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-


Public Tells Commissioners HB77 Concerns

Deputy DNR Commissioner Ed Fogels, Sen. Peter Micciche (Soldotna) and Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell heard public testimony on HB77 Monday in Soldotna. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Borough Assembly Chambers in Soldotna were standing room only Monday night. State Senator Peter Micciche held a public meeting about House Bill 77, the controversial piece of legislation that aims to streamline permitting for the Department of Natural Resources. Not one member of the public testified in favor of the bill.

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Testimony went on for more than two hours. Everyone who stepped up to the mic was opposed to the bill. A level of agreement rarely seen in this room. Two major issues surfaced as sticking points. One was raising the legal standard for challenging a Department of Natural Resources ruling.

“It’s controversial,” said Deputy DNR Commissioner Ed Fogels. “We’re looking at these appeals, and quite frankly a lot of them really don’t have a lot of merit. People just don’t like the decision, the may not even live in Alaska. We’re trying to make it so that people have a good reason to appeal a decision.”

Fogels was joined on the panel with Senator Micciche and Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell. He says the current qualification for challenging a decision is too broad. Under HB 77, that would change.

“This makes it so you have to write down why the decision will hurt you, will harm you. I know a lot of people out there don’t fundamentally agree that we should be raising that bar, but it’s a way for us to reduce the administrative burden on appeals that don’t have merit.”

The decisions the panel referred to were decisions about water reservation permits, called instream flow reservations. What has people worried is losing their ability to save water for fish, where it might potentially be used for something else, like a mining project.

Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell tried to ease the concern that individuals will lose their standing to apply for or challenge those permits and that government agencies would instead represent those interests.

“Fish and Game has always been very receptive to partnering with people who are interested in securing water reservations to protect fish habitat. We would still be committed to working with interested groups and ensuring that groups that share our interest in instream flow reservations still have every opportunity to partner with us in obtaining these reservations.”

Campbell said the department has already taken 35 applications under its wing that would be disregarded should HB 77 pass.

But that wasn’t the kind of reassurance the public was after.

Dr. David Wartinbee, a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, told the panel HB 77 is about trust. But he’s not buying the administrative argument that HB 77 will somehow lessen the workload for reviewing permits, or that there’s even a problem at all.

“Show me that abuse. I don’t believe. I don’t believe that it’s going to happen,” Wartinbee said. Nor was he convinced that a backlog of permits up for review was big enough to justify passage of HB 77.

“I have a problem with that when you tell me at the beginning of the meeting that you have resolved more than 70 percent of the backlog. It seems to me that internal efficiencies have solved the problem that this entire bill is all about. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Marilyn Cornell of Soldotna put it even more plainly.

“I’m an Alaskan, from the tip of my hair to the bottom of my toes. And no one should be able to tell me that I don’t have a right to put input into anything the state government is going to decide.”

Senator Micciche said he had a lot to take back to Juneau after the meeting. HB 77 has already passed the house. It currently sits with the Senate Rules Committee, which will take up the issue again in January.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Students Thwart Disaster With Legos, Robots

Douglas Dean, Seamus Scholz, Ben Kettle, Caleb Rauch, Ali McCarron and Coach Arthur Kettle discuss strategy at Saturday's First Lego League competition in Kenai. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Middle school students from across the Peninsula met in Kenai Saturday to do battle with Legos and robots. The First Lego League’s annual competition asked students to deal with Nature’s Fury.

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Countdowns and cheers drowned out the sound of electric motors at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai. Your Mama’s Llamas, the team from Homer Middle School, was making some adjustments between rounds when I got there. The teams use Legos, robots and computers to make models of real world problems, and then solve them.

“Everyone gets the same mat and the same mission models. They build the mission model and the robot goes around and manipulates the different models.The robots are programmed and they also use motors, so everything is always moving,” said coach Arthur Kettle.

Saturday’s contest featured teams from across the Peninsula. It was a regional event for Alaska, but the First Lego League is international.

Here’s how it works. There are little stations set up on a platform, a little bigger than a ping pong table. And the team has a bunch of tasks to complete in just a couple minutes. They have to send a supply truck from one point to another. They have to bring a cargo plane in for a landing, send an ambulance to a certain location. And these aren’t remote control cars, either. They’re programmed, by the students, to perform those tasks.

“At school we get on some software and we drag and drop these little blocks and tell them how far to go, what motors to control,” explains Caleb Rauch. “That all links together to create a program.”

