Santa Claus delivered presents to Napakiak a little early this year: on Dec. 4 instead of the night before Christmas. And instead of behind flying reindeer, he arrived in a Black Hawk helicopter.
Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Mikos is waiting for the Black Hawk helicopter to land outside the National Guard hangar in Bethel. The sun is just peeking over the horizon at 10 a.m., but everyone has been up much earlier.
"I feel great!" Mikos said.
The sergeant has played Santa Claus before in the Alaska National Guard’s “Operation Santa.” It’s a tradition that dates back to 1956. Each year, the National Guard flies to small, remote Alaskan communities off the road system bringing presents, ice cream, and Santa. Napakiak was the second village this year; Santa visited Tuntutuliak a week prior.
Mikos and roughly 20 other volunteers are setting up the gym at the Napakiak school. Bags featuring characters from the Disney movie “Frozen” are for babies and toddlers. Older students receive backpacks filled with snacks, toothbrushes, and school supplies. The adults are not left out. They get cheerfully-colored hats knitted by women in Florida. When everything is ready, the children file in to sit in the middle of the gym floor and start singing Christmas carols.
Then the big moment: Santa walks in.
While some kids and their parents line up for Santa, others line up for ice cream. They can choose caramel or chocolate toppings, as well as sprinkles and cherries.
Not everyone knew Operation Santa was coming to Napakiak. Trisha White saw the Black Hawk helicopter circling the village earlier in the morning.
"We didn’t know what was going on," White said.
So she and her partner, Jonathan Nelson, called around and realized that Santa was on his way.
"A couple hours later, we found out everyone was here," White said.
So they brought their daughter to share in the fun.
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Natalia Ayagalria is admiring her new backpack.
"I got a free backpack that says "Peace Frogs," and it’s purple," Ayagalria said.
Ayagalria hopes Santa will come back again.
"I hope it happens because it’s, like, a community activity that’s pretty cool, and not this many people always go to activities," Ayagalria said.
For many kids, this was their first time at Operation Santa. For Maj. Gen. Torrence Saxe, the Adjutant General for the Alaska National Guard, and the Commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, it was his first time too.
"I haven’t seen kids that excited over Santa for a long time," Saxe said.
He doled out the cherries for the ice cream line, and has a pretty good idea of the favorite toppings.
"I’m gonna say chocolate with sprinkles and one cherry. I only had two people in the entire room that did not want a cherry," Saxe said.
Two hours later, it’s over. Everyone packs up, loads the Black Hawk and takes off.