Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Know the drill — Tesoro stages practice for possible disaster

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Had it been real, it would have been a frightening situation.

It’s 6 a.m. The Seabulk Arctic, an oil tanker carrying 13,381,872 gallons of North Slope crude oil for Tesoro from the Alyeska Terminal in Valdez to the Kenai Pipeline Company dock in Nikiski, is struck by a high-speed vessel coming out of Port Dick in the Gulf of Alaska about nine miles south of Gore Point.

The vessel didn’t respond to hails when it appeared on the tanker’s radar. The tanker attempted evasive maneuvers, but the smaller, more agile craft changed course and slammed into the tanker’s starboard side, breeching two cargo holds with 1,517,628 gallons of crude.

The smaller vessel is destroyed in the collision, and the Air Force finds no other threats to the tanker in a flyover of the area. The tanker is stable, but listing 5 degrees starboard, and wind and sea currents are pushing a three-mile-long oil slick toward the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula.

What happens now?

That’s what Tesoro, the Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation met Sept. 24 and 25 to find out.

The collision and resultant spill scenario served as the premise for a massive drill to test oil spill response capabilities in Southcentral Alaska.

It was practice, but the response was conducted as though it were real.

“This really is training and practice in the event they did have an actual oil spill, to work closely with the government agencies that would be involved,” said Alan Poynor, who served as Tesoro’s public information officer for the drill. “It’s all practice but it takes on a flavor of reality because many of the people here worked for real events.”

In the drill, the tanker collision happened at 6 a.m. Wednesday morning. By 8 a.m., the Cook Inlet Spill Prevention Response Inc. facility in Nikiski was humming with activity as more than 100 people attended to their specific responsibilities, which, combined, would help mitigate the theoretic disaster unfolding in the Gulf.

The response utilized an incident command structure. Incident command, also called Unified Command, evolved from devastating wildfires in the 1970s in the Lower 48 that were made worse by miscommunication and turf wars between agencies that should have worked together to respond, Poynor said.

In an oil spill, the Unified Command system brings together representatives from all the agencies and entities involved to one place to formulate and carry out a response. In this case, that meant representatives from the Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Tesoro descended upon CISPRI for the day.

Downstairs, the environmental department was a sea of blue vests huddled around computer screens, hunched over printouts and discussing spill mitigation options and their possible ramifications.

“Everything has to be approved by ADEC,” Poynor said. “We can sit down and say, ‘This is what we want to do.’ DEC may say, ‘No, you can’t do that because of these environmental concerns,’ so that’s why it’s so important that the three groups work together.”

The glow of computer screens lit up an adjacent room that had become home to the Joint Information Center, made up of representatives from Tesoro, ADEC and the Coast Guard. Their task was to manage information by creating press releases, dealing with the media and updating a Web site. Around the corner was a communications station, where operators could contact personnel in the field.

Upstairs, the scenario continued to unfold as realistically as an actual spill, down to the small mountains of empty caffeinated beverage containers collecting on tabletops, the scheduled, then rescheduled, then come-on-we’re-meeting-now briefings and the “miserably hot,” as Poynor put it, conditions that inevitably exist when 100-plus people are stuffed into a room where a fan in a propped-open door is the closest thing to air conditioning.

More blue vests represented the planning section, which is responsible for researching and tracking all the factors that could affect the spill, like weather conditions and tides. An image projected on the wall showed the three-day trajectory of the oil spill as it bloomed then receded in a continuous loop of images. By the end of day one an ominous red blob representing the oil slick had reached Perl Island at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. By day three it was rounding the peninsula and heading into Cook Inlet.

At a side station was the documentation department, which does just that for absolutely every piece of paper, order and action in the response, so it can be evaluated later.

Across an aisle was the resources unit, seated at computers with databases of every available piece of equipment and personnel, and their current whereabouts. Visual index cards corresponding to all the equipment, from a C-130 plane down to a portable pump, were arranged on the wall, so the inventory could be seen at a glance.

Behind resources was operations, which takes all the information from planning, resources and the environmental unit and decides what to do with all of it.

“That’s our goal, to have a good game plan, to have as effective a response as possible,” Poynor said.

Once that’s decided, the logistics section puts the plan in motion. On Wednesday a bank of phones was in use as workers made actual phone calls to real suppliers, asking if they had certain equipment or supplies available and how long it would take to get them where they needed to go. Every call began and ended with “This is a drill.”

“So we don’t panic everybody,” Poynor said.

Next to logistics was finance, in charge of tracking and paying for all the costs associated with the response. Tesoro footed the bill for the entire drill, just as it would for an oil spill cleanup involving one of their tankers.

In a back corner, overseeing it all, was the Unified Command.

“Nothing is done in this response without all the members of the Unified Command agreeing about it,” Poynor said.

Drill controllers and evaluators, including representatives from the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, circulated through the building, keeping an eye on the team as it developed its response.

“The controllers, they know what’s going to happen, we don’t,” Poynor said. “They throw curveballs at us all day long to see how we respond.”

By 3 p.m., the Unified Command was ready to unveil its spill response plan at a mock press conference in the Nikiski Middle-High School auditorium. In the audience were members of local media and drill evaluators posing as media. Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis served as moderator, giving a recap of the situation, followed by statements by members of the Unified Command, Capt. Mark Hamilton of the U.S. Coast Guard, Shawn Brown with Tesoro Alaska Corp., and Gary Folley, ADEC

The Unified Command fielded questions from the media, and “media,” including a grilling from the New York Times about how long it took to notify nearby villagers of the spill, and pointed questions from the National Enquirer about equipment response times.
After about 30 minutes the press conference ended and the Unified Command headed back to CISPRI to wrap up the “tabletop” planning portion of the drill. On Thursday, the group was in Homer to practice the deployment of oil spill response equipment.

Following the drill, John Kwietniak, manager of contingency planning and response, and Steve Hansen, Nikiski refinery manager for Tesoro, said they were happy with how it went.
“I think it went awesome. It just reminds me how privileged I am to work with this team. I am kind of humbled by the performance from the tabletop to equipment deployment. I thought it went extremely well,” Kwietniak said.

“It was a serious exercise, I think our folks responded in that fashion,” Hansen said. “… This group once again joined together without missing a beat with focus, and at the same time a thirst for learning. They not only displayed an excellent outcome in this drill, but they are better prepared for the next drill, whether it’s a tabletop or another exercise or the real thing.”

Stan Jones, a drill observer and director of external affairs for the PWSRCAC, praised Tesoro for the extensive scope of the drill, its location outside the usual areas of Prince William Sound or Nikiski, and the level of commitment Tesoro showed to training with the amount of equipment it deployed in Thursday’s exercises.

On the negative side, he challenged the decision to use chemical dispersants as a first response to the spill until mechanical equipment could get to the scene, and took issue with the spot chosen as a port of refuge for the leaking tanker, since the spot was actually environmentally sensitive, Jones said.

The RCAC will compile a report on the drill and submit recommendations to the agencies involved.

“Our recommendations always get a serious hearing, and sometimes they’re adopted and sometimes they’re not, and sometimes we have to make them repeatedly before we prevail. But in the long run, we prevail quite often, sometimes to an extent that surprises me,” he said.

Overall, Jones gave the drill mediocre rating.

“It was not a particularly challenging drill, but they mobilized a lot of people and spent a lot of money and did OK as far as people sitting down and doing what they needed to do,” Jones said.

Water logged — Agencies team with charter boats, Tesoro to put spill equipment to the test

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

The plot felt like a story line in a bad movie: an oil tanker rounding Gore Point is crashed into by a small pleasure craft that causes it to explode and the tanker to spill 16,000 barrels of crude oil on tides taking it toward Kachemak Bay.

The tanker was en route to deliver oil to the refinery at Nikiski after having taken on its cargo at the pipeline terminus in Valdez.

