Yukon River village shopping for new grocery store

By Alex DeMarban
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) June 2010

A Yukon River village is close to having its first grocery store in more than a year, a move that will help local residents who snowmachine over risky terrain or fly to nearby communities just to shop.

The two men behind Laav’kaq LLC, which means “store” in Yup’ik, said they brought the local tribe into the venture in hopes that profits can benefit everyone in the village of Nunam Iqua.

“I’m 37 years old and there’s no sense in making all that money,” said investor James Adams. “I think it’s more of a community opportunity here.”

The store will provide local jobs and the tribe can invest its share of earnings in new ventures or dividends to tribal members, said Adams, the tribe’s council president.

Adams came up with the store idea with George Owletuck, Adam’s step-brother and a village consultant originally from Marshall, an upriver community.

The company plans to buy groceries from Carr-Gottstein Foods at low rates, which they’ll pass on to customers, Owletuck said.

The last hurdle is inking a lease agreement for a building in the village. Options include the old store or the high school, Adams said.

Hopefully, that won’t take longer than 60 to 90 days, Oweltuck said.

The village corporation ran the former store. A working number for the corporation could not be found.

The store closed about 1 years ago, grabbing headlines last winter because its absence compounded woes in a village hard-hit by poor commercial fishing and crippling energy costs.

The city has operated a small “survival store,” as one resident called it, out of a city office.

But it’s not enough, Adams said.

“It’s your basic necessities - juice, tissues, coffee, a few canned foods, but that’s about it,” he said.

Adams said he and others in the village can survive off the land. In Yup’ik, Nunam Iqua means “end of the land,” because it sits near the animal-rich Bering Sea.

But children are becoming accustomed to groceries, making a store a necessity, Adams said.

At a recent meeting in the village of 200, residents said they supported the idea, he said.

Shopping trips to the nearest villages – Alakanuk is the closest neighbor at 13 miles away – can be dangerous.

To get groceries, travelers sometimes snowmachine over thin ice or boat across the lower Yukon with its shifting sandbars, Adams said.

Some residents mail-order what they can, or jump on commercial flights.

Either way, the extra expenses are another burden.

“If they can do it, that’d be awesome,” said Ann Strongheart regarding the store. “It would definitely cut down on gas and the danger of traveling by snowmachine.”

Strongheart, who has family in Nunam Iqua, lived in the village until last year and has blogged about life there.

Now residing in the Bristol Bay village of Ugashik, she’s still organizing food drives for the village in part because it has no store. Strongheart wrote of a shopping trip to Emmonak last winter with her now-deceased husband. They hired a sitter for their baby daughter, hauled a plywood sled and doubled up on a single snowmachine because gas prices were too high to take separate vehicles.

“When we got on the Yukon, my husband had to keep a close eye out for overflow,” she wrote, adding that it can leave deadly holes in the ice.

At Emmonak, the next closest village, the couple bought 34 items. Diapers cost the most, with 144 totaling $82.55. Six fruit cocktail cans went for $17.34, and a bag of generic Cheerios cost $6.99.

The 50-mile round trip exceeded $500 when Strongheart included the 12 gallons of gas, she wrote.

Once the Nunam Iqua store is in place, the men behind it said they’ll watch profit margins and cash flow carefully to make sure costs remain low while the tribe benefits.

“It’s a good deed for the people,” Adams said. “They need it. They really do.”