‘Big Pour’ Highlights Ongoing Battle with Rural Bootleggers
Bottles of R&R Canadian whiskey line a picnic table at the “Big Pour” event Saturday, Aug. 5, 2012.
FAIRBANKS — The air was thick with the sharp smell of alcohol at the Fairbanks International Airport airpark on Saturday, but the cocktail being poured assured it was no ordinary celebration.
Next to a picnic table stacked with booze, dozens of people took turns gleefully opening bottles and pouring their contents into a pair of 55-gallon drums. The foul mixture — more than 20 gallons in all — represents the alcohol seized from bootleggers by airport police during the past 12 months.
Police dispose of the alcohol during an annual event dubbed the “Big Pour,” which is designed to give notice that authorities are paying attention to booze entering Alaska’s dry villages. All of the alcohol is from successfully prosecuted seizures at FIA.
“I think the goal is to bring public awareness of the epidemic that’s going on in villages in rural Alaska,” said Airport Police Deputy Chief Dan Grimes. “We know we’re only scratching the surface, and the more the public knows the more they can help.”
The take this year included more than 100 plastic bottles of R&R Canadian whiskey, which is preferred by many bootleggers because of its low price and easy portability. A bottle of R&R bought in Fairbanks for about $12 can fetch as much as $350 in some dry villages, officer Fan Burge said.
The seizures included a bit of everything. A mostly empty bottle of mead sat in the back, behind a few dozen cans of light beer and a couple bottles of Grey Goose vodka. A scattering of wine bottles was among a diverse selection that included everything from rum to peppermint schnapps.
Authorities have seen bootleggers use plenty of tactics to smuggle it into dry villages. Loaves of bread have been baked with bottles inside, or pans of lasagna made to conceal a fifth of whiskey.
Smugglers also frequently open up bottles before traveling to squeeze out excess air, which keeps the spirits inside from sloshing when they’re shaken during an inspection.
“The creativity of folks is interesting, to say the least,” said airport police officer Roger Stevener.
But those efforts are crippling rural Alaska, speakers at the event said. In Western Alaska, nearly 60 percent of violent crimes are tied to alcohol, Burge said.
“The better we do our job, the better it is for everybody,” she said.
The Big Pour included performances by the Pavva Inupiaq Dancers and Soaring Eagle Drum. Several members of the performance groups discussed the toll they had witnessed from alcohol, from lost relatives to struggles with poverty.
Alice Burge, a member of the Alaska Federation of Natives Elders Council, said the scourge of alcoholism in rural Alaska contributes to many problems, including a high rate of suicide. Children and elders in those villages too often get the brunt of substance abuse, she said, her voice frequently cracking during an emotional speech.
She said communities like Fairbanks, where much of the bootlegged alcohol is initially purchased, need to play a special role in addressing the problem.
“We’re the provider,” Alice Burge said. “We’re got to learn to find the source and stop it.”
The alcohol poured into barrels during the event will be destroyed during fire training exercises in the upcoming year, Stevener said. Airport police have set up a hot line for information about alcohol and drug shipments to rural Alaska at 877-TIP-4FIA.
Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner staff writer Jeff Richardson at 907-459-7518.