TRAIL TRIMMING – Dyana Mutchler-Walsh trims trees and shrubs along the Castle Hill ramp this morning. Mutchler-Walsh is one of a half-dozen students building trails and doing trail maintenance this summer through a Southeast Alaska Independent Living program. The program wraps up Friday. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Santa Gives a Lift to Town Falling in River

By MARK THIESSEN
Associated Press
    NAPAKIAK (AP) — 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.
    But 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.”
    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.
    “We love this, we truly love coming here,” said Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard who found himself topping ice cream sundaes with cherries for the revelers in Napakiak. “This is a proud tradition.”

This Dec. 3, 2019, photo shows Santa Claus arriving in Napakiak on an Alaska National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. The Guard brought its Operation Santa Claus to the western Alaska community, which is being severely eroded by the nearby Kuskokwim River. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

    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.
    “It’s a labor of love,” said John Brackenbury, the Alaska divisional commander of The Salvation Army.
    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, according to Brian Brettschneider, an associate climate researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center.
    “You see this at a number of rivers in western Alaska where the bank stability is so much less than it used to be because the warming temperatures are allowing the banks to just crumble away with even typical river flows,” he said.
    This year alone, Napakiak’s erosion has been responsible for more than 100 feet (30 meters) of lost shoreline.
    In September, the village school’s 10 fuel tanks were relocated by barge across the river to the nearby town of Bethel after being threatened by aggressive riverbank erosion.
    Erosion also threatens the school, which sits less than 200 feet (60 meters) feet from the river. The Lower Kuskokwim School District needs to move the school, but local officials say finding money for a new school has been challenging.
    River erosion also threatened Napakiak’s firehouse and city garage, so those structures were moved in July.
    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.
    Marcus Billy thought he received a basketball, but he became a little confused when he saw it was lime green and not orange. It was only when all the wrapping paper was off that he was sure. When asked if he was happy with that, he said, “Yeah!” before running off to play.
    ___
    Associated Press writer Rachel D’Oro in Anchorage contributed to this report.
   

August 5, 2020

A Note To Our Readers

Reopening: Phase One:

 

On March 30 the Daily Sitka Sentinel began taking precautions against the coronavirus, which was starting to show up in Alaska.

We closed our building to the public and four key employees started working remotely. Home delivery was suspended to protect our carriers from exposure to the virus.

Four months later, the virus is still with us and the precautions remain in effect.

In appreciation for the willingness of our subscribers to pick up their daily paper at drop-off sites, the Sentinel was free to all readers, and subscriptions were extended without charge.

As of August 1 the Sentinel is once again charging for subscriptions, but the present method of having subscribers pick up their papers at designated sites will continue.

The expiration date of all subscriptions has been extended without charge for an additional four months.

We thank our readers for their support in these uncertain times, and especially those who paid for the paper despite the free offer.

We look forward to the time when we can safely resume home delivery.

To check on the expiration of your subscription or to make a payment please call 747-3219. The subscription email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . We also will be mailing out reminder cards.

The single copy price is again 75 cents. The news racks do not require coins to open, but we ask that the 75 cents for a non-subscription single copy sale be paid with coins in the slot.

– The Sitka Sentinel Staff

 

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Alaska COVID-19
At a Glance

(updated 8-6-20)

By Sentinel Staff

The state Department of Health and Social Services has posted the following update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska as of 10:45 a.m. Thursday.

New cases as of Wednesday: 40

Total statewide – 3,484

Total (cumulative) deaths – 25

Active cases in Sitka – 19 (14 resident; 5 non-resident) *

Recovered cases in Sitka – 15 (11 resident; 4 non-resident) *

The state says the cumulative number of cases hospitalized is 141.

To visit the Alaska DHSS Corona Response dashboard website click here.

* These numbers reflect State of Alaska data. Local cases may not immediately appear on DHSS site, or are reported on patient’s town of residence rather than Sitka’s statistics. 

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20 YEARS AGO
August 2000

The city’s solid waste incinerator closed Wednesday, two days after the contract with Sheldon Jackson College for its operation ended. ... The city will ship all municipal waste except biosolids off-island to a landfill in Washington. The biosolids will be buried in the Kimsham landfill, Public Works Director Hugh Bevan said.

50 YEARS AGO
August 1970

Ernest Robertson, a Sitka resident most of his life, has moved back here with his family after a five-year sojourn in Anchorage. “Anchorage was just too big,” Ernie said. “It wasn’t like Sitka, where every time you go out on the street you meet your friends.”

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