Though the weather outside was frightful, schoolchildren in the northern Alaska Inupiac community of Nuiqsut were so delighted for a visit by Santa that they braved wind chills of 25 degrees below zero just to see him land on a snow-covered airstrip.
Once again, it was time for Operation Santa Claus in Alaska. And here in Nuiqsut, a roadless village of about 460 residents on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope, the temperatures may have been plunging but the children were warming quickly.
Never mind that Santa left Rudolph at home to catch a ride on an Alaska Air National Guard cargo plane to Nuiqsut, just 30 frosty miles (50 kilometers) south of the Arctic Ocean. Here, just a reindeer skip and a hop from the North Pole, the students were abuzz with good cheer.
“Some of them were out on the deck and they were jumping up and down, excited to see the plane coming in,” said Principal Lee Karasiewicz of the Trapper School, as he kept watch over pupils from the 160-student K-12 facility privileged to get a pre-Christmas visit from the jolly, fat one.
“They knew right away by the size of the plane, who was on that plane," Karasiewicz said of the students.
When Santa and Mrs. Claus stepped off the hulking cargo plane, some of the children rushed to greet him with hugs, their beaming parents snapping photos on their phones.
Year after year across the decades the Alaska National Guard has delivered gifts, supplies and often Christmas itself to a few tiny rural Alaska communities, trying in particular to make things merry in villages hit by recent hardships.
Operation Santa Claus began back in 1956 when the residents of one community, St. Mary’s, found themselves without money to buy gifts. Townsfolk stung by flooding and then a drought that wipe out their subsistence hunting and fishing opportunities were forced to spend Christmas money on food instead. That's when the guard stepped in, bringing them donated gifts and supplies.
For Nuiqsut, the adversity came last spring when an oil production facility about 7 miles (11 kilometers) from town sprang a natural gas leak. Though oil workers evacuated, there was no mandatory evacuation in Nuiqsut even though the community was put on alert, said Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the town’s mayor.
Subsequently, she said, some people began experiencing symptoms related to gas exposure, such as headaches or trouble breathing. About 20 families, including some with pregnant women or elders and others with special medical conditions, decided to self-evacuate.
Long accustomed to helping out in disasters, the guard sent its tribal liaison official to the town after the leak was contained. The official spoke with community members and relayed their concerns back to guard leadership.
The Santa event held the last Tuesday in November was “a wonderful opportunity” to show children the guard in a different light — not always coming around just when there's trouble, Ahtuangaruak said.
"It’s about bringing in the National Guard in a non-stressful event so the kids could see them doing good work that’s not during a scary event,” she said.
While there were a few puzzled faces of children sitting on Santa’s lap for the first time, there was nothing frightening about the visit — and certainly no lists of who was naughty or nice.
Once all had gathered in the school gym, each child had the opportunity for a short visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and each received a backpack brimming with snacks and books, hygiene supplies and a gift.
Qannik Amy Alice Woods, a second grader, didn’t want to open her backpack just yet. This was her first experience with Santa Claus, but he won her over like every other child in the world.
“He’s cool,” she said, flashing two thumbs up before heading to the bleachers to enjoy a fresh banana, a hard-to-find item above the Arctic Circle. Children also got a more location-appropriate treat: ice cream sundaes.
Fourth grader Mallory Lampe also had her first direct meeting with Santa but didn’t wait to open her backpack. “I got this kind of toy,” she exclaimed with joy, holding up an interactive creature whose eyes light up when you press its nose.
The Alaska National Guard delivered more than 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms) of gifts for the children of Nuiqsut. For the last 53 years, the program has been conducted in conjunction with the Salvation Army.
The two other villages served this year were Scammon Bay, which experienced fuel and food delivery problems last year, and Minto, chosen because it had never had a visit in the program’s history, said Dana Rosso, a spokesperson for the Alaska National Guard.
About 650 pounds (295 kilograms) of gifts were delivered to Minto for about 65 children, and nearly 1,800 pounds (816 kilograms) of gifts for the 325 or so children in Scammon Bay.
During a mission briefing before the plane left Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage for Nuiqsut, Santa gave the volunteer elves an important tip.
In Alaska Native culture, it’s considered rude to refuse a request or a gift offered by someone, even taking part in a dance.
That’s why near the end of the program in Nuiqsut, Santa and Mrs. Claus were on the school gym floor with uniformed guard members and scores of others performing a traditional Alaska Native dance. It started when a local drum and dance group performed to honor their guests, and it quickly turned into an impromptu hootenanny.
At the end of the last song, a beaming Mrs. Claus grabbed one of the dancers and hugged her tightly to show her gratitude.
“We can’t go to all of our villages, but when we have a village celebrate this opportunity, it’s a celebration that transfers through the tundra drums across our state,” Mayor Ahtuangaruak said. “We all get to share in the joy.”