HOONAH - Santa's new sleigh is 110-feet long, has room for roughly 20 elves to aid in toy delivery, doesn't need a red-nosed reindeer for navigation, and can travel in weather that would make even the most seasoned Kris Kringle shiver.
"This is a lot of work but it is a big lift for our crew," United States Coast Guard Cutter Liberty commanding officer Brian Tesson said as he watched his crew of "elves" plot and execute a course for Hoonah through the rough winter waters of Icy Strait on the cutter's first Santa mission of the 13th Annual Coat, Toy and Blanket Drive.
"Most of the crew can't go home for Christmas so this is kind of their Christmas, delivering toys and such to some of the isolated communities," he said. "The payoff is when the kids get on board, or see Santa, they are really smiling."
Initiated in 1997, the goal of the annual collection is to utilize the unique ability of the cutter to visit some of the small remote communities in Southeast Alaska that Santa might not be able to navigate to.
"This is my first delivery here but I have heard so much about it," Boatswain's Mate First Class Greg Wolfe said as he navigated the Liberty. "This really is something we are excited about doing."
Wolfe has been in the Coast Guard 20 years. He compared this drive to one done by the icebreaker Mackinaw on the Great Lakes delivering trees to needy communities.
Seaman Mitchell Chapman is one year into what he hopes is a lifetime duty.
"If I can do this one day every year, delivery toys to the needy, then that is something extra special about being with the coast guard," Chapman said.
As the Liberty docked in Hoonah, the crew donned Santa hats and unloaded bag after bag laden with treasures for the town folk. Volunteers collected the donated items from the coast guard or who worked in conjunction with the Juneau stations. Alaska Laundry and Dry Cleaners, Les Schwab Tires, and Taku Fisheries donated their services.
At Hoonah, locals drove trucks filled with the goodies to be placed at the town's community Christmas tree. Names of local families were then written on them to be distributed over the holidays.
"This is so great," Hoonah mayor Windy Skaflestad said. "It has been great for many years. When the gifts go to the community tree the families and kids just light up. This is a happy time in Hoonah right now, and we have needed some happy times."
In late July Hoonah's Icy Strait Lumber & Milling, owned by Susan and Wesley Tyler, exploded and burned. In late August Hoonah police officers Anthony Wallace and Matthew Tokuoka were killed in the line of duty. On Dec. 5 Sonya Gray and her children lost their belongings and pets in a house fire.
"Hoonah is getting back to being town filled with hope and love again," Skafelstad said. "Everyone pitches in when things have gone wrong. I remember growing up with that community tree and this feels just the same now."
New Hoonah police officer Billy Mills toured the Liberty with 3-year-old Chase Tanner leading him to Santa.
"I started duty soon as I stepped off the ferry," Mills said of his Dec. 6 beginning. "The town is being very supportive right now. This is one of the nicest communities in Southeast and I know they appreciate efforts like this."
The Liberty next sailed to Pelican for a Tuesday night potluck and will stop in Elfin Cove today. Also today, Big Brothers Big Sisters with their charges will help load more gifts onto the Liberty and the vessel for a potluck in Angoon on Friday and another in Kake on Saturday.
Last year, more than 5,000 pounds of donations were delivered to help the citizens of these communities stay warm and comfortable during the cold winter months and the children blessed with toys. This year's struggling economy has made life even more difficult in these communities.
"You really see with your own eyes how remote and distressed these communities are," Tesson said. "Some are really struggling. We are blessed with so many things and to be able to do this really makes our holidays meaningful."
Tesson said the Liberty will be in seven months of dry dock next Christmas so other vessels will be called on to carry the load.
Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@ juneauempire.com.