Skyview Student Up For Spirit Of Youth Award

Moira Pyhala is interviewed by Spirit of Youth's Shana Sheehy. Pyhala is one of 100 Alaska youths nominated for the award. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Kenai River brings in thousands of tourists every year; for fishing, rafting, or just to see the sights. But it also brings in a lot of volunteers who work to preserve all those activities. Moira Pyhala is one of those volunteers, and her efforts have earned her a nomination for a Spirit of Youth Award.


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Moira spent a good chunk of her summer break from Skyview high school volunteering with the Kenai Watershed Forum’s Stream Watch program. The program’s coordinator, Lisa Beranek, nominated her for the award. Part of the deal when you are nominated is an interview with the Spirit of Youth folks. You’ve probably heard some of those stories on the radio in the past. I was invited to tag along for Moira’s interview last week at the Kenai Airport with Spirit of Youth’s Shana Sheehy. Moira said her time on the river allowed her to make connections with people from all over the world.

“I think the most significant part is when you ask people ‘do you know all these rules and regulations, are you ready to fish?’ and you end up just talking to people. We met people from Germany, from all over the lower 48, who really didn’t know anything about the river, didn’t know anything about fishing.”

So why would someone, in the golden years of high school, want to spend a summer patrolling the river?

“The Kenai River…is a huge economic resource that’s going to effect my future and generations to come, so I think it’s really important to protect.”

For a lot of 16 year olds, one volunteering project would be enough. But, working through the local Rotary Club’s RYLA program, Pyhala helped start a local Interact Club.

“We’re supposed to do a community project and an international project. We volunteer in the community. We just did the Turkey Trot 5K/10K run for the Tustumena 200. And we’re raising money to go on an international trip to volunteer.”

They’re still nailing down a location for that potential trip. Some voluntourism in Costa Rica is one option, but there’s still more work to do at home, she says.

“It’s something that’s really positive, because it gets kids, gets volunteer hours, which I don’t think I realized how important that is until this summer.”

And her experience this summer might have triggered an interest in what she does for a career.

“After volunteering for awhile, I actually want to go into marine biology now.”

Pyhala is one of a hundred individuals or clubs vying for awards in 11 different categories. And she joins a number of other volunteers from the Kenai Peninsula: Hailey Hughes and the Colors of Homer group from Homer, Naomi Hess from Ninilchick, Isaiah Simeonoff and Timothy Ukatish from Nanwalek, Port Graham’s Micheal Anahonak, the Ocean Sciences Club from Seward, Trinity Standifier in Tyonek and summer Anderson, also from Soldotna.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

In the interest of disclosure, we must note that Pyhala is the daughter of KDLL Board member Matthew Pyhala.

Odie’s Deli To Take Over PJ’s Diner At Kenai Airport

Travelers going through the Kenai Airport will have a new dining option next year. Odie’s Deli is moving into the café currently occupied by PJ’s Diner.


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The new lease terms call for an annual rent of more than $38,000 for use of the facility, and runs through 2018. Given that restaurants haven’t always found success in there, that number worried council member Mike Boyle.

“It’s almost twice what the last lessee paid, so I have some concerns about that.”

But City Manager Rick Koch said that new figure was a pretty good deal. Previous lease agreements were made without the benefit of knowing just how much revenue a business can generate in the airport. But this one was based on annual revenues of around $600,000.

“By any number of ways that you calculate a reasonable rent, it should be higher than $38,000 a year. The square footage (rate) for that area is about $70,000 a year, and that’s what other concessionaires pay in the airport.”

Koch said the city recognized that a deli is a lot different than the other businesses operating out of the airport; car rental agencies and a real estate office, and so the lease is different.

The city initially wanted to charge rent based on a flat annual fee, plus a percentage of revenues, but that turned out to be a complicated formula that didn’t get much interest. Koch acknowledged that Odie’s, as the only business to submit a bid, is taking advantage of a favorable situation.

“This isn’t just for square footage. This is for a commercial kitchen that is outfitted. You show up with food, tables, chairs and a cash register and you can go to work.”