The story unfolded Thursday for a drill to test oil spill response equipment in Kachemak Bay as well as volunteers and agencies that would be involved if there were a spill. Tesoro Alaska picked up the tab for the 100 participants, some from Tesoro offices in Hawaii, Texas, California and Washington. More than a dozen boats, including the oil tanker Captain H.A. Downing, tug Vigilant and numerous barges and fishing vessels, strung out boom equipment to rake in pretend oil slicks in what they hoped would make the next spill cleanup effort proceed a lot better the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

“This was the first drill featuring a scenario outside of Prince William Sound and we were happy to see that. It depicted what could happen in the downstream communities, those that weren’t in Prince William Sound when the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill happened, but that still got hit,” said Stan Jones, director of external affairs for the Prince William Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, who observed the drill.

Spill drills have become regular events throughout Southcentral Alaska since the Exxon Valdez went aground in 1989. Back then, a mishmash of official action caused nearly as much havoc as the oil spill because no one knew how to mop up 11 million gallons of crude oil.

Now a whole contingent of agencies, fishermen and oil companies know how to do cleanup response — in theory. A host of factors are in place to mitigate effects of a potential spill, said Doug Lentsch, general manager of the Cook Inlet Spill Prevention Response Inc. Tankers are required to have double hulls, with a water-filled hold between its hull “skin” and the cargo hold. The Captain Downing has 14 separate cargo holds, so if one breaks open, it would only compromise one without the whole cargo spilling into the sea. In reality, no tankers have sprung a leak since the regulation went into effect, he said.

“The skimming system on the CISPRI vessel can pick up 1,550 barrels per hour. There are multiple systems like that that weren’t in place 19 years ago,” Lentsch said. “We now have a GRS, a geographic response strategy that is written down noting more than 120 sensitive habitats, such as one at Dog Fish Bay (in the scenario). We have just over 20 of those identified in Kachemak Bay.”

For the purposes of the drill, Peterson Cove was the “sensitive” spot, instead of Dog Fish Bay, and the remedy involved deploying a boom to line its shore in order to keep oil from the beach. The Unified Command, made up Coast Guard Capt. Mark Hamilton, Gary Folley, with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and Shawn Brown, with Tesoro, made the decisions about what should occur.

Since response equipment in Nikiski and Prince William Sound was too far away to get to the spill site immediatly, the Unified Command agreed to use dispersants in the cleanup drill. Like using soap, the dispersant “acts on surface tension, causing the slick to break up,” Folley said. “Mechanical recovery is the preference because we favor physically removing the oil from the environment. Dispersants don’t remove the oil, but we use it when the mechanical equipment isn’t immediately available.”

Oil spill cleanup is “more an industrial art than a science. The major issues are more than pure science,” Folley said. “It’s not like the fire department that gets a lot of fires and so it can practice and gain expertise. We don’t get a lot of spills. It’s not like you can work one spill then take that knowledge to the next one.”

Working in the Aleutians four winters ago to clean up fuel and soy beans spilled when the Selendang Ayu broke in half offered real experience, Folley said. In that incident, 66,000 tons of soybeans and 335,000 gallons of fuel spilled. Unlike Thursday’s gentle rain in Kachemak Bay, wind and tides along the Bering Sea made for horrendous conditions.

But drills are not necessarily “tests,” Jones noted. A test would involve “yanking people out of bed in the middle of the night,” and likely would supply tension to the point people tend to mess up, he said.

Setting up booms is an important part of the practice, along with working on equipment that sucks up oil and barges it for removal. The equipment is a testament to human ingenuity; one cleanup machine is water-powered and made up of wringers from the old style of washing machines. Another is like a floating kite that controls the lines of heavy booms and should work in severe stormy weather. A low-tech flourometer, tested for the first time Thursday, measures for oil microbes in water to see if cleanup efforts are working.

“We basically sailed around and watched them set up the booms. Our job is to look — we have no big criticisms,” Jones said. “One concept to bear in mind is that these drills are not tests, they’re practice for the ones who run the drills — and they don’t put things in the drill they can’t do.”

An official report will let responders know how they did. In the meantime, Jones and other members of the RCAC, in their observer roles, say the exercise was a good one for the most part. The idea of using dispersants because mechanical equip-ment was too far away is one that raises a few red flags, however.

Equipment is stored near high-risk areas, such as Nikiski and Valdez, Lentsch said. Booms are likewise stored at high-risk sites, though Homer Port and Harbor have some booms on site, he said.

The RCAC recommends that more response equipment be located in strategic downstream locations.

“Using dispersants always gives us heartburn. It probably won’t work in water around here, and it failed miserably in the Exxon Valdez spill,” Jones said. “We have done a lot of research since then. In fact, there are some tests they have to make before they can put dispersants on oil. Is it near shore or far enough offshore that it won’t spill on birds and so on, that did make it appropriate to use dispersants.”

The Department of the Interior issued a ruling last week that makes the matter of dispersants a moot one; no dispersants were allowed in Alaska waters except for Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. Now not even those two waterways are permitted for their use, according to a press release put out by the Interior.

Next year’s drill is already in the planning stages. For that exercise, ConocoPhillips is the company in charge of the spilling oil tanker.

May or may not — Carey vs. Williams: Only 1 mayor will get borough post

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey is hoping to follow in former Kenai Mayor John Williams’ footsteps in moving on from city government to the position of Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor.

He’ll have to unseat Williams to do it, since Williams is running for a second term.

Voters on the central peninsula are familiar with both men, as they’ve both been active in the local communities and politics for decades.

Williams has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for 40 years now. He helped found Kenai Peninsula College, worked in the oil and gas industry and has owned and operated a real estate business. He served as mayor of the city of Kenai for 18 years, and has been borough mayor for three years.

Carey moved to the peninsula in 1961. He is a retired teacher with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and an adjunct professor at Kenai Peninsula College. In the political realm, he is the president of the board of directors of Homer Electric Association, president of the Kenai River Special Management Area board, and is nearing the end of his third term as mayor of Soldotna.

Anyone attending com-munity barbecues, food bank fundraisers, parades, ribbon cuttings or similar community events likely knows the candidates. But getting to know their stance on the myriad issues facing the borough in the next three years can be more difficult to do.

To help get better acquainted, representatives of several segments of the community were asked what they considered to be the most pressing issues the borough mayor will likely face in the next three years. Mayoral candidates were then asked to respond to those concerns.

Proposition 1 on the Oct. 7 ballot — the grocery sales tax exemption initiative — and handling of the borough budget led the list of interests in the business community.

“It seems like taxes have been kind of at the top of the mind for everybody, especially the grocery tax initiative,” said Tina Baldridge, director of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce.
“And the financial status of the borough budget was discussed, how the budget was going to be organized and where they’re going to appropriate money, how they’re going to manage that,” Baldridge said.

Animal control in the borough has also been of interest, said Michelle Glaves, director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce.

Williams has come out against the grocery tax initiative, largely because it would disrupt the borough budget in the middle of the fiscal year, he said.

“If you’re going to do something like this, come in and talk to the administration and talk to the assembly, set the wheels in motion at budget time, not midterm. The budget, once set, is like a balloon, you push your finger in one side and it pooches out the other side,” he said.

Carey has declined to say whether or not he favors the initiative while he still is serving as mayor of Soldotna, since the city is seeking an exemption that would allow it to collect sales taxes on groceries, even if the initiative passes.

Both pledged they would make the budget work with reduced revenues if the initiative passes.

For the borough’s general fund budget, Carey said he would present the assembly with a budget that would cap borough spending at no more than inflation.

Williams also said he has no plans to increase the general fund budget, and pointed to his work to cut and balance the budget in the three years he’s been in office.

Neither Carey nor Williams foresee pursuing a change in tax rates in the near future, although tweaks in how taxes are collected may come about.

Carey proposes supporting an Alaska Municipal League proposal to increase property tax exemptions from $200,000 to $500,000.

“I want to be sure people living in homes can stay there,” he said.

Williams and Carey suggested pursuing changes in how property tax assessments are done at the state level.

“Working with (legislators and the state assessor’s office) to try to draft some kind of alternatives to give us extra tools to work with so we’re not hamstrung with such an onerous, one-way-fits-all state law,” Williams said.

On animal control, Williams said several proposed options have been discussed over the years, including having the borough help shoulder the costs of city animal control programs, but nothing will happen unless residents want it to.

