Thursday, December 11, 2008

Driven to extremes — School bus drivers may strike to resolve contract issues

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Around 2,800 students across the Kenai Peninsula begin and end every school day with a ritual that plays out all school year long — waiting for a big yellow bus to pick them up and take them home.

If negotiations between First Student, the bus company that contracts with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to transport students, and the union representing the 120 drivers on the peninsula don’t make headway soon, that ritual may be abruptly interrupted. Drivers voted 88 to 5 on Dec. 1 to authorize a strike.

The threat is an attempt to force First Student to reconsider its position in contract talks. First Student workers voted last February to join the Teamsters Union 959, based in Anchorage, and have been in contract talks with First Student since March. First Student, which bought out Laidlaw and took over its transportation contract last year, made what it called its “last, best offer” in late October, which was rejected by workers. Talks were at a standstill until the strike vote.

On Monday, Rick Traini, executive director for Teamsters 959, said he’d reached out to the First Student labor manager, who told him they could meet again in mid-January.

“I tried to relay to him that that’s more than a month away,” he said. “We can’t continue to let employees sit out there and not come up with a contract. They want to see meaningful progress between now and then. I don’t think waiting another month is good for the situation.”

Now that a strike is authorized, it could happen at any time. The school district has said it hopes to receive advance warning, so it can pass that warning on to parents, many of whom will need to make other arrangements to get their kids to and from school. But giving parents — and First Student — time to prepare for a strike takes some of the sting out of it, so there’s no guarantee drivers will want to devalue their bargaining chip.

The result could be a logistical mess for the school district in dealing with schedules and absences, for First Student in trying to transport as many kids as it can, for parents rearranging schedules to get kids to and from school, and for kids themselves, who may end up waiting — and waiting, and waiting — in the cold.

That’s not something drivers want to see happen, but they are prepared to take that step, said Michael Morris, a central peninsula school bus driver.

“It’s going to be hardship, yes, but you have to prove your point and have to stand behind what you believe. It’s going to be hard for people, yeah, but that seems to be the only thing this company understands,” Morris said.

First Student did not return calls to its Soldotna and Anchorage offices seeking comment for this story.

Drivers say there are several issues they want resolved with First Student. Jamie Brewer, a First Student driver who lives in Soldotna, attended the Dec. 1 school board meeting to announce the strike vote and explain why drivers unionized in the first place.

“Some of our main issues were fair treatment, respect, equal pay and safe buses. We organized because we felt that together we could positively change things, the way they worked with the contractor you chose, because we care deeply about the kids we transport and because we consider our jobs to be very important to making the District run as smoothly as it does,” she said.

Brewer said the union has filed unfair labor practices against First Student for refusing to provide information, making changes without drivers’ input and not coming back to the negotiating table.

“Our negotiations for decent benefits, wages and working conditions should not be this difficult,” Brewer said. “… As school bus drivers, we pride ourselves on our jobs as highly trained professional drivers who carry the most precious cargo in the world. This company should treat us fairly.”

Traini said wages, health insurance, safety concerns, fair treatment and days off are the main sticking points in contract talks. He said school bus drivers are trained, professional drivers, yet are the lowest-paid of positions requiring a certified drivers license.

“They’re hoping for a meaningful increase, and something that helps them keep up with the cost of living down on the peninsula,” Traini said. “Obviously, they’re looking for a livable wage.”

Morris said first-year drivers get paid $14.30 per hour by First Student.

“I just think it’s kind of ridiculous we get paid less than a lot of line drivers and things like that,” Morris said. “You know, with the way we have to work, you almost have to be a psychologist to drive these buses. It sounds funny, but to take care of that many kids — 50 kids sitting behind you, that’s pretty tough. Teachers wouldn’t have to deal with that many kids sitting behind them.”

For health insurance, Traini said less than one-fifth of First Student workers use the company’s plan.

“The cost is so prohibitive that a general employee can’t participate,” he said.

A related issue is a lack of paid sick days. Traini said workers get five paid holidays off during the school year. Beyond that, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid.

“If you get sick in October, you’re at home without pay and without health care,” Traini said. “I don’t think parents would appreciate bus drivers coming to work sick and driving a bus because they can’t afford to stay home sick.”

Safety and bus maintenance issues have come up that drivers don’t think have been addressed adequately, Traini said, including heaters on buses, the lack of studded tires and radios that don’t work properly. Beyond the specifics, though, workers would like a better process in place for addressing safety concerns with First Student management, such as a safety committee, Traini said.