It looks like a grid. So the ambulance leaves from point A, and has to travel so far in one direction, avoid a house, and end up in a specific zone on another part of the board, and on like that for a number of different tasks. It’s a little chaotic, but then, it’s supposed to be a natural disaster.

Caleb Rauch and Ali McCarron set up their robot during round two competition. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

In addition to the competition, there’s also a presentation round. Each team picks a model community, identifies a problem that community would face in the event of a natural disaster, then solves it. Like, communications troubles around Homer in the event of a tsunami.

In this case, the team developed a plan to use cell phone alerts, radio broadcasts, text messages and wi-fi to direct people to higher ground, while reporting conditions in real time.

Heading into round two, Your Mamas Llamas were a little behind in the standings but felt confident their adjustments would pay off, and they were still sitting pretty from their presentation.

They improved from 35 points in the first round, to 119 in the second and I’ll admit, I still don’t know exactly what that means, but the team felt they were finally close to having it all dialed in.

“(We) feel a little optimistic,” said Douglas Dean. “We can get twice that.”

That optimism was justified by the results. Your Mama’s Llamas took the top prize Champions Award.

Other results:

Performance: Brainstorms (From Nikiski Middle School) 317 points out of a possible 500.

Project: Legoettes (Not sure where they were from)

Core Values: Legoeactive (Same deal, not sure where they are from)

Design : Auto Moto (West Homer El.)

Judge Awards : Lego Oreos (West Homer El.)

Coach Award: Moose Landing (From Moose Pass)

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


HB 77 Public Meetings Start Tonight In Soldotna

HB 77 might have the most immediate impact on the Chuitna Coal project. (Image: DNR)

Public meetings are scheduled for today about House Bill 77. Supporters say it streamlines the permitting process for mining and other development projects. But detractors claim it gives the state too much authority and undermines due process.

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HB 77 is most closely tied to the Chuitna Coal Mine project. The aim of the bill, according to its supporters, is to make it easier for the Department of Natural Resources to permit projects of that scope. And what has environmentalists worried about this particular project is the part where 11 miles of salmon stream will be removed in order to get to the coal.

On Thursday at Kenai Peninsula College, Cook Inletkeeper held what it called a training session on HB 77, intended to highlight what it thinks are the negatives of the bill.

Michelle Vasquez was one of about 25 people who attended. She calls the bill dangerous.

“The wording in some of this legislation, it seems like there’s really no way for DNR to deny a permit to any company or any corporation who wants to build a mine or drill for oil anywhere on our sacred areas, like our salmon streams.”

The language Vasvquez refers to, in general, raises the standard for challenging things like the Chuitna Coal Project in court.

Right now, state law says an aggrieved person can file an appeal or request a reconsideration of a permit. Under the HB 77 language, that standard would be raised. You would have to show that you are substantially and adversely affected.

A big focus at the training session was on how to engage legislators about concerns with this bill. And specifically, a pair of senators who bought some more time for public comment on the measure. HB 77 made it fairly quickly through the House last year. But Senators Peter Micciche and Click Bishop, who represents Fairbanks, put the brakes on.

It’s senator Micciche who will hear public comments in Kenai and Homer. Vasquez says that’s her focus, too. Letting elected officials know her concerns.

“Overall…present them with the idea that this is about Alaska. This is about our resources, this is about our land, this is about our water, this is about our salmon.”

Clark Whitney used to commercial fish in Bristol Bay. His is an active voice against large development projects that threaten wild salmon habitat. He shares the view of most of the people at the meeting, that HB 77 is more than just administrative house-keeping for DNR.

“I think this is a non-partisan issue. It’s all about the future of the state of Alaska. If we allow any corporation to mine through 11 miles of salmon streams, that sets a precedent.”

Senator Micciche will conduct public meetings Monday in Soldotna, with Deputy DNR Commissioner Ed Fogels and Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell. That meeting starts at 4 p.m., with public testimony set to begin at 6 p.m. in the Borough Assembly Chambers.

Another meeting in Homer is planned for Tuesday at the Islands and Oceans Visitors Center. Fogels and Fish and Game Habitat Director Randy Bates will be there at 4 p.m. with public testimony beginning at 6 p.m.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 


No Injuries in Sterling Plane Crash

Heavy rain and ice were the cause of a plane crash near Sterling Wednesday afternoon. Alaska State Trooper Spokesperson Megan Peters says the pilot, 49 year-old David Duncan of Sterling, was attempting to bring the single engine Citabria down at Dutch Landing.

