Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Energetic dollar stretching — Legislature’s $1,200 resource rebate goes further for some than others

“I can put the money to use, but I’m a little skeptical of it, like where it’s all coming from — where the money is coming from. Since you usually don’t get stuff for free. … Fuel, just for my vehicle has gone up. It’s like frickin’ a hundred bucks to fill my truck, and it’s not even a full tank. I can definitely put it to use. It’s probably going to go to pay my bills.” Mandy Howell. “I think it has its good points and some negative ones. In light of what’s happening across the country with gas prices it’s going to help people. I think it also encourages others Outside to look at Alaska as a giveaway state, and I am not in favor of encouraging people to move up for free money. So it’s two-fold.” Mike Giovanelli, building a house in Soldotna. “I think it’s great. I would like to see others get it. There’s other people who could use the energy rebate for the fuel costs.” Mary Fuhrman, who is building a house on Funny River Road. Fuhrman is not eligible for the rebate, since she spent too much time Outside and didn’t apply for a an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

When the Young family moved to Kenai from Dillingham in December, they were delighted to expand their criteria in a housing search beyond one main factor — insulation.

In Dillingham, where heat and electricity come from diesel, which is selling for around $7 a gallon, heat retention topped the list of what they looked for in a home.

“The first year we were out there we moved into a house that wasn’t well-insulated,” Lisa Young said. “The temperature dipped below zero for like weeks at a time, like a month and a half, and we paid $1,200 a month for heat. It was more than our rent.”

Eventually, Gordon and Lisa Young and their three kids moved into an apartment building, specifically choosing a middle unit so it would be better heated.

“You do. If you’re looking to rent you think about, ‘How am I going to heat this?’” she said.

The Youngs lived in Dillingham for two and a half years. Gordon worked as a city police officer while Lisa was a police dispatcher. In December, Gordon got a position as an Alaska State Trooper with the E Detachment in Soldotna.

“Especially when we first got here it was really nice because the prices are sooo different,” she said. “The gas prices have gone up so much (since December) it’s almost like living in the Bush because it’s so high, but it’s still a huge, huge difference.”

When they moved to the peninsula, they found heating costs to be so much lower than what they were used to in Dillingham that they were able to consider things like architecture, yard size and neighborhood in their housing search.

“You can choose wherever you want,” Lisa said of the home they picked in the South Forest area of Kenai. “It’s cute, it’s nice, it’s in a good neighborhood. It’s still kind of small, but it has a nice yard. You have a lot more freedom.”

If lower bills mean more freedom, then the Alaska Legislature’s decision Thursday to give resource rebates to every Alaskan eligible for an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend equals $1,200 worth of extra freedom to each recipient — freedom to help pay rising fuel costs, reduce credit card debt, take a vacation or buy a new flat-screen TV. The rebates will be added to the dividend payments distributed this fall.

The Youngs have found their $1,200 each buys them more freedom on the central Kenai Peninsula than they would have gotten with it in Dillingham, since prices are comparatively cheap here.

Their heating bill went from $500 a month in their Dillingham apartment to $80 in their Kenai house in December, Lisa said. A gallon of heating fuel when they left Dillingham was $3.80, but has since risen to $7. A gallon of milk today also would set them back about $7. A gallon of gas was selling for $4.96 a gallon when they left.

“The cost of living out there was really high,” Lisa said. “It was getting hard to make ends meet that way. We come out here and gas prices soared considerably since December … but it’s really soaring for them.”

In Kenai, Lisa is able to work part time starting a portrait photography business. That wasn’t possible in Dillingham.

“You kind of have to work,” she said. “You do have to make money. There are people out there who are stuck there because they can’t make enough to get out.”

The rebates will be a boost to people in all parts of the state, all income brackets and all kinds of living situations.

Matthew, a firefighter, and Angeline Quiner, of Nikiski, are putting the money toward paying off debt, Angeline said.

“Oh, of course we’re excited about it. I think everybody is,” she said.

With five kids, rising fuel costs and an addition being built onto their house, the money comes at a good time.

“I think it’ll be helpful for us for sure,” she said.

The family is operating differently these days to conserve fuel and money.

“With food prices and also obviously with fuel, we just have to budget it in differently. We’re going into town like a lot less. We used to run back and forth on a whim. Now we think about it,” she said.

Quiner said she didn’t agree with an earlier proposal to limit the rebates to Alaska adults.
“We use a lot more energy every day because we have five kids home all day and I’m always doing laundry. It’s getting harder to make those bills,” she said.

Energy rebate Q&A

Q. Who gets the rebate?
A. Any man, woman or child receiving an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend this fall will find an extra $1,200 in their check.

Q. How much are dividends expected to be?
A. More than $2,000. Which means checks should be $3,200-plus.

Q. When will I get the money?
A. The first, “early bird” round of bank deposits are scheduled for Oct. 2, with paper checks hitting the mail Nov. 14. State officials are considering moving up that schedule, but there hasn’t been official word yet of whether they’ll be able to.

Q. Are the energy rebates subject to federal income taxes?
A. Yes, even for children, just like dividends are.

Q. Is it too late to apply for the PFD and/or the energy rebate?
A. For most people, yes. The deadline to file for the PFD was March 31. However, a limited amount of disabled veterans are able to apply separately for the resource rebate. Check with the state Permanent Fund Dividend Division for more information.

Q. But what if …
A. No. Contact the Permanent Fund Dividend Division if you think your application was rejected in error or you are truly a special case. Good luck, but chances are they’ve already heard, and rejected, your story.

Q. How do I know if my PFD application was approved?
A. You can also check on the Internet at Click on the Check Application Status Link. You also may contact the Permanent Fund Dividend Division by e-mail at, or by phone at 800-733-8813. Be patient, you’re not the only one looking for reassurance your check will be in the mail.

Q. Will the extra income affect eligibility for food stamps, Denali KidCare, or other public assistance programs?
A. No. According to Carolyn Spalding, program officer with the Division of Public Assistance, the rebates are being dealt with the same way as dividends, and PFD checks don’t make you ineligible for public assistance programs.

Rebates could be good news, bad news for Kenai Peninsula Borough schools

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

As people consider what they’ll do with their windfall Alaska Permanent Fund dividend and resource rebate wealth this fall, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is keeping an eye on what might happen if the checks make some people too wealthy to qualify for Title I funding.

Title I funding for school districts comes from the federal government to help pay for aides and other instructional support programs targeting poverty populations.

According to Steve Atwater, assistant superintendent of instruction with KPBSD, whether a school receives Title I money depends on its percentage of students from low-income families. If it’s 35 percent or more, a school gets Title I funding proportionate to the school’s enrollment. If it’s less than 35 percent, the school doesn’t receive any Title I money.

Resource rebate checks of $1,200 added to what’s likely to be a $2,000-plus dividend this year could raise a family’s income out of the Title I eligibility bracket. A family of four could stand to get $12,800 this fall.