“Until the general public convinces the assembly that this is something we need, I doubt very seriously that the office of mayor would go through with it,” Williams said.
Carey has a similar, if more forceful, take on the issue:

“Absolutely not. I don’t believe it is a function the borough should take on unless a service area is set up by voters,” he said.

Tourism operators hope the borough mayor will invest in the industry.

Shanon Hamrick, director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, said tourism businesses want to know that proceeds from the recreation sales tax that went into effect in April are reinvested in the industry. Of KPTMC’s $600,000 budget, the borough contributed about $300,000 last year, Hamrick said.

“When you tax an industry it’s important to give back to that industry,” Hamrick said. “… With the issue with the grocery tax, anytime that the borough loses a source of income, tourism is kind of seen as low-hanging fruit. KPTMC would like to know what the stance is from both candidates on investing in the future of the Kenai Peninsula by investing in tourism marketing.”

Infrastructure, including road maintenance and visitor services such as rest stops and visitor centers, are a concern in the tourism industry, as well.

Carey said he is in favor of supporting KPTMC and its marketing efforts, though he doesn’t want publications outside the borough to be paid for advertising. He also is not in favor of the recreation sales tax that currently generates some of KPTMC’s budget.
“I think it’s just another way to hurt the tourism businesses,” he said.

Williams likewise is in favor of supporting tourism marketing efforts, and noted he placed an extra $75,000 in the budget for instate tourism marketing to offset the expected drop in out-of-state visitors.

Roads have been one of Williams’ main campaign points this election.

“All three years we’ve been working to build up the road money pool,” he said.

Between reserves, money from the federal government and the state, and if voters approve the state roads bond issue on the upcoming ballot, Williams estimates having about $28 million for roads projects. He said he’s already hired a new roads engineer and a priority list is being developed, on which $5 million to $7 million will be spent a year.

“We need better roads all over this borough. I’m tired of living in 1930s roads conditions,” Williams said at the League of Women Voters forum.

Carey said he would like to see a comprehensive, five-year funded plan from the state to address infrastructure needs.

“We have so many more roads than we can possibly service at this time,” he said. “What is needed is a very large infusion of state money to bring those roads up to standards. Five years would give us a chance to look at all roads in the borough to assess priorities to look at as many roads as possible.” Carey also said he is very concerned with the restriction of a beach access road in Nikiski.

“I want to examine how that’s occurred,” he said.

The borough mayor needs to be a partner with industry on the Kenai Peninsula, through supporting current projects and new initiatives, as well as trying to solve the energy puzzle, said Milt Allen, project manager for the southern district of Udelhoven Oilfield Services.

“We need industry now, so that we secure things for the future,” Allen said. “There’s an awful lot of potential right here on the peninsula that we need to enhance. There’s all kinds of proposals for new industry, and we need those things.”

Working toward getting a natural gas bullet line to the peninsula also is crucial to the peninsula’s industrial future.

In Carey’s view, the best way to support industry on the peninsula is to have a stable tax base and lower energy costs.

“Working with HEA and the projects they have in terms of alternative energy and to keep costs as low as possible when you’re talking about taxes and energy has the largest effects on industry and their ability to stay here,” he said.

Carey supports bringing a natural gas line from the North Slope to the Matanuska-Susitna area, so it can be routed to the peninsula. He supports the proposed Chuitna Coal Mine across Cook Inlet if it proves feasible. Likewise, he supports Pebble Mine.

“If all the studies show that it’s a good thing and has the strictest environmental safeguards, then yes, I would support it. It gives us jobs,” Carey said.

Williams said he has been working for years to promote the peninsula’s oil and gas industry, including testifying on behalf of the All-Alaska Gas Line project with a bullet line to Cook Inlet. Williams supports building a plant at Glennallen with two pipelines from there, one carrying natural gas and the other liquefied natural gas that could be piped to Cook Inlet and manufactured on the peninsula.

He voiced a similar stance to Carey on Chuitna and Pebble mines.

“With any major project two things are foremost — can they permit it under the current regulations and maintain a safe environment, and can they design it so that it runs safely and properly within the boundaries of the permitting system. You never rush to judgment on those kinds of projects,” he said.

Both Dwight Kramer, chair of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition, and Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, want to see the borough continue to support the repair of blocked and deteriorating culverts on the peninsula to allow unobstructed salmon migration. The borough contributed $100,000 last year and another $100,000 is in this year’s budget to address hundreds of blocked or soon-to-be blocked culverts.

Infrastructure, again, was a concern. Gease said he wants to know that easements along the river and infrastructure for public access to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers remain on the borough’s radar screen. Facilitating fairness in the fishing industry will also be important for the mayor.

“The borough needs to do a good job making sure that there’s equal support for all the fishing industries. … It seems like they’ve gotten off track and just supported one particular segment. All of them are important to the well-being of the community as well as the borough’s financial well-being,” Kramer said.

Carey would like to see culvert remediation included in the comprehensive five-year infrastructure plan he wants from the state.

He also believes the borough should take a more active role in safeguarding the health of the Kenai River.

“The borough must be much more proactive in making sure we protect all the life in that river. At the same time, we must promote local people, not for-profit people, taking their children down to the river and having a favorable experience,” Carey said.

He agrees the borough should promote all fishing user groups equally.

On culverts, Williams said he put the money in the budget for culvert reclamation, which was parleyed into even more funding by the Kenai Watershed Forum.

He said that money is a way to support all river user groups, since improving fish habitat and migration means more fish survive and come back to spawn, helping all fishing user groups.

Williams also noted he’s changed his mind on banning two-stroke motors on the river. He was skeptical of the plan at first, but since seeing water quality reports showing less hydrocarbon pollution since the switch to four-strokes was made, he’s now a believer.
“I was somewhat against it when it came out but the proof is in the clean water. No more pudding,” he said.

Carey and Williams have faced the same question repeatedly during their campaigns: Will you fund education “to the cap,” meaning the maximum amount a local municipality is allowed to spend on education under state law?

“Education funding to the cap is absolutely essential to the continued well-being of our school district,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Donna Peterson.

Carey is hesitant to commit to full funding without knowing what the cap will be.
“I do not think it is prudent, managementwise, to promise three years in advance when you have no idea what the amount will be,” he said.

Williams counters that the borough does know what the amount will be, thanks to the Legislature passing a forward funding plan for education last session that spells out the state funding formula and increases to it in the next few years.

“Yes, fund to the cap. Absolutely,” he said at the League of Women Voters forum.
The general health of the borough contributes to the health of the school district, because student enrollment generates funding for the district, Peterson said. In that vein, having an equitable, balanced budget and sustainable jobs will encourage families to live on the peninsula.

Vocational education is another topic of interest in education, at the secondary and postsecondary levels.

“I hope the mayor takes our message to truly get through to the Legislature and to the governor of this need in their borough in order to support the workforce demands of our state,” said Gary Turner, director of Kenai Peninsula College.

Turner said KPC’s technical programs have a year waiting list because he doesn’t have the resources to expand the programs enough to accommodate everyone. Part of the crunch is space-related. KPC needs student housing in order to expand, especially in vocational education, he said.

“KPC is looked at as leaders in these programs in our state, but I can’t graduate them if I can’t house them. There’s a huge demand for it, and that’s today. What happens if we get a gas pipeline or any other projects that might be out there?” he said.

Carey is in favor of funding for student housing at Kenai Peninsula College, and of expanding vocational education opportunities for veterans returning from service.

He doesn’t think the state or university system will pony up all the money necessary for these initiatives, however. He favors putting an education mill rate increase on the ballot, so voters can decide whether they want to make the borough a more active partner in KPC.
“We need to have a good discussion and talk about whether we want to move back to being a community college, specifically for the purpose of vocational education,” he said.

Williams thinks the current level of borough funding for KPC is adequate, but said he intends to work closely with University of Alaska Chancellor Fran Ulmer and the Legislature to secure $12 million for KPC housing.

“I think that it would be a most worthy addition to the college,” he said.

