Climate change was front and center in President Barack Obama's unusual trip to the Arctic on Wednesday, in which he flew over the flood-threatened village of Kivalina and stopped at the Inupiat hub town of Kotzebue, which has also grappled with erosion.
But the president also took time to cuddle a puppy from former Iditarod champion John Baker's kennel and, in a speech to an energetic crowd of more than 1,000, briefly touched on broader challenges facing rural Alaska that range from high energy costs to poverty.
Though Air Force One briefly circled the village of Kivalina, it was an important gesture for tribal leaders who have long sought federal support to deal with erosion.
Millie Hawley, president of the village's tribal government, said the flyover gave her hope.
"It means to me he's paying attention to the issues around climate change," said Hawley, who introduced Obama before his speech in the Kotzebue high school gym.
Obama said the U.S. should do everything in its power to protect the village, just as it would if it were threatened by another country.
"The waves sweep across the entire island sometimes, from one side clear across the other," Obama said in the speech.
The trip to Northwest Alaska capped off his three-day visit to Alaska, and gave Obama a chance to highlight his efforts to combat climate change. But while the region some 500 miles northwest of Anchorage has warmed more than 3 degrees in the last half-century, Obama landed in the early evening on what felt to many like a typical late-summer day.
He flew in over the choppy Chukchi Sea just off the end of the runway, with about 100 residents waiting on the tarmac to greet him, hemmed in by a gate and stern-looking Secret Service agents.
"How is everybody? How are you doing?" Obama said, shaking dozens of hands.
Hundreds more lined the street on the presidential motorcade's short ride from the airport to the gym, waving flags and snapping pictures as the president passed. Roadside decorations included four-wheelers and a pair of dogsleds bearing patriotically colored signs that read, "Welcome to Kotzebue, President Obama."
Before entering the gym, Obama met with a few local leaders in a hallway, and gave a pair of nose-rubbing Eskimo kisses to Sandy Shroyer-Beaver, president of the regional school district.
"I was surprised he said, 'Yes," she said.
Obama had to bend down for the nose rub. After the first, he said, 'Oh wow, let's do it again,'" Shroyer-Beaver said.
During his speech, the audience roared when Obama said he was the first sitting president to visit the Arctic – the Arctic Circle lies about 30 miles to the south.
Citing Alaska's dangerous fire seasons, faster glacial melt, rising seas and thawing permafrost that has contributed to erosion, Obama said he knows he doesn't have to inform Alaskans about the dangers of climate change.
"What's happening here is America's wake-up call," he said. "It should be the world's wake-up call."
With leaders from the region sitting behind Obama, the roughly 20-minute speech largely touched on the numerous policy initiatives he had announced earlier in the day designed to help remote villages respond to the changing climate.
Among them is the Denali Commission, which will coordinate agencies to help villages adapt and commit $2 million to help villages deal with climate relocation. Another $4 million from the Department of Energy will go to a contest promoting clean energy projects among Alaska villages.
Investments should be made in communities before disaster strikes, Obama said.
"The effects can be irreversible if we don't act, and that moment is almost here," he said.
Percy Ballot, president of the tribal government in another village in the region, Buckland, said he was glad for the attention on Kivalina and the impacts of climate change, as well as the grants. But he said it may not be enough.
"We need more money," he said after the speech.
Obama also addressed the poverty and soaring food and energy costs in the region, saying his effort to speed construction of Arctic icebreakers and enhance tourism by improving national parks could help create jobs in the region.
To loud applause, he also touted the recent expansion of Medicaid by Gov. Bill Walker and also credited Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who sat in the audience, for the move. Obama said more Alaskans will get access to health care and won't go broke because they get sick.
He also thrilled the town by saying he'd heard how well the members of his advance team had been treated in Kotzebue and said he had enjoyed the hospitality he'd gotten in Alaska. He said he was envious that President Warren Harding spent two weeks here – during a trip in 1923 --- but said he couldn't make such a lengthy trip because "can't leave Congress alone that long."
During his speech, Obama also quickly got a taste of the Inupiat seal-call cheer often heard at events in Northwest Alaska -- the throaty "Ooh! Ooh!" Obama responded with a broad smile after he was cut off.
"I think that's a good thing, whatever it is," he said. "When you're president, you never know, sometimes you get some hecklers."
The significance of the trip wasn't lost on the audience.
"This makes us feel like we're part of the U.S.," said Talitha Berger as she left the gym. "It's incredible that he would visit us on the opposite side of where he works."
"It's great that he's interested in the rural communities and about moving towns that need to be move," said Hilary Upicksoun.
After the event, Obama left the auditorium to conduct an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, leaving reporters in the White House press pool for close to two hours.
The president also walked down Shore Avenue along the Chukchi Sea, where he met with Kotzebue City Manager Derek Martin to discuss the $40 million erosion-control and restoration project that began in 2009 and spruced up the edge of town.
"This was a permanent solution to a continuous problem," said Martin, referring to erosion.
The two also talked about life in the region.
Obama, wearing all black, including a Carhartt jacket and hiking boots, seemed impressed that the ocean would freeze three to four feet deep in about a month, and that barges delivering supplies to Kotzebue needed to do so before that happened.
He turned to reporters – held at bay by the Secret Service -- to note that the sun during summer "goes across the horizon and never goes down" for more than a month.
Crowds shouted "Obama! Obama!" shortly before the motorcade began rolling back to the airport. But Obama made an unexpected stop at the dog lot along the shore belonging to former Iditarod John Baker.
As reporters arrived, Obama was donning a black Team Baker jacket.
"This is a special Iditarod coat -- I got to try this on," Obama said.
"Now I am officially hooked up," he added.
He also admired a sled and held one of the Baker team's blue-eyed puppies -- Feather -- asking how long until it will be ready for training and stroking its fur.
"You're OK, sweetie," he said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing