Coast Guard civilian lends tax aid to rural Alaska

Coast Guard civilian provides tax preparation assistance to rural Alaskans

ANAKTUVUK PASS, Alaska - Richard Harris, a Coast Guard civilian attorney from Kodiak provides tax preparation assistance to residents of Anaktuvuk Pass Feb. 21, 2012. Photo courtesy Richard Harris.

Richard Harris, the Coast Guard District 17 legal assistance attorney in Kodiak, provided free tax assistance to residents of four remote Alaska villages above the Arctic Circle in February under the Volunteer Tax and Loan Program. Harris and his partner Ethan Jones, from the University of Washington, attended training prior to flying out to the villages to familiarize themselves with the current tax regulations and specific issues that they might encounter.

Below is Mr. Harris’ firsthand account of the trip.  

My two-man team visited four Arctic Circle villages: Fort Yukon, Allakaket, Alatna and Anaktuvuk Pass. Each village was accessible only by a small aircraft flight originating from Fairbanks, and each had its unique culture and beauty. Even though the culture and the language in each village were different, the sources of income were similar, making the returns simple. The economy in the villages is primarily subsistence based. Wages generally came from the government at some level, or from a native corporation.

Fort Yukon is located eight miles north of the Arctic Circle. We visited there from Feb. 19 to Feb. 20. It is home to the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in tribe and they speak Gwich’in in addition to English. According to the tribe’s website Gwich’in translates to house on the flats.

Ethan informed me that the -10 degrees Fahrenheit temperature we encountered in Fort Yukon was his first sub-zero experience. He had the opportunity to further that experience a couple of days later when it reached -35 degrees near Anatuvuk Pass.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2010 Fort Yukon’s has 583 people, 246 households, and 130 families. They eagerly anticipated our arrival and our services. Our plane landed in the early afternoon and after a brief tour of the town, we were set up and preparing taxes by 3:30 p.m. We did not stop until 9:30 p.m. For our President’s Day holiday, we worked from 8:30 a.m. until about 10:30 p.m. and the team’s combined output was approximately 100 returns.

We left the Fort Yukon airport on the morning of Feb. 21 bound for Allakaket and Alatna. Allakaket is on the south bank of the Koyukuk River, southwest of its junction with the Alatna River, approximately 190 miles northwest of Fairbanks, and the smaller village of Alatna is directly across the river. Allakaket primarily is an Athabascan community, while Alatna primarily is Kobuk Alaska Natives.

By the time we arrived at our make-shift office at the Allakaket tribal council that afternoon, they already had a waiting list of over 25 people. While steady, the number of returns was not as overwhelming as it was in Fort Yukon, so we were able to become more acquainted with the villagers and their culture. The 2010 census showed 105 people, 44 households, and 25 families in Allakaket.

After working about six hours that evening, we employed the local mode transportation, snow machine across the river, to service Alatna. Because many of Alatna’s population of 37 people, 12 households, and five families already had their returns completed in Allakaket, there was plenty of time to explore the natural beauty. It was a bonus when they offered to let us take the snow machine for a spin while waiting for the last clients. I’d never ridden a snow machine before; driving it made the non-existence of indoor plumbing bearable. It was a full day and after returning to complete about six more hours of returns I invested the $3 required for a much-needed shower.

Anaktuvuk Pass is part of the North Slope Borough, slightly north of the Brooks Range, within the gates of the Arctic National Park. The natural beauty of this place demonstrates to me the reasonableness of setting it aside as a national park. Anaktuvuk Pass is a Nunamiut Inupiat village of 324 people, 99 households, and 65 families according to the 2010 census. Anaktuvuk means place of caribou droppings in the Inupiaq language. Based only on my impression, Anuktuvuk Pass was the most prominent of the villages, and the statistics seem to bear that out. The census found median household incomes of $52,500 and a median family income of $56,250.

It was a fun trip and the experience of a lifetime. I am grateful for the opportunity, and I hope I can make it happen again next year.

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