a snowmobile.
A Christmas treat
Ice cream seems like the wrong thing to bring people living in the frozen north, but residents gobbled it up as fast as Rich Owens could serve it.
The Anchorage ice cream shop owner brought 450 containers of vanilla ice cream and sundae toppings. The dessert is an expensive purchase in Saint Michael, costing about $17 a gallon.
Joel Heath, 12, hadn’t had fresh ice cream in two years, not since a family trip to Anchorage. His sundae towered with chocolate syrup, whipped cream, sprinkles and a cherry.
“It tastes real delicious,” he said.
The gift of fruit
Volunteer elf Deborah Vo remembers being a child when Operation Santa Claus came to the small community of Saint Mary’s in the late 1960s or early 1970s. A plane landed on the frozen Andreafsky River.
“It’s like coming full circle,” she said. “I was once that little naughty village girl on the banks of the Andreafsky waiting for Santa Claus.”
For Vo, the greatest gift she received that day didn’t have to be unwrapped, it had to be peeled: an apple and an orange.
The costs of transporting goods to the Yup’ik village “were pretty high, and if we did get fresh anything, it would come rotten because of the cold.”
“Having a fresh apple and a fresh orange was one of the best Christmas presents ever,” Vo said.
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