Alaska News

Anchorage gets its day with President Obama

On an improbably bluebird day in early fall, for the first time in a long time, a sitting U.S. president touched down in Anchorage on Monday for more than just a refueling stop.

Outside the security cordons and beyond policy discussions, the arrival of President Barack Obama drew a full array of protesters, opportunists, celebrants and the merely curious to downtown, all angling for a chance to be part of the moment.

A sea of security

With roadblocks and road closures, downtown Anchorage -- still busy at the tail end of tourist season -- was transformed into a zone where law enforcement seemed to outnumber civilians on some blocks.

Outside the Hotel Captain Cook, where many top officials -- including the president -- are staying, concrete roadblocks and city snow trucks filled with sand formed a formidable-looking safety perimeter.

Inside, the usual ratio of sleek business suits to Carhartts and baseball caps had been flipped.

Everyone inside the hotel seemed either to be sporting a crew cut, black suit and telltale clear Secret Service earpiece or a bulletproof vest and an explosive-sniffing dog.

A checkpoint involving a metal detector and an impassive-looking German shepherd wearing a sign that said "DO NOT TOUCH" was required for entry into the east wing of the hotel's ground floor.


Despite the high-profile guests, business went on as usual.

Secretary of State John Kerry was hustled out a side entrance into a waiting SUV, while tourists browsed feet away at a hotel boutique called HM Bark, "a shop for discerning dog owners."

The Princess Cruise tours reception counter remained open. Some of the visitors were excited about the new element of their package tour. Some not so much.

Allan O'Brien of Tampa, Florida, and his wife were less than delighted to learn their cruise to Alaska intersected with a presidential visit and major international conference.

O'Brien was interested in getting to Denali National Park to see wildlife and scenery, less so in dealing with omnipresent security in downtown Anchorage. This was his first trip to Alaska; already they'd missed a Portage Lake tour, which his wife was unhappy about.

"We probably won't be invited to breakfast with (Obama)," he said.

A chance for an audience

Outside, some used the visit as a platform to broadcast their personal agendas to an audience.

Josie and Anthony Henry brought seven of their 11 children to the corner of Seventh Avenue and F Street to sing gospel songs.

"When the waters rise/I run to hide/Lord, I run to you," the family sang in a song called "My Hiding Place."

The song's parallels to the climate change topics were on purpose, Josie Henry said.

"We're evangelists," said Henry, who is originally from Point Hope. Her husband, an artist and pastor, is from Kiana. "We try to reach people."

Meanwhile, a bearded man in a converted flatbed truck drove in circles through downtown, bellowing through a loudspeaker system.

"Impeach Obama! Before it's too late! He's a narcissist!" he shouted, speakers carrying his voice blocks away. He slowed to hand out photocopied literature promoting perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche before being hurried along by police.

Jannette Camacho sat on a bench at the downtown transit center waiting for a bus home, a small American flag stuck in her purse.

She said she didn't speak enough English to really describe why she had come downtown, but pulled out her phone to show a picture of herself standing with a life-size cardboard cutout of the president outside Darkhorse Coffee.

"Look," she said. "I got a picture with Obama!"

A block away, a man in an unnervingly realistic polar bear costume held a cardboard sign advising President Obama to not "spoil his Arctic home." He admitted the suit was hot.


Rebecca Noblin, director of the Alaska chapter of the Center for Biological Diversity and the costumed man's escort, explained the bear was known as Frostpaw, and his purpose was to remind leaders not to compromise their credibility on environmental issues.

"Frostpaw isn't here to chitchat," she said. "He wants to talk climate."

Waiting for the motorcade

Around 5 p.m., a crowd gathered at the corner of F street and Eighth Avenue, near sporting goods store Skinny Raven, in hopes the presidential motorcade would pass.

Strangers stood shoulder-to-shoulder waiting and discussing rumors. Some live-streamed the president's speech -- being delivered just blocks away in the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center -- on their phones.

Videlis Mairura and Kennedy Atemba joined a throng of families and office workers. Both are originally from Kenya and study at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

They wanted a glimpse of Obama, too.

"This is a unique president," said Mairura. "He came to Alaska to talk about global climate change. He's focused on the next generation."

Finally, around 5:30 p.m., the moment came: A rush of police SUVs down the otherwise empty street. Then a limo that looked distinctly presidential.

A cheer rose from the crowd. Visible in the backseat for a fleeting moment was the smiling man everyone had come to see.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.