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Hunters assist Hooper Bay Inuit community

10/27/2006

On Aug. 4 of this year, fire swept through some 15 acres in Hooper Bay, Alaska, a town of about 1,000 people, 94 percent of whom are Yu'pik Inuit.

It's nine square miles of coastal shoreline on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, located about 500 miles west of Anchorage.

The blaze destroyed 35 structures, including 12 homes, an elementary school, a high school, a teacher housing complex, stores, offices and storage shelters.

In Hooper Bay scale, it was about as devastating as San Francisco's fire of 1906, except that no one was hurt in Hooper Bay.

Askinuk or Askinaghamiut are the early Eskimo names for Hooper Bay, which had been populated by native people for thousands of years before the village was first reported to the Lower 48 in 1878 by E.W. Nelson of the U.S. Signal Service.

The name Hooper Bay came into being after a post office with this name was established in 1934. The present-day Eskimo name Naparagamiut means "stake village people."

To get to Hooper Bay, you must fly in, or come by boat during the summer. The Bering Sea is free of ice from late June through October.

The region receives 75 inches of snow a year, but only about 16 inches of rain. This is maritime climate country, Arctic style.

Forty-seven people hold commercial fishing permits to catch halibut and salmon in Hooper Bay. Other primary sources of income include working on Bureau of Land Management firefighting crews, teaching in the local schools and working at a small e-commerce company, Sea Lion Corporation.

Subsistence hunting and fishing, and some trapping in the winter, supplement the income for most everyone in town.

The sale and importation of alcohol is banned in town. Wells provide drinking water. A new sewage treatment plant and commercial fishing dock are being built, and the school has the largest population in the district.

In short, Hooper Bay is an isolated but well-run community, full of pride and with an eye on the future. It's a nice place.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, something of the scale of Hooper Bay's tragic fire, seems inconsequential … until one realizes this is the Arctic, and this town is very hard to access, except by air (weather permitting, of course).

And to fly things in is expensive. A pound of hamburger costs $5 in Hooper Bay.

Whenever you hear of tragic events like this, knowing what to do is not always easy. In the short run, food and clothing and other bare essentials always are helpful.

But these people not only lost buildings, they lost the tools that support their way of life, as well as their stockpiled foodstuffs — freezers full of oil-rich salmon, seal and walrus, gathered from spring and summer subsistence harvesting.

As news got out, Alaska Congressman Don Young, the American Red Cross, the Alaska Moose Federation and the Association of Village Council of Presidents put out a request to the hunting community for gear and subsistence supplies that would be needed for the upcoming long winter.
The Alaska Chapter of Safari Club International, the Alaska Friends of the NRA and the Hunter Heritage Foundation of Alaska notified their memberships.

Soon there was a flood of donations coming in, from sleeping bags and pads to lanterns and dishes, including some $2,000 worth of camping gear from the Gear Shed in Homer, Alaska.

The Alaska Chapter of Safari Club International and the Friends of the NRA AK bought 13 shotguns and 13 rifles from Sportsman's Warehouse, which tossed in another rifle and shotgun to make 28 guns in all.

The Hunter Heritage Foundation of Alaska bought tents and camp stoves, and its members donated equipment.

Like ripples in a pond, the word spread farther into the hunting community.

Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham, visited the village himself in August. As a result, his humanitarian organization, Samaritan's Purse, purchased 11 freezers and had them sent to Hooper Bay.

Cabela's donated 10 four-man Alaskan guide tents, coffee pots and other miscellaneous gear worth about $3,000.

Arctic Circle Air flew all the donations out to Hooper Bay for free.

Thanks to the outpouring of help, the people of Hooper Bay have been out picking salmon berries; hunting for moose, ptarmigan and waterfowl; trapping beaver; and catching whitefish, sheefish and salmon while the rebuilding of the town goes on. And it's all got to happen quickly, as the snow is falling up there.

If you'd like to lend a hand, visit the Hooper Bay Web site and show the townspeople that the spirit of charity runs strong among hunters today, as it has for thousands of years.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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