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President Obama in Alaska

Dillingham opens up to presidential team with dinners, signs and thanks for stance on Pebble mine

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 1, 2015

DILLINGHAM -- As this small fishing town spruces up for a visit from President Barack Obama on Wednesday, down-home hospitality, intense security and regular life are melding and sometimes clashing.

A Welcome Obama banner with an anti-Pebble mine message went up on the main road downtown. A few buildings were spiffed up with fresh paint. A brown bear that's been hanging out near the airport on Kanakanak Road got a name and a sign: Bearack Viewing Area.

The president will make a quick visit Wednesday to Dillingham, year-round population 2,300, but most of his three-hour stop will be off-limits to the public. He's meeting with local fishermen and their families at Kanakanak Beach at the edge of Dillingham in an area that's been crawling with Secret Service. He'll also stop at Dillingham Middle School for a cultural performance, according to the White House.

Black SUVs with dark-tinted windows that arrived in C-17 cargo jets are all over town. Dozens of Secret Service agents, military members, White House aides and contractors have filled Dillingham's three hotels as well as most of the bed and breakfast rooms. Lodging workers said they are an engaging group of visitors.

New teachers in Dillingham who normally spend their first year in furnished units at the Thai Inn were sleeping on air mattresses in the high school until they upgraded to temporary space in the state Department of Fish and Game bunkhouse.

Road work and fresh marking of lanes was scheduled to be done anyway, but the visit inspired people to go beyond that, said Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby, who grew up here and returned after college. Interns painted the warming house at the hockey rink. Volunteers trimmed the Welcome to Dillingham sign at the airport.

'Quyana Tai-Lu-C!'

Tuesday evening, dozens in the community came together at the bingo hall for a dinner that included pizza and salmon spread on pilot bread. There were free Obama T-shirts and sign-making at the event organized by the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a group that formed to fight the proposed Pebble mine.

Ruby Murphy of Dillingham, an Ekuk tribal member, addressed Obama in Yup'ik on her sign. "Quyana Tai-Lu-C!" she wrote. "Thank you for coming!"

Murphy said she is worried what would happen to berry patches and the salmon-rich streams and rivers if the Pebble gold and copper prospect were developed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is fighting in court to use the Clean Water Act to block a mega-mine in the Bristol Bay area, says the proposed Pebble development would be nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon. Murphy is worried about contaminants, about the possibility of cancers.

"Have you seen 'Erin Brockovich?' " asked Murphy, whose hand-beaded earrings were the shape of raspberries. "I love that movie."

Kasten Wallona, a 17-year-old sophomore with blue hair, watched his mother make a sign questioning the extraction of gold and copper, and oil too.

The prospect of seeing Obama is "electrifying," Kasten said. Students at the high school have been told Wednesday will not be a normal day, he said. There will be bomb-sniffing dogs at school, he said they were told. Some classes won't be held. Anyone who goes to the bathroom will have to go through security. Backpacks and jackets need to stay in the classroom.

Businesses closing

Not everyone in town is a fan of the Obama administration's stance on Pebble and some people are frustrated by air-space restrictions that will enclose Dillingham Wednesday.

An exception to those praising Obama for his administration's work to block a mega-mine and protect Bristol Bay was Ron Bowers, a local Republican leader who works as a medic.

"He's using Alaska as a pawn to promote his agenda," Bowers said. "I don't want to see EPA intervention in Pebble."

The way of life is important. But so are jobs, he said.

But most seem to be over the moon about the president coming.

The community, home to a commercial fishing fleet, is used to a big influx of fishermen every summer, but this summer's contingent of military, White House and Secret Service people was welcomed on a different level.

Rick Halford, a Republican, former state Senate president and pilot who is fighting the mine, said he took people from the Obama contingent for a ride in his plane Tuesday to see the land. More want to go.

"The best understanding of the Bristol Bay area they can get is just to look at it," Halford said at Tuesday's tribal gathering. "Let the country speak for itself." Leaders need to provide education, information and science so that decisions are well-grounded. The Bristol Bay watershed, which produces nearly half of the world's wild sockeye salmon, may be the last unspoiled salmon ecosystem in the world, he said.

With an estimated 59 million fish, this summer's run of red, or sockeye, salmon in Bristol Bay was the third biggest on record, said Tim Sands, a Fish and Game area management biologist.

The American Legion's new Dillingham post put on a big potluck for the advance team and a second one on Sunday for the influx of military as well as Secret Service personnel, said Rex Spofford, who was an Army National Guard captain and helicopter pilot and now serves as a probation supervisor in Dillingham. King salmon roasts, salmon strips, pickled fish and moose were all on the table.

People invited White House aides for a home-cooked dinner. Elements of the presidential contingent during off-time were invited to go berry picking, fishing and hiking.

"I was talking to some of the White House staff last night. One guy told me he had been on 60 of these missions. He said this one was by far the most interesting and the best," said Gorden Isaacs, who along with his wife, Susan, owns Beaver Creek Bed and Breakfast.

Sands said he took some of the visitors to Lake Aleknagik, where they grabbed spawned-out sockeyes with their bare hands just to see if they could, then let them go.

Some businesses in Dillingham are closing Wednesday. Many people plan to take time to catch a glimpse of the president.

"I am going to try to stand on the side of the road and wave," Sands said. "A presidential motorcade in Dillingham, Alaska. You got to get a picture of that."

Mike Davis, a Democratic leader in Dillingham who earlier served in the state Legislature from Fairbanks, on Tuesday was hanging salmon-centric signs.

"Obama cared. Our fish are spared," one said. Davis was wearing an Obama '08 T-shirt from when he attended the national convention that nominated Obama. His wife, Pat Walsh, an artist who created some of the edgier signs, said the events elevate Dillingham.

"I think it's transcending Obama's visit," she said. "I think it's standing tall."

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