Cook Inlet beluga numbers flatline — Decision on endangered listing due this month

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

The beluga whale population in Cook Inlet remains troubled, with numbers hovering at about 375 members of a genetically distinct group that formerly numbered at about 1,300.

In response, marine mammal experts and conservation groups have renewed their calls for the Bush administration to immediately list the Cook Inlet beluga whale as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

John Schoen, senior scientist at Audubon-Alaska, said he’s expecting a decision after Oct. 20.

“At that point, the National Marine Fisheries Service could rule whether the beluga in Cook Inlet should be listed as threatened or endangered.”

An endangered or threatened status would put three advantageous factors to work for the beluga, Schoen said.

NMFS would be required to do a recovery plan and spell out exactly what research and monitoring would be involved. The agency would be required to develop a recovery plan.

“The second factor is that if critical habitat is defined, then any activity will require consultation with NMFS, and the third issue is that being listed will bring more money for research and monitoring,” Schoen said.

Only the science and protections offered by the endangered status would provide a safety net to help this group of beluga escape extinction, stated marine mammal scientist Craig Matkin of the North Gulf Oceanic Society, in a press release.

Cook Inlet is the most heavily used waterway in Alaska. It is the route for major shipping freight coming into Anchorage and communities beyond. Oil rigs and spills have stressed the waterway, Schoen said.

“It’s no one cause, but an accumulation of activities with all the things going on in Cook Inlet,” he said.

Other factors threatening beluga whales are not manmade problems, but stress that can put the population in danger, such as strandings in Turnagain Arm.

“Any kind of a natural catastrophe, like a killer whale predation or a stranding, plus all the human-caused issues, can push the beluga population to the brink,” he said.

After conservation groups petitioned to list the population as endangered, NMFS had one year to determine whether to do so. NMFS extended that deadline six months (until Oct. 20) at the request of Gov. Sarah Palin’s administration, which claimed the 2007 survey data showed an upward increase in the population. That, therefore, made the listing unwarranted. NMFS’s recent survey results demonstrate there is no upward population trend.

Beluga concentrate in the Susitna and Chickaloon Flats during the summer. Up to 90 percent of them can be in those places, making it “habitat we would want to be very cautious of,” Schoen said.

Beluga populations in the Bristol Bay and the Beauford Sea are healthy, but the Cook Inlet mammals remain distinct from them and geographically isolated. If more protections aren’t put in place, scientists are concerned it won’t take long for the beluga to become extinct in Cook Inlet.

The aerial surveys were taken June 3-12 by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries service scientists, where the belugas had congregated by the Susitna and Little Susitna Rivers, Knik Arm and Chickaloon Bay. They also took photographs and video. After examining the images, and from the manual count, observers said the population estimate remained the same as last year — about 375.

Alaska Native groups have been allowed to hunt the whales under co-management agreements with NOAA’s Fisheries Service, with restrictions on how many can be taken. Between 1999 and 2007, hunters took five beluga whales for subsistence, down from 308 in 1995 and 1998. There was no subsistence hunt for belugas in 2008.

Schoen said he expects there will be opposition to listing Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered by Gov. Palin, similar to her administration’s actions against the polar bear listing. The effort to deny the need for an ESA listing, “is part of a larger trend in Alaska government to overrule science that contradicts political ideology,” Schoen said.

Schoen said that listing belugas as endangered won’t stop industry along Cook Inlet.

“But it takes a good look at that activity and tries to mitigate harm. It most certainly won’t stop all economic development in Cook Inlet,” Schoen said.

The organizations listed as petitioning to place the beluga as endangered are: Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Center for the Environment, the National Audubon Society, the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society and the Natural Resource Defense Council, among others.

Better together — Club members share interest in outdoor

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

When Steve Foley came to the Kenai Peninsula from Colorado in the early 1990s, he knew he wanted to meet people with interests similar to his — namely outdoor recreation — and he had an idea how to find them.

In Colorado, Foley had been part of a recreation club, a group dedicated to the idea of shared experiences in the great outdoors. On the central peninsula, he figured, the time was ripe for such an organization.

Steve Ford, who moved to the peninsula from Sitka in 1991, said that Foley (who left the state nine years ago) started putting flyers up around town, and in 1992 Ford noticed and decided to get involved.
Ford attended the fledgling organization’s second meeting, held at the Little Ski-Mo restaurant in Kenai, and it quickly became apparent that the Kenai Peninsula Outdoor Club was just what he’d been looking for.

According to Ford, “90 percent of the reason (the club) got started” was Foley’s desire to avoid the bars and other usual gathering places in his attempt to find individuals with common interests. Ford and Foley quickly bonded, and they and Dave Crosby became the founding trio of the club.

Membership built slowly. Their monthly meeting place, where they plan the next month’s calendar of events, changed occasionally. And some people moved into the area, participated for a while, and moved away, but a core of devotees remained.

Today, the club has about 60 members who receive an e-mailed event calendar each month and are encouraged to participate in activities ranging from simple to more intense during all four seasons of the year.

In August alone, the club’s calendar included a kayaking trip to Caines Head in Seward, a twice-weekly walk at Tsalteshi Trails, golfing at the Kenai Golf Course, biking trips to Crescent Lake and Resurrection Pass, a beach-side bonfire and hikes to Hope Point and the Harding Ice Field.

Throughout the year, group members have also skied, snowshoed, played disc golf, explored new places, done overnight camp-outs, gone rafting, extreme tubing and canoeing, and simply enjoyed each other’s company.

“We try to offer something for everybody,” said Todd Stone, a club member since 1995.

A highlight each year is Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Stone and his wife, Jan. According to several club members, this is often the best-attended function of the year.

“We’ve got a really good group of people who really jelled together,” Stone said. “And we come together like a family. A lot of us are from someplace else, and here we have family outside our family.”

According to Stone, the age of club members ranges from early 20s into 60s. The average age of those who participate most actively, he estimated, is about 45 to 55, partly because the core of early members were 30-somethings back then and have “moved though it altogether.”

The club now meets at the Albatross Restaurant at 7 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month. Although club officers — Paul Knight, president; Todd Stone, secretary; Steve Epperheimer, treasurer — run the meeting, all club members are encouraged to attend and bring ideas for activities.

For each activity that goes on the calendar, the club adds a meeting site and the name of a person who will lead that activity. Then, according to Stone, “whether one person shows up or we’ve got 15 to 20, it’s a go.”

Anyone interested in joining the club can call Todd or Jan Stone at 283-8426. Membership costs $15 for an individual, $20 for a family. The dues go to help defray the cost of expenses, such as renting a condo for a weekend ski trip, making the experience “more doable” for everybody, Jan Stone said.
In addition to the monthly calendars, members also receive Todd Stone’s weekly updates that inform them of events added since the calendar came out.

The club also tries to help members who may not have all the gear necessary to participate. Ford said that many club members lend some of their extra gear to make sure all participants are dressed and outfitted properly.

Photographs from recent club activities can be found in an online photo album created by Ford’s wife, Tracie Howard. The Web address for the album is

Color me enlightened — Pretty leaves a sign of weather changes

Why do leaves change color?

A highlight of fall is the appearance of bright colors in trees and other plants throughout Alaska. Most common in Alaska are the bright yellow leaves of the birch and aspen trees.

During the summer, birch leaves were green because the leaves were continually producing chlorophylls that reflect the green light wavelengths. There is a constant production of new chlorophylls throughout the summer that replace “worn-out” chlorophylls. Yellow-colored carotenes are a more stable photosynthetic pigment that are also present within those same leaves. However, they are hidden because of the green-reflecting chlorophylls.

In fall, temperatures and quantities of light decrease. This triggers changes in the leaves as less water and nutrients arrive at the leaves. With less nutrients and water, less chlorophyll is produced. Carotenes are more stable molecules than chlorophylls, so they remain after the chlorophylls are no longer present. Thus, birch leaves change from chlorophyll green to carotene yellow.