Fair treatment is the other main issue. Traini said workers want equity in wages, schedules, benefits and other matters, so all drivers are subject to the same rules and treatment, instead of some getting special deals. Traini said that addressing those issues would lead to less turnover, which he estimated at 25 percent.

“The turnover rate is a big thing to us. Obviously, we’re looking for a fair enough contract that there isn’t a lot of turnover,” he said. “… They want to be treated the same. I think that’s why they asked us to represent them.”

Morris said the unionizing has helped drivers stand up for changes.

“Now that we’ve got the union started, anyway, at least you’ve got somebody backing you that will go with you,” he said. “Before, three people talking, that’s just ridiculous.”

Not all drivers are on board with the union, however, or the decision to strike.

Danny Shannon and Chris Williamson, drivers in Homer, say they’ll still drive, even if a strike is called.

“I will be showing up and driving. I’ll show up to work and do my best. If I have to double up routes to get the job done, I’ll do my best.” Shannon said. “Several of our drivers (in the Homer area) will be showing up and driving, because we signed on to do a job to drive a bus. The company keeps their part of the bargain — they pay us well, the insurance benefits are good — there really isn’t anything more we can expect from them.”

Shannon said he’s researched driver wages and talked to insurance agents, and concluded First Student isn’t giving drivers a raw deal, considering the amount of hours they work. He comes from a religious background that opposes unions, and doesn’t like being forced into that system.

“I think a group of employees have the right to say, ‘Look, we’re not being treated fairly, we’re going to quit,’” he said. “What I have problem with is when it gets to bullying and extortion tactics and threatening people if you dare cross the picket line we’re going to do something, and using children as pawns to twist the arms of the company to get more money is absolutely deplorable. If (First Student) is treating them so badly, how many people would still be working there? They’d go work for somebody with more money.”

Williamson said he worries that being forced to pay union dues would make any pay increase moot.

“The reality is unless I get like a four dollar an hour increase, the union dues I have to pay are going to give me a pay cut,” he said. “That would make me upset because I didn’t agree to get less than what I’m making.”

Shannon and Williamson say they’ve heard the complaints drivers have about not being paid for a full day’s work, even through the on-again, off-again driving schedule makes it difficult to hold another job during the day, and that different driving jobs — a regular school route vs. an activity bus, for instance — pay different amounts. But drivers know that going in, they said.

“You’re accepting what the company is offering,” Williamson said. “We’ve taken this bizarro selfish stance, and companies are running a business. They’re trying to make a profit and that’s just the reality of life. If I were running a business, I’d do things to generate a profit. As an employee, I am choosing to accept those things. If I am unhappy, I’d go find another job.”

As for maintenance and safety issues, Shannon said that, in Homer, at least, he had no complaints.

“In Alaska, winters are hash and roads are harsh so the buses do break, but they do fix them when they break,” he said.

He pointed out that the Homer bus barn has won the state’s Best-Maintained Midsize Bus Fleet Award, most recently in 2007. At the time, the inspector was quoted in a Homer newspaper as saying the Kenai Peninsula overall “did very, very well.”

Shannon said he recognizes other people’s right to unionize if they so choose, and doesn’t think his fellow drivers are bad people or are intentionally trying to hurt children. But he does hope the union doesn’t get its way.

“I hope First Student has enough integrity not to cave in to their demands. Like with any extortion, once you give in you’re going to have to give in again and again and again. They’re never going to stop. They try to spread the image in the community that all the drivers are united against the company and things like that. But you hear very few people in the community who support this. I don’t hear, ‘I hope you all go on strike and strand the children.’”

Morris, on the other hand, said he does hear community support for drivers and a strike, if it comes to that.

“I hate to see it myself, I mean about the kids. I really enjoy the kids, the ones that I have. You know, you get them trained and they’re basically all good kids. … I really got a lot of support from families. I picked their kids up and talked to them and not one said anything against this. Everybody’s for us, that I’ve talked to. The only negative I’ve heard is from our own company.”

As for other drivers who don’t support the union, Morris said he suspects that sentiment will change.

“As soon as if we do get more pay or anything, it’s really funny how quick they shut up. People will scream and holler and as soon as the pay changes you don’t see them saying, ‘Well, I don’t want that money, or don’t want that help from the union,” he said.

