NORTHWEST ARCTIC BOROUGH, Ak. --
North of the Arctic Circle, where the sun doesn’t peek above the horizon, where the weather averages below freezing for over half the year, where no roads lead in or out of, children, just like nearly everywhere else, eagerly await a toy to arrive each December.
Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough is larger than the state of Indiana yet boasts a population of under 7,800 residents residing within 11 different communities, many of whom are Alaskan Natives. Infrastructure is extremely limited to the villages and towns of the borough, making airplanes the only means of travel available year-round.
Due to the logistical challenges, Alaskan Natives within the borough must travel to the larger community of Kotzebue for their essential shopping. Also, residents use Kotzebue as a hub to travel to larger communities for additional goods and service.
As a result, most children receive few Christmas gifts due to the challenges of transporting toys and other items back to their homes in this Alaskan countryside.
However, this is where the “Alaska Marines” step into the picture.
“Toys for Tots is a program sponsored by the Marine Forces Reserve,” said U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Keith Lowell, “It’s an opportunity for Marines to deliver toys to underprivileged children across the United States.”
The Marines with Delta Company, 4th Law Enforcement Battalion, Marine Forces Reserve, also known as the Alaska Marines are responsible for collecting, sorting, and distributing thousands of toys to school-aged children across the state of Alaska.
“Toys for Tots is a program worth spending your time on. If there’s anyone that’s interested in doing it, they should very much look into seeing how they can help."Capt. Keith Lowell, United States Marine Corps
The toys arrive by the truck load to the Colonel Archie T. Van Winkle Marine Corps Reserve Training Facility aboard Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, located just north of Anchorage.
“We sort [the toys] by age group and gender, and then we sort them again by village, and box them up to ship them north,” said Lowell.
And north the toys go, traveling over 500 miles to the town of Kotzebue, the largest community in the Northwest Arctic Borough.
From Kotzebue, the Marines prepare to travel to the smaller, more remote communities in the borough, from Shungnak to Point Hope, Noorvik to Deering. The Marines visit them all, via donated flights on small propeller airplanes and snowmobiles, dressing as Santa Claus and gifting toys to the local children.
“Really, it seems like a lot of trouble, but it’s not,” said Lowell. “To see the sparkle in these kids’ eyes when they see Santa Claus coming into their school. When they come up and they get a gift from Santa Claus, it,” he paused, “it’s so special.”
In total, the Marines sorted and shipped over 3,000 toys.
As it seems, the ends justify the means. Crossing the Alaskan tundra in December is no easy feat, especially for the Marines who are not native to the area. With the help of locals, the dangerous task of crossing hundreds of miles on snowmobiles in sub-zero weather becomes more like a guided expedition.
Locals like Brad Rich of Kiana and Robert “Robbie” Kirk of Noatak are more than happy to provide help to the Marines in a way that would make southern hospitality shiver.
“This has been my sixth year with the Toys for Tots Marines,” said Robert Kirk. “It started with Brad reaching out to me asking if I wanted to help out and I said, sure.”
“Alaska Marines” deliver toys across northwestern Alaska
Photo by Cpl. Brendan Mullin
Since his first year helping with Toys for Tots, Kirk has invited the Alaska Marines into his own home when passing through Noatak.
Kirk also acts as a trail guide for the Marines, making him one of the most important factors in ensuring the Marines can make it safely to the different communities via snowmobile.
“I really do enjoy working with people and showing them our beautiful country at the same time,” said Kirk.
Kirk said just the experience of working with Toys for Tots and getting to show the Marines around the area makes “the whole thing worthwhile.”
He continued, “Toys for Tots is a program worth spending your time on. If there’s anyone that’s interested in doing it, they should very much look into seeing how they can help.”