Subsistence food lost on flight
When Jennifer Borden and Karl Nelson opened up their cooler in Flagstaff, Ariz., they were hoping for more than a couple of steaks.
"There was like one salmon fillet, two caribou steaks and one piece of smoked salmon and that was it," said Borden.
Through a long series of flights beginning in Kotzebue and crossing Alaska, Washington and Arizona, Nelson's checked luggage had lost dozens of pounds of subsistence foods with just a hint left at the bottom.
Nelson, who grew up in Kotzebue, works in town from April to November each year. At the end of the season, he flies to Arizona to be back with Borden and their two daughters.
They all lived in Kotzebue for a time, but Borden, who works in tribal health, has to move a lot for her job, which currently has her placed down south.
"While he's home [in Kotzebue], of course he procures all the food that he wants to bring home," explained Borden. "He goes fishing and catches all the salmon with his brother. He goes and picks the berries. His mom smokes salmon. My girls, of course, are big berry eaters, so he makes sure that he has that and the salmon and the caribou."
Right before he left town at the start of this month, he and his brother went caribou hunting upriver.
"He said they used probably a drum of gas and that's about $500," she explained. "They went hunting and got the caribou so the girls would have fresh caribou, and then he had to butcher it and put it away and freeze it all and make sure it got packed in the cooler."
The caribou steaks shared the space with the fish and bags of tundra berries. In all, it measured up to about 50 pounds of traditional foods.
He, like many who travel between the region and elsewhere, planned to check the cooler through as his baggage.
Borden explained he took the smaller of their coolers that has to be taped or secured with straps because it weighs less, meaning a smaller baggage fee. They have a larger cooler that can be locked but it weighs a significant amount empty.
Nelson brought tape to the airport but employees opted instead to secure it with straps, Borden said. The Sounder could not confirm this with local airport officials by deadline.
"They put four of those straps in between the cupholders on the cooler, so there's no way they can just slip off the cooler," she said.
Nelson and his cooler traveled from Kotzebue to Anchorage and then to Seattle.
"He was sitting on the plane ... and when he saw the cooler going up the rail onto the plane and it didn't have the packing strips on it, he was like, oh my god," she said. "So, when he landed in Phoenix, he saw the stuff coming off the plane [and] the baggage handler picked up the cooler with one arm. There's no way anybody can pick up that 50-pound cooler with one arm [if it's full]. So, he called me while he was running to his next flight and said, 'I think that we have a problem with the cooler.' And I said, 'What?' And he goes, 'I think someone stole our stuff.'"
In Phoenix, he changed to an American Airlines flight for his final connection to Flagstaff. Once he landed, he and Borden checked the cooler and found it was nearly empty.
The straps were gone. "And there's no damage or rub marks on the cooler at all," Borden said, implying she doesn't think they were jarred off accidentally in transit, but opened intentionally.
"That food is extremely valuable," she said. "If you grew up up there, I think psychologically, you depend on that food to ground you and give you a piece of home when you can't be there. It's very important, especially to Karl. But he doesn't bring it home for himself, he gets all of this for the kids. He gathers it so his kids can have it."
Borden said they immediately contacted Alaska Airlines to file a claim and were asked to list all the of the missing items and how much they were worth.
Once they submit the full claim, they'll wait to hear back from the airline about potential compensation. The Sounder spoke briefly with Alaska Airlines representatives before deadline Tuesday who said they would follow up but, citing privacy concerns, couldn't comment immediately on specific passengers. The Sounder will touch base with the airline once Nelson and Borden submit their complete claim.
"He's in the process now of trying to remember everything that was in there," she said. "They want values, but how do you put a value on Native foods? It's really hard. It has more value to us than his suitcase full of clothes because we could easily replace the clothing. To replace the food, he's going to have to fly back home."
This gets to the root of the problem for Borden. Missing baggage is one thing, but missing baggage that contains seasonally and locationally dependent traditional foods is its own, special kind of problem.
The money, time and effort that went into getting the food is part of the issue, but the other is that harvested food can't always be re-harvested, especially when distance, financial concerns and the passing of time stand in the way.
"It's just saddening. My girls weren't angry, they were just very sad because they look forward to getting this stuff every year when their dad gets home," she said. "It's an important part of their health as Alaska Natives to be able to have access to this food. It's like taking a piece of your soul away."