Council member Tim Navarre said because just one bid was submitted, this wasn’t necessarily a great deal for Odie’s, and the city wasn’t necessarily taking a hit on potential income; it’s simply how the market worked this time around.

“Sure, people would love to get more for their rents than they get right now, but if the market says that’s what it is, that’s all they get. I don’t consider that under market, I consider that market rent.”

Odie’s owner Melodie Symington was out of town and couldn’t be reached for comment, but she told the Peninsula Clarion they’d been asked many times when they would open a Kenai location. She said Odie’s at the Airport will be open by Janurary 13th, with hours between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., seven days a week.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Kenai City Council Votes To Support Setnetters

Another government body on the Peninsula voted unanimously to oppose efforts to ban commercial setnetting in Cook Inlet. But there was a bit of debate before the final ‘yes’ vote was cast.


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This time it was the Kenai City Council. Following the Borough Assembly, which passed its own resolution on December 3rd, the council’s language was largely the same.

“Opposing the proposed initiative to prohibit set nets in urban areas and continue to support sound fishery management practices and diversified harvest opportunities in Cook Inlet.”

It would later be amended slightly, to say the council supports sound fishery management practices based on science.

Listening to testimony at both the council meeting and the borough assembly meeting, that’s been one of the big concerns; that the initiative puts management decisions in the hands of voters, instead of coming from scientific study and observation.

Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association president Rob Williams has called it ‘ballot box biology’.

“This would cause severe harm to the resource management tradition our state has. We have a Board of Fish process. Like it or not, that’s how we allocate fish,” Williams said.

Much of the next forty minutes was filled with similar testimony, and just like at the Borough Assembly meeting a couple weeks ago, it wasn’t just setnetters who came to speak in support of the resolution.

Paul Dale owns Snug Harbor Seafoods. He challenged the assumption that the drift fleet could step in and take up the harvest of sockeye that usually land on the beaches. Citing local ADF&G estimates, he said the drift fleet would bring in only 20% of what the setnet fleet typically brings in.

For its part, the Council was pretty clear that a similar resolution would likely have been adopted to support any fishing industry, commercial, sport or otherwise. But not everyone on the Council thought this was the right time to weigh in on this particular issue.

“I have a problem with this council, whether it’s this issue or some other issue, starting to take a position on an initiative that hasn’t even gone through the legal process. The lieutenant governor hasn’t even approved it, and we’re reacting to it. Sometimes, reactive things can get you in trouble,” said council member Tim Navarre.

Council member Terry Bookey countered that on this issue, the council could sort of have it both ways.

“In this particular instance, I believe the council is reacting proactively. I think this is one of those instances where the city of Kenai needs to speak loudly and they need to speak clearly that we stand behind the set net fisheries of Cook Inlet. There is no better time than to do it right now, so there is no confusion about our support and our loyalty.”

The council did eventually vote unanimously to adopt the resolution, though Navarre was clearly on the fence right up until he said ‘Yes’.

The votes of the Kenai city council and the borough assembly are largely symbolic. But decisions that could have more tangible effects on the king salmon fisheries will be made when the Board of Fish meets in Anchorage in February.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

(In the interest of full disclosure, Council member Terry Bookey is president of the KDLL Board of Directors)

Snowmachine Drags This Weekend At Freddie’s Roadhouse

Who says you can’t drag race in the snow? Starting this weekend, and running through February, snowmachiners can test their abilities at weekly races in the Caribou Hills.


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A favorite sound of many Alaskans this time of year, snowmachines offer a lot more than practical transportation on the tundra. For the more competitive types, weekly races at Freddie’s Roadhouse in Ninilchik offer a chance to match skills and mechanical know-how. Freddie Pollard runs the place and is helping organize the races this year.

“It’s just something we started up there to try and get people back into it. It’s a fun thing to do and drag racing is easier to do than circle track or anything else, because we only run like 350 feet, so the speeds are not real great,” Pollard said.

