DILLINGHAM -- One of the behind-the-scenes community leaders who helped set up events for President Barack Obama in Dillingham ended up -- to his own surprise -- riding with the president in an armored Chevy Suburban flown in for the visit to this fishing town.
Robin Samuelsen, board chairman of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., was the third greeter in line Wednesday when Obama stepped off Air Force One.
"Welcome to the salmon capital of the world," he remembers telling the president. "I'm Robin Samuelsen."
"You're riding with me," Obama responded.
Samuelsen on Thursday recounted the remarkable series of events. He said he didn't know what to think and initially was directed to sit in one of the vans in the 20-vehicle motorcade. Then he was redirected to the Suburban. Some in the crowd that gathered to greet the president from an airport hangar yelled "Robin! Robin!" He gave a thumbs-up. The president sat on the right, he sat on the left, and an aide faced him in a seat that flipped down from the back of the driver's seat. The Secret Service was up front.
The space was surprisingly tight because of the thick side panels and glass.
"The president's face is right there. You are sitting close," Samuelsen said.
He thanked Obama for protecting Bristol Bay from offshore oil and gas development. He brought up Pebble mine, which many in the region are fighting, but the president said he couldn't talk about it "because it was in the court system."
They talked about Bristol Bay's remarkable run of 59 million sockeye this year and about fish management in state waters and offshore.They talked about economic development and the organization he now heads, which has a share of the Bering Sea catch and invests in the region, home to about 6,000 people. Obama asked good questions, he said. Some of the president's comments later during his visit echoed some of that discussion.
"And this has some of the biggest salmon runs, sockeye, in the world," Obama said on Kanakanak Beach, where he met with hand-selected fishermen.
Samuelsen lives near there.
"I was sitting there talking with the president of the United States in Dillingham, Alaska, riding down my own street saying 'this is unbelievable.' "
On the beach, he could see the splash of fish in a setnet that had been put out for a demonstration. The day before, the net was hauled in almost empty.
"Thank you, Lord," Samuelsen told himself.
In the SUV, Obama thumbed through a stack of about 15 White House briefing papers. Samuelsen glanced over but couldn't see without his glasses, which he had taken off earlier after waiting outside for the president's plane.
"It was raining and I didn't have a paper to wipe my glasses," he said.
The president's schedule for Dillingham changed a lot in the days leading up to the visit, Samuelsen said. When the possibility of a big community meeting for as many as 800 people was pulled off the table, Samuelsen was ready to quit the whole thing.
"You are coming to my town, my region and you are not giving people access to the president?" Samuelsen said. "I said 'I'm not meeting the president. I'm done.' "
Then the White House team offered a compromise: a Yup'ik dance performance at the middle school gym with 300 people present, counting middle and high school students. The mother of some of the dancers -- who had taken part in a 4-H summer culture camp -- sat on one side of the president. Ralph Andersen, chief executive officer of Bristol Bay Native Association and another of the planners, sat on the other.
At the school, Obama was served a lunch of grilled sockeye salmon, salmon eggs, cod several different ways and even salmonberry akutaq, or Eskimo ice cream.
He told the school crowd the fish he had for lunch was "really good."
In the end, the president's time in Dillingham was extraordinary, Samuelsen said.
For the visit, people came from Iliamna, Aleknagik, Togiak and Anchorage for the chance to wave at the president from the side of the road. Samuelsen said some were planning to boat in open skiffs from Manokotak.
In the SUV, he spotted a big sign-waving crowd on the other side of a security barricade.
"I said 'Mr. President, you got to look out your window. Look at all those people waving at you.' "
The president leaned out and looked out.
"And he started waving back at them."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing