October 31 marks the end of the Coast Guard’s annual operations in the Arctic.
“So we’re here in the hangar right now at Kotzebue. It’s the National Guard hangar. We’ve got two MH-60 Tango aircrafts here,” Lieutenant Jared Carbajal said.
Painted bright orange and white, the MH-60 Jayhawk is the workhorse of the Coast Guard’s search and rescue missions. Since July 1st, two of them have been stationed at Kotzebue, and all summer long, aircrews have rotated in and out, as part of the Coast Guard’s seasonal work throughout the Bering Sea and along the North Slope. It’s an annual operation called Arctic Shield.
Carbajal, a pilot, will be one of the last to fly out of Kotzebue this year. After a busy season, Arctic Shield wraps up at the end of this month.
Arctic Liaison Officer Lt. Jeff Shoknecht explained the mission.
“Arctic Shield really is just the Coast Guard doing what it normally does in an area that it’s not normally, um, or at least in the past, has been as accessible,” Shoknecht said.
The Coast Guard has been present in Alaskan waters for 150 years — in fact, it was a Coast Guard cutter that brought federal officials to Sitka in 1867 for the territory’s formal transfer from Russia.
But as Shoknecht explained, in recent years, things have been heating up in Arctic waters in more ways than one.
“At least in the sense that conditions are ice-free and allow merchant traffic, cruise ships, increased boating in general,” Shoknecht said. “That’s expected to continue to rise.”
Diminishing sea ice means more maritime traffic in the Arctic — and with it, higher risk of accidents.
Officially beginning in 2012, Arctic Shield deploys cutters, aircraft and personnel to what’s called a Forward Operating Location, a temporary home base for operations throughout the Arctic from July through October. The Coast Guard’s 17th District, which covers all Alaskan waters, is based in Juneau. But stationing resources at a more convenient location cuts down response time in an emergency. And Shoknecht said that can mean the difference between life and death when one of the biggest challenges is scale.
“It’s kind of like being headquartered in Miami and then managing resources that are in Texas and North Dakota,” Shoknecht said. “If you were to overlay Alaska onto the Lower 48, that’s the size of it.”
The Coast Guard leases a hangar from the Army National Guard in Kotzebue as a home for Arctic Shield. The facility was renamed last year in honor of Kotzebue resident John Schaeffer, the first Inupiaq two-star general in the Alaska Army National Guard. The hangar had more than enough room for the two helicopters and, along one wall, a pile of moose and caribou antlers collected during training missions.
Carbajal, the pilot, said that training takes place “pretty much every day,”
“There’s a lot of training we have to do. If we don’t fly for two weeks, and then we get launched in a snow storm, at night, on our last day,” Carbajal said. “It’s just like training for a sport, you’re not as ready, you’re not as good as you could be. With the extreme weather, the cold, the winds, our chances of finding people is much higher if we can regularly train.”
Carbajal said, with so much activity, they try hard to be “good, friendly neighbors,” sharing their plans—and receiving greetings from locals—over VHF radio, trying not to fly too close to anyone’s camp, and regularly consulting with government biologists about the location of wildlife so they can steer clear. Carbajal showed a gigantic map covered in sticky notes tracking the locations of moose and caribou, seabird rookeries.
“Yes, where are the herds, where is the fishing, where’s the hunting, where’s the whaling?” Carbajal said. “We don’t wanna be shooting approaches down or hovering over the water, deploying our rescue swimmer in the middle of a pod of beluga whales, for instance.”
And, in addition to search and rescue, the Coast Guard’s Arctic Shield activities include outreach events in coastal communities throughout the region, both to highlight their presence in the Arctic and to help communities prepare for worst-case scenarios like an oil spill or a boating accident in very cold water.
Back in Kotzebue, it was business as usual as the second MH-60 helicopter returned from a training flight.
As of last week, Coast Guard crews had undertaken 20 search and rescue missions since arriving in Kotzebue in July. They’d saved 20 lives, and assisted 27 others.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the location of
the USCG’s District 17 headquarters is in Juneau — not Kodiak.