Pollard was installing a new light tree to signal the start of the race and record times and trap speed. That’s a first out in the Hills. In the past, they started each race the old-fashioned way: with a flag. This is the first time he’ll know for sure what kind of numbers racers can put up, but if he had to guess, he’d say he was hitting close to 100 miles per hour on his machine.

If that sounds like a bit much, Pollard says they run several classes, so there’s room for drivers of all skills and machines of all sizes.

“We race from the little kiddies all the way up. We’ve had grandmas racing and having fun with it, too. As a matter of fact, grandma was racing one of her grandkids last year. It was fun to watch.”

He says most of the racers are local, but the track draws them in from outside the Peninsula, as well.

You can keep track of updates and schedules by following Freddie’s Roadhouse on Facebook. And if you’re looking to run, give the roadhouse a call at 567-7530.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Making Its Mark: Local Distillery Celebrates One Year Selling Spirits

High Mark Distillery owner Felicia Keith-Jones tests the proof on a jar of Blind Cat moonshine at the tasting room in Sterling. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Tucked a few miles off the highway in Sterling is one of the newest players in the burgeoning Alaskan craft spirits industry.


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“Would you like a hot toddy?” was the friendly greeting I got when I walked into the tasting room at the High Mark Distillery.

“Of course.”

It was after noon and snowing. Seemed appropriate.

Owner Felicia Keith-Jones started her venture five years ago, but she didn’t initially plan on producing her own libations. She was working with a group in the Mat-Su Valley to develop bio-fuels, but that endeavor ran out of gas.

“The big dogs did not wish for us to have biodiesel in this state. We were studying for three years, and then my husband mentioned that if you remove three steps and add wheat, what have you got? Vodka. And that truly was the family joke,” Jones said.

After her husband passed away five years ago, she took a break from teaching to see if the family joke could become the family business.

“What if? What if I did make vodka? Because I already had the education for it. What if I did pursue this?”

A chance meeting in Bethel led her and her boys to Ireland, where they know a thing or two about turning grain and water into something more interesting.

“When I got back to Alaska, I knew, absolutely knew, that this was the path I wanted to take because it was one of the few things that absolutely every day made you smile. The challenges were huge, and once I had my first batch, I smiled,” she said with a laugh.

And High Mark’s signature vodka was born. Since then, Jones has adapted old-world recipes for the popular Nickel Back Apple Jack and a corn liquor she calls Blind Cat. Since wheat, apples and corn aren’t exactly signature Alaskan crops, Jones sources them from Washington.

“The orchard that grows for us also grows for Gerber farms. So with the corn and the apples, we decided if it was good enough for babies, it was good enough for us.”

High Mark uses spring white wheat as the base grain for its vodka.

Now, you can have all the knowledge and the best ingredients in the world, but that’s still no guarantee that what you pour is going to be any good. The key to making quality, consistent spirits is doing it in small batches with a lot of attention.

“When I say that it’s a gamble every single time, the truth is, if you don’t take absolutely beautiful notes and write down everything you put in to one of these, you can’t duplicate it. So, you might end up with rot-gut and you might end up with just the recipe you were hoping for. So you’ll test it every few weeks to record how it’s maturing.”

It’s not just the whiskey that’s maturing. High Mark’s one year anniversary is this month. And Jones says there are plans for growth and new products. The Blind Cat moonshine is just one step away from becoming a bourbon. Just pour it into a barrel and wait. That new spirit will demand a new position at the distillery.

“The worst job you can have at a distillery is to be the bunghole checker,” Jones jokes.

“Once the barrels are all into the barrel house, they have to be rotated because when you fill them, you do end up with a tiny air bubble. So that top layer of bourbon would not react with the wood, so you have to rotate your barrels and check your bung,” she says, trying not to crack up again. The only thing that might be more plentiful than the spirits here is the laughs.

Over the past year, High Mark has become at least a semi-regular stop for neighbors. The nearby lodges on the Kenai River also bring in customers. When I dropped by on a recent Saturday, I met Karen von Breyman. She lives just down the road. She’d seen the signs for the new place all last winter.

