Opinion: A day Dillingham will never forget

Sep 2, 2015

Clark Fair, originally of Kenai, is a Dillingham resident and was KDLG's photographer in the White House press pool Wednesday.

President Obama stopped in the N&N Market for a bite to eat before leaving Dillingham for Kotzebue Wednesday.
Credit Clark Fair

Back in July, a visit to Dillingham by the President of the United States of America was completely off my radar of possibilities. When a local university employee asked me whether I’d heard that the president might be coming into town, I assumed immediately that she was talking about the new university president, the recently appointed Jim Johnsen.

After all, I’d been doing grounds-maintenance and custodial work at the university’s Bristol Bay Campus during the summer and had just been informed that some extra office and classroom cleaning was in the works. I thought the school was going to be inspected.

A few days later, when it became clear that officials were actually talking about Barack Obama, I launched into denial. Why would the president come to Dillingham? Presidents come to Alaska for refueling stops on their way to Asia, I said. They don’t visit bush communities. This must be someone’s idea of wishful thinking.

So, I was wrong.

Pre-advance people showed up in Dillingham, and the city got placed on a short list of possible presidential stops. Then more pre-advance people showed up in town and finalized plans. And then late last week, the real advance team began to materializee — U.S. Marines, Secret Service agents, communications specialists — and so did its retinue of machines: Blackhawk helicopters, dark panel vans with Virginia license plates, boats, S.U.V.’s, cargo vans, two presidential limos and then bomb-sniffing dogs and snipers.

The local population swelled briefly. Hotels and B&B’s were full. Restaurant traffic was brisk.

But before all the hardware arrived, I lobbied KDLG for a press pass. Truly, I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I wanted in on the action. Of course, acceptance meant a lot of last-minute scrambling.

After I was vetted by the White House and joined the press pool, it occurred to me that my camera situation was tenuous at best. I borrowed a better camera with a longer, sharper lens. I charged batteries. I double-checked storage cards. I packed and repacked my camera gear. I tried to leave nothing to chance.

Meanwhile, day one of the Obama Alaska Tour was clear and warm. The photo ops out of Anchorage featured mountains, blue skies and sunshine. Day two, in Seward, was, if possible, even warmer and sunnier, with retreating glaciers, wildlife and more blue skies. But the forecast for day three was troubling — a low cloud ceiling, with rain and more rain and even more rain.

Still, the weather failed to dampen either the spirits of Dillinghammers or the enthusiasm of the president.

From the moment he trotted down the stairs from Air Force One and onto the tarmac at Dillingham, he was upbeat and energetic, and he played skillfully to an eager, excitable crowd that had no problem standing in the rain to be a part of the moment.

The press was shepherded into vans and included in the presidential motorcade. At each venue, we were guided by professional wranglers who moved us from position to position. I shambled along with camera straps draped like leis around my shoulders, the rest of my body encased in raingear. Surrounded by professional photographers out of Anchorage and Washington, D.C., I prayed that I wouldn’t screw up my chance to record the occasion.

With assistance, the president picked salmon from a setnet on Kanakanak Beach and sampled salmon jerkey. He asked intelligent questions of those assembled, and he used the opportunity to strengthen his support for the preservation of Bristol Bay’s amazing fishery.

Then he zipped over to the middle school gymnasium — past banners exhorting him to keep protecting our way of life and to block Pebble Mine, past crowds of sodden but jubilant onlookers brandishing smart phones and iPads — to watch elementary school children perform Native dances. He joined in on a final performance, posed for a group photo with the kids and then leaned into a crowd of high school students and VIPS for more handshakes before being escorted back to his limo.

In the press van, we were told to expect another stop in less than a minute. We speculated the possibilities and then followed the leaders to N&N Market. Outside, bystanders were being wanded by Secret Service. Inside, the president shook hands, said hello to two children (to the absolute delight of their parents), noted the high prices of living in the bush, made a brief speech and was off and running again.

The press chased him to the airport. But not fast enough to catch him.

He was back aboard his Boeing 757 quickly, as the rain continued to fall and security continued to prowl. The rapid departure was understandable, however, as the president was headed north to Kotzebue for a few hours.

On my way back into town, I noted that the streets had cleared. People were returning to their lives. I stopped into N&N for a soda on my way home. Everything seemed normal again, almost. Although I didn’t eavesdrop on conversations, the topic of the moment was obvious from the gestures and the smiles.

It’s unlikely that Dillinghammers will ever forget the day the President of the United States came to town. But it’s also worth noting that autumn is here, and there’s a lot of work to be done before winter sets in. Life goes on, and the residents of Dillingham hope that the president’s visit can help assure that it goes on this way, through the cycling of the seasons and the salmon, for the rest of time.

Clark Fair, a Kenai Peninsula resident for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.

The opinions above belong to the author and are not necessarily held by KDLG News. Submit opinions and feedback to news@kdlg.org.