If enough families are bumped out of Title I eligibility, it could result in a significant loss in funding to a school. Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai, for example, gets $118,000 in Title I funding, Atwater said.

Title I money is already set for fiscal year 2009, which covers the upcoming school year.
But funding could change for next year. Eligibility is based on free and reduced-price lunch applications, which are collected in fall and formalized in December.

“That’s when we might be able to say if there will be any pending change,” Atwater said. “There is certainly no ripple effect this year — the money has been secured already — but it’s possible a year from now there could be a reduced level of funding for our Title I schools.”

But Atwater sees a bright side. Even if Title I numbers decrease, the school district hopes the money will help overall enrollment numbers stay steady.

“As people begin to look around and wonder how they are going to pay their bills, potentially this could keep kids here,” he said. “We’re holding our breath with the enrollment. We don’t know who’s coming and who’s going.”

The school district receives state funding on a per-student basis, so declining enrollment has financial ramifications — to the tune of $5,480 per student.

“We’re optimistic that if there’s a little bit of cash coming to families it will be positive,” Atwater said. “Maybe they can stay here this winter. We hope people won’t trickle away quite as fast, because it seems like a general trend toward that. We’re optimistic the rebate and money will help people stay.”

Energy bill doesn’t lower peninsula costs, stop utilities from looking ahead

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

A portion of the Alaska Legislature’s $1 billion energy relief package aimed at lowering utility costs won’t have any effect on Homer Electric Association or Enstar Natural Gas customers on the Kenai Peninsula.

The legislation calls for giving everyone eligible for an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend a $1,200 resource rebate, suspending the state’s 8 cents a gallon fuel tax, allowing rural villages to borrow up to $750,000 for buying bulk fuel, and putting more money into the Power Cost Equalization program, which helps rural Alaskans pay high utility costs.

The bad news is, the PCE portion of the bill passed Thursday night won’t lower utility costs for peninsula residents.

“I know it was being discussed. The Senate version (of the bill) would have expanded it to include HEA, but that was obviously abandoned,” said Rick Eckert, manager of business development and regulatory affairs for HEA.

The good news is, the reason the PCE change won’t lower bills on the peninsula is because they’re already too low to qualify for the program.

As it is, Eckert doesn’t expect the legislation to impact HEA. But the extra $1,200 going to HEA members may have an indirect impact on the electric co-op, simply because it may make it easier for people to pay their bills.

Utilities in Alaska aren’t allowed to shut off service over bill delinquency when temperatures are below freezing. There is a state heating assistance program to help with those situations.

“I would imagine it’ll be easier for everybody to cover their bills this winter, and that probably will help HEA,” Eckert said.

Curtis Thayer, director of corporate and external affairs for Enstar, said the natural gas utility also won’t be affected by the energy legislation package, except, perhaps, indirectly, like HEA.

“Our delinquency rate always goes up in the winter months when people are struggling to pay their bills. I would hope this encourages people to come in and take care of the problem ahead of time,” Thayer said.

Enstar offers a $25 credit to customers paying their bill a year in advance. But Thayer doesn’t expect to see a mass of people directing their resource rebates toward their gas bill.

“I would anticipate we will be competing against Best Buy and Cal Worthington Ford for people to use those checks,” he said.

Thayer said he expects the rebates will be helpful to people pinched by rising energy costs, but he would like to see the state seek a more long-term solution to the situation.

“They’ve already awarded the $1,200, so rather than get into a debate about whether that was a good idea, they still have billions of dollars as surplus and now is the time to look at what they could invest in,” Thayer said.

There’s buzz in the state about developing renewable resources, like hydro, solar, tidal or wind power. But for Thayer, the answer is natural gas.

“It’s real easy to talk about renewables, but at the end of the day you still have to heat your homes,” and gas is an inexpensive way to do that, he said.

“The big ideas about hydro, or coal to liquids technology, they all cost billions of dollars. But let’s look to see about adding more turbines and expanding the natural gas grid that we already have,” he said.

Thayer would like to see the state dedicate some of the wealth it has amassed from high oil prices to beefing up and expanding the state’s natural gas infrastructure, as well as investing in an in-state natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to Southcentral.

“Maybe there’s a way. Maybe there’s a spot for the state to encourage that or invest in that line to bring low-cost energy down into Fairbanks and south to Homer,” he said.

An in-state natural gas pipeline, potentially hooking up with a line proposed by Trans-Canada or the North Slope oil producers, could provide a sustained source of gas to Southcentral areas like Anchorage and the central Kenai Peninsula, as well as allow other parts of the state to take advantage of the relatively cheap fuel.

“For Southcentral it would be an assured, long-term supply and possibly revitalize the Agrium plant, and provide for the heating needs of residents,” Thayer said.

The gasline plan Enstar is looking at investing in would cost an estimated $3 billion, he said, and now’s the time to consider it.

“We should talk about our state as far as what the next best step for us is,” he said.
For HEA, improving infrastructure is an important step for the state to take.

“I’m a significant proponent of infrastructure — new technologies, transmission lines. These things set us up for the future,” Eckert said.

There are infrastructure projects on the peninsula in need of funding. Eckert said HEA had asked for $250,000 in the state budget to cut beetle-killed trees outside their utility right of way to protect power lines, but was turned down. Also vetoed was funding for a $900,000 project to redesign and fix issues with old lines on the south side of Kachemak Bay, he said.
HEA’s largest item to make it into, then get cut out of, the state budget proposal this year was $12.5 million for upgrades and improvements to the power transmission system, primarily through the industrial area between Soldotna and Nikiski, Eckert said.

Without state money, these projects have the potential to increase HEA electric bills, “because we’re going to have to spend the money. It’s eventually going to have to be done, whether we get a grant for it or not,” he said.

HEA has received funding to study four low-impact hydro projects in the Cooper Landing area and has an agreement with a wind development company that’s gathering information at several test sites, according to Eckert.

“It’s all necessary work to determine if those resources are practical or feasible,” he said.
Eckert said he thinks the Legislature’s plan was to help people through this winter, then dig into energy issues again next time around.

“I think they regard this as being a means of getting people through the winter and then the Legislature can work with a long-term plan in the next regular session,” he said.

Sweet day

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Liam Way celebrates his first birthday by demolishing a cake at Farnsworth Park in Soldotna on Thursday.

His dad, Buddy Way, of Soldotna, said the cake started out as Thomas the Train.

“He was really slow to get into it. It was like, ‘What do I do with this?’ But now he’s got it figured out. Next year he’ll know what to do,” Way said.

Not so fast, said mom, Latasha Ashworth, of Soldotna.

“Next year he’s not getting a whole cake like this,” she said.

Editorial — Alaska needs energy treatment plan, not Band-Aid

It’s hard to argue with free money, but we’re going to try anyway.
The Alaska Legislature’s plan to give $1,200 to Alaska residents as a way to share the state’s windfall wealth brought in by high oil prices is misguided.

