Seldovia Family Passing Through Kenai Along 800-Mile Cook Inlet Adventure

Erin McKittirick (left) and Bretwood (Hig) Higman break for a photo op with Mt. Spurr in the background. They're one month into 4 month journey that will take them around the perimeter of Cook Inlet with their two-year old Lituya (sleeping) and four-year old Katmai.

 

The adventures of Seldovia’s Higman-McKittirick family continued into the Central Peninsula over the weekend. They are one month into a journey that is taking them 800 miles around the shores of Cook Inlet.

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With the 4 year old Katmai and 2 year old Lituya bundled up, it was time to hit the beach for another day of hiking along Cook Inlet. I met up with the family as they were leaving the house of some friends who put them up for the night a few miles down from the mouth of the Kenai River. A quick goodbye and we were on our way.

I imagine planning and executing an 800-mile trek, mostly through uninhabited wilderness, would be a tall enough order. Factor in the needs of two toddlers and the obvious question is Why do you do it?

“We love the experience, we love being out there…that experience of moving through a landscape,” said Erin McKittirick.

“The other half of it is that as we started doing more and more of these trips, we were really struck by how educational they were, even unintentionally. We would always learn so many things, and so now it’s kind of explicitly part of our mission is to have the experience but also learn as much as we can,” she said.

Dad Bretwood Higman, who goes by Hig, says despite the long spans out in the bush, this trip, especially the first half, will introduce them to lots of new faces.

No matter where they are, though, unique challenges pop up almost daily.

“The challenge yesterday was ‘Wow, if we had to camp, there’s not much beach and we’d be in someone’s yard, but that’s pretty easy to deal with…The big challenge for us in those remote areas is how, with such limited capacity to carry stuff and with the two kids (who) eat a lot, how do we carry enough food? It’s that simple,” Hig said.

They’re planning to write a book about their journey when it’s done, probably sometime in late July. Erin says the picture they hope to paint for people is the one that shows itself over the course of 800 miles and not the one they’d imagined before leaving.

“One of the things we’ve really been focusing on this trip is…asking everyone that we meet ‘What is the future of both their community and Alaska as a whole?’. And you get a lot of interesting answers.”

“One big thing that seems to come up over and over again is both people noting and concerned about fish. I would say that’s probably one of the bigger ones.”

They’ve kept close to their estimated schedule, so far, and should be in the Nikiski area by Wednesday. They’ll reach Anchorage toward the end of May. You can follow the progress of the trip and see photos on their blog which also includes a map that shows exactly where they are on their path.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Public Hearings Scheduled For Cook Inlet Wastewater Discharge Permit.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is seeking public comment for a new permit it would grant for mobile oil and gas exploration facilities in the state-controlled waters of Cook Inlet.

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Two things happened that made DEC want to draw up a new permit for energy companies in Cook Inlet: In October of last year, the state was given more control over permitting and enforcement of the Clean Water Act by being granted primacy. So DEC is now the lead agency for water protection in Cook Inlet, basically from Kalgin Island north. And then, the parts of the old permit, which actually expired in 2011, were undergoing some legal review.

“So because it it was under appeal, we couldn’t reissue the full permit,” said DEC Water, Oil and Gas section manager Gerry Brown.

“There were portions of that (permit) that weren’t appealed, and that was the exploration portion. So the production portion of that permit was the part of that…that we basically couldn’t renew,” he said.

The EPA will develop its own permitting for nearby federally-controlled waters. The draft of the state permit isn’t a whole lot different than the one it might replace. Companies still submit plans for best management practices, environmental studies and reports and drilling fluids plans.

“From the state’s side, most of these modifications have to do with our taking over primacy and clarifying a lot of the

            DEC is taking its proposed permit around for a series of public hearings, starting Monday night in Kenai. It’s likely that much of the input will be focused on the kinds of discharge the permitting allows. As it’s drafted, the permit allows discharge of drilling fluids and drill cuttings, excess cement slurry and deck drainage. But not within 4,000 meters, about two and a half miles, of sensitive environmental areas or special management areas, like coastal marsh or river mouths. A number of state critical habitat areas are located within the permitting zone: Kalgin Island, Redoubt Bay, Clam Gulch and Kachemak Bay. Studies continue, but there’s not much out there about the specific effects these chemicals might have on marine life when discharged. A 2010 study for the National Marine Fisheries Service found that relevant information was limited or absent for how the majority of emerging chemicals and products affect Beluga whales.

DEC will be in Kenai for public hearings Monday April 29th at the Visitor’s Center from 6-9 pm. The following night in Homer at the Island and Ocean Visitor’s Center and May 2nd in Anchorage. The public comment period runs until May 22nd.


Soldotna Hosts Youth Leadership Camp

Future community leaders from across Alaska and the Yukon will be in Soldotna for a three day camp and seminar known as RYLA this weekend.

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RYLA stands for Rotary Youth Leadership Award. It’s an annual camp sponsored by Rotary but designed by student alumni of the program; high school juniors and seniors.

Arianna Horner attended last year’s conference from Nome. For her, the skills and perspective picked up at RYLA fill a void back home.

“Nobody in my community has really stepped up to fill a leadership position in my grade. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a grade of rascals and no one wants to take ownership and responsibility ,” she said.

The focus this year is on social issues affecting teens, like bullying and suicide. Kids at the camp work with adults who share that civic-mindedness, to help sharpen leadership skills in dealing with tough issues. Adults like Timi Tullis.

“I think that Rotarians are servant-leaders and they want to make sure that they’re instilling…that leadership. They want people who…understand the importance of ‘it’s not just about me, it’s about our whole community and everyone in it’,” she said.

Sixty students are expected for this year’s RYLA. The theme is Peace Through Service, so the kids will spend lots of time volunteering locally. At the Food Bank, Leeshore Center and the Kenai Watershed Forum.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Troopers Investigating Break Ins On Big Eddy Road

Alaska State Troopers are looking for information regarding recent burglaries in Soldotna. Trooper Ethan Norwood says the break-ins happened last week at homes along Big Eddy Road.

“We were notified on April 16th that multiple properties had been forcefully entered and certain things had been stolen, mainly vehicle parts and fishing gear,” he said.

The owner of the property is in California, so Troopers have no way of telling exactly what went missing or its value. The initial estimate is a few hundred dollars. Norwood says even though this wasn’t a primary residence, it wasn’t necessarily more vulnerable to a break in.

The stolen items could be up for sale someplace and that’s where Troopers are looking.

“It’s very possible that whoever took the property is trying to sell it, so I would just ask that people pay close attention and know fair market value of what they’re buying. If it seems oddly cheap, just give us a heads up,” he said.

There’s a reward of $1,000 for information leading to a conviction of the burglars. You can call the Troopers at 262-4453.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Kenai Comp Plan Could Go To Referendum

The Kenai City Council voted to move the city’s comprehensive plan on to the Borough Planning Commission, but other obstacles may lie ahead before final passage of ‘Imagine Kenai 2030’.

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The council spent nearly 3 hours hammering out the final details of the comprehensive plan at its meeting last week. A couple council members were hoping for one more pushback, but it did eventually pass. The following day, though, a petition was filed with the Clerk’s office to put a referendum on Ordinance 2681-2013.

The petitioners have a month to get the mandatory number of signatures; 25 percent of the total number of people who voted in the last election.

“So in this case, the 2012 election had 810 votes cast, so they would need 203 sufficient signatures, which means they have to be registered voters of the city of Kenai,” said Kenai City Clerk Sandra Modigh.

Mark Schrag filed the paperwork on April 18th. I couldn’t get in touch with him before deadline for this story, but he’s been a vocal opponent of this plan, and had this to say back in February when we were talking with Kenai City Manager Rick Koch on Coffee Table:

“I keep hearing ‘this is just a plan’ and ‘it’s fluid’ and stuff like that and so the growth that Kenai’s had (with the) big box stores came under the old plan and that hasn’t really stopped anything,” Schrag said. “Some of the people executing, they retire, they’ll be gone, but those of us that live in town, those of us that are affected by it, I feel like we weren’t given a real good seat tat the table,” he said.

Provided the 203 signatures are found and verified, the referendum could go before voters this October.

If the plan continues down its current path, it has a date with the Borough Planning and Zoning commission. That would likely happen by the end of the year and include public hearings. After that, on to the Borough Assembly for more public hearings before a final vote to make it the official plan for the City of Kenai. Or not.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Native Sites Represent Past, Present and Future

There is an effort underway to preserve some key cultural sites around the Central Peninsula. KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran visited the Kalifornsky Village Friday to hear a lecture from Kenai Peninsula College anthropologist Dr. Alan Boraas and learn more about the significance of these places.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Chenault Looks Back On Legislative Session

Legislators are settling back in to their home districts following the as-scheduled conclusion of the legislative session. House Speaker Mike Chenault offered his thoughts on 90 days in Juneau.

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The Republican from Nikiski is back home and seems pleased with the work done in Juneau.

“A lot of work got done because not only the Senate, but the House felt that they had some movement from the Alaskan public on what they wanted to see done. The Senate hit the ground running for a change and from day one, we’re having meetings on oil and gas issues that have been stalled or stymied in the legislature for a number of years now,” Chenault said.

