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Politics

Bristol Bay welcomes US President September 2, 2015

President Barack Obama spent three hours in Dillingham Wednesday, picking salmon out of a net and dancing with some young students.

President Obama began a daylong tour of Western Alaska Wednesday with a stop in first Bristol Bay, spending three hours in Dillingham. Whereas Mr. Obama had enjoyed sparkling clear weather thus far on his Alaska trip, it was drizzly and a little chilly for the duration of the Dillingham stop. No mind, say residents: that’s what fishing weather is usually like in the region, and fishing was the main thing locals wanted the President to know more about while he was in salmon country. 

Past ex-presidents have come to Bristol Bay, usually for the world class sport fishing. But the crowds were pumped as President Obama landed in Air Force One at the Dillingham airport Wednesday. 

A group of about 150 pre-screened people waited in a hangar to greet the President. Starting with several veterans, Mr. Obama shook hands for a few minutes, telling people "Good to see you." Among those thrilled to see him was Dillingham's Simuka Smith. 

“I mean, this is the most excitement we’ve had, and maybe we’ll get some of our issues taken care of, with Pebble mine and drilling," said Smith. "I hope he sees the beauty of the town and the area.”

Despite the light rain, people waited on every corner and driveway to welcome the 20-car motorcade. Many waved flags and hand-painted signs bearing messages like "Hail to the Chief" and "Obama cared, our salmon are spared." 

The first stop was a closed event on Dillingham’s Kanakanak Beach, a popular subsistence fishing spot on Nushagak Bay.  There, at low tide, the President put on orange fish-picking gloves and helped pick some humpies from the net. As he held one up for a photo-op, he got a slimy surprise. 

“Did you see that? Something got on my shoes!" laughed Mr. Obama. "It was spawning a little bit... He said he was happy to see me.” 

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Credit Hannah Colton/KDLG
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Laugh it out: Alannah Hurley, Mae Olson and President Barack Obama crack up after a salmon "spawning" incident interrupted their fish-picking lesson on Kanakanak Beach in Dillingham.

That’s right: a Bristol Bay salmon shot its milt on Barack Obama’s hiking boot.

Organizers hoped to have Obama cut fish as well, but the Secret Service nixed the necessary sharp knives. Instead, he sampled some traditional salmon strips ("really good," he declared) and was gifted a jar of smoked salmon. 

Mr. Obama didn’t take any questions from the press, but offered brief remarks from the beach. Emphasizing the importance of preserving Bristol Bay's subsistence lifestyle and commercial fishery, he called the Bay one of the United States' "most important natural resources."

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What was behind the message of the trip? The President veered off his the broader climate change theme, instead calling attention to Bristol Bay as an intact, unique ecosystem that supports one of the world's great fisheries. Hannah Colton has more.

A larger crowd gathered out of the rain at Dillingham Middle School, where the President watched traditional dances put on by the 4-H Native Dance Group, then surprised them by jumping up to join for an encore. 

Dancer Haley Carty seemed a little overwhelmed by her time in the spotlight with the President. "It was kinda weird," she reflected, "and really nervous." 

The President spent a few minutes mingling with students; selected teenagers from the surrounding school districts were in attendance along with the entirety of Dillingham Middle and High School. Dillingham's Caleb Kapotak was among them. "He shook my hand and gave me a high five," said Kapotak. 

Mr. Obama then made an unscheduled pit stop at N&N Market, where he grabbed lunch from the deli, held a baby, and commented on the high food prices in bush Alaska. 

The damp but enthusiastic crowd downtown got its last glimpse of the Commander-in-Chief outside the grocery before he headed back to Air Force One, bound for Kotzebue. 

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Credit Eric Keto
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A quick learner on the dance floor, Obama joined students for a traditional Yup'ik dance.

Many, like Dante Luckhurst, were happy just to witness the spectacle of the visit. 

"We got to see a lot of cops," said Luckhurst. "We seen a lot of black cars and army men, and we seen a good plane flying by that the President was in."

A few people, never minding the drizzle, waved him off from atop boatyard shipping containers: a fitting sendoff from Bristol Bay. 

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What was going on behind the scenes, and why was access so limited? That may be the subject of much private discussion in the weeks and months to come, but Robin Samuelson spoke with KDLG News about his efforts to make the president's stop in Dillingham open to as many as possible. KDLG's Dave Bendinger has more.

Contact the author at hannah@kdlg.org.