It’s popular, to be sure, and it will go to some good use, as there are people, especially in rural Alaska, desperately in need of assistance to cover energy costs.

But that’s exactly the problem — there are desperate needs in this state, and a blanket let’s-give-money-to-everybody approach to meeting them falls short of what could, and should, be done.

It’s a Band-Aid when what’s needed is surgery and a long-term treatment plan.

In Bush Alaska, fuel oil costs are skyrocketing beyond people’s ability to keep up. Even on the Kenai Peninsula, where we enjoy the benefits of relatively cheap natural gas and a low (compared to most of the state, at any rate) cost of living, there are people struggling to make ends meet.

Our state leaders were generous in wanting to come to our assistance, but this is not the best way to do it.

There are too many pitfalls with the rebates:
  • They go to everyone. Anchorage’s energy costs are miniscule compared to the vast, rural areas in the state. Yet city-dwellers, the Kenai Peninsula included, get the same amount as rural villagers.
  • Yet they don’t go to everyone. Not everyone qualified for a dividend and so they don’t get the resource rebate, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it. If we’re going to hand out free cash, we might as well be fair about it.

Several things are right about the energy bill: suspending the state’s 8-cent gas tax, putting more money into the Power Cost Equalization Program and providing help for rural communities to buy bulk fuel.

What’s ultimately wrong is what isn’t there — a long-term, multifaceted strategy that addresses the energy needs of the entire state.

An in-state gasline alone won’t do it. It would be a tremendous boon for the urban areas served by it, but wouldn’t help the Bush. Likewise, fuel oil subsidies alone aren’t the answer, because Southcentral is headed for its own tough times if a steady, reliable source of gas isn’t secured. And any plan that focuses strictly on fossil fuels will leave us in the cold when those resources run out.

The state is flush with oil revenue and in a prime position to plan for the future. A one-time handout may help get people through this winter, but what about the next one, or the one after that?

It’s time for Alaska to roll up its sleeves and put its hands to work planning for a brighter, more energy-efficient future.

Full spectrum truth is seeing colors, gray areas more clearly

By Stephen Stringham

An old saying states that, “Objective truth in a courtroom is the first casualty.” For courtrooms are battlegrounds where the goal is winning, not informing. Witnesses may swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” But attorneys aren’t held to that standard. The only facts an attorney seeks from witnesses are facts that support his/her side of an argument. Half-truths make better weapons than whole truths.

Politics is even worse, whether the battle is between opposing candidates or between opposing special interests — as in the case of current ballot measures related to predator control or mining pollution.

Rules of Court, formal political debates and good journalism all aim to reduce half-truth biases and outright lies by presenting “both” sides of an issue. But, sadly, two half-truths do not make one whole truth, any more than you can mix white paint with black paint and end up with anything except shades of gray. Real life is less often gray than a riotous mix of colors.

Revealing full spectrum truth requires a different approach. It requires taking a closer look and identifying the gaps in pro vs. con arguments. It requires figuring out how each side’s “magicians” are pulling rabbits out of proverbial hats – keeping your attention focused on favorable claims so you don’t notice all the important things they aren’t telling you.

That’s where Spectrum comes in. This column’s purpose is helping you spot the magician’s tricks on controversial issues that could be important to you. Its goal is not convincing you how to vote or what to believe. Rather, it helps you see each issue more clearly so you can better understand the implications of supporting or opposing any given side in an issue — or the necessity of reframing the issue to achieve better outcomes.

Stephen Stringham, of Soldotna, is the author of “Bear Viewing in Alaska,” “Beauty Within the Beast: Kinship with Bears in the Alaska Wilderness,” and “Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual.” His op-ed column, Spectrum, will appear monthly in The Redoubt Reporter.

Grading on an upward curve — School district has harder time making Adequate Yearly Progress

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Results can be deceiving in the world of education. Low test scores may say more about a student’s ability to take a written test than their abilities overall. Likewise, the report that 10 schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District did not make Adequate Yearly Progress last year is more about changing standards than poor performance, said Sean Dusek, the district’s director of assessment

AYP results released Friday list Homer Flex, Homer High, Kenai Central High, Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility, Nikiski Middle-High, Port Graham, Skyview High, Soldotna Elementary, Soldotna High and Spring Creek schools as not making AYP in the 2007-08 school year. In 2006-07, five schools did not make AYP.

According to Dusek, director of secondary education and assessment for KPBSD, the schools not making AYP had similar performances in 2006-07 and 2007-08, when many of them did not make AYP. Their level of performance didn’t decrease, but the standards by which they are judged increased.

“Overall I think the district’s schools did pretty well. We were pretty much at the same proficiency level as we were last year,” Dusek said.

AYP is the accountability function of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that mandates all students must demonstrate competence in language arts and math through written assessments given in grades three through 10. The levels of proficiency students must meet increase over the years, with all students expected to demonstrate 100 percent proficiency by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Students are lumped into nine subgroups, including ethnicity, low English proficiency and students with disabilities. Schools are judged by what percentage of their students in each subgroup, as well as their whole student body, meet the standards set for the year. A school’s test participation rate and graduation rate, if they have a 12th grade, also count toward AYP.

In the 2006-07 school year, schools were expected to show 71.48 percent proficiency in language arts and 57.61 percent in math. At those standards, seven of the schools not showing high enough proficiency in 2007-08 did make AYP the year before — Homer High, Kenai Central, Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility, Nikiski Middle-High, Skyview High, Soldotna Elementary and Soldotna High.

In 2007-08, the language arts standard increased to 77.18 percent, and math increased to 66.09. Of the 10 schools not achieving AYP at the higher standards, the larger schools missed it in one category — students with disabilities, Dusek said.

“I don’t know exactly why, but I do know we took a big jump in the objectives they were supposed to meet,” he said. “The year before we made huge increases in all those schools. Compared to last year it was stable.”

Schools not making AYP face increasing levels of consequences based on how many years they have not met the set standards. Consequences range from being required to offer extra tutoring, providing busing (where feasible) to another school if parents choose to enroll their child elsewhere, and in the most severe case restructuring the entire school. Of the 10 KPBSD schools not making AYP, none face drastic consequences. Homer Flex is in its fourth year not making AYP, Spring Creek is in its third and Port Graham is in its second. All other schools made AYP the year before.

“The nice thing is the majority of those schools that didn’t make it, this is the first time they haven’t made AYP so they’re just on a watch list with no real significant corrective actions,” Dusek said. “So they’re going to just readjust their focus a little bit and if they make it (this year) they’re off the list and keep moving forward. … We have some work to do, but we focus on all students so it’s more than just one category. We want all students to improve.”
Since KPBSD has 44 schools in all, that means there were 34 bright spots in the report. Overall, KPBSD students were 87 percent proficient in language arts. Some schools in particular stood out for Dusek.