The Speaker’s own HB 4 fits into that category. It’s awaiting a signature from Governor Sean Parnell. If he signs it, the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation will have a directive to come up with a project to get North Slope gas to southcentral. Next question: where does the line end up? Cook Inlet or Valdez?

“The buyers of of the gas and the sellers of the gas who are going to enter in to those 30-year commitments in order to pay for this project; they’ll determine where they want that gas delivered to,” he said.

“Why should the legislature weigh in on that, and give the legislature a chance to screw up an economical project that would start moving gas off the North Slope,” he asked.

Another game-changing piece of energy legislation was SB 21, known as oil tax reform to some and a Big-Oil giveaway to others. Chenault says if it doesn’t work as intended and we don’t see an increase in production and revenues, lawmakers will go back to the drawing board.

“Well I think if they don’t make investment in Alaska, you’ll see the legislature take this issue up again fairly quickly. But I think you’ll start seeing announcements that about investments they’re going to bring back to Alaska versus investing in areas where they stood to make more money,” Chenault said.

And there was his other headline-grabbing piece of legislation, HB 69.

“Certainly I think that Alaskans feel that the federal government is infringing on their Second Amendment rights and that’s what House Bill 69 dealt with.”

It would deal with it by prohibiting local governments from doing anything to institute certain federal firearms regulations. HB 69 is sort of a cousin to Chenault’s House Resolution 12. That one encourages firearms and ammunition manufacturers to come to Alaska, and could bear some fruit. Gunmakers aren’t feeling too at home in other parts of the country.

“If other states don’t want you like Colorado or Connecticut, Alaska’s interested in you coming to Alaska,” Chenault said.

He said he’s writing a letter to gun manufacturer Colt expressing an interest in bringing operations here.

Chenault isn’t sure what else could be done at the state level to encourage the gun industry to begin calling Alaska home, but that we could benefit from the hundreds of manufacturing jobs it supports.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Birding Season About To Take Flight

The Spruce Grouse is a common spring sight around the Kenai Peninsula

 

As the snow pack slowly fades away, the Kenai Peninsula becomes an attractive spot for birds, and bird lovers. The spring birding season is just around the corner with lots of activities and species to keep an eye out for.

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Winter has been trying to hand on for a few extra weeks this year, which has pushed back the arrival of some species of birds we can usually look forward to seeing around this time. Ken Tarbox is one of the area’s many birding ambassadors. He says the Keen-Eye birders had to shelve their April meeting because there just won’t be much to look for.

“Usually at this time of the year we have some of the flats pretty well exposed and some ponds, of course, it’s all frozen up tight right now, so there’s really no place for the water fowl to land,” Tarbox said. “The nice thing about birds (is) they will show up, it’s just a matter of patience.”

The list of activities for people on the Peninsula and visitors to it is always changing. We may not see so many king salmon fishers or moose hunters any more, but wildlife viewing, especially birding, continues to grow in popularity, especially over the past decade.

“We have the Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail that has 65 sites that’s just been developed in the last decade, and that’s bringing people here because we have a variety of animals they can see (in addition to) the 270-plus species of birds,” Tarbox said.

The really hard-core birders, the Listers, the folks who are trying to cross off as many different species of birds as they can from around the world, are also turning the Kenai to catch a glimpse of some of those rare flyers, like the small Siberian Accentor, seen in January in Seward.

“We had people flying up from Texas and from all over the country to see that bird.”

In addition to people seeking out visitors from other parts of the world, Tarbox says our resident species here offer just as much for people who run in other birding circles.

Many of them will likely be seen along the rivers and streams and lakes of the Central Peninsula during the Kenai Birding Festival next month. Tarbox says they’re going to be extra diligent watching for eagles, geese, gulls and hundreds of other species with a new program called The Big Sit. For 24 straight hours, someone will be monitoring the skies from the Kenai Boat Launch.

The Kenai Birding Festival is May 16th-19th. You can check out the the website for a full run down of events over the weekend, recent sightings and more.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Assembly Extinguishes Fireworks Ordinance

Seward Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dave Squires addresses the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Tuesday in Seward.

 

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly had its annual meeting in Seward Tuesday night. An ordinance to liberalize the use of fireworks in the Borough was the hot topic.

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The Borough prohibits the use of fireworks without a special permit from the Mayor’s office, but it can’t do all that much in the way of enforcement. This ordinance, co-sponsored by Assembly members Brent Johnson and Kelly Wolf, sought to give residents a legal window of time in December and January for an activity that happens illegally anyway.

“Somebody specifically came to me, a fellow from Homer, came to me and said ‘why are you making me a lawbreaker? I go up to Caribou Lake and every year and my family shoots off fireworks’ And when I thought well, he’s going to shoot them off whether we make it legal or don’t make it legal. Furthermore, I thought of this: during the summer, I see a lot of people shooting off fireworks. And I thought if I can give these people a time when it’s legal to shoot them off, maybe they’d quit (doing it) in the summer when it’s a worse time to shoot them off,” Johnson said.