Another plant pigment group called anthrocyanins, which are red, can be formed in some leaves and on some colored fruits, like apples. These are formed in conjunction with the presence of sugars. As less and less water arrives in the leaves, the concentration of sugars in the leaves rises. With more sugars, more anthrocyanins are formed and the colors become red or even dark purple. Bright light destroys chlorophyll and increases formation of anthrocyanins. Cooler temperatures cause chlorophylls to break down, too. The loss of chlorophylls allows carotenes and anthrocyanins to become more visible and we see the red colors in leaves of fireweed and some ornamental plants.

So, the brightest autumn colors appear when there is bright light (causing a breakdown of chlorophylls), dry conditions (causing higher sugar concentrations), and cool temperatures (causing increased formation of anthrocyanins). When an absiccion layer forms between the branch and the leaf, it falls to the ground.

David Wartinbee, Ph.D, J.D., is a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus.E-mail your science questions to redoubtreporter

Editorial — Practice makes prepared

A massive oil spill preparedness drill conducted by Tesoro, the U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on the Kenai Peninsula last week demonstrated that industry and state agencies are prepared to act should disaster strike. At the same time, it showed that no amount of practice or level of preparedness is ever enough.

Hundreds of people participated in the two-day event, with a planning portion done in Nikiski and an equipment deployment drill in Kachemak Bay. Tesoro footed the bill for the entire drill, just as it would for cleanup of an oil spill involving their tankers.

The drill was carried out as though a spill had actually occurred, with people doing the tasks they would be expected to do in a real situation. About the only thing that wasn’t real was the spill itself.

That includes real concern over how the spill was handled. Occurring south of Gore Point off the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, the tanker gushed oil into the Gulf of Alaska, with the nearest equipment able to clean up the mess hours if not days away in Nikiski and Prince William Sound.

The Unified Command decided to spray chemical dispersants on the oil, to break up the slick until mechanical equipment could arrive. They dotted their regulatory i’s and crossed their t’s in making that decision.

However, the Department of the Interior just happened to issue a ruling last week that bans the use of dispersants in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, which were the only two areas of the state that it had been allowed.

Should a spill occur in that area today, dispersants would no longer be a viable option to impede the slick as it advanced toward the coast of the Kenai Peninsula.

Without equipment staged closer to the southern peninsula, the oil would have reached shore, multiplying the difficulty of cleanup efforts. This demonstrates even more clearly the necessity of training and continued review of response plans.

In the case of oil spills, practice can’t ever make perfect, but it can make us better prepared.

Name ‘redoubt’ has long history, different meanings in Kenai area

The Redoubt Reporter is a great name for the Kenai Peninsula’s newest newspaper. The term “redoubt” has a long history here in Cook Inlet.

The word derives from the Latin “reductus” meaning “secret place.” In French it became “redoubte,” or a temporary fort. Both the Russian and English versions (redoubt and redutskaya) mean a fort with a palisade or walled enclosure. Today the term applies to Mount Redoubt, but originally was used as the name of the third Russian fort to be built on the Kenai Peninsula, called Nikolaevsk Redoubt or Redoubt St. Nicholas.

Russians of the Lebedev Company started the post in 1791, hauling their ship, St. George the Victorious, up the small creek the Dena’ina called Shqit Tsatnu (Sloping Flat Cliff River), below what is today called Old Town. There, Grigor Konovalov and Amos Balushin and about 60 Russians built three walls and a roof using their ship as the fourth wall.

A year or so later the permanent Redoubt St. Nicholas was built at the top of the bluff in the vicinity of the present Russian Orthodox Church.

The redoubt was about 120 yards in its longest dimension and consisted of a large barracks, a foreman’s house and numerous smaller buildings, including a blacksmith shop and gunpowder storage. In addition, there were small dwellings where Dena’ina women taken as concubines of the Russians lived.

The post was surrounded by a double row of 12-foot-high spruce poles sharpened at the top. At either end of the parallelogram-shaped palisade was a blockhouse — each with a small cannon and number of loopholes for musket fire.

The Dena’ina called Redoubt St. Nicholas “uch’daltin,” derived from a traditional Dena’ina word for a spiritually induced protective shield the Dena’ina created around themselves in warfare. The Dena’ina uch’daltin was apparently more powerful than the muskets and cannons of the Russians, since they defeated their Russian occupiers at Redoubt St. Nicholas in a 1797 battle, and the Lebedev contingent left Alaska.

The fort site was taken over by agents of the Russian America Company, who operated a small trading post until the American purchase in 1867. During the whole of Russian America there were seldom more than about 10 Russians at Kenai, while the Dena’ina village of Shk’ituk’t in the vicinity of the senior citizen housing along the bluff behind the present Arby’s was populated by about a hundred Dena’ina. During that time, the Dena’ina population of the Kenai and Kasilof areas was several thousand.

When Battery F of the Second Artillary of the U.S. Army arrived in 1869, they found the Russian buildings mostly dilapidated. Some were used by the post, along with a number of newly built structures scattered between the bluff and the present Kenai Spur Highway.

The American fort, called Fort Kenay, itself was abandoned only two years later and Battery F was sent to the American West to fight in the Indian Wars.

Apparently the term “redoubt” was first applied to the volcano across the inlet in the mid-19th century. Captain James Cook had sighted the mountain (or possibly he was seeing Iliamna, it’s hard to tell) in his 1778 exploration of Cook Inlet but did not name it. His third in command, John Gore, named it Mount Vulcan in his journal because it was steaming at the time, but the name did not stick. Mikhail Tebenkov’s 1852 map calls the volcano Sopka Redutskaya, sopka meaning mount or mound and redutskaya a Russian version of redoubt named, of course, for Redoubt St. Nicholas. Before that the Russian mapmaker Constantine Grewink had called the mountain Gora Vysokaya, which means, “high mountain.”

My personal favorite name for the mountain is the Dena’ina name Bentuggezh K’enulgheli, which means, “One that has a notched forehead.” Redoubt has a volcanic blowout on its southeast side dating to sometime in the prehistoric era when magma migrating to the surface was blocked from going up the vent. Pressure built up and an eruption blew out the side, creating a “notched forehead.”

So this newspaper could be called the Notched Forehead Reporter. Or, if you wanted a complete Dena’ina name, “reporter” could be iqech’ dghini\u — literally “it is said.” So, the masthead would read Bentuggezh K’enulgheli Iqech’ Dghini\u. On second thought, maybe that would take too much explanation — Redoubt Reporter is just fine. But we should remember words and names carry on a long and important tradition at this place and are part of our heritage — as is the news.

Dr. Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

Tunnel vision — Railroad workers in Whittier have sights set on home

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Leon Merkes and Cliff Darnell had missed the train out of Whittier.

The freight train they had ridden in on had been their only hope for a ride back to Portage where the two men were employed, and now nearly a dozen miles of empty track and the dark maw of the Whittier tunnel lay between them and their warm beds.

Young men fresh from the Midwest, Merkes and Darnell were employees of the Alaska Railroad in 1950. They were gandy dancers (paid $1.52½ an hour to lay and line track) on an “extra gang,” a work group hired to add sidetracks and switches for pulling out train cars and moving them off the mainline.

A few weeks earlier, they had been working with a buddy named Joe Desjardin. After Desjardin was re-stationed on a section of track near Whittier, Merkes and Darnell decided use their weekend to hop a freight train and head east for a visit.

They had had no intention of spending the night on that side of Maynard Mountain. On the Turnagain side, they had warm beds in the outfit cars that had been established as portable barracks for the extra gang. So missing the train meant walking home.

Travel between Prince William Sound and Turnagain Arm had never been a simple affair. A barricade of mountains, snow and ice blocked easy access, forcing Chugach Eskimos to cross Portage Pass and Portage Glacier as they hunted or dealt with the Athabaskan Indians on the Cook Inlet side. Starting in the late 1800s, miners used similar routes to reach the gold fields of the Kenai Peninsula and upper Cook Inlet.

In 1943, the military established a base at the foot of Whittier Glacier and completed a railroad spur through the mountains from Portage to Passage Canal. In creating the spur, railroad workers blasted two tunnels through the mountains. While the shorter tunnel, through Begich Peak, was only about a mile long, the Maynard Mountain tunnel stretched two and a half miles.

At the time Merkes and Darnell eyeballed the entrance and pondered the task at hand, the tunnels were unlit, rail-only affairs that discouraged anyone venturing forward on foot.