“Troopers did go out and we talked to the pilot. It turns out that after had taken off and was flying, he encountered some freezing rain. It was causing glaciation on the windshield. He saw the landing strip and went down to attempt a landing. He said he felt he was going too fast to do a safe landing, so he was powering up to do a go-around and try again, and when he did the power up, the engine cut.”

Duncan and his passenger, a 16 year old female, were en route to Port Graham from Sterling. Both walked away with minor injuries. The plane suffered extensive damage, and lost its landing gear. A driver who witnessed the crash notified troopers.

-Staff Report-


Fish Waste A Bright Spot In 2013 Dipnet Season

The 2013 dipnet fishery was cleaner, with new rules in place to reduce fish waste. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The city of Kenai released its annual dipnetting report this week. As KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran reports, the city sees room again this year for a number of changes.

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The city spent about $40,000 less to manage the dipnet fishery than it originally budgeted for, and total expenditures were about $2,000 less than incoming revenue. City manager Rick Koch says finding a different way to generate that revenue is a high priority. He’s looking to the legislature for some help.

Basically, he wants to split up the resident sport fishing license and the personal use permit. That would mean you’d have to pay for each one, bringing licensing fees to a total of about $40. Koch says that could potentially generate $1.6 million dollars for personal use fishing, which could be used to offset the fees for the dipnet fisheries on the Kenai, Kasilof and Copper rivers. It would also help pay for the additional police staff on the Kenai.

“I thought it was a pretty good idea. Because everyone who gets a personal use fishing permit has a small amount of skin in the game, and we’re able to ratchet back those fairly significant fees for the small percentage of people we’re able to get our arms around.”

He says only about 30 percent of people participating in the fishery pay access fees. Parking and camping in turn pay for a majority of the services that nearly all dipnetters use. Like cleaning stations and outhouses.

Koch says the big accomplishment in 2013 was cutting way down on the fish waste left on the beach.

“By diligently requiring that the participants deposit their fish waste either into the moving water of the Kenai river or the water of Cook Inlet, that coupled with out tractor raking, was extremely successful.”

One issue the city will continue to wrestle with is access for boaters.

There are already environmental concerns related boat traffic on the Kenai River. During the busiest parts of July, the river’s water quality level dips below Department of Enivornmental Conservation standards. While the city doesn’t have much interest in trying to influence significant management changes, Koch says safety is a concern with so many boats. The trouble is deciding which agency should be making which decisions. Is it the Coast Guard? Department of Public Safety? The City?

“That’s an issue we’re working on. Do we, with glee and joy in our heart, want to jump into the middle of enforcement? I can tell you, unequivocally, no we don’t want to do that. But there may be something that we end up doing in the future that we haven’t done in the past just because of the number of complaints we’ve received.”

By a count of the fee stations, the North Beach was the busiest dipnetting site this year, bringing in $177,000 dollars. About 17 percent of dipnetters paying those fees were from the Kenai Peninsula, just five percent from the city of Kenai.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Assembly Votes To Support Setnetters

United Cook Inlet Drift Association Executive Director Roland Maw testifies in favor of the resolution Tuesday. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly adopted a resolution supporting a continuation of setnetting in Cook Inlet at its meeting Tuesday. Debate on the issue came only from supporters.

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The resolution was initially a part of the consent agenda for the evening. But given the crowd in the Chambers, about 30 setnetters, it wasn’t too surprising to see it pulled for a little more discussion. Which eventually ended with a unanimous vote in support.

By passing the resolution, the Assembly also voiced its disapproval of a possible ballot initiative to get commercial setnetting banned statewide. Many of the people who testified Tuesday evening saw that as the real issue. Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association president Rob Williams told the Assembly the proposed voter initiative sets a bad precedent.

“It’s ballot box biology, and that’s probably the scariest thing of all.”

That testimony struck a chord with Assembly member Wayne Ogle.

“Throw it out for the voters who are ill-informed as to the situation and what it’s all about and let them decide. Meanwhile, you go out and demagogue and make sure that the information you want to get across is broadcast to the right people.”

Ogle was referring to recent efforts by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance to put a setnet ban on the ballot in 2016.

“I worry about the fact that one group is trying to shut down another group. I don’t like that. I think it’s kind of an un-American way to go about dealing with the situation,” Ogle said.

While that sportfishing group is aligned squarely against the set net fleet, the commercial fishing community as a whole is coming together around this issue. Roland Maw is the executive director of UCIDA, the group that represents drift netters in Cook Inlet.

“We’re solidly with out set net friends and neighbors and with out industry. We need each other, and that’s the way this thing is going to work.”

