Alaska Air Cargo

How 3 Alaska Native entrepreneurs are building up communities – and the shipping tools that help

Little Diomede is a tiny island in the Bering Strait, off the northwest coast of Alaska. (Wikimedia Commons)

On any given workday, Vince Schuerch may be sending supplies to five homes under construction in Scammon Bay on the far-western coast of Alaska – or shipping heaters so his crews can work on those homes through the winter.

Alice Bioff’s day might include tracking a shipment of her Naataq Gear jackets – water-resistant outerwear inspired by traditional Inupiaq garments – from the Lower 48 to Nome.  

For Cliff Johnson, one of the biggest logistical challenges involves getting equipment and supplies to the community store his company is building in Little Diomede, a tiny Alaska island a stone’s throw from Russia where everything, and everyone, arrives by either helicopter or barge.

These three Alaska Native business owners are building up and investing in communities across the state. To get tools and supplies to far-flung construction sites – or Native-designed products to market – Schuerch, Bioff and Johnson must master complex logistics puzzles every day. And Alaska Air Cargo is proud to be a key partner in their shipping solutions. 

Specialized tools and shipping solutions for every job

Vince Schuerch
An Arctic Tundra Supply and Services demolition worksite in Scammon Bay. (Photo courtesy of Vince Schuerch)

Vince Schuerch is a U.S. military veteran whose general-contracting company, Arctic Tundra Supply and Services, is based in Wasilla and works all types of jobs around the state, from demolition to infrastructure reinforcement to new construction. He makes it a priority to hire workers locally, but supplies – even groceries – often must be flown in. “We ship all kinds of stuff out to the work sites: power tools, safety gear,” Schuerch says. “When the snow falls, we sometimes have to ship in snowmobiles.”

“When we were doing a job up in Kotzebue, I had to send a hand-held compactor – they call it a jumping jack,” he says. “I had to GoldStreak that.

“I like to say Alaska Airlines is actually doing some of the work for me,” he says. “I can drop off a shipment and send it out to Bethel, and then route it [with regional partner airlines] to Scammon Bay. With your cargo service and all the nice ladies who help me out in Anchorage at the Alaska Airlines Cargo office, it makes it so easy.”

He buys his supplies within the state and ships them on Alaska Air Cargo freighters as much as possible.

“The rate and freighter service make it easier for us,” he says. But it’s the cargo team that keeps him coming back.

“It’s like five-star customer service, from the person who helps me when I show up at the door to the ladies behind the counter who like to give me grief with a smile because I’ve been there so many times,” Schuerch says. “It builds good customer rapport, and Alaska Airlines becomes a choice.”

A jacket with a journey and a story

Alice Bioff wearing one of her Naataq Gear jackets. (Photo by Taylor Booth)

Alice Bioff’s passion for combining Alaska Native art and fashion began more than a dozen years ago when she started her first company, Tundra Tees, to produce T-shirts and hoodies designed with Inupiaq logos. “We wanted to see our youth sharing who we are as Inuit people and Inupiaq folks in Northwest Alaska,” she says.

But the full inspiration for Naataq Gear came one recent summer when Bioff was working as a cruise-ship tour guide. “A tall man with a big white cowboy hat saw the atikłuk [Inupiaq garment] I was wearing and really appreciated it, and he asked if it was waterproof,” she remembers. Traditional atikłuk – also known as qaspegs – were water-resistant because they were made from seal gut, but the one Bioff was wearing was made of cotton.

The question inspired a three-year journey to design, prototype and find a manufacturing partner to produce a jacket in fabric that is water-resistant, windproof and breathable – with the jacquard trim and shape inspired by the traditional atikłuk. The result, Naataq Gear’s Atmik jacket, builds on the history of the garment, which has evolved through generations based on the materials that were available. “It comes with a beautiful story of our cultural history,” Bioff says. “We’re innovative, we’re creative and we have a long history of building garments that are functional and are continuing today.”

But the jacket also came with a logistical shipping puzzle: The manufacturing partner who could fulfill the Naataq Gear specs was located in St. Paul, Minn.

Bioff researched multiple shipping options, and found Alaska Air Cargo offered the best price and timely delivery from Minneapolis (MSP) to Nome (OME) via Anchorage (ANC).

Shannon Stevens, the cargo team’s sales manager for Alaska, helped Bioff navigate the steps to become a known shipper. “Without Alaska Air Cargo, we would not be able to get our garments here to market,” Bioff says. “That whole process was so easy and straightforward, and I was amazed at how quickly they were able to get the boxes up here.”  

Bioff now shares lessons from Naataq Gear’s success with other aspiring Alaska Native artists and entrepreneurs through events with the Bering Straits Native Corporation and her job as the business planning specialist for the Northwest Alaska nonprofit Kawerak. Anything I learn through owning and operating my own business, I pass on,” she says. “I am absolutely passionate about small business development. It’s an amazing way to build capacity within our tribal communities. It’s a way to create jobs, to bring capital infusion into our communities.”

Little Diomede: A tiny island with big shipping challenges

On the island of Little Diomede, supplies arrive by helicopter or barge. (Adobe Stock Images)

Throughout Cliff Johnson’s career as a general contractor – and previously, as an executive running Alaska Native corporations – he has worked in 60-plus villages across the state. But there’s no place quite like Little Diomede.

The town’s 60 residents hand-carry water from the island’s lone freshwater source at the laundromat to cabin-style homes that don’t have flush toilets or running water. “I’ve never met harder working people and friendlier people than in Diomede. The town is perched on the side of a rock, and there are no roads,” he says. “Groceries are sparse.”

“The other day we sent out a few dozen eggs because there hadn’t been any eggs on the island in several weeks,” Johnson says. “We had a guy go out to relieve another carpenter, and I made sure he brought three dozen eggs. Everybody was so happy to have eggs.”

Johnson, who is also a U.S. military veteran, works primarily with regional shipping partners to move gear and supplies – but he calls on Alaska Air Cargo when he needs a part or tool to get to Nome as fast as possible. “If I need it guaranteed by tomorrow, I’ll use Alaska Airlines,” he says. “I can GoldStreak it. I can Priority Freight it. I can guarantee you it’s going to be there.” 

On Mondays, a helicopter service ferries passengers between Nome and Little Diomede. On Wednesdays, a second chopper run or two brings mail, dry goods and food. Neither option can carry heavy equipment, so Johnson deploys his own barges to take tools and supplies to job sites. Each May, his crew builds a new barge landing site for the working season, which lasts until October. “It’s very expensive, so you have to have a good reason and work lined up,” he says. “In the fall, the ocean takes the barge landing back.”

In the busy season, Johnson’s Nome-based company, Northern Contractors, often employs every able-bodied person in Little Diomede to help build the community store and renovate the town’s 37 homes. Next summer, Johnson hopes to finish the store, which is currently operating out of a makeshift space in the church. The new two-story building will have new freezers and refrigerators. “Hopefully, they can have enough room to have a stockpile,” he says.

And despite the logistical challenges of working in such a remote place, Johnson loves the work he’s doing in Little Diomede, and he’s committed to taking jobs that benefit the region around Nome, where he grew up. “The work in the community – that’s what hooks me,” he says.


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