When the sea ice around one of Alaska's farthest-flung watery outposts melts, it takes with it more than a change of season. As sunlight and warmer temperatures descend on Little Diomede, which sits just below the Arctic Circle, the dividing line that separates this community from the rest of Alaska burns with more intensity. The runway that allows flights in and out during the winter withers away, leaving villagers with few options for air travel. It used to be that villagers could land space as passengers on the mail flight, but no more. The mail still comes, but the company providing the service has stopped allowing passengers on board.
It's not that there aren't options. But none are ideal. Solutions are costly, and depending on your views, they may also be politically prickly. There are no ambulances or taxis here to rush needy patients to crucial medical care. Here, as with elsewhere in Alaska, the sole and only reliable backup plan is to call on the Army National Guard to play personal driver, having its crew swoop in with a Black Hawk helicopter to scoop up patients and get them where they need to go.
The island is too small, steep and rocky for a plane to land. Helicopters can land at a pad near the small boat launch, but if fog has closed in, which it often does, forget it. Occasionally they can land on top of the island, but the higher perch has drawbacks. There is no road and no easy path down to the village, leaving residents who take this option to make the last leg home by scrambling down rocky cliffs with their luggage, and occasionally children, in tow.
These are not new challenges for the remote, impoverished community looking for ways to improve the quality of life for its residents, who are quick to remind us they are U.S. citizens who deserve equal access to the perks of modern American society, like education, electricity and access to health care. Yet a very real gap exists between philosophical ideals and day-to-day life.
"It's difficult," said Randall Ruaro, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Sean Parnell, and previously to Sarah Palin. "It's an isolated community surrounded by difficult terrain and rough weather."
Ruaro is actively pursuing a myriad of fixes for the tiny community, some on quicker timelines than others. His first priority? Getting Evergreen Helicopters, which flies the mail, to resume its passenger service to and from the island on its once-weekly mail route. "There are 16 to 32 empty seats a month that are going back and forth on the Bell 206 because there is not an agreement in place," he said in an interview earlier this week.
For 28 years, islanders have been able to squeeze onto mail flights provided space is available. The state isn't sure why, with Evergreen in charge, that changed last year. Ruaro plans to visit the company's headquarters in person next week, on his own time, to get answers.
One problem may be the company's use of a smaller helicopter than in past years, causing freight to take up more available space. But for Ruaro, that still doesn't explain why Evergreen won't take passengers from Diomede back to the mainland when, with freight delivered and the load lightened, there is more room on board. If they can at least get that much negotiated, then the state can look at ways to charter inbound helicopter service exclusively for passenger transport. And that's where another obstacle comes in -- money.
It can cost up to $720 per person round trip for helicopter service -- more if the helicopter is based farther away than Nome. Ruaro estimates that it would take $200,000 to $300,000 per year to subsidize regular summer air service to the island two to four times per month. Villagers should be eligible for financial help with the flights through several different government programs, but gaining access to those pots of money hasn't been easy, he said.
If Diomede can prove it had regular air service prior to 1988, it can qualify for a federal subsidy under the Essential Air Service Program. But Ruaro hasn't been able to locate proof that any companies or pilots were doing that work. Then there's the matter of the current political mood in Washington, D.C. Although 183 Alaska communities are eligible for the program and only 25 percent are taking advantage of it, the federal Department of Transportation and the Obama administration don't want any new additions for 2011, he said.
"We are supportive of (Little Diomede) being added, but it doesn't look real promising for that to happen. If we can't find proof, it will take an actual act of Congress for them to become eligible," he said.
The Indian Health Service could be another option for financial help, which is supposed to pay for the travel costs of its beneficiaries to access health care. Thirty to 40 trips to and from the island are made each year for routine medical needs, Ruaro said, at an expense of $150,000 to $250,000 per year. Norton Sound Health Care Corp. administers the money IHS provides, but it may be that IHS needs to pay more to ensure that villagers on Little Diomede are getting what they need, he said.
The state is also looking at whether it makes sense to build a bunkhouse on Wales, the westernmost point of mainland Alaska. With daily plane service to Wales, Little Diomede residents could at least be ensured a trip out of Nome to a community closer to home, and have a place to stay while they wait for a helicopter flight out or good enough weather to make a boat crossing.
Longer term, the state is looking at whether a year-round air strip and harbor improvements at Little Diomede are worthwhile, and whether implementing ferry service for the Bering Strait region makes sense.
"If we keep working at it we'll be able to find a solution," Ruaro said.
Pat Umiak, president of the Native Village of Diomede, said the community wants a better, more reliable method of transport between Diomede and the mainland.
"The most important thing is getting to a specialty clinic or to a specialized doctor, and there is no way to get to the mainland," Umiak said as the fog closed in on the island Thursday. "That's a problem for us."
The former Army National Guard medic once served as the village's health aide, back when there were no phones, no fax, no computers. Life on the island and the weather that surrounds it have changed a lot since then, he said. Sea and surf seem rougher more often, and the elders are wary to not gamble with Mother Nature when making journeys by boat to Wales, which he says on a calm day with a good motor can be accomplished in about an hour. But those opportunities are unreliable.
With little power to force a change, villagers are looking to Ruaro and others to help fight the fight and regain regular summer flights.
"That's what we have to do, and hopefully not too long," Umiak said.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.