President Obama in Alaska

In Dillingham, President Obama does Yup'ik dance and talks up wild Alaska salmon

DILLINGHAM -- After days of postcard-perfect Alaska weather, President Barack Obama arrived on a rainy morning in the fishing town of Dillingham, where hundreds of cheering, clapping residents ignored the drizzle and lined the streets to catch a glimpse of him.

During his three-hour visit, the president took hold of a slippery silver salmon, joined school children in a traditional Yup'ik dance and made an unscheduled stop at the N & N Market to underscore to the national news media the importance of local-caught fish in a place where grocery prices are double the going rate in many parts of the country.

The moment that amplified the hopes of local residents came when the president stood on Kanakanak Beach. Subsistence setnets were in the water, salmon strips were displayed on a drying rack, and subsistence fishermen and Alaska Native leaders stood near. There, the president said Bristol Bay "represents not just a critical way of life that has to be preserved, but it also represents one of the most important natural resources that the United States has."

Air Force One landed at 11:51 a.m. A Blackhawk helicopter was circling. Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby, State Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, and Robin Samuelsen, leader of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., greeted the president on the ground.

Everywhere Obama went, he shook hands with and brushed up close to local residents. Some who were pre-approved and screened with hand wands had packed into a hangar to watch him land. "Bristol Bay! USA!" some called out.

The presidential motorcade numbered about 20 vehicles: Alaska State Troopers and Dillingham police vehicles, black SUVs and vans flown into Dillingham for the president's quick stop, white local vans driven by local leaders that carried news crews. A couple displayed the Dillingham High Wolverines name. Obama rode in a black Chevy Suburban, with a second one traveling along as a decoy.

A young brown bear that locals had named Bearack wasn't out and the motorcade blew on past its hangout.

The first stop was on Kanakanak Beach, named for the Yup'ik word for westerly. Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, and Mae Syvrud, a subsistence fisherwoman, stood in boots and waders by subsistence setnets. Obama, dressed in a black outdoors jacket with no easily visible logo, was given some orange gloves then picked up a silver salmon.

"I didn't catch it," he told the press pool. "I didn't want anyone to think I was telling fish tales."

He talked with both women a while, about fish and about fishing, about how to pick fish from nets, about what kind of salmon is caught, Hurley said later. It was impossible to hear most of what was said. She said she thanked him, for protecting Bristol Bay.

Obama last year declared Bristol Bay off-limits to oil and gas leasing. The Environmental Protection Administration is fighting in court to use its powers under the Clean Water Act to prevent a mega-mine in the Bristol Bay watershed like the proposed Pebble project.

In this small town of 2,300, almost everyone fishes or has family who does. Alaska Native, fishing and environmental organizations as well as the city council have taken a position against Pebble.

The women picked a flopping silver and handed it to Obama. A stream squirted out of it. "Uh oh. What happened there?" he asked.

It's a spawning salmon, the women told the president.

It got on his shoe, the president said, and that generally is not what you want on your foot. One of the women said something to him. "She said he was happy to see me," he said to laughter.

Then the president made his way down a line of other fishermen. At one point, they were discussing filleting fish. He called out to the Secret Service. "Do we have a knife?" But none were allowed for the presidential demonstration. He tasted some salmon jerky and said it was "outstanding." Fishermen have been saying for days they hope he eats some Bristol Bay salmon.

He was given jarred salmon and commented on silvers on ice in a cooler ready to ship.

Then he spoke about Bristol Bay to a pool of reporters, including from the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Rolling Stone, as well as Dillingham public radio station KDLG.

"Even though we've got a cloudy day, I think everybody has a sense of how beautiful this place is," Obama said. "And the scale of fish that come through here is remarkable. If you catch -- or if you've eaten -- wild salmon, it's likely to have come from here."

Bristol Bay's wild sockeye runs are the largest in the world.

He said it is fragile and pristine and needs protection for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"We couldn't have asked for anything better," Hurley said after the president left for his next stop in Kotzebue.

But a group on the other side of the Pebble fight left dissatisfied. Six people flew in from the village of Iliamna, which benefited from Pebble exploration. Myrtle Anelon, a lifelong Iliamna resident, said they couldn't even get into the hangar earlier in the day. She said development of the mine would bring jobs and opportunity. While most people's signs were for salmon or against the mine, hers said "For Pebble."

The president dances

At the Dillingham Middle School gym, students from the middle and high school packed in along with town leaders for a Yup'ik dance performance by children from preschool on up.

Dance leader Sophie Woods told the president that Yup'ik isn't spoken much in Dillingham anymore.

"What little they know is what I teach them in their dances," she said.

They danced and sang and drummed about berry picking and basketball, four songs in all. Obama smiled and clapped along with everyone else.

Then he stood up.

"I've been practicing," he said. For one quick song, he danced with the children up front.

Keep up with the traditions, the president told the children.

"Pamyua!" someone shouted, asking for him to dance again.

But it was time to go.

The last stop at N & N Market was quick. Shoppers who had been screened pulled out their phones and iPads for pictures. A crush of reporters maneuvered through the small store. Obama bounced a baby in his arms. The president said tribal organizations were working on ways to boost economic development to make goods more affordable, and also to develop locally produced items. He suggested reporters buy something. But there wasn't even time to check the prices.

A few minutes after 2:30 p.m., Air Force One took off just as the rain picked back up. And the little town of Dillingham had plenty to talk about.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.