But Merkes and Darnell, despite the fact that neither of them carried a flashlight, were undaunted and not overly concerned about the extra work their walk was about to entail. Both men were in their early 20s and former farm boys; both were accustomed to difficulties.

Merkes had come to Alaska a year earlier, driving with his cousin, Hubert “Huppy” Merkes, in a 1937 two-door Ford sedan that Leon’s father said wouldn’t make it out of their home state of Wisconsin. The Ford had been rear-ended, and a damaged gas tank had been removed. Merkes placed a new gas tank in the trunk, and he and Huppy stuffed their suitcases into the back seat, covering the luggage with blankets, upon which they slept each night, their legs dangling over the front seat.

Merkes, who homesteaded in Sterling in 1956, was leaving the Midwest in 1949 because he had decided there was more to life than working on the dairy farm on which he had been raised.

“I picked spuds in North Dakota,” he said. “I picked cantaloupes in Idaho. I did a little bit of everything. Geez, when I came to Alaska, I could see the opportunity was great for working. If a guy wanted to work, you could get a job. And I didn’t mind working. I had two hands, and I knew how to work, so I could make a living.”

When he and Huppy arrived in Anchorage, they were broke, Merkes said. “So I set pins in the bowling alley to make us money to eat, and we still slept in the car. We slept by Spenard Road because the cops sent us out of Anchorage. We slept in the car. We washed in the creek.”

Fortunately, Merkes’ work ethic quickly brought him better times. Soon he was working for the railroad, then for a crane operator, then a truck-driving company — and finally he purchased his own dump truck in 1952. The owner of Merkes Enterprises, Merkes, 84, has been hauling gravel now for more than half a century. But in 1950, he and Darnell needed a strategy.

“To begin with, we chopped a brush — each one (of us) had a brush to slide along the rail — to guide our way in there and through the dark,” Merkes said.

Fortunately, the ballast — the fill between the crossties holding the rails in place — was high, Merkes said, making the walking fairly level, and they were able to move along with relative ease in the pitch-black interior of the mountain.

With their sense of sight effectively canceled, they focused on their other senses. They could feel the cool dampness of the tunnel. They could hear the dripping of water, the scraping of their sticks along the rails, their own feet crunching the gravel and broken rock. “It was spooky in there,” Merkes said.

At one point in this blind trek, Merkes decided to have a little fun with his buddy. “I said to Cliff, ‘Let go my arm!’ He said, ‘I don’t have your arm!’” After a few moments of uncertainty, Darnell laughed, and Merkes laughed, too.

They continued, hoping at this point that there would be no traffic entering the tunnel from the Portage side. “No train we didn’t think was due in, but there was a space there, and we had it figured out; we were going to lie up against the bank and let the train go by,” Merkes said.

Luckily, no trains arrived to make them test their plan. Eventually, they exited the long tunnel, and several hours later they had traveled the shorter tunnel and the remainder of the line to Portage.

Once they completed the Maynard Mountain section, Merkes said, “the rest was easy.”

Dramatic cause — Theater group offers scholarships for young actors

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Acting up. Now it’s a good thing. Triumvirate Theatre is offering a unique opportunity for students with a flair for the dramatic to have a steady outlet to indulge in their talents and make money doing it.

The organization is accepting applications for Class Act, a troupe of elite student dramatists in grades seven through 12 who will sing, dance and act their way to college scholarships.

Up to 10 students will be accepted into the drama troupe, which will stage three to five productions a year, giving students a chance to develop their theatrical skills and earn scholarship money.

“We decided to do this because I wanted to see a core group of kids that could put on high-quality performances,” said Joe Rizzo, with Triumvirate Theatre. “And I was looking for kids that this is the thing they want to do more than anything else, and I thought they should be rewarded for that monetarily. That’s why we have the scholarship.”

Class Act students will earn money from every performance in which they participate. Half the proceeds of every Class Act show will be divided evenly among the performers and go into an interest-bearing account. Once students graduate and go on to some form of postsecondary education, whether it’s college or vocational training, their portion of the money will be forwarded to their school of choice as a scholarship. Students will get an equal portion of the proceeds of each show they participate in, whether they had a lead role or ran the light board, Rizzo said.

“The idea is that every show will have every kid in it, unless a kid can’t be in it for whatever reason,” Rizzo said. “We’re assuming that this group of kids, this troupe is their priority; it’s what they do.”

The amount of time required will be comparable to participating in a school sport. What they get out of it should far exceed what they put in, Rizzo said.

“The performing arts is lot more than just standing on the stage and doing a soliloquy from Shakespeare. Kids learn how to present themselves, which is always important in job interviews, and it helps them to teach other people different things. It improves their writing, it improves their reading, and you could even show statistically it improves their testing,” Rizzo said.

“And a kid doesn’t have to go on to be some professional actor to have the arts enrich their lives. There are a lot of people in our community that every year get together with friends and do community theater. I don’t think that anything the kids learn in this troupe is going to go to waste.”

For Triumvirate, Class Act will take performance capabilities to another level.

“With this particular group, if auditions go the way I hope they go, I think they can do just about anything. What we’re basically looking at is a group of 10 kids that are all triple threats — they can sing, dance and act,” Rizzo said.

With a stable group of talented, dedicated actors, productions can go together much more quickly and smoothly than school shows usually do, Rizzo said. A big musical may take eight to 10 weeks to stage as a school program. Class Act should be able to put on an elaborate show in just three weeks.

Rizzo already has his eye on some ambitious productions for the group to tackle, including “My Fair Lady,” and “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

Class Act performers will also be expected to participate in Triumvirate’s Drop of the Hat Players, which provides free entertainment at fundraisers for community needs, such as children with serious illnesses or families who have lost their homes to fire.

“The work they do with the charitable arm of Triumvirate will help them apply for other scholarships because a lot of scholarships today are based on service,” Rizzo said.

Class Act applications can be printed from Triumvirate’s Web site, They must be filled out, including an essay, and mailed by the postmark deadline of Oct. 31. The audition process will be held Nov. 4 to 8.
More information about Class Act can be found on Triumvirate’s Web site, or call Rizzo at 776-1163.

“The reason I wanted to do this is I would like a crackerjack troupe to work with. I think the results will be amazing. And Triumvirate’s philosophy has always been about helping kids and using our resources to send kids to college. We’ve been doing it for years,” Rizzo said.

Art Seen: Water works

Pam Mersch discovered her love for art as an adolescent, painting horse portraits for her father. She had two aunts who were longtime active artists, and another who tried her hand at it but then focused all of her energy on her job helping the developmentally disabled.

Mersch’s mother, Gwen Thomas, was always an oil painter. That is until Mersch coerced her into taking a watercolor workshop in Oregon. Now Thomas is an avid watercolorist almost exclusively, much like her daughter. Mersch has done some “smoke paintings,” where she’s utilized the smoke from a burning fatwood stick to “paint” on paper. The effect is quite dreamy and intriguing. She has also done the occasional collage, sometimes utilizing her watercolor pieces in them.

Mersch received an associate’s degree in art from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1975, and married Steve Mersch in 1978. He is a veterinarian, and Mersch spent many years working for his practice, as well as doing numerous other jobs, including volunteering for local arts groups like the Kenai Art Guild (aka Peninsula Art Guild) and Triumvirate Theatre. Throughout it all, she has continued to explore her artwork, delighting especially in the almost magical nature of watercolor.

Her work will be on display at the Funky Monkey in Kenai for October, with a First Thursday reception from 6 to 9 p.m. The lively piece “Trade” incorporates a new technique she recently picked up at a workshop in Homer. It involves thoroughly wetting both sides of a 140-pound weight piece of watercolor paper, then laying it flat on a gator board. The paper stays flat because of the water saturation, avoiding the pesky curling many watercolorists often contend with. The colors are also more lush and remain more saturated upon drying, and the brushstrokes are especially yummy.