Don’t be too sure, Shannon said. He’s committing to driving through a strike, no matter what the consequences.

“John the Baptist was beheaded for doing the right thing,” he said. “I figure the least I can do is do the right thing, and take the consequences as they come. I hope I won’t be beheaded, though. I would prefer to not be beheaded.”

Traini said, as with any union strike, people would be free to go along with it or not, if one does occur.

He’s hopeful the community will show support for drivers in negotiations with First Student, and when it comes time to renegotiate the contract with the school district.

“I hope people reach out and contact their school district and assemblymen and ask them to support a fair contract for the people that work with them, live with them, go to church with them and shop in the same grocery stores,” Traini said.

Lost, then gone — Turbulent years led up to Soldotna woman’s disappearance

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Kim Kline thought it was a little odd, but encouraging, when her daughter, Michele Pecora, drove off with a friend the evening of Oct. 12.

Michele had been in a downward spiral of depression that made her avoid social interaction, even with her family. So when Michele called one of her few friends and he came to pick her up at the family’s home in Soldotna, Kline thought it was a good sign, figuring her daughter would hang out for a while, maybe spend the night, maybe even do something she hadn’t in a long while — have a good time.

When Michele didn’t come home the next day, Kline started getting concerned. A few days more without any contact from her daughter and panic set in.

It’s been two months, and Kline still hasn’t seen or heard from Michele. She’s talked to all Michele’s friends, filed a missing person’s report with Soldotna police, and Kline’s friends have hung up posters with Michele’s photo and description all over the central Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage, Homer and even Fairbanks — all with no response.

“We’ve had no contact. Nothing. I talked to everyone possible that I know that she was connected with,” Kline said.

On Oct. 12, Michele’s friend picked her up at home. He dropped her off with another friend, who was housesitting, while he went to run an errand. He returned about a half hour later, and Michele was gone. The friend at the house said Michele had called someone and asked the person to pick her up and take her to Anchorage. She drove off in a green car. Kline hasn’t found anyone who can tell her who that person was, or who had even seen the green car before or since.

Police have contacted Michele’s ex-boyfriend in Anchorage, to no avail. Kline doesn’t know of anyone else Michele may know in Anchorage, or any reason she may have wanted to go there. Michele didn’t take any money, extra clothes or her ID with her, so Kline doesn’t think she’s left the state. Beyond that, she doesn’t know what to think.

“I think it’s possible that it’s someone she knew somewhat that came and picked her up. Whether she ever made it to Anchorage, I don’t know. I asked all her friends, no one can figure it out,” Kline said.

Michele’s disappearance comes after two years of increasingly worrisome behavior. Kline attributes much of it to low self-esteem and depression that likely resulted from a nasty custody dispute.

Kline is from the central peninsula, and moved back here after getting a divorce in California. She intended to have her two daughters in Alaska with her, but when she sent Michele for a visit to her father in California, he filed papers with the court in California seeking custody of her, and was awarded it.

Kline spent the next six years traveling to California as often as she could, she said, filing motions until she finally won Michele back. Michele moved to Soldotna when she was 14. She grew up with her older sister and three stepsiblings.

“In her early years, Michele was an ideal, perfect, angelic child. She’d do anything to please anyone. She got great grades,” Kline said.

Around 16 things started to change. Kline thinks the custody dispute was part of it.
“She was drug into court to make decisions. It was really ugly,” Kline said.

After Michele moved to Alaska, her father didn’t maintain a relationship with her, Kline said.

“He sent her up here to me. He didn’t keep in close contact with her at all, he pretty much abandoned her,” she said. “She would just be in tears. That would definitely be one of the factors that led to her low self-esteem and depression.”

Kline said Michele started getting a little rebellious. She was oppositional and defiant at home, had some run-ins with police over traffic tickets, which eventually resulted in an arrest and license suspensions, and she dropped out of Soldotna High School in the 11th grade.

But she also got her GED, held jobs at Taco Bell and Pizza Boys, at one point lived with a boyfriend, and maintained a small circle of friends.

Two years ago things really started to change.

“I took notice there was something really, really different,” Kline said. “Mentally, the way that she was talking and interacting with me and her friends had changed suddenly. That’s about when I start noticing things really slipping drastically, taking a downward spiral.”