Kenai Middle, Nikiski North Star and Tebughna School in Tyonek have now made AYP two years in a row, meaning they move off the watch list for corrective action. Soldotna Middle School and Connections, the district’s home school program, made AYP for the first time in several years. Dusek also pointed to Kachemak Selo, Chapman, Homer Middle, Kenai Alternative, McNeil Elementary, Soldotna Mont-essori, Sterling Elementary, West Homer Elementary and Fireweed Charter schools as high performers.

“We did well. We hoped that we maybe had fewer schools not make it, but overall we’re very pleased with the results,” Dusek said.

KPBSD is waiting to hear their AYP results as a district, which averages in how well all students and schools do on the assessments. Last year KPBSD was the highest performing large district in the state, outpacing Anchorage, Fairbanks, Matanuska-Susitna and Juneau.

With the amount of federal importance tied into AYP status, the results are taken seriously by the school district. But no matter what the score, Dusek doesn’t take it to mean any students are failing, or that the district is finished improving.

“It’s a single snapshot in time,” he said. “There are a lot of other ways to measure proficiency for a student. There are a lot of kids that may struggle taking a paper and pencil test, but they do extremely well in other performance capacities.”

Some like it cold — Wildflowers flourish in cool conditions

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Rain and cold weather may not be people’s idea of a great summer, but native plants wouldn’t have it any other way. Wildflowers are showing their happiness with the cold, moist season by brightening roadsides and people’s moods with brilliant, bountiful displays of color.

“Some of the wildflower displays were just spectacular. You had to get out in the woods, it was just beautiful,” said Janice Chumley, integrated past management technician with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service on Kalifornsky Beach Road.
Lupine, in particular, was an attention-grabber this year, with its purple and white stalks blooming en masse along roadsides on the central Kenai Peninsula. But what looked like a bumper crop is really just a normal one, Chumley said. People surprised by the amount of flowers probably just don’t remember what “normal” looks like.

“This year we’re just getting back to where we used to be,” Chumley said. “As humans we’re really kind of shortsighted on the cycle of things. Even though it may not be to our liking, it may be to the vegetation’s liking much better.”

For the past three to four years, the central peninsula had winters that got cold early without much snow to insulate plants, early breakups, dry springs and hot, dry summers.

“People loved it, but it was very difficult on native vegetation,” Chumley said. “Our plants are adapted to living in cooler, moister conditions. When it gets to be 75 without any rain, they’re not happy.”

The conditions resulted in wildflowers blooming early and not very profusely because many died in the winter or didn’t have enough moisture to flourish in the summer.

This winter had plenty of snow to insulate plants and breakup came on its more typical late schedule. There wasn’t much moisture early in spring, but plants made the most of what precipitation there was because temperatures remained cool. The cool trend has continued this summer, with rain showers passing through the central peninsula as often as fishermen headed to the Kenai River.

“We as people like the weather as it is today, warm and sunny,” Chumley said on Friday, when temperatures reached into the 70s. “But all the native plants here, they grow in this area because they’re adapted to cool and moist.”

Fireweed hasn’t yet rivaled the show put on by lupine earlier this summer, but it’s still early to declare a purple victory over pink.

“I think if we wait another week or two and get some warming temperatures, even though it’s still cool at night, I think it will come around,” Chumley said.

Fireweed is a sweet and sour sight — its bright blooms liven up the landscape, but it also spells the end of summer, such as it was.

“A lot of people are still waiting for summer, but it’s almost over and we may as well adapt to that,” Chumley said.

What better way than to get out and enjoy what the season does have to offer? This year, that means wildflowers, and it soon will mean wild berries, as they also thrive in this weather.

“I think they should get out and enjoy them while they can,” Chumley said. “It has been a magnificent display and it’s just been going on all summer long. Take a walk in the woods and look around. It’s just beautiful. Take the time to look at them before they are gone.”

If moist conditions continue into fall and result in another snowy winter, the central peninsula will likely be treated to another bright display next summer.

But Chumley cautions there are threats to native flowers beyond warm, dry weather. Invasive weeds, like hawkweed, oxeye daisies and butter and eggs, pose a more sinister danger, since they can take over wildflower habitat and permanently choke out natural vegetation.

“They may be pretty, but they will change places where our wildflowers do actually grow, and not for the better,” she said.

Weather or not — Rain dries up some business, leaves others awash in customers

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

The sunbeams warming swaths of black and white checkered floor tile in the 1950s-era The Robin’s Nest diner in Sterling on Saturday narrowed to a spaghetti strip, then disappeared altogether as fat plops of rain started splattering against the window. The drops also washed away hope that the wooden ice cream cone sign perched outside on a hill above the Sterling Highway would entice anyone up the driveway for a frosty treat.

“When it’s sunshiney and nice out, then it’s ice cream. If not, it’s more of a food day,” said co-owner Barb Pennington.

A cool, damp summer, like this one in Southcentral Alaska, can mean many things — few forest fires, disgruntled outdoors enthusiasts and decreased sales of warm-weather items and activities, like ice cream.

Pennington estimates business is down about a third this summer in the ice cream parlor and diner she owns with Susan Gilbertson.

“A lot has to do with the weather and gas prices. I’ve noticed there’s not a lot of traffic around,” she said.

Soup and sandwich sales are more the norm when the sun takes up residence behind the clouds, as it has for much of this summer. But since the majority of their summer clientele is tourists, even food sales suffer when people don’t get outside.

“We’d hope for maybe an Indian summer. You know, that would be really nice,” Pennington said.

At the Go Kart Race Track in Soldotna, traffic on the track diminishes with traffic on the road — in this case the Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road, which intersect just beyond the track’s fence.

“When it’s raining, we have a few, not that many (customers),” said Felix Martinez. “We probably would get more if the weather would be more nice.”

Tourist season in general affects his business. As fishing season goes, so goes his traffic.

“It’s not bad (this year),” he said. “Not as bad as I thought it would be with gas and fishing and all that. Down a little bit from last year.”

Some die-hard drivers still take a tour around the track, no matter what the weather brings.

“I’m open rain or shine,” Martinez said. “We get a few. Some people like it when it’s wet.”

Rainy days don’t equal slow days at all businesses. Some are awash in customers. Movie theaters are more than happy to offer refuge from the rain.

“It’s kind of known in the movie industry that you get more business when it’s crappy out, and you’re less busy when it’s sunny,” said Robin Grimm, a manager at Orca Theaters on K-Beach.

Grimm said she thinks it has been a good summer for the Orca, especially with the blockbusters that drew in crowds, like “Wall-E,” “Hancock” and “Dark Knight.”

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a big-name flick to draw in moviegoers. Sometimes all it takes is a lack of interest in being outdoors.

“You can see some of the fishermen come in here with their rain boots on, and they smell like fish,” Grimm said. “And I worked in a fish processor before, so that’s a smell I don’t care if I ever smell again.”

