Boats and Bravery

Boats and boaters are answering the call to help deliver Covid-19 vaccines to the remotest regions of the Final Frontier.

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Paws digging into the frozen earth, breath floating skyward in the -30-degree air. Musher Leonhard Seppala strains to see through the blizzard and otherwise otherworldly landscape ahead of him. The year was 1925, and Seppala had just completed the harrowing final leg of a sled dog relay to deliver a life-saving serum to Nome, Alaska, during a deadly diphtheria epidemic. You likely don’t recognize his name, or the names of any of the other brave Alaskans who risked their lives during that infamous blizzard, but you may have heard of the courageous canine who led his fellow sled dogs on that final leg. His name, immortalized by Disney in 1995, was Balto.

Nearly a century later, that same spirit of Alaskan kinship is once again on display. The Final Frontier is currently leading the United States in Covid-19 vaccinations per capita thanks to a herculean effort by healthcare workers (a campaign dubbed “Project Togo” after another popular pooch from that 1925 rescue mission) to reach remote towns and tribes by any means necessary. From small aircraft and boats to sled dogs, the vaccine roll-out has been as unique as the landscape that 731,000 people call home.

In December, the Associate Press reported that when poor visibility grounded flights to deliver the Pfizer vaccine to the remote village of Seldovia, Alaska, a charter captain named Curtis Jackson was called in to ferry the precious cargo—along with four medical personnel—aboard his 32-foot Munson landing craft through four-foot seas to its destination. The 15-mile crossing typically takes Jackson 30 minutes, but due to deteriorating conditions it took him an hour.

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On his Facebook page, Jackson posted a video of the snotty conditions, along with a short post that he titled, “A Little Victory Story.”

Conditions on Kachemak Bay prevented planes from flying this morning, so I got the honor of delivering our rock star medical staff bringing the first round of COVID vaccine across the bay to the community of Seldovia. That little blue box [carrying the vaccine] was the best Christmas present a tired boat captain could ask for my friends. It’s been a long century of a year in Alaska but today felt like the light of a coming dawn and better days ahead. The mask doesn’t show the huge smile on my face as I get to pose with my heroes. Thank you for all that you do nurses, doctors, health care providers!

Even during the winter, travel by boat is a necessity in the remote regions of Alaska, which has led the state to do things like use fishing boats as a vaccine location and to create boat-up vaccination sites. The gorilla-style vaccination system has allowed Alaska to become the first state to offer the vaccine to all its residents.

Boaters like Curtis, following in famous paw-prints, are certainly making their state—and the boating community—proud.

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