Squadron brings holiday cheer to Arctic Village

by Capt. Tami P. LeHouillier

ARCTIC VILLAGE, Alaska (AFNS) -- It was Dec. 6 and already past noon, yet the sun was just beginning to peak above the horizon. The half hour it had to shine was barely long enough to nudge the temperature to 50 below zero.

The roar of engines from a C-130 Hercules signaled the arrival of Santa Claus, and renewing a bond between an Air Force flying squadron and this remote village as part of a special holiday program.

The Arctic Village School's Christmas program began 28 years ago when a forest fire became the unlikely catalyst for a friendship between the Athabascan Indians here and the 517th Airlift Squadron "Firebirds" from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.

The fire had forced the Porcupine Caribou herd, a primary food source for the Indians, to alter its migratory route -- taking the animals out of range. The 517th AS stepped in to help, flying the villagers to the herd and back again with the caribou meat after their hunt.

Since then, the squadron and the villagers have come together in true holiday spirit for the program. The 517th AS brings Santa, gifts, supplies and food to this remote site. In exchange, the villagers welcome the 517th with songs, dances, hand-crafted gifts, and a spread of native foods.

This year's festivities were cut short due to an extremely cold air mass that had settled over Arctic Village. In these temperatures, a C-130's time on the ground is limited; engines must run constantly or the fuel will freeze. Because of the weather, only three squadron members made the two-mile snow machine ride from the runway to the village.

"It was cold, but I'm grateful I got to be a part of this," said Capt. Nathan Halstead, who played Santa for this year's visit. "Seeing the look on those kids' faces when I got off my snow machine is something I'll never forget. It made my entire holiday season," said Halstead, who is an aircraft commander with the squadron.

Accessible only by air or river, Arctic Village is about 200 miles north of Fairbanks in the heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The village has 126 residents who subsist through hunting, trapping and fishing. Less than 50 years ago, many families still lived as nomads, following the caribou herds and living in temporary shelters. Then more permanent structures were built, a runway was carved alongside the river bed, and the outside world became more accessible.

"The entire village looks forward to its yearly visit from the 517th and Santa Claus," said Lynn Mooney, the Arctic Village principal. "This meeting not only allows them interaction with people they would otherwise never encounter, it brings them much-needed food and supplies."

The Firebirds raise money for the project each year through an auction. Vendors in the Anchorage area donate gifts for the auction, held in November. The unit uses the funds raised from the auction to buy food, and toys and clothing for the children. They also buy a special gift -- such as a computer or large appliance -- for the village community. (Courtesy PACAF News Service. LeHouillier is assigned to the 517th AS, Elmendorf.)

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