At the Burger Bus in Kenai, the Hurst family is happy to cater to fishermen.
Diane Hurst said she and her husband, Vic Sr., and son, Vic Jr., have seen a 16 to 17 percent increase in their business this year. Being near the Kenai beach is a boon for the bus, as business increased during dipnetting season. Foot traffic in Old Town Kenai has been normal this year, as well, Hurst said.

In the summer their clientele is mostly new faces, either tourists or people visiting friends and family in the area.

Hurst attributes some of their success this summer to being able to maintain competitive prices. With food and other costs going up, restaurants have had to increase their prices. The Burger Bus has, too, but more gradually.

“We don’t have much overhead,” she said. “It’s just the three of us. It’s a family business so we have been able to keep up price increases low.”

Dipnetting, walking tours and the other attractions of Old Town and the beach bring people by the Bus rain or shine. If it were up to Hurst, she’d opt for the former.

“Even if we only have four or five days of sunshine, that’s OK with me. I don’t mind when its cool. It gets pretty hot in there,” she said.

Building will be sweet treat to Kenai

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Sandra Vozar is bringing something sweet to Old Town Kenai.

Her new two-story, 2,000-square-foot building at 910 Upland in Old Town will house living quarters for herself downstairs, bed-and-breakfast accommodations with three bedrooms and showers upstairs, and space in the front of the building downstairs to house the Old Town Café.

The café will have open seating for 20 to 25 and will serve hamburgers, fish and chips with halibut and hand-cut fries, hand-dipped ice cream and homemade candy and wedding cakes. Vozar’s niece, Carol Tolly, and Carol’s daughter, Brenna, will work in the café.
Vozar is no stranger to Old Town.

“My husband and I lived here since ’74. We’ve been here at the same corner,” she said.
She and her late husband, Paul, used to own the Toyon Villa apartment building down the street, built the Beluga RV Park on the bluff behind the apartments, and most recently owned the Old Town Village Restaurant in what is now the Tyotkas Elder Care Center.

Vozar said she comes from a family of Old World candy makers and plans to make her own fudge, turtles, toffee, caramel apples and homemade caramel candy.

“When I made candy in the past and set it out on the counter people would buy it up in no time flat,” she said.

For specialized décor she’s had the Alaska flag set in concrete in the front of the building with silver dollars representing the flag’s stars.

She also purchased two carvings from Sawfest at Land of the Living Trees in Sterling the weekend of July 18 to put out front. One carving has a bear with a lantern climbing on another bear, and the second is a totem design with a moose, a bear climbing a tree and an eagle perched on top with a salmon in its beak.

Vozar plans to move into the building before winter. She hopes to open the café in May and plans to keep it open year-round if she gets enough business.

A dome to call their own — Committee considers building indoor sports complex

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Summer sports in Alaska mean making the most of what’s available — playing in gyms until grass fields green up, huddling under blankets at spring and fall games, and scheduling doubleheaders to cram a standard-length season into the brief two to three months the weather allows for play.

That could change on the central Kenai Peninsula, as an exploratory committee looks into building a domed sports facility in the Kenai-Soldotna area.

“We live in Alaska, and global warming is just not coming fast enough,” said Mike Navarre, who is involved with the committee. “A dome allows for training year-round. We’d be able to compete with Anchorage and other places that have domes.”

The committee is in the preliminary stages of investigating the possibility of such a facility.

“Initially we’re just trying to get some idea of what it would cost to build a dome, see what sort of strategy and plan we’d need for accomplishing it,” Navarre said. “It’s mostly information gathering, gauging what kind of support we would have and what kind of users we would have.”
Navarre envisions a dome being useful to soccer, track, baseball, softball and football teams — basically, any summer sport that finds its season hampered by unsummerlike weather.

Soccer and track would especially benefit, since their seasons start in the spring, usually before their outdoor facilities are ready.

“This year they couldn’t get on the tracks this spring, and almost all the high school tracks need to be upgraded and repaired right now anyway,” Navarre said.

The Boys and Girls Club soccer program, Kenai Peninsula Soccer Club, Pop Warner football and high school sports programs could potentially use such a facility.

“Based on early investigation I think there’s a lot of interest there,” he said. “I think it would definitely be well-used on a long-term basis, especially on the central peninsula.”
Mike Tilly, president of the Kenai Peninsula Soccer Club, said he can see the appeal of a dome suitable for summer sports.

“Anytime you’re trying to expand an athlete’s capabilities and if your particular sport is in an outdoor environment, and in Alaska the environment isn’t always conducive, then obviously an indoor dome or facility would be pretty beneficial to you,” he said.

Without one, KPSC teams often start the year practicing on a gym floor, where they can’t hone ball-handling skills meant for grass.

“It’s like being a hockey player and there’s no ice, or being a swimmer and there’s no pool,” Tilly said.

It’s one thing if it’s a level, ungrassy playing field where everyone deals with the same challenges, but Kenai Peninsula athletes often find themselves competing with Anchorage and Wasilla teams that have access to indoor sports facilities.

“One of the benefits of some of those clubs is they have more time to practice prior to their fields coming into condition,” Tilly said. “… It makes obvious sense that if there’s a place for these kids to get in there and train and practice there would be some obvious benefits to that. That would be a no-brainer.”

Making the dome a reality, however, takes quite a bit of brain-work.

The committee is considering building about a 176,000-square-foot, fully air-supported dome that could accommodate indoor turf fields and track facilities, similar to the size of The Dome in Anchorage. The price tag could be between $8 million and $12 million, Navarre said.

The cities of Kenai and Soldotna both have locations that could potentially host a dome that size, but the committee would need to consider water and sewer availability, parking space, the extent of groundwork required and other factors — including the political feather-ruffling that might come with choosing one city over the other.

A first step toward a dome is finding grant funding to do a feasibility study on the project. The committee would hope to learn how much a dome would cost, where to locate it, how much use it would get, what it would cost to operate and maintain it, and where all that money would come from.

Navarre said grant money through a fundraising campaign may be available for construction costs, but there needs to be a plan for paying for the dome after that, whether it’s user fees, setting up a service area to access taxpayer money or some other system.

“In the past we’ve seen a lot of things put together without long-term plans for operating it,” he said. “The operating costs is always where things sort of fall apart. How can you pay to operate and maintain it long term?”

It’s an important question. The 8-year-old Kenai Multipurpose Facility, for example, operates at a roughly $50,000 loss each year, according to city attorney and acting manager Cary Graves. But the city considers it a public service, he said.

Tilly said he could see operation and maintenance costs as being a sticking point for the project.

On one hand, central peninsula residents without kids in sports programs may be reluctant to shell out tax money for a facility from which they don’t directly benefit.

“They could say, ‘Well, I don’t want to support that.’ The other side of the coin is it comes down to a quality of life thing in the community,” he said.

Making the facility available to as many sports as possible may be a way to win community support, Tilly said.

