On its own: How local organizations piece together search and rescue operations along Alaska’s Arctic coastline
Most evenings, Joe Leavitt can be found passing the time with a deck of cards at the Barrow Volunteer Search and Rescue Base in Utqiaġvik; he usually plays solitaire.
“Once in a great while we will have a pinochle game,” Leavitt said.
This far north, the weather and climate are generally pretty unforgiving year-round. In winter, winds are bitter cold and the season is long and dark. In summer, rains are frigid and winds can make the Chukchi Sea rough. The landscape can be disorienting too. The North Slope Borough includes eight communities scattered across more than 95,000 square miles. There are no trees, and landmarks are few and far between. Leavitt has been a volunteer here for decades, and he knows all too well how quickly things can go from good to dangerous.
“I was rescued last summer,” Leavitt said. “My boat broke down, and they actually went and retrieved my boat for me and helped me get home. And it’s a good thing, because when we are doing our hunting we don’t have to pay for the rescue.”
But that could change. According to the Arctic Council, all marine traffic increased by 44% through the Northwest Passage between 2013 and 2019. That means more boats, which could mean more rescues.
“Maybe if a lot of people start coming up here and change everything, maybe you’ll start having to pay for your own rescue,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt is also a whaling crew captain. In Utqiaġvik, the region’s rich whaling culture is on full display. Most people walk around town wearing jackets emblazoned with the name and flag of their whaling crew. According to Leavitt, whaling seasons and search and rescue are the two things that bring the whole community together. And whether searching for a whale, or someone who’s lost in a boat or on a snowmachine, he said that people up here never stop looking.
“We had [a few] incidents where people walked home and [the community] thought they were dead, and they actually went to their own memorial service. People have done that up here,” Leavitt said.
The volunteer base operates on a shoestring budget, raising money through pull-tab sales and working with the tribal government and the North Slope Borough to fill gaps.
Curtis Lemen is the base mechanic, one of its few paid employees. He maintains two boats, both decades old. He said that one of them was out of commission last year waiting on a new motor. A snowmachine parked nearby is one that Lemen might use for parts in the future. In January, he went at least two weeks without a paycheck. Finding a regular and reliable source of funding is challenging.
“That is our hindrance. We barely get by with some of the maintenance that we do,” Lemen said.
The North Slope Borough also operates a search and rescue program. At roughly $14 million dollars, its annual budget is more robust. The program’s key assets, two airplanes and two helicopters, are housed in a giant hangar alongside Utqiaġvik's runway. Josh Grier is the chief pilot. He said the that North Slope is on its own.
“To be able to stage [a rescue] up here typically takes days to be able to get a Coast Guard asset or National Guard assets. Twenty-four hours probably at the very bare minimum, sometimes longer,” Grier said.
The closest U.S. Coast Guard base is roughly 940 miles due south of Utqiaġvik. By sea, that distance more than doubles. Last October, a Coast Guard helicopter hoisted a crewmember off a Canadian icebreaker 200 miles northeast of Utqiaġvik. The medevac was successful, with help from the North Slope Borough, but Grier said that they wouldn’t have been able to do it alone. “We have hoist capabilities, but we are not capable.”
Grier said that it would take a much more robust training program and budget to be able to take on that kind of rescue at the borough level. In 2019, nearly 500 passengers were hoisted by helicopter off a cruise ship in southern Norway, the largest rescue of its kind in Norwegian history. Leadership from the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group said that the incident could be a harbinger for what is to come in the Arctic.
Two years before that rescue, a graduate student in California wrote a dissertation on search and rescue preparedness in Alaska’s Arctic region and found that no single organization in the Arctic has enough resources for adequate search and rescue response. But when organizations like the U.S. Coast Guard, the North Slope Borough’s Search and Rescue Department, and the Barrow Volunteer Search and Rescue Base work together, the collaboration is formidable. In fact, experts say that kind of cooperation in the Arctic will become essential as more and more ships pass through the region.
Last August, the Coast Guard, emergency response in Utqiaġvik, including search and rescue, and even the local hospital held a tabletop scenario in which dozens of cruise ship passengers needed help.
"We're preparing for it and seeing where our gaps and resources lie,” said North Slope Borough Director of Search and Rescue Heather Dingman. “But at the moment, we wouldn’t be able to do any hoisting over the water.”
She added that there are other ways her organization could help in an emergency. “If a cruise ship had a landing pad we could be of assistance,” Dingman said. She said the borough also does something called “search and radio.”
“Where we fly over the water, and we can provide communications about sailboats and things like that to the ground,” Dingman said.
For volunteers like Tony Akpik, though, it doesn’t matter what’s in the budget or how many assets do or don’t exist. If needed, he said that he’d always be ready to assist in an emergency.
“We help each other. Everybody, no matter who you are,” Akpik said. Akpik is Leavitt’s nephew and works on Leavitt’s whaling crew. He credits his uncle with his willingness to help his community. Akpik said that volunteering gives him a sense of purpose.
“It takes the community to pull up the whale, and we pull up 20, 30 whales a year. And it takes the whole community to do that, so we just keep it that way,” Akpik said.
This ongoing series is made possible through a grant from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund.