Last summer, Barrow witnessed a surprise invasion of friendly foreigners. Four hundred German tourists, having made the Northwest Passage in a cruise ship, showed up. Local officials in Barrow didn't know they were coming. Neither did the Coast Guard.
Good thing they were friendly.
It's also a good thing the ship didn't need emergency help at sea. Good thing it didn't spill any oil.
In those emergencies, the Coast Guard would have had to respond from Kodiak, roughly 900 miles to the south. It would have taken Coast Guard crews most of a day just to get the necessary equipment and personnel up to Barrow. (The North Slope Borough has an impressive search and rescue operation, especially for a municipality of 6,750 people, but it can only do so much with one helicopter and small boats.)
As America's Arctic thaws out, Alaskans can expect a lot more ship traffic -- and a lot more reason to call on the Coast Guard. Tourists are already coming. Oil explorers are itching to drill far offshore in hostile waters. The region might even see international fishing boats, on the prowl for new grounds.
The waters in the region are shallow, and they're not well-charted for ship traffic. Shorelines are eroding. There aren't any maritime services for large vessels north of Nome. Safe places for riding out the region's storms are scarce.
As commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said in Alaska last week, "I'm agnostic as to the science (about global warming). But there is water where it didn't used to be (in the U.S. Arctic) and the Coast Guard is responsible for it."
His agency is in the middle of a season-long exercise to learn what it needs to handle those responsibilities in Alaska's arctic waters.
The most pressing need is the most obvious: The Coast Guard needs staging areas closer than Kodiak for its planes and ships. Until then, the service is working against what Adm. Allen calls "the tyranny of distance."
During this summer's arctic training and planning, the Coast Guard has worked closely with the North Slope Borough. Coast Guard officials have enjoyed a warm reception up there, obvious to visiting media on a Coast Guard-sponsored trip last week. Coast Guard leaders readily admit they are new to the region and can learn from those who've lived there for millennia.
As other nations scramble to assert maritime claims in the Arctic and pursue new riches of the north, America is being left behind. If there's a five-nation race in the Arctic, says Alaska-based Coast Guard Adm. Gene Brooks, "we're fifth."
"The real question is what America wants to do up here (in the Arctic)," says Adm. Brooks, who runs the Coast Guard district based in Juneau.
North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta has a good answer to his question: "Somebody has to be out there knowing who's doing what. ... It's a frontier area for a lot of folks."
It's not the North Slope Borough's job to police this maritime frontier. It's the Coast Guard's.
The Coast Guard is eager to get to work -- but it will need more resources to be a fully effective guardian of Alaska's Arctic.
BOTTOM LINE: Alaska and America need the men and women in blue to help keep an eye on things up north.
Who's up / Who's down
UP Alaskans: Tack another $1,200 on that dividend check, courtesy of Gov. Sarah and lawmakers facing re-election. Fill 'er up.
DOWN Alaska tax whiners: Let's see -- dividend check, resource rebate, Uncle Sam's stimulus check. What was that about a tax burden?
UP Alaska: While our red state hasn't turned blue, some say it's one of seven battleground states in 2008. Should make election night a lot more interesting.
DOWN Alaska drivers: Oil prices slide, but gas prices? Hardly at all. Market forces at work -- for the few.
EVEN Sen. Ted Stevens: Uncle Ted takes a beating around the country, but comes home to warm welcome. No wonder he wants his trial here. Maybe they'll have it at the airport.
UP President Bush: Dubya gets a rousing welcome and sendoff from the troops at Eielson Air Force Base. Lame duck is still commander in chief.
UP Devon Ross: Goes toe-to-toe with a grizzly in the dark, lives to talk about bragging rights. Well done, Devon, but skip the rematch.
UP Carlos Boozer, Corey Cogdell, Matt Emmons: May all Alaska's Olympians shoot straight in Beijing.
DOWN Kusko bootleggers: Drunken duo lead troopers on wild river chase, only to wind up beached, cuffed and busted in Upper Kalskag. Vodka is cruel.