Written by Ens. James Bushman
This past summer Coast Guard Cutter Spar (WLB 206) deployed to the Arctic and Bering Sea in support of Operation Arctic Shield 2016. The Spar, a 225 foot sea-going buoy tender known as “The Aleutian Keeper,” spent 42 days conducting multiple Coast Guard missions including fisheries law enforcement and search and rescue. The ship and its crew also completed an often overlooked role of the Coast Guard in Alaska, community relations. Our service has a long history of working with our Alaska Native partners. The community relations role has been carried out since the early days of wooden ships and sail, a time when Revenue Cutters on Bering Sea patrol were the face of the Federal government in the newly acquired territory of Alaska. The Spar’s actions this summer carried on this tradition which has contributed to the Coast Guard’s success in the region.
Spar’s Commanding Officer, Lt. Cmdr. Douglas Jannusch, expresses to all personnel reporting onboard for duty the unique opportunity the cutter has in carrying on the community relations assignment and the vital role it plays in Alaska, a state proud to bear the title of “the Last Frontier.”
It’s nearly impossible for those raised in the lower 48, where even the most rural areas are connected by highway and railroad to major cities and centers of production, to fully understand what life is like in remote Alaskan communities. These are villages literally on the edge of our nation. Coast Guard visits help to maintain a sense of connection with the rest of the United States, ensure their voices are heard and way of life respected, and provides the Coast Guard with vital knowledge of what is occurring in these remote regions.
During the patrol, Spar visited the communities of Little Diomede, the Pribilof Islands (St. Paul and St. George), Golovin, Hooper Bay and White Mountain.
Little Diomede, an island with a native village bearing the same name, puts the remoteness of these communities into perspective. The island is a small, rugged mountain in the middle of the Bering Strait, less than two miles from Russia. Andrew Kunayak Jr., an Alaskan Native and lifelong resident of Little Diomede, stated that during the Cold War the narrow waterway that separates the two nations was “always full of Soviet (not American) ships.”
During each visit, Spar met with community leaders to determine local concerns and lend assistance. Common issues raised by every village centered on an increase of human activity in the region and the risk of potential maritime incidents. The opening of the Arctic Ocean, which has contributed to the increased traffic in the Bering and Arctic, has required Alaska Natives to adapt to a changing world. Leaders at Golovin and Hooper Bay also provided input concerning local aids to navigation, modern tools that add a layer of safety to traditional subsistence living in these maritime communities. They stressed that these aids help to ensure subsistence fishermen and hunters return safely home.
At Golovin, Spar conducted a pollution response workshop, training residents how to respond to pollution spills by taking initial actions in the early stages of a spill; extremely important knowledge for isolated communities far from pollution response teams. At Little Diomede, SPAR’s crew assisted the community by transporting 2,000 lbs of electronic waste for proper recycling. This helps the residents of Little Diomede contribute to our nation’s efforts of ensuring safe and clean communities, even in the most remote regions of our country.
Though there are a lot of meetings and labor involved with each stop, community relations isn’t all work. Fun and games play an important role in the assignment as well. There are numerous activities which help to facilitate cultural exchange as Coast Guard crews and community residents learn of our diversity as well as our shared culture as fellow Americans. Crews interact with Alaskan Natives learning about their way of life, participating in community events, educational exchanges and friendly competitions on courts and ball fields.
In Little Diomede, village representatives came aboard Spar and provided a cultural presentation including a slide show and native dance demonstration, in which members of the crew were invited to take part. In St. Paul, the cutter’s crew participated in a bonfire and outdoor feast of native fare, as well as a softball game. Crewmembers visited the local school in Hooper Bay to meet with children, share stories and play a game of basketball. The command invited villagers aboard at each stop, giving residents an opportunity to learn about life aboard a Coast Guard cutter. These interactions help bridge cultures, facilitate further conversation and develop relationships which will serve to maintain connections with Alaskan Native communities for generations.
As the United States moves forward with the march of time, it is imperative that a clearly planned course is laid for maritime communities in even the most remote regions of the nation. Alaskan Native communities live a primarily subsistence lifestyle, relying heavily on the natural resources that the Coast Guard is charged with protecting. As commercial and tourist activity in the Arctic and Bering increases, community relations helps to ensure input from these communities is heard and incorporated into the Coast Guard’s Arctic strategy. Though community relations may not be well-known outside of these waters, it is a key element in the Coast Guard’s service to the region, its residents and our nation as a whole.
“It’s something I never would have thought about before making this patrol (the importance of Community Relations in Alaska), I had no idea what it was like to live this far removed from everything,” said Petty Officer Second Class Jason Portier, an electronics technician, who reported to the cutter in July. “Each community was so happy to see us. The time we devote to these assignments ensures these citizens stay and feel connected to the rest of the nation. We may not have had all the answers they were looking for, but they knew we would take their concerns to those who did.”