Navarre is hoping the committee can gauge support for the project through a series of open meetings. The next will be held at 10 a.m. Sept. 10 in a conference room at the Borough Building in Soldotna.

“We want to take the time to do it right and build up the public support that we can afford to operate it,” he said.

“We ask people to keep an open mind.”

Banding together, at least for now — Marching to own drums after high school may bring bands into step with each other

By Laura Forbes
For the Redoubt Reporter

Haven Multz-Matthews - drummer with Casualties to the Cause, a Homer band that played with Kenai's Uglyfish on Saturday at the Kenai Performers Playhouse - used an apt analogy to describe the process of writing music.

“It's a lot like spelling. If you read a book, then you learn how to spell the words that are in the book. So if you listen to a bunch of other people's music, then you think of it while you're creating your music. Not necessarily ripping off, but definitely sampling. Taking ideas from other people is definitely a big part of writing songs,” Multz-Matthews said.

Both bands have been experimenting with musical vocabulary, developing their identities and finding a path in life.

“We've been together since last fall, actually. We're probably done after this show cause we're all going off to school,” Ian Uponen, bass and guitar player with Uglyfish, said of his band.

Uponen would like to see the band continue after the fall, but as college and other opportunities lay themselves at the feet of these 18-year-old men, Uponen is going with the flow.

“I'm going off to Portland with my singer, Kris Larson, so we might still play in a band together. I don't know. We'll see,” Uponen said.

The lineup for Uglyfish is Larson, Devin Boyle, Justin Wisniewski, Uponen and Jonathan Loveall. The guys have the support of family and friends, as proven by the crowd that was already starting to gather at the Playhouse even before the doors opened at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Uponen, as well as others in Uglyfish, came from music. Both his parents, J.D. and Lori Uponen, were music majors and both were in attendance at the concert.

“There was support. It might have been harder if they were not as much into music as I am, and all behind me. My dad helps out at shows with sound and helping set up. He's been here since twelve this afternoon,” Uponen said.

J.D. Uponen was crossing the floor with cable, getting ready for a sound check. It is natural for him to lend a hand in such an endeavor, as music has always been part of his family's life.
“We just try to get the most out of life by expressing ourselves in whatever fashion,” J.D. said.

J.D. left it up to his son to explore his own means of expression. It just happened to be music. J.D. also will leave it up to his son to decide how far to carry his zeal for music.

“It has to be his decision. If he were doing it because he was following his heart, more power to him. This is the time to do it, when you're young. When you get older - not that you should let too much get in your way - but you have obligations and responsibilities that you take on,” J.D. said.

J.D. and Danette Howland, mother of Uglyfish band member Devin Boyle, believe in the talent of all the young men in the band.

“This has been Devin's foray into being in a band,” Howland said. “Uglyfish is awesome. They're just the sweetest, most talented bunch of boys. They're going to all go their own way, but I'm still pinning my hopes on them getting back together.”

Howland said all the band members except Devin are going to Portland, but Devin may eventually end up there, too.

“They're just a neat bunch of kids. I'd love to see them continue,” she said.
Howland is also the mother of Keely Boyle, who is working full time with Nelson Kempf to build a career as the Old Believers. The Old Believers are based out of Portland and tour around the country and continue to record albums these days.

“I just hope they keep music as part of their lives, because I think they find a lot of joy in it. Whether it's what they do for a living, or just something they do for fun, I hope they continue with it,” Howland said of all the young people she's watched grow up in Kenai music.

Local kids have been lucky to get all the musical support available from music teachers in the area, she said.

“I have to give a lot of credit, you know. You can take it to Elaine Larson, at the elementary school, Rosemary Bird, Mr.. Uponen, Renee Henderson - that's one of our biggest gifts in this community right now, and for the last twenty or more years - has been we have strong music programs,” Howland said.

Casualties to the Cause, which opened the set, is Multz-Matthews, Ethan Martin, Patrick Schneider, Dan McCallum and Tyler Langham, of Homer. They all just graduated high school, as well, and are facing some of the same questions as Uglyfish.

“We definitely all want to focus our energy toward music. I don't know if we're going to keep going as a band. I know this fall or winter, we're all going to meet up in Portland and play around there and see what's up. We've got a lot of friends and good connections down there,” Multz-Matthews said.

Like Uglyfish, the guys in Casualties to the Cause grew up together in music.

“All my brothers played guitar and bass. They all played instruments, but no one played drums, so I just kind of naturally was drawn to that. So I had a crappy drum set at my house - duct-taped together. And I told Ethan, 'Dude, you should learn guitar, and we should start a band,'” Multz-Matthews said.

To keep tabs on the evolving futures of both bands, you can check out Uglyfish and Casualties to the Cause on their pages. Both bands have picture postings and tracks to listen to.

Arts and entertainment week of Aug. 13

A E Calendar
  • Art Works in Soldotna has photography by Bill Heath on display through August.
  • Kaladi Brothers in Soldotna has fiber art by Connie Goltz on display through August.
  • The Kenai Fine Arts Center in Old Town Kenai has art by Laura Faeo and Regina McAbee on display through August.
  • The Funky Monkey coffee shop in Kenai has “Altered Threads,” a fiber arts display by Kenai Peninsula College students, on display through August.

  • The Totem Tracers Genealogical Society will hold its monthly meeting, beginning with a work session, at 6 p.m. at the Kenai Community Library. Call 283-4378.
  • Martha Merry will give a presentation on what it was like to homestead on the Kenai at 1 p.m. at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. Call 283-1991.

  • Ron Sexton, owner of Trinity Greenhouse, will speak about gardening on the Kenai Peninsula at 1 p.m. at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. Call 283-1991.
  • Triumvirate Theatre will stage “The Star Spangled Girl” by Neil Simon at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the theater in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Tickets are $10 in advance from the bookstore or at the door. Call 953-7262.

  • Triumvirate Theatre performs “The Star Spangled Girl.” at 7 p.m. (See Friday listing)
  • Kenai Performers will hold auditions for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” directed by Ken Duff, at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Old Town Playhouse in Kenai. There are roles for seven men, four women and five roles that could be either. Performances will be Oct. 17-19, 24-26 and Oct. 31-Nov. 1. E-mail Duff at or call 252-0178.
  • Sidecar, a three-man improv troupe from New York, will perform live shows Saturday, Aug. 21 and Aug. 22 at the Old Town Playhouse in Kenai. Each night has two performances with different content each time at 7 and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for the first show and $5 for any additional show. Early shows are family friendly, later shows may by PG-13. Tickets are available at Charlotte’s in Kenai, River City Books in Soldotna and at the door.

  • Sidecar (see Saturday listing) will conduct a youth (15 and under) imrpov workshop from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Old Town Playhouse. A beginning improv adult workshop (16 and up) will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 20, with an advanced adult class meeting from 8 to 10 p.m. those nights. Registration forms are available at River City Books and Charlotte’s. Call 776-8308 for more information.
  • Auditions for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at 2 p.m. (see Saturday listing).

  • Tom Jahns of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service will give an overview of agricultural activities on the Kenai Peninsula at 1 p.m. at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. Call 283-1991.
  • Sidecar improv workshops (see Saturday listing).

  • Sidecar improv workshops (see Saturday listing).

Aug. 20
  • Contributing scholar Shane Lopez will discuss the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center’s exhibit on the first- and second-edition journals of explorer Capt. James Cook.
  • Sidecar improv workshops (see Saturday listing).


  • The Riverside in Soldotna has live DJ music every Friday and Saturday at 10 p.m.

Live music
  • BJ’s in Soldotna has acoustic country, folk and bar songs by Hobo Jim at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
  • The Funky Monkey in Kenai has bluegrass music by Them Other Shuckers from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays.
  • Hooligan’s Saloon has acoustic music by Travis B. and Sean at 10 p.m. Thursday and rock covers by 9-Spine at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
  • The Maverick in Soldotna has acoustic classic rock by the Free Beer Band at 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
  • Mykel’s in Soldotna has acoustic music by Dave Unruh from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
  • The Place in Nikiski had bluegrass music by Them Other Shuckers at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
  • The Rainbow Bar in Kenai has rock covers by The Mabrey Brothers Band at 10 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
  • Veronica’s in Kenai has open mic music at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, acoustic folk, blues and Hawaiian music by Mike Morgan at 6:30 p.m. Friday and acoustic music by Jack Will and Sue Biggs at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

  • 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays at the Duck Inn on Kalifornsky Beach Road.
  • 9 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays at the 406 in Kenai.
  • 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Hooligan’s in Soldotna.
  • 8:30 p.m. Friday at the J-Bar-B in Kasilof
  • 9:30 p.m. Monday at the Maverick in Soldotna.

  • Moosequito’s in Sterling has “Guitar Hero” at 9 p.m. Thursdays.
  • The Maverick in Soldotna has pool night at 9 p.m. Fridays.

Refuge from the crowds

By Clark Fair,
Redoubt Reporter

I had just turned to see my fellow hikers, Monte and Bryan, perhaps 100 yards back, stopped along the high mossy terrace above Benjamin Creek, gesturing and pointing at something I could not see. Another ptarmigan, perhaps. Or maybe just another element of the unbelievable scenery.

I didn’t wait to find out. In the contemplative “Zen” of the moment, I was eager to keep moving. So I put my trekking poles into motion and moved forward again over undulating caribou moss and between patches of scrub birch and willow.

Striding over a gentle rise, I saw a mass of red-blond hair, and for just an instant I flashed on my golden retriever back at home. But I knew immediately I had stumbled upon a brown bear, and a moment later I realized there was more than one: a sow with at least one cub.

I had my wits about me enough to realize two things: The wind was in my face, and the bears were feeding with their backs to me.

I retreated.

Within seconds I was below the rise again, turned 180 degrees, and hastened back to my companions, poles held above my head in an X, as if to say, “Stop! Don’t come this way!” I glanced behind me as I hurried along, hoping to see no furry forms in rapid pursuit.

“Brown bears!” I hissed. “Two or three of them! Just over that rise!”

“Bryan just saw a brown bear, too,” Monte said.

“Yeah,” said Bryan, gesturing to open terrain below us and about a third of the way to the creek. “Down in that grassy spot. It was big, too. It went into that brush over to the left, but I don’t know where it is now.”

Then my own bears appeared, feeding as they ambled slowly to higher ground. There were four of them, a sow with three cubs. Palms gravitated to pistol butts, just in case.

Ten minutes earlier we had been blissfully unaware of the danger. We were a day and a half into a remote wilderness experience, and, despite multiple black bear sightings, we felt confident and enthusiastic about our ability to cover great distances safely.

Suddenly, we were in the midst of five brown bears with no help within miles of us, should disaster strike. Although our confidence was somewhat shaken, the truth is we couldn’t have been happier. We were exactly where we wanted to be.

It’s easy to become a part of the maddening crowd in our attempts to escape to the great outdoors.

We troll for king salmon among an aluminum armada on the Kenai River or cast for sockeye in a thicket of limbs and rods on the sparkling Russian River. We cram ourselves into overflowing campgrounds and share community outhouses, or we hike groomed, well-marked trails throughout our state and federal lands.

And we accept it, often because the burgeoning number of people who occupy the Kenai Peninsula — particularly in the summer months — means we must share our experiences and move in close proximity with others. Or at least that’s what we’re led to believe.

But the reality is we can still have true wilderness adventures. Getting away from it all may be more difficult, but it doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive, and the reward is well worth the extra effort.

Within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge lies a massive wilderness, isolated within and given special protection among the refuge’s nearly 2 million acres. Entering this wilderness can set visitors far from the hubbub of civilization, grant them a humbling sense of insignificance and test their mettle in ways beyond the ken of those bound to the usual highways and byways.
Back to the wild

It had been many years since I had entered this wilderness, opting instead for quick day trips closer to the roads. And it had been many more years since I had hiked with my old high school buddy, Monte Edwards, each of us having allowed careers, family and distance to limit our friendship mainly to annual Christmas correspondence.

Last week, however, we changed all that.

Monte and his 21-year-old son, Bryan, who had never been to Alaska or seen a bear in the wild before, arrived Aug. 2, geared up and ready to go. The following morning, my friend, Drew O’Brien, acted as our portal to the wilderness as he ferried us across the smooth surface of Skilak Lake and deposited us at the Cottonwood Creek trailhead, promising to return and pick us up Aug. 6.

From that moment, we were on our own. Our rough-hewn plan: ascend the Cottonwood Creek trail to treeline, climb over the top end of the drainage, descend to and cross Benjamin Creek, then follow its high terrace to a notch in the mountains that would lead us down to Twin Lakes, nestled at the foot of an unnamed 5,200-foot crag. There, if we had time, we hoped to make a quick side trip over to Skilak Glacier before returning to Cottonwood Creek via a scree-strewn pass on the northeast side of the drainage.

Some things went according to plan: Bryan got to see bears — 12 blacks in addition to the five brownies. He spotted his first ptarmigan, first hoary marmot, first bear den, and caught his first grayling. He missed out on caribou but we did gather one discarded antler.

With Monte and me, he also crossed four icy stream channels barefoot, logged at least 30 miles of challenging travel, and climbed an aggregate of more than 6,000 feet. But his badly blistered feet, nearly 36 hours of intermittent rain and the constraints of time — in a land seemingly apart from such considerations — kept us from going beyond Twin Lakes to the glacier.

Still, in four days we saw no one else in our travels, walked on only four to five miles of actual trails and reveled in a sense of vastness and isolation impossible along the winding blacktop of civilization.

