Express & Star

Santa visit brings joy to frosty Alaskan village

Children braved freezing conditions in Nuiqsut to meet Santa as part of an annual visit by the Alaska Air National Guard.

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Santa with a child

Schoolchildren in the northern Alaskan Inupiac community of Nuiqsut have braved wind chill conditions of minus 25C to see Santa land on a snow-covered airstrip.

The annual Operation Santa Claus in Alaska delighted youngsters in Nuiqsut, a roadless village of about 460 residents on the US state’s oil-rich North Slope.

Santa left Rudolph and the other reindeer at home, arriving on an Alaska Air National Guard cargo plane to Nuiqsut, just 30 miles from the Arctic Ocean.

The Trapper School’s principal Lee Karasiewicz said of his pupils: “Some of them were out on the deck and they were jumping up and down, excited to see the plane coming in.

“They knew right away by the size of the plane, who was on that plane.”

When Santa and Mrs Claus stepped off the hulking cargo aircraft, some of the children rushed to greet him with hugs, as their parents snapped photos on their phones.

Santa arrives in Alaska
Santa and Mrs Claus arrive during wind chill conditions of minus 25C (AP)

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 wiped out their subsistence hunting and fishing opportunities were forced to spend Christmas money on food instead. The guard then stepped in, bringing them donated gifts and supplies.

Santa meets the flight crew
Santa meets the flight crew (AP)

For Nuiqsut, adversity came last spring when an oil production facility about seven miles from town sprung a natural gas leak.

Though oil workers were moved out, there was no mandatory evacuation in Nuiqsut even though the community was put on alert, according to Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the town’s mayor.

Subsequently, she said, some people began experiencing symptoms related to gas exposure, such as headaches or trouble with breathing.

About 20 families, including some with pregnant women or elders and others with special medical conditions, decided to leave.

Operation Santa under way
A parent takes a selfie with a child and Santa and Mrs Claus in Nuiqsut, Alaska (AP)

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.

Ms Ahtuangaruak said the Santa event held on 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 is trouble.

“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 added.

Military personnel board a plane
Santa’s helpers in the Alaska National Guard’s Operation Santa Claus board a cargo plane at Joint Base Elmendorf-Anchorage (AP)

Children later gathered in the school gym for an opportunity to meet Santa, with each receiving a backpack brimming with snacks, books, hygiene supplies and a present.

The Alaska National Guard has delivered more than 1,400lbs of gifts for the children of Nuiqsut.

For the last 53 years, the programme has been conducted in conjunction with the Salvation Army.

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