Kline thinks it may have been drugs. She’s familiar with signs of drug use, since she’s been in recovery for addiction for 20 years and has been around other recovering addicts for that long. She knew Michele had experimented with marijuana, but the new behavior she was developing wasn’t consistent with pot use. After doing some research and asking around among her friends, she concluded Michele might have been on meth.

“She developed these behaviors, she’d get these little OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) behaviors. She was washing her hands all the time, thinking things were on her or there was something in her body,” Kline said.

Michele would shower multiple times a day, then a few months ago her hygiene dropped off and she refused to use any sort of anti-bacterial cleansing products. She started having difficulty remembering things, like phone numbers. She became defiant and oppositional at home and lost all interest in social contact with her family or friends.

“She became anti-social. The handful of friends she did have didn’t want anything to do with her and she didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Her tolerance level was just gone,” Kline said.

She doesn’t think Michele was a habitual meth user, but that she was significantly affected by the times she did experiment with it.

“I’m thinking that she used it a few times and she had long-term effects. I don’t see that happening with everyone, but you see that happening with a certain amount of meth-addicted people. I was sure that she was not (using regularly), because she was right there under my foot, literally,” Kline said.

Kline said she tried talking to her daughter about it. Michele admitted she had tried meth once, but wasn’t willing to talk about what was going on in her life. Kline tried getting her to go to counseling and having tests done to seek a diagnosis and treatment, but it became a battle to get Michele to go to appointments.

“There’s depression in my family, I’m familiar with the signs. Unfortunately, one of the things that goes along with people who are depressed is their denial and unwillingness to have treatment,” Kline said.

Michele would talk about wanting to get out of her mom’s house and do something different. Kline said she’d encourage Michele to figure out what she wanted, whether it was going to college or getting a place of her own, and she’d help her with it. She said she tried contacting Michele’s dad every couple of months to encourage him to reach out to their daughter, but he said he didn’t have time.

“Some kids from broken homes and those kinds of issues, become rebellious early on. She really didn’t. From 16 it was a very slow rebellion, very subtle, but she’d still do things around the house. I thought I could bring her back. In two years, you’re thinking, ‘well, there’s healing time,’ you know, but it just wasn’t seeming to work with her.”

Despite all the unanswered questions, Kline is optimistic. She tries to stay busy so she can she can keep functioning, and friends and family have been a big support in dealing with police, hanging up posters and spreading the word, she said. Her older daughter put up the Christmas tree this year, when she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

The holidays are tough with all the memories of better times. But in a way Kline looks forward to Christmas, hoping she’ll hear something from Michele.

Hoping for another chance to get her angelic little girl back from the demons that have taken over her life.

“I just want her home and safe,” Kline said. “I’ll get her all the help she needs. If she needs help, if she’s having long-term effects from whatever this is, if it’s emotional or chemical, those kinds of things can be fixed when you’re willing. I’m just waiting for her to walk through the door or pick up the phone.”

Editor’s note: Soldotna police did not return calls seeking information for this story.

Gov. Palin announces healthy priorities

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

Gov. Sarah Palin’s plan to begin steps toward solving Alaska’s health insurance crisis was welcome news this week on the Kenai Peninsula.

According to a 2004 household survey, 20.4 percent of the peninsula’s residents were uninsured, compared to statewide figures of 19.1 percent for that year. Fairbanks fared better with 15.2 percent uninsured. Nationally, the number was 14.1.

For 2007, Central Peninsula Health Centers’ Executive Director Stan Steadman said 82 percent of his patients qualified for services at a benchmark of 200 percent of the poverty level. Thirty-one percent had no insurance, including not qualifying for Medicaid. The health center had 22,348 total “encounters” of patients seen that year.

New attention by the governor’s office to address health insurance is certainly welcome news, Steadman said. The public health clinic has already added staff, in anticipation of needing to treat higher numbers of patients due to Medicaid patients turned away by doctors, he said.

“Community health centers are positioned to address critical areas of concern. The U.S. Congress recently reauthorized a community health center program for the next five years, unanimously,” he said.

Insured patients who have a high deductible likewise may feel insecure and add to the client base the clinic sees, Steadman said.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, noticed that an important obstacle facing better health for Alaskans was left out of the governor’s plan.

“I don’t see anything addressing the reduction of alcohol use and abuse, or cessation programs,” Seaton said. “Probably the No. 1 health problem facing Alaskans is alcohol and we don’t have adequate cessation programs.”