Maw said he thought this was just the opening round in what could be a long fight between the two sides over access to dwindling king salmon stocks.

The initiative still has legal hurdles to clear before it can go to voters. But the comm fisherman are just as worried about what could happen through the legislative process between now and then.

State Senator Peter Micciche, who is also a drifter, challenged the sport fishing community to stand with, rather than in opposition to, the broader fishing industry on the Peninsula.

“No one was supposed to win the allocation war. It’s sort of a fun struggle that’s gone on forever. Our community has managed to work it out for all these years. The only thing less effective than attempting to manage fish politically in Juneau is to manage fish through the ballot box,” Micciche said.

Assembly member Brent Johnson, a long time setnetter from Coho, co-sponsored the resolution with Dale Bagley. Johnson says the goal of eliminating setnetting at the mouth of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers would put huge burdens on salmon streams in rural areas.

“Either way this initiative would happen to the communities of Nanwalek, Port Graham and Tyonek, either they would be allowed to continue and have a jillion people setnetting there. If they weren’t allowed to continue, they would have lost a means of livelihood in community where means of livelihood are very few and hard to find,” Johnson said.

The Assembly also adopted another resolution sponsored by Johnson. That one asks the state department of fish and game to continue enumeration estimates for sockeye smolt on the Kasilof river. Those kinds of studies have been going on since 1980, but may end due to budget concerns in the department.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


SoHi To Remain So-Named

Soldotna High School’s name will not change for next year’s new schools configuration. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District school board made the decision during its meeting Monday night. The name on the building became the most contentious part of the reconfiguration process.

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Monday night’s meeting was unusually long. Twenty-five people provided comments about the recommendations from the committee tasked with making suggestions for the new configuration. The group had come to a consensus on blending the colors of each of the current schools: Soldotna Middle, Skyview and SoHi, making the mascot for the 7th and 8th graders the Panther, and the Stars for the 9th grade building as well as the 10th through 12th grades.

The members also suggested calling the buildings Skyview Middle, Soldotna Prep and either Soldotna Central High School or leaving the current name alone.

It was that last part that drew the most ire and spawned dueling Facebook groups, passionate letters to the editor and numerous comments to the school board. The side that wanted to keep SoHi as is had a common thread: a change would cost too much. The district has said any new signs and colors would be part of a process that’s already set. That way no new money would be spent, which causes a delay in physical changes.

Because of that delay, some who opposed adding a word like “Central” say the new school name might not have the bonding effect district officials initially hoped for. SoHi Junior Courtney Vanzant is in that camp.

“What I’ve heard… the change will occur over the next eight years or so. The students that currently attend Skyview that the change is going into effect for will not be there any longer,” she said.

Vanzant said she’s always wanted to graduate from SoHi and a name change for her senior year would prevent that. The consistent theme from the Skyview side has been the students and parents have sought compromise and a fresh start, but they haven’t seen enough indication that’s the case.

Mike Gallagher served on the committee that made suggestions for the school board. His son James was one of two students who created the Facebook page Save Skyview when these discussions first started in the spring.

“I continually hear… from the folks at Soldotna tonight being against any changes; being against the merger. I’m asking you, where were you when we were fighting this fight in the beginning,” he said.

By the time it was school board’s turn to weigh in, there was discussion about what exactly it could recommend or approve. Some members pointed out the board has no history of selecting mascots and colors because that’s been left up to the schools.

Member Tim Navarre said he doesn’t want to take that power away from the populations at the schools. He said taking the recommendation from the reconfiguration committee might not be the way to go, even if that group was created for that purpose.

Member Sunni Hilts pointed out the board is in a gray area in this situation and essentially recommending a recommendation doesn’t mean those decisions are set in stone. Both the suggestions for mascots and colors were approved. The remaining discussion focused on the school name. Many members pointed out that no matter what the official change is, it will always be known as “SoHi.” So what’s the point of adding a new word?

When it came time to vote, President Joe Arness became the tie-breaker with a yes vote. And with that, the 10th through 12th grade students from Skyview and SoHi will walk into a building called Soldotna High School next year and create a new school.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-


Applications For Flood Aid Open Next Week

Ground water and surface flooding, like here at Bore Tide Avenue, persisted for weeks until a hard freeze set in.

Residents affected by flooding on the Kenai Peninsula will soon be able to start applying for individual assistance from the state.

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Starting next week, homeowners who have sustained damage from flooding this fall can apply for some relief. Jeremy Zidek is the public information officer for the state division of Homeland Security. He says applying for the aid can be done online, over the phone, or in person at the Borough Office of Emergency Management beginning December

To begin the process, flooded property owners will need to bring in documentation of all damages.

