ANCHORAGE — There are certain locations where Santa Claus needs some help. They don’t lend themselves to just eight tiny reindeer and a jolly old elf.
And so Santa, as he has done for more than 50 years, calls on the Alaska Air and Army National Guard.
Operation Santa Claus relies on dozens of soldiers and citizen volunteers. Instead of a sleigh, he enlists a C-130 Hercules cargo plane, packed full of food and presents for Alaska’s rural villages.
Some years, Operation Santa Claus is able to reach several villages, especially places hit by floods or other disasters.
This year is a little different.
“Most of our aircraft are deployed,” said Brig. Gen. Julio Banez, assistant adjutant general, Army Alaska National Guard. “So this year we’ve concentrated on just a few villages in order to still bring something and not shortchange the villages.”
The heavy deployments mean that vital aircraft are unavailable, so multiple trips are not possible.
Operation Santa Claus is planning just one other village visit this year, and that’s to Wales on Dec. 3.
In Allakaket, the crew touched down just after noon, and as the front door of the C-130 opened, a tell-tale gust of air punished the participants.
“It’s awesome, but it’s cold,” said Jo Katkus, wife of Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, adjutant general of the Alaska Army National Guard. “I had no idea it was going to be 50 below up here, but it’s beautiful. When we look out the window flying in here, it’s like a gorgeous snow picture.”
Indeed, the village was quaint and still in the light of sunrise. The sun hung low over a nearby hill, silhouetting a scrub pine forest.
As Santa and Mrs. Claus disembarked the plane, they were greeted by villagers eager to see what gifts they’d brought.
A villager in a red pickup truck took Mr. and Mrs. Claus to the village after volunteers filled its bed with all types of goodies.
At the schoolhouse, villagers trickled in and unbundled their heavy winter gear, revealing satin dresses, silk bows and even a tuxedo.
“That’s the first kid I’ve ever had visit my ice-cream stand in a tuxedo as part of Operation Santa Claus,” said Rich Owens, owner of the Tastee Freez ice-cream shop in South Anchorage. Owens retains close ties with Air National Guardsmen, who frequently visited his shop from the nearby Kulis Air National Guard Base until it closed earlier this year.
Owens’ ice cream is the only thing that can even begin to hold a candle to Santa Claus. For many of the village kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever tasted ice cream. And for most, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a full ice-cream sundae.
“As you can see, next to Santa, it’s kind of a hit,” Owens said as he pumped chocolate syrup over the top of one young girl’s ice cream.
At 87 years old, Johnson Moses, a village elder, hobbled around the gymnasium in resplendent skin and fur boots. He leaned heavily on a cane — but when Mrs. Claus made her appearance, he bounced out of his seat as he might have 70 years ago.
He grabbed the white-haired lady and began to dance in a mock waltz.
Then he grabbed the hand of Santa Claus and said, “Thank you for being here.”
“What do I think of all this?” Moses asked in a quieter moment. “That’s really something. I like to see that, you know. That’s all good, all that you have for my great-grandchildren you know. Makes them smile.”
As if in a daze, the children of the village go from Santa’s lap to a table of books and backpacks provided by the Salvation Army. They are allowed to pick out a book, and a smiling volunteer handed them another bag of goodies.
Whether it’s the big meal, the sweets, the visit with Santa Claus or the presents, the children are big-eyed as the afternoon wears on.