Mersch has traveled to Italy for a workshop and recently lived awhile in Sherborn, a town in Dorset County, England. Steve had a stint as a resident veterinarian and Mersch used this opportunity to sketch and paint her new surroundings. Every Tuesday she walked into Sherborn to paint with a watercolor group. Tea was served promptly at 3 p.m., without fail. The watercolor group that meets here locally at the Kenai Fine Arts Center every second and third Saturday is a great source of camaraderie and inspiration for her, as well. (Call 262-7040 for information on that.)

I asked Mersch what her advice to aspiring artists would be, and she quickly responded, “Live it, breathe it; even more than I do. Experience as many mediums as you possibly can and be brave.”

And then she laughed, because sometimes we teach best what we most need to learn. Mersch’s work is certainly lively and curious, and any new direction she may choose to go is likely to yield inviting results.

Zirrus VanDevere is a local mixed-media artist and owns Art Works gallery in Soldotna. She has bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and education.

Arts and Entertainment week of Oct. 1

  • Artists Without Borders in the 4D Building in Soldotna has a group show, “The Color of Music,” on display through October.
  • Art Works in Soldotna has watercolors by Sherri Sather on display through October.
  • The Funky Monkey coffee shop in Kenai has watercolors by Pam Mersch on display through October.
  • Kaladi Brothers on the Sterling Highway in Soldotna has art by Amy Warfle on display through October.
  • Kaladi Brothers Kobuk Street in Soldotna has artwork by Emily Grossman on display through October.
  • The Kenai Fine Arts Center in Old Town Kenai has “Experimental Exhibit” on display through October.
  • The Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center has a group exhibit by the Kenai Photo Guild on display through October.
  • Veronica’s coffee shop in Kenai has photographs of Veronica’s through the seasons by Joe Kashi on display through October.

First Thursday
  • First Thursday events include a reception for Amy Warfle at Kaladi Brothers on the Sterling Highway in Soldotna from 5 to 6 p.m., a reception for Artists Without Borders’ group show “The Color of Music” in the 4D building in Soldotna from 5 to 7 p.m., a reception for photographer Joe Kashi at Veronica’s in Kenai from 5:30 to 7 p.m. with open mic music at 6:30 p.m., a reception for the Kenai Photo Guild’s show at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., a reception for Emily Grossman at Kaladi Brothers on Kobuk Street in Soldotna from 6 to 7 p.m., a reception for watercolorist Sherri Sather at Art Works in Soldotna from 6 to 8 p.m., a reception for watercolorist Pam Mersch and live jazz by J.D. Uponen at Funky Monkey in Kenai from 6 to 9 p.m., and a bluegrass jam at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

  • Musician, composer and recording artist Scott Cossu and a guest artist will perform a concert at 7 p.m. at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. Cossu’s background is in jazz and rhythm and blues, which he combines with classical training and study of ethnic music from Sudan, Thailand, China, Romania and Ecuador. Admission is $8 for students and seniors and $10 for adults. Call Laura at 283-1991 for more information. For information and listening samples from Cossu, visit

  • The Kenai Chamber of Commerce’s annual Beer and Wine Fundraiser will be held at 6 p.m. in the Old Carrs Mall in Kenai with live music, live and silent auctions, food and fun. The theme is Oktoberfest. Tickets are $50 per person, includes dinner plus beer and wine. Contact Tina Baldridge at or 283-7989.

Oct. 10
  • The Kenai Peninsula Orchestra will hold an Evening of Classics concert at 7 p.m. at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna. General admission is $10, or $5 for kids 12 and under. Call Susie at 260-3210, Tammy at 283-0781 or Maria at 283-3024.

Oct. 15
  • Peninsula Take-A-Break for women will hold a brunch from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Solid Rock Conference Center on the Sterling Highway with music by Renee Rysdyk, information by Judith Reese about breast cancer screening and Anna Jarrett will share her story of “survival and the courage within us.” Contact Cindy at 260-6262 or Susan 335-6789 or e-mail

Oct. 17
  • Triumvirate Theatre will perform “Lame Ducks and Dark Horses,” a locally written political parody poking fun at Sarah Palin, Uncle Ted, John McCain, Barack Obama and more, at 7 p.m. at the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Visit

Oct. 18
  • “Lame Ducks and Dark Horses” at 7 p.m. at Triumvirate Theatre in the Peninsula Center Mall. See Oct. 17 listing.
  • The University of Alaska Anchorage faculty trio Alaska Pro Musica, consisting of pianist Timothy Smith, violinist Walter Olivares and clarinetist Mark Wolbers, will perform at 7:30 p.m. at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for students and are available at Sweeney’s, River City Books, Northcountry Fair, Already Read Books, Funky Monkey and at the door. Call 262-4084 or visit

Oct. 25
  • The Fraternal Order of Alaska State Troopers will hold a concert with Juice Newton (“Angel of the Morning,” “The Sweetest Thing” and “Break It To Me Gently”) and Gary Puckett (“Young Girl,” “Woman Woman” and “Over You”) at 7:30 p.m. at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School. Tickets are $33, available at Whitey’s Music Shop. Funds raised benefit the Safety Bear, CSI Forensic Science Camp, Children’s DNA Identification Kits and youth sports on the Kenai Peninsula. Call 283-9302.

Coming up
  • The Soldotna Senior Center will accept entries into its 12th annual juried amateur art show, held in conjunction with the center’s fall bazaar, Nov. 7-8. Entries can be dropped off from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 4 and 5. Categories are oils, pastels, watercolors, and drawings; needle arts, beading, quilting and sewing; and three-dimensional. The entry fee is $6, with a maximum three entries each person. Call Mary Lane, 262-8839.

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

Live music
  • The Funky Monkey in Kenai has bluegrass music by Them Other Shuckers on Tuesday night, folk music on Wednesday night, jazz by J.D. Uponen on Thursday night and jazz by J.D. Uponen and Don Weller on Friday night.
  • Hooligan’s Saloon in Soldotna has rock covers and originals by 9-Spine at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
  • Kaladi Brothers on Kobuk Street in Soldotna has acoustic music by Neil Gallagher on Friday night and Batter Brown on Saturday night.
  • Kenai Joes in Kenai has acoustic classic rock by the Free Beer Band at 8 p.m. Friday night.
  • The Maverick in Soldotna has acoustic classic rock by the Free Beer Band at 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
  • Moosequito’s in Sterling has acoustic music by Adam and Sonny on Wednesday night.
  • 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 has bluegrass music by Them Other Shuckers around 7 p.m. Friday.
  • The Rainbow Bar in Kenai has rock covers by Tuff-e-Nuff at 10 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
  • Veronica’s in Kenai has open mic music at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, and acoustic music by Mike Morgan at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

  • 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. Wednesday 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.

  • BJ’s in Soldotna has a Brown Bears hockey pregame party Friday at with a beer, taco bar and ticket to the game for $15 from 5 to 7 p.m., and free pool on Wednesdays.
  • Hooligan’s in Soldotna has a nine-ball pool tournament at 9 p.m. Thursdays.
  • The J-Bar-B has free pool on Sundays, a horseshoe pit in the beer garden, and a cash drawing at 6:30 p.m. Saturdays.
  • The Maverick in Soldotna has a pool tournament at 8 p.m. Fridays.
  • Moosequito’s in Sterling has a dart tournament at 8 p.m. Thursdays.

Walk a mile, or 26, in their shoes

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

By 1:30 p.m. Sunday, the winner of the Kenai River Marathon had long since crossed the finish line. The crowd at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center had eaten hot dogs, cheered on the stragglers and mostly gone home. Aid stations and route markers along the 26.2-mile course between Kenai and Soldotna were being packed up in trucks and carted off.

About that time, four and a half hours after the race started, Gayle Forrest and McKibben Jackinsky, both of Homer, were anticipating having their fastest time yet.

The women were walking the marathon.

“We’re trying for four miles an hour, six and a half hours. We’re ahead of that pace now, with just six miles left to go,” Forrest said as they cruised up the Unity Trail on the Kenai Spur Highway, breezing past the now-closed Tesoro gas station.

“We’ve very excited to beat that,” Jackinsky said.

Lest anyone think walking is somehow undeserving of some serious exercise credit, consider the four-mile-an-hour pace. Stop to tie a shoe or adjust a jacket and these ladies will be disappearing into the distance. And they keep it up for the full 26.2 miles.

