Naknek, Alaska


During salmon season at Bristol Bay, the number of people in the borough surges from around 900 to 10,000 or more. That brings with it the need for medical care.

Many processors traditionally brought in their own doctors or relied on tele-medicine programs. But that changed two years ago.

“We approached the idea of bringing in an ER doctor and having him here locally and it’s gone very well”

Mary Swain is director at Camai Community Health Center in Naknek which staffs physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

It was a spike in pricy medivacs that prompted the idea of having an emergency-trained doctor available from mid-June through the end of July. Medivacs can cost a company up to $40,000 to bring badly hurt or sick patients to Anchorage.     

Now, seven of the Bay’s 12 processors each chip in $10,000 to bring in a doctor, including Ocean Beauty, Trident, Alaska General Seafoods, Leader Creek Fisheries, Alaska Marine Lines, Icicle and Peter Pan.

“It pays for the housing, trip up here and time.”

The fishermen-funded regional seafood development association and the clinic also pay the same.

A new satellite office also is located at Leader Creek, Swain says, right ‘in the processors’ back yard.’ The two facilities treated 1,600 patients last year.

She says getting the processing companies on board was an easy sell.

“In fact one of the processors sees it so well that they gave extra money so we could get x-ray equipment at the clinic and we are looking to use that to potentially bring in ultrasound technology next year.”


The clinic also has 24/7 translation services for more than 200 languages through Language Select to accommodate the mix of nationalities that work in the Bay each year.

For some, the clinic is the only place they have ever had any kind of health care.

“The people deserve it. We saw a bunch of people last year who had never seen a doctor of any kind – they haven’t had basic medical care. And even for us living in rural Alaska we think that is an oddity. Why would you never go to get a checkup. But we see that more and more as we bring in other cultures and nationalities into Naknek  to process.”

Swain says recruiters they use make sure the doctors are aware of the region’s remoteness, but it is still a surprise.

“They think they’ve seen rural when they’ve been 200 miles from a hospital. When they come out here and realize that we aren’t rural – we are so remote and isolated that you depend on yourself, your skills, your knowledge and that’s about all. The first doctor was very shocked that ‘oh, you’re really doing this here?  It’s a learning curve for all of them. But I think we’ve done a better job at vetting so people really understand what they are getting into.”

This year’s doctor hails from Montana where he has worked in rural Indian reservations where he is only one on hand.