ANCHORAGE - Last winter, old people in the rural Alaska village of Emmonak sometimes brought six-gallon plastic jugs to the tank farm at 20 below. They would pull the jug home on a sled, carrying enough stove oil to heat their house for the rest of the week.
Other people walked a mile or more out into the snowy tundra to cut alders by hand to burn in wood stoves.
"That's something I never saw before," said Cindy Beans, who watched them haul their sticks past the Emmonak tribal council office. She was the acting tribal administrator. Every day, she said, people came to her office looking for assistance to pay for fuel.
"It was heartbreaking to hear," she recalled recently. "Families would move out of their homes into other homes until the end of the month. There were three families with children living in one small three-bedroom house."
Spring breakup brings no relief. Things are about to get even harder.
Stove oil cost $4.85 a gallon all winter in Emmonak, a Yup'ik village of 800 at the mouth of the Yukon River. Gasoline was $5.91.
Like much of rural Alaska, Emmonak spends eight months locked away from the world, with fuel prices set by the fall season's final delivery. When the first fuel barge of the spring arrives, it brings new world-market prices. This year, the first barge to reach Emmonak is expected to mean $8-a-gallon gas.
"The price increases they've forecast leave me utterly speechless," Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Bethel, said earlier this week.
The high cost of fuel is an aggravating problem in urban Alaska. In rural Alaska, it is pushing some households and communities to the edge.
In Tanana, an Indian village farther up the Yukon, fuel costs for the School District are expected to go up from $60,000 last year to $100,000. The school was forced to cut its math teacher to compensate, said administrator Dorothy Jordan. If that budget proves inadequate - villagers are waiting to see what the fuel barge brings - cuts to basketball could be next.
High prices have cut into subsistence and recreation. People used to snowmachine four hours to Ruby to watch the Iditarod mushers. They don't do that any more, said Mike Andon, who works for the Tanana tribal council.
Jordan said some Tanana families are having a hard time paying electric bills, which are pushed higher by the price of fuel.
"People are not able to afford the basic things. And that's scary," she said.
In Anaktuvuk Pass, there is no sudden leap of fuel prices in the spring. That's because the Inupiat village is landlocked in the middle of the Brooks Range and flies its fuel in year-round. The price of fuel has been ratcheting up all winter.
A gallon of gasoline has gone from $6.09 to $7.90 since February, said Robert Parker, general manager of the Anaktuvuk Pass village corporation. It's going to be $8.09 next week, he said. Along the Bering Sea coast, the arrival of the summer's first supply barge usually spells relief from a long winter of scraping by - or paying air freight charges. Maybe, back in the days when oil prices rose and fell, it might even mean cheaper fuel. Not any more.
"It's very hard on our communities," said Craig Tonga, a vice president for Crowley Maritime, one of the leading fuel distributors for Western Alaska.
Subsistence efforts are being cut back in villages because of high fuel costs. People don't leave Emmonak nearly as often to hunt game or check fish nets, said Ted Hamilton, the tribal natural resources officer. When they do go, they often resort to a rural version of carpooling: two hunters sharing a snowmachine or boat.
Successful hunts are harder that way, Hamilton said, especially for younger hunters - there's too much talking.
Assistance programs funded by the state and federal governments help families with fuel costs, but they don't stretch very far, Emmonak officials say. Foreign aid filled the gap.
"The Citgo fuel program helped a lot," said John Redfox, supervisor at the tank farm for the Emmonak village corporation.
The Citgo program, funded by Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chavez, pumped $8 million into rural Alaska through Venezuela's North American oil company subsidiary. The money was distributed through regional nonprofit agencies to 158 predominantly Native communities.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. sent $1 million of the total to 17 Western Alaska villages, including Emmonak. Each household received a voucher for 100 gallons of stove oil, to be obtained at the local tank farm. The vouchers weren't available until February, by which time many families had already exhausted other subsidy programs.
"That tank farm was packed that day. They worked around the clock," said Beans. "I saw a lot of these people cashing in their vouchers, they were excited, laughing. They were happy. I almost cried."
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