“Wherever they apply for individual assistance, they should have a list of the damaged items, proof of ownership documents; photos, videos, anything like that they’ve taken that documents the damage,” Zidek said.

The ceiling for relief funds for individual homeowners is a little more than $16,200. That’s for damages to home and personal property, transportation and expenses associated with medical costs that were a direct result of the flooding.

There is also a temporary housing program that can provide rental assistance. Zidek says they’ll release the hotline phone number and the website address next week.

“We want to make sure we have sufficient staff on those phones and manning that online registration process, to answer questions and help people get that application completed.”

There is no standard time frame for receiving the funds after an application has been made. They’ll be handled on a case-by-case basis, with the most important step being the verification of damage.

“That’s critical,” Zidek said. Damage must be verified before the next step, determining eligibility, can be taken.

In addition to the disaster assistance center in Soldotna, the department also has outposts planned for interior and western Alaska. Those areas incurred damage from storms and power outages in November. You can find more on the disaster relief application process on the Borough’s website.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 


A Different World: Growing Up Dena’ina

Aaron Leggett talks about his experience growing up Dena'ina in Anchorage when native cultures weren't broadly visible.

The most comprehensive exhibit featuring the artifacts and culture of the Dena’ina the Anchorage Museum has ever produced is on display for about six more weeks. The exhibit’s coordinator, Aaron Leggett, spoke at Kenai Peninsula College recently to talk about what’s at the museum and his own experience growing up Dena’ina.

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Aaron Leggett can remember, to the day, when he realized he was a native Alaskan. November 22nd, 1984. Just before Thanksgiving.

His elementary school class in Anchorage celebrated the holiday by dressing up in the traditional pilgrim and Indian costumes, and making cranberry sauce, which Leggett was excited to give to his grandmother, who was full-blooded Dena’ina from Eklutna.

“I remember giving it to her and saying ‘Grandma, we dressed up as Indians at school today.’ She replied in her husky voice ‘Aaron, you are an Indian.’ That one sentence completely redefined who I was,” Leggett said.

Fast forward almost thirty years, and Leggett has come to not only embrace his ancestry and his cultural heritage, but celebrate it through his work; the most recent of which is an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum called Dena’inaq Huch’ulyeshi : The Dena’ina Way of Living.

Leggett says growing up in Anchorage didn’t expose him to what we typically think of as a native way of life. He had just one relative who spoke Dena’ina as a first language, and he remembers hearing just a few Dena’ina words in his youth.

The reason for the exhibit is pretty simple. To tell the Dena’ina story. Not just to the general public, but to the Dena’ina people as well.

“It’s and education for Dena’ina people, but it’s also a celebration of what we’ve been able to hold on to. It’s sort of my dedication to those that have passed on that shared their knowledge, especially at a time when it was not as fashionable to do it. But also, it’s for those kids who come after me. My new nephew; he’s going to grow up in a different world than I did.”

Leggett says he struggled with his own cultural identity because there were no Dena’ina influences to look to.

“Then all you’re told is what you’re taught in school, which wasn’t very much, or the negative stereotypes, then you don’t have anything to reference to.”

A summer job at the Alaska Native Heritage Center emceeing dances and guiding tours of an Athabascan village made him even more interested in the history. He said his desire to learn was insatiable.

In putting together this exhibit, Leggett says they worked with an advisory committee to decide what the focus should be and what sorts of artifacts would be important in telling the story.

“What they said was make it about a living culture and history and make the people visible, which was the number one thing I felt passionate about.”

Besides the language, another big part of the exhibit looks at how the Dena’ina took advantage of the bounty of the upper Cook Inlet region.

“We recreated a yuyqul, or beluga-spearing platform.”

They would take this long, straight spruce tree, clear it of bark and branches, then bury it, upside down so the root body was resting way above the water line when the tide came back in. At the mouth of the Kenai or Susitna rivers, or in front of Tyonek, where the belugas were taking in salmon or hooligan, Leggett says the hunter would harpoon the beluga when the tides came back in. Then a team of two or three would kayak out to the whale, finish the kill and drag it back in.

He says that particular hunting method, as far as anyone knows, is unique to the Dena’ina, and one that anthropologists have only recently recreated. In addition to that, many native articles of clothing have been either recreated or brought in from other collections from around the world, and there are two movies to go along with the artifacts. The exhibit looks at Dena’ina life from the late 18th century, around the time of Captain Cook’s arrival, to today, and is open until January 12th.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-