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Alaskans spot Santa

Santa Claus was spotted flying into rural Alaskan villages.

BY SUSAN KIM | TOGIAK, Alaska | December 25, 2002

"It's special for most of the kids."

—Arlene Coupchiak

Santa Claus was spotted flying into rural Alaskan villages. But he was in a C-130 aircraft, not a sleigh.

Through "Operation Santa Claus" -- a 46-year-old program offered by the National Guard in partnership with The Salvation Army -- more than 2,100 children in 14 communities received toys, books and clothing for Christmas.

It's an effort that involves hundreds of volunteers who have a good time serving as Santa's elves.

"It just really is a fun thing that we get to do," said Jenni Ragland of The Salvation Army. The agency wrapped more than 2,000 gifts.

Ragland said she spent "easily 30 to 40 hours, wrapping and packing boxes to get ready to bring out to each of the villages."

Those who travel on the C-130 say it's the highlight of their year.

"You always get so much more than you give to the villages," said Candy Dodds of the Alaska National Guard.

Operation Santa Claus visited Kaltag, Gambell, Togiak, Nulato, Koyukuk, Little Diomede, Kipnuk, White Mountain, Stony River, Sleetmute, Atmautluak, Tuluksak, St. Michael and several communities in southeast Alaska.

Many Alaskans outside of cities support themselves by catching salmon or other fish, or by hunting game. And many are observing the same lifestyle - sometimes dating back hundreds of years -- of their ancestors.

Natural disasters -- and there are many in Alaska -- often reduce villagers' ability to provide for themselves. "For example, spring floods washed away the fish camp of a gentleman in Nicolai. It was mid to late summer before he could replace the equipment he needed to supply his family's food for the winter," explained Peter Van Hook, a Church World Service disaster response and recovery liaison.

A major earthquake that struck Alaska's remote interior in November also damaged the foundations of many homes. The Nov. 3 Denali quake, a 7.9 magnitude that is among the largest quakes to strike the United States, opened a 186-mile scar across Alaska, splitting even the glaciers in its path. The ground near the fault shook for as long as two minutes.

Several weeks before that, floods wiped out many roads on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, isolating some communities. Throughout an uncommonly warm fall, floodwaters didn't freeze, preventing the use of snowmobiles.

All over Alaska residents are still asking, "where's our winter?" as temperatures have soared far above normal for the past two months. El Nino -- a warming of a large area of water in the tropical Pacific Ocean -- has been influencing Alaska's wind and weather patterns, channeling warm, moist air into the state.

This year's disasters mean Santa's visit is not only fun -- it's important for village families who might be having trouble making ends meet.

And, said Togiak resident Arlene Coupchiak: "It's special for most of the kids."

"It's about something bigger than all of us and to me that's the real promise of Christmas," added Mike Haller, spokesperson for the Alaska National Guard.

For families in rural Alaska, Santa's visit provides a feeling of connection with the rest of the state.

"We've come to think of this entire effort as warming the spirit, warming the heart and hand, and warming the mind," said Major General Phil Oates, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard. "We not only bring toys for the youngsters, but we've added books in their stockings to aid in the fight for literacy, and we've also added clothing.

"There'll be toys for the children, clothing for families, and village schools will receive books and family videos for their libraries to bolster our efforts to improve literacy. We continue to do this, in part, because of tradition, because it is a worthy gesture in an increasingly tough world -- and we do it because it reminds us of our journey in life -- to help one another."

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