In the end, the sow and her trio of cubs eyeballed us for a few minutes, then wandered over a snow-splotched side hill and disappeared from view. This time, in this place, she seemed as content with her isolation as we were with ours.

Get geared up to get away

Preparation can mean the difference between an exciting adventure far from home and a miserable experience with help a long way off.

If you are planning your own backcountry excursion, here are some things to consider before you go:

  • Study the area. Buy relevant topographic maps and take them with you. Examine the ups and downs of the terrain you’ll be traveling. Be prepared for that 1,500-foot climb into the next drainage.
  • Travel with a GPS, or at least a compass, in addition to your maps. A GPS can allow you to establish waypoints as you travel, thereby giving you markers to find your way out, even in the densest fog.
  • It may be expensive, but buying a satellite messenger or leasing a satellite phone might save your life in case of emergency. Satellite messengers are about the size of a cigarette pack and weigh less than half a pound, and they are capable of sending a 911 alert with your precise GPS location. Avoid relying on cell phones, which usually cannot receive service in wilderness areas and can be notorious for drained batteries.
  • Arrange reliable transportation in and out of the area. Tell other people where you’re going and when you expect to return.
  • Always be prepared to stay longer than you planned. The elements may conspire against you, and your boat or plane may be unable to reach you until hours or even days later. Bring at least a full day’s worth of extra food, and be able to stay as warm and dry as possible while you wait.
  • Prepare for any weather. It may be warmer than you had expected, but it’s more likely to be much colder or wetter. Good, breathable raingear — coat and pants — is essential, as are a sturdy pair of water-resistant boots.
  • Many backcountry travelers like to compartmentalize their gear, especially food, sleeping bags and changes of clothing, in waterproof stuff sacks.
  • Speaking of clothing, it’s a good idea to have plenty of layers available to suit the conditions. Also, extra socks help keep your feet in good shape and feel great at the end of a long, weary day.
  • Other essentials in isolated backcountry areas include a reliable stove and plenty of fuel, a water-purifying pump or tablets, a small medical kit, insect repellent and an emergency repair kit. Repair kits can be elaborate or contain such basic items as nylon line, duct tape, a bit of aluminum foil, a Swiss Army knife and maybe a coil of wire.
  • Finally, self-protection (from bears, for instance) is undeniably important. Some travelers resolutely refuse to carry guns, opting instead for pepper spray or a similar deterrent. Others insist on having a sidearm or shotgun close at hand. Whatever the case, be prepared and be bear aware.

Beluga hunting club a testament to different times

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

At a time when efforts are afoot to list the Cook Inlet beluga whale under the federal Endangered Species Act, it may seem strange to contemplate that in the early 1960s the Kenai Chamber of Commerce actually sponsored an organization called The Beluga Whale Hunt Club.

The chamber was “looking toward utilization of the beluga whale,” according to James Fisher, a retired Kenai lawyer and president of the chamber from 1962 to 1964. Consequently, beluga hunting and the subsequent consumption of “beluga burgers” became a feature of the annual Kenai Days celebration from 1963 to 1965.

The December 1963 issue of Alaska Sportsman reported that the whale hunt was “a great idea publicity-wise, but didn’t produce a lot of meat.”

According to the magazine, “Blustery weather kept amateur whale hunters pretty much on the beach, but a previous ‘practice’ hunt provided about 300 pounds of meat” for Kenai Days. Kenai pharmacist John Hulien, who had spearheaded the foundation of the club and referred to himself as the “Chief Whale Wrangler,” reported that every pound of the meat (as burgers or in cans) was sold.

The club, ultimately a short-lived attempt to spice up big game hunting opportunities and entice tourists to the Kenai area, was organized in the summer of 1963. Membership in the club cost $3. According to the magazine, new members received a small bottle of whale oil, a chance to participate in the hunt and “the right to have their names burned into a six-by-six-foot whale hide on display at the city center.”

By May 1964, The Cheechako News reported that efforts were well under way to broaden the abilities and opportunities of the club. According to the paper, Al Munson had donated an unused gear shack on the beach below Kenai, area pilot Bud Lofstedt was going to be hired to spot pods of whales from the air, the first crew of Reed Kent and Denny Denbrock were ready to hunt, and “practice with the Norwegian harpoon rifle recently acquired has been continuing with increased accuracy by club members.”

Meanwhile, according to the Cheechako, Helen Fisher, club member and wife of the chamber president, had made some experimental whale oil soap, and the club itself was hoping to supply whale oil for the Alaska exhibit at the World’s Fair in New York City. Five gallons of oil and certificates of membership in the club had already been sent, the paper said.

Nancy Lord, author of the 2004 nonfiction Beluga Days, interviewed former Kenai resident Lance Peterson, who had written an informational booklet for the club. Peterson, a long-time peninsula teacher, remembered that the club had used his family’s winch truck to raise harvested belugas out of the water at Arness Dock and haul them into town.

Peterson still had his club membership certificate and souvenir bottle of oil. He remembered the barbecue fondly and the meat as red and flavorful.

Lord also referred to a 1965 Cook Inlet Courier article, which said that Hulien and whale guide Ken Tapp took a couple of army men out for 10 hours of hunting over two days.

“They fired 250 rounds of ammunition and ended up with zero belugas,” Lord said.

Tapp, whom Lord tracked down to his current home in Oklahoma, said that he had shot maybe 25 to 30 belugas, but he was unconcerned about the numbers.

“There were thousands of those doggone things,” he said.

Tapp’s assessment of the beluga population was in dispute even then, and in 1972 the Marine Mammal Protection Act banned all sport and commercial harvest of such animals. According to a 2000 Marine Fisheries Review article by Barbara A. Mahoney and Kim E.W. Shelden, there were at least 1,300 belugas in Cook Inlet in the 1970s but the numbers have been falling ever since.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries department estimated the 2006 Cook Inlet population at 302 and said that a 50 percent decline occurred from 1994 to 1999.

Ultimately, despite much fanfare from Hulien — described by Fisher as “kind of outgoing and substantially involved in the Kenai community”— the club’s activities and its participation in Kenai Days disappeared after 1965.

Still, Hulien didn’t go down without a fight, as shown by an enthusiastic advertisement for guided beluga hunts published in an outdoor section of the Anchorage Daily Times on July 1, 1965.

The ad, entitled “Beluga Offer Top Big Game,” gushed that, “Several Alaskan guides have said that hunting the beluga whale is by far the most exciting big game hunting ever done.”

The hunt, the ad continued, “begins at sea in an open dory about 20 feet long.” The dory crew would maneuver into a pod of whales and attempt to separate one from the group. Then, “the dory rides herd on it and edges it toward shallow water.”

The actual kill was described this way: “After an hour or more of tracking, with more than 100 rounds of ammunition spent, the whale is usually fatigued enough to allow the dory to come within harpoon-throwing distance. Hardier hunters use the 10.15mm Norwegian harpoon rifle, as it really packs a punch.”