It’s not easy, and was even less so when they first started this endeavor two years ago.

“My daughter had planned on running the Portland Marathon and asked me to run it with her,” Jackinsky said. “I knew I couldn’t run it, but I wanted to try to support her some way.”

Jackinsky’s daughter, Emily Aley, lives in Portland. As it turned out, Forrest’s daughter, Gwen Forrest, from North Seattle, was planning on running the 2006 Portland Marathon, as well.

“So we decided to walk it as a way to support them,” Jackinsky said “… It was so rewarding to do that with them.”

They downloaded a training plan for marathon walkers and started training in the beginning of August.

“It was really interesting that first month. A six-mile would leave us just exhausted,” Forrest said. “Now we only have six miles to go.”

The Portland race was walker-friendly, with lots of support along the way. Cheering crowds lined the streets — with Forrest’s daughter, Gwen, among them after finishing her run, while Jackinsky’s daughter, Emily, ended up walking with her mom and Forrest after her training didn’t go as scheduled.

Bands were stationed every few miles. Special mats laid out along the course recorded each marathoner’s progress from the timing chip in their shoe and transmitted the information to friends and family members. Forrest got calls on her cell phone from well-wishers cheering them on from afar.

“We get lots of support from friends and from family for this, which means a lot. And I’m very mindful of that on those uphills,” Jackinsky said.

“It was exciting, it just kept us going,” Forrest said. “And, yes, we were dead afterward.”
At dinner later, the fatigue set in.

“You sat down and didn’t want to get up. You didn’t want to eat,” she said.

The Portland course was nothing compared to their next challenge, the 2007 Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks.

“It was really tough. There was a lot of elevation gain. It took us an hour longer,” Jackinsky said.

This summer, the Kenai River Marathon was the only one that fit into their busy schedules. Forrest said race organizers could easily expand the scope of the race if they promote it for walkers, since the course is relatively flat and walker-friendly. As it was, she and Jackinsky were the only marathon walkers.

“It’s such a small race, the competition is really with ourselves and to get to the goal that we set,” Jackinsky said.

It turned out to be a great day to spend six-plus hours outside, walking under clear blue skies and along a route flanked by aspen and birch trees in their full fall glory.

Being from Homer, the women are often rewarded with scenery when they walk.

“Living in the beautiful place we do, the sea otters we’ve almost stepped on, the moose we’ve almost run into, the incredible scenery — we’ve just had some incredible experiences,” Jackinsky said.

They plan to do another marathon next year.

“It’s a good goal to have in the winter, so we’d go snowshoeing or walking or skiing, to keep us going so we didn’t have to start from scratch like (2006),” Jackinsky said.

Having someone to walk with helps them stay active.

“Training with a partner keeps us motivated. ... It’s really easy to have an excuse for not walking,” Forrest said.

“It’s such a good thing to do, and the thing is, it’s doable,” Jackinsky said. “But it doesn’t mean it’s not a challenge.”

Stress reduction 1 breath at a time — Yoga, tai chi exercises can be done anywhere

By Ann Marina
For the Redoubt Reporter

Are you feeling the stress of life these days? Maybe your shoulders are hunched, your back hurts, or your jaw is tight? You are not alone.

Around the globe, more than three out of five doctor visits are for stress-related problems, according to a report last year by the Foundation for Integrated Research in Mental Health.

Breathing is a central aspect of stress reduction exercises. By breathing with awareness, we make a mind-body connection that tunes us in to what we need in the moment, physically and mentally, to stay healthy and happy.

Breathing and stretching exercises will be featured in a “mini-retreat” Saturday, sponsored by Soldotna Community Schools. Yoga, tai chi and meditation for keeping stress at bay will be practiced. Participants can attend all or part of the day’s activities.

I’ve always liked the concept of ”retreat.” Over the years, I’ve attended a few weekend gatherings to practice yoga and meditation. We departed from our normal routines and focused inward. Here I found a glimpse of life from a different angle, cultivated a little more calmness and renewed my sense of purpose.

But a “retreat” can happen at your desk, in a few minutes’ time. You don’t have to leave home; you can take a retreat anywhere.

Whether you can join us Saturday, or not, perhaps you’ll try some of the exercises we’ll be covering to boost your energy and relieve tension.

“Be Here Now,” the title of a book written in the 1980s by Ram Daas, is a good theme for a successful “retreat” session. Being in the present moment helps us out of that boxed-in, stressed-out feeling and back into joyful living, our birthright.

Breathing exercises
A wonderful key to letting go of physical and mental tension — your breath — is with you all the time. This awareness exercise can be done while sitting at your desk or kitchen table, or perhaps in your car: With your spine straight, chin parallel to the ground, and shoulders relaxed, take two or three full, deep breaths, in and out through your nose. Let them out with a sigh, and relax.

Now breathe normally. Feel the air entering and leaving your nostrils.

Can you pinpoint the exact moment when the air enters at the tip of your nostrils? Feel how the inhale is cooler than the exhale. Notice the rising and falling of your abdomen. Feel the rib cage expanding and contracting, and the subtle changes in your back and shoulders with each breath.

Allow your body to completely relax with each exhale. Enjoy.

Finding a place of calm
Here’s another quick breathing technique: Focus on your normal breathing, flowing in and out. Become aware of the pause after each exhale, before the next breath comes in. Notice the sense of calm. Your body has let go of tension with the breath.

In yoga, we exhale as we move into a stretch. The muscles tend to relax more on the exhale. So, notice the pause after the exhale, rather than after the inhale. There’s a moment of calm, stillness before the next breath comes in.

Thich Nhat Hanh is an author, meditation instructor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Here’s a brief exercise you can do, reciting a line of his text with each breath in or out:

“Following the Breath”
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!

Yoga anywhere Spinal twist
Sit up straight with both feet flat on the floor. Gently lift your chest, lower your shoulders, and place your right hand behind you on the chair seat.

Bring your left hand to your right thigh or knee. Use the hands as your anchors. Inhale and lift up taller; then slowly twist to the right, exhaling. Look as far to the right side as you can. You may be able to see the wall behind you.

Holding this spinal twist, turn just your head now, back toward the left side. Keep it gentle, and keep breathing with awareness.

Your spine will love how this stretch relieves compression between the vertebrae. Twists are great for the kidneys and other organs and glands. Hold for five to eight breaths. Come out of the twist slowly. Take a few breaths, and then do the same twist, turning to the left side. Remember to focus on your breath as you hold the twist.

Side stretch
Again, begin by sitting up straight with both feet flat on the floor. Inhale, and as you exhale, raise your right arm and reach the fingertips up high, keeping the right hip grounded down. Left hand can be on the chair seat by your left hip.

On your next exhale, begin to reach the right fingertips over to your left, so your right arm is curved above your head. Think of the letter “C” as you breathe into the stretch. Hold for five to eight breaths, then change sides and stretch out your left side.

Forward bend
Standing with feet hip-width apart and bend forward from the hips (from the hinge at the tops of your legs). Have a straight, flat back as you inhale and lengthen out, spine parallel to the floor, then slowly exhale and let your head and shoulders dangle like a rag doll. Bending the knees is optional. Let your whole upper body become limp, releasing neck and shoulders. Relax into this posture for five to eight breaths.

Tai chi with your chai tea?
We will also practice “chi” exercises (gentle, fluid movements) Saturday, with a lesson at 2:30 p.m. As a tribute to Laryfred Staats (who taught many of us on the peninsula, and died in 2003), persons with experience in long form tai chi are invited to practice together at 3:30 p.m. at no charge. You don’t have to know the whole “form.” Come and just watch, or join in the flow.

Saturday’s “mini-retreat” will be held at 10 a.m. the Soldotna Sports Center. For more information, call or e-mail Ann Marina at 262-6768, or

Ann Marina is a registered yoga instructor through the International Yoga Alliance. A former instructor at Kenai Peninsula College, she now leads Tai Chi and yoga in Southwest Florida. She’s enjoying a brief visit to the peninsula this fall.