He laid out his reasoning for crafting the ordinance after several people spoke in opposition to it; residents who simply don’t like the noise, animal advocates speaking for pets who certainly don’t like the noise, and Bear Creek Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dave Beals, who fought back tears as he recalled for the Assembly a July 4th incident that resulted in the death of one child and serious injuries to two others.

“Some adults and their family were going up the road, put some fireworks in the back of their truck. The fireworks went off. Three kids were trapped in the vehicle…one of those children died and two were permanently injured. This is something I never want to see,” Beals said.

Seward Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dave Squires also opposed the ordinance, citing safety and oversight concerns.

“Everybody always wants to have a do-over when there’s a problem. This is your chance, you’re at that part right now. You have this do-over. I urge you not to do this…you have saved lives and you have saved injuries by setting a boundary for people to follow,” Squires said.

The measure’s other sponsor, Kelly Wolf, also decided to vote against the ordinance in the end, but not without some reservation considering individual liberties.

“I co-sponsored this ordinance because of the fact that last January, New Year’s Eve, I laid in bed and listened to an hour and a half of fireworks and guns going off.  Do we ban guns? I do believe that we are infringing on our liberties, that the government is stepping on its people,” Wolf said, complimenting Johnson’s work on the ordinance.

Assembly member Bill Smith’s thoughts on the matter echoed much of the Assembly, that the current prohibition serves as a deterrent for behavior that can’t always be observed by Wildlife Troopers, who perform most of the enforcement of the ordinance, and that there is an avenue by which to have fireworks displays that goes through a permitting process with area fire chiefs and the Mayor’s office.

“Basically, what a lot of fireworks are, is it’s a public nuisance for private pleasure…I think that having the ordinance on the books is at best a modest deterrence, but if people know that the act is not permitted, then I would hope that they would think that they need to be extra careful because they’re doing something they know has inherent hazards,” Smith said.

The measure fell with a unanimous vote in opposition, leaving the Borough’s fireworks prohibition in place. The Assembly pushed back until its May 7th meeting a decision on instituting a fiscal note policy for legislation.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


New Charter School Will Focus On Outdoor, Arts Education

 

Plans for a new charter school in Kenai are taking shape. There are still lots of details left to work out for the Greatland Adventure Academy charter school, but enrollment has begun and the search for teachers is on.

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Greatland Adventure Academy will join the Districts four other charter schools next fall, offering courses for 7th and 8th grade students. Like all charter schools, this one will offer courses teaching to the same standards as any other public school, but with different techniques, namely, getting students outside to put to practice those skills developed in the classroom. Teresa Moyer is on the school’s Academic Policy Committee, and says Greatland Adventure’s model is focused on three areas: outdoor education, physical education and the arts.

“A lot of things fell together at the same time. One is outdoor education, and we had gotten to go see Richard Louv, who wrote the book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ about getting kids outside and how it enhances our educational potential for all of us, really; to spend time not just outside on a soccer field, but really out in the woods,” she said.

The model at Greatland, which is similar to the one at the Watershed School in Fairbanks, also plays into a current push by the state of Alaska to put more of an emphasis on environmental literacy.

“That’s all happening at the same time, so on a statewide level and really on a national level, teachers and educators and parents and scientists…are really seeing the benefits of getting kids outdoors,” Moyer said.

A more focused physical education program is also in the works, along with more opportunities for students to develop skills in the arts.

“There’s been so much research done about kids who have musical opportunities and are able to be in band; what that does in your brain and feeds your whole self. Your soul, your emotions, your intellect. And then the arts, as in creative arts; colors and shapes and all the things that make our lives richer, we want to include that component as well.”

Enrollment opened last week, and already Moyer says they’ve almost hit the ceiling for the number of students they will serve. The search for teachers has begun as well.

“We are working through that. We have the standard job application for the District, but because our Charter is a little unique, in that teachers will be doing a lot of outdoor learning and teaching and movement, we want to make sure that fits the teachers that we hire,” Moyer said.

The standards set by the state can make the process of getting a charter approved challenging, since the state makes no distinction between new and existing charters.

“A lot of the questions, we had to project into the future how we would deal with certain situations which makes it somewhat difficult when you’re just starting out and getting formulated,” Moyer said.

Aside from staffing teachers, Greatland Academy is still finalizing a location for its classrooms. One possibility is the Log Cabin Inn south of Kenai on K-Beach Road, and the Academic Policy Committee is still working out details on the school day, which Moyer says will likely be split between indoor and outdoor class time.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-