“We have lots of friends who come in the summer to fish and hang out, and we discovered that it was 1,400 yards, so we could just walk up the hill. So we walked and we tasted, and it was a good thing we walked, and then we giggled all the way home. I don’t know why I’m so excited about it, I just think it’s a fascinating story and a business. I’m not even a big drinker, but I just think it’s wonderful.” von Breyman said.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Hilcorp Asks For More Oil Storage Capacity

Hilcorp has submitted an application to change its spill contingency plan for onshore facilities on both sides of Cook Inlet.

The amendment increases what’s called the response planning standard, or RPS, volume by a factor of 30, from twenty-five-hundred barrels to 75,000. That’s in anticipation of increased production wells.

If approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the amended plan would cover the Trading Bay production facility and Granite Point tank farm on the west side of the Inlet. And production facilities at Swanson River and Beaver Creek on the east side.

There are also revisions to the Swanson River Pipeline rupture scenario. That pipeline runs from just north of Sterling about 20 miles to a terminal in Nikiski.

DEC is taking comments on the revised plan until January 6th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

Remodeled Soldotna Library Open For Holidays


The new fireplace at the nearly-complete Joyce K. Carver Memorial Library in Soldotna.

The Joyce K. Carver memorial library in Soldotna is open for business…mostly. Volunteers have begun stocking the shelves with books and a full, grand opening is planned for next month.


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After more than a year undergoing renovations, the Soldotna library had a soft opening on Monday. That means most things are in place, books are being moved from the Library’s temporary home in the Peninsula Center mall and checkouts are available for the holidays. As work was still being completed this fall, Librarian Rachel Nash said the biggest development for the new place is the community room.

“If any community groups need to rent it out, they can rent it for free, especially the non-profit groups. And also, we have ideas of having at least a monthly program that’s educational where someone comes and gives a presentation on various topics.”

Recent changes to library policy mean that learning can start earlier than ever. The new library has an expanded children’s section that caters to new parents and their newborns.

“There is no age limit, so parents can get a card right away for their newborn; check out all those board books that take maybe a minute to read and then you re-read and re-read and re-read it again,” Nash said.

Patrons can also look forward to an updated non-fiction collection. Nash says that’s where a bulk of a recent $45,000 appropriation from the city went.

“Those books, once they’re a few years old, they’re no longer valid. We have a lot of books in the basement now that are old enough that the information in them is not good enough. A school child couldn’t even use them in a report.”

Another part of the library that’s received a lot of attention is in the technology department. While not everything will be quite ready to go for soft opening, Nash says computers, e-readers and tablets will be a focus.

“We’ll have several tables that have plugs, so patrons can bring their own laptops in, or rent them from us.”

Nash says her favorite part of the redesigned library is the community room. But Assistant Librarian Katja Wolfe said she couldn’t really narrow it down to any one feature.

“I’m not sure. It’s just everything,” Wolfe said with a laugh. “I think my favorite part is that we’ll be able to offer many more services than we have in the past. We have the space for them and we have the equipment and I’m excited about that.”

The official grand opening is happening on January 18th, from 2 to 4 p.m.

School District Updates Concussion Policy

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District school board is fine-tuning the concussion policy for all student athletes. Members have been discussing the slight changes since August and action from the board is expected next month.


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The district goes to great lengths to make sure student athletes and their parents are aware of the potential dangers. The rules in place for the athletic departments require training for coaches, refresher courses every three years and ensuring all equipment is in good condition.

The district educates its own staff as well and that includes the school board. Board Vice President Liz Downing said in a previous interview that component came from the state level a few years ago and brought a more defined policy with it.

“If a student has any possibility of having a concussion, they’re off the field. They are tested. I also serve on the wellness committee for the district and it is critical that we have safety measures in place with the padding and equipment. And then also with follow up, and making sure that students have adequate medical care if something should happen,” Downing said.

She said this is a policy the district is always looking at because new examples and research come out all the time. Board President Joe Arness said the members are always willing to listen to people with concerns to make sure the policy protects students while not hindering play.

“You do hear these conversations from time to time and there is concern. Any kind of sport, basketball, soccer, football, hockey, any of them, kids can get injured. To some extent that’s just part of life. To some extent we have a responsibility to do our best to see to it that injuries don’t happen just out of carelessness,” Arness said.

The main change deals with what happens after it’s suspected a student has a concussion. The district and state of Alaska will both require a student to be given permission to come back and play by a “qualified person.” A doctor has always been under that umbrella, but now the legislature will allow athletic trainers to determine when a student comes back to competition after a concussion. And the district requires a doctor’s release as well in each case.

Concerns about concussions have become a major part of the conversation in the last few years; for football especially. Downing said that concern will likely remain unless there’s a change in the culture of sports.

“One of the areas I would love to see us move towards is more non-competitive, intramural play…. That’s not to take something away from sport. There’s so much that is valuable about being part of a team, by making that extra effort to help your team win. So this is a balancing point,” she said.

The board will finish refining the policy at its meeting in January when members are expected to approve the measure.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-


Triumvirate North Opens With ‘White Christmas’ This Weekend

Jonathon Young (left) and Ian McEwen, playing Phil Davis and Bob Wallace rehearse Wednesday night at the new Triumvirate North theatre. Jacynn Collver, Rebecca Eckerman, Annie Mese and Jenna Storms back them up. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

After six years in the works, the new Triumvirate North theatre will host its first performance this weekend. The holiday musical classic White Christmas opens Friday night.


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Judy and Phil, played by Delana Duncan and Jonathon Young, get some notes during a rehearsal for 'White Christmas'. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Find tickets here.

Board of Fish Addresses King Sport Fishing

The state Board of Fish is meeting in Anchorage this week. Among the many items on the agenda are a variety of proposals for sport and commercial fishing in Lower Cook Inlet.


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A number of the proposals directed at different sport fisheries around the southern Kenai Peninsula were aimed at tightening up harvests. One proposal for the Anchor River limits the days open for king salmon sportfishing. It would reduce sportfishing opportunities on the Anchor from 20 to 15 days by closing on Wednesdays.

The Homer Fish and Game advisory committee submitted the proposal. The AC cited lower king returns the past few years as the main reason for reducing the number of fishing days. Prior to 2009, there was no king fishing on the Anchor on Wednesdays. Then numbers began trending up, and Fish and Game opened up fishing opportunities. But in 2012 and 2013, the fishery was closed for a number of days by emergency order, to ensure the escapement goal was met. Fish and Game Regional Management Coordinator Tom Vania says the situation on the Anchor River is indicative of what’s happening across South Central.

“We do believe that these are well below average returns that are happening at this time. As you know, a lot of our sport fisheries are structured to avoid emergency orders, whether they be liberalizing or whether they be restricting. We’re trying to establish those regulations that going to handle the vast majority of runs,” Vania told the Board.

Vania said the Anchor continues to meet its minimum escapement goal, but only by sacrificing harvest opportunities. He called shutting down Wednesday fishing low-hanging fruit, as that tends to be one of the least busy days of a given week. The Board did not enact the proposal, though Wednesdays will likely remain the first option for Managers if they have to consider slowing the fishery down.

Moving north to the Ninilchik River, Proposal 61 asked for a reduction in the bag limit for kings by half, down to one per day. This, too, was submitted by the Homer AC. Board member Sue Jeffrey supported the move, as would the rest of the Board, saying it would bring the Ninilchik in line with other king salmon streams in the area.

“Keeping a two king salmon bag limit on the Ninilchik could mislead some anglers into thinking there are more fish there, or there could be better fishing, and I think it makes sense for conservation purposes.”

Even though productivity of both wild and hatchery stocks to the Ninilchik have been below average the past two years, Vania said the one per day bag limit was still acceptable.

“It’s much like all these other streams during this periods of low productivity that we’re in, we’re going to continue to manage based upon how we think performance is going to be one year to the next. Should we just close this outright? I don’t think we’re there at this time.”

In our next story covering the Lower Cook Inlet Finfish meeting, we’ll learn about some of the proposals for commercial fishing.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-