The governor plans to reveal more details of her health care hopes in her budget address Dec. 15, when she delivers her fiscal year 2010 operating and capital budgets.

As for health insurance for the general population, Seaton said it’s unlikely that will be seen anytime soon. First, the commission needs to do its work, including new studies.

Alaskans lacking health insurance and the many factors that cause it have been documented in several studies over the past decade. These were already funded through federal and state money. Those studies may have “come up with ideas, but if they didn’t have traction, then the idea didn’t go anywhere and the data likely grew old,” Seaton said.

“We’ll haves to start again, with some concepts that can carry over,“ Seaton said. “We have new models from other states. Massachusetts has had its mandatory insurance for two years. That’s enough time to see if it’s working or not. Hawaii has a health care model.”

Big changes likely won’t happen in the next two or three years, Seaton said, but the state may see elements of the plan in the works by a year from now.

For immediate needs, the governor did well to advocate for increasing eligibility guidelines for children, Seaton said. A movement in the Legislature last year sought to increase Denali KidCare to 200 percent of the poverty level, but faced too much opposition to pass.

One fear was that by raising the eligibility guidelines in a program receiving limited funds, the program would be depleted and then forced to turn away children who needed the medical help, Seaton said.

“A lot of kids in those guidelines got lost,” he said.

Governor’s wish list for a healthier future for Alaska

Gov. Sarah Palin on Thursday announced her goals to improve Alaska’s health and education through fiscal year 2010 budget requests. She proposes to:
  • Establish the Alaska Health Care Commission to provide recommendations for and to foster the development of a statewide plan to address the quality, accessibility and availability of health care for all.
  • Support legislation to increase income eligibility guidelines for Denali KidCare to 200 percent of Alaska’s federal poverty level. Such an increase would make about 1,300 more children and about 225 more pregnant women eligible for health coverage under Denali KidCare.
  • Continue investment in the Tobacco Use Education and Cessation Fund to boost Alaska’s tobacco prevention and control program.
  • Fund Alaska’s obesity prevention and control program.
  • Spend $250,000 on early screening and diagnosis of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
  • Develop a statewide initiative called Live Well Alaska. The interactive Web-based campaign would provide the best recommendations for eating healthier, being more physically active and quitting tobacco use.
  • Increase funding for Head Start preschool programs by $800,000. The additional funds would allow the program to serve 60 to 80 more children. Approximately 1,000 Alaska children remain on waiting lists for Head Start. This funding is in addition to $600,000 in increased funding that Head Start received last fiscal year.
  • v Spend $2 million for the Department of Education to implement a pilot preschool program. School districts would receive the funding through grants. The half-day preschools would serve up to 500 children statewide.
  • v Fund the University of Alaska’s Family Residency Program.

Iliamna group takes proactive stance by touring mines

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

A group of people from the Iliamna Lake villages toured mines this fall owned by Angelo American in Chile and one in Montana in an effort to learn “on our own as much as we can,” said Iliamna Development Corp. Executive Director Lisa Reimers.

“We decided we wanted to learn more about mining, and with that in mind founded ‘Engaging Communities,’” Reimers told an athropology class at the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College on Thursday. “All we had before was what others told us.”

The subsistence culture struggles to find jobs in cash-strapped villages where they are confronted by conflicting information, she said.

“We didn’t have any experience with mining,” Reimers told professor Catherine Knott’s class, which is studying Pebble. But instead of sitting back and watching as an international mining corporation, Canadian-owned Northern Dynasty, made its plans known, Iliamna Native Corp., took “proactive action,” she said. It formed the development corporation in order to qualify for contracts and gain the jobs that normally go to outsiders.

Iliamna and nearby Newhalen villages, with combined Athabascan-Yup’ik populations of about 150, are the supply center for the premining feasibility work that has occupied the Pebble Project for the past five years. Reimers is head of the for-profit corporation that handles the labor contract for Pebble, employing more than 80 villagers from about 10 communities.

“We still haven’t taken an official position on the mine project. We’ve been visiting mines and sharing that information with other communities. We wanted to see ‘bad’ mines, too,” she said, referring to those such as Montana‘s Berkeley Pitt, that is often cited as an example of pollution. The group was able to tour the mine this fall, and hopes to return for more interviews with environmental officials and others.

When asked about why they don’t look for economic development that wouldn’t have so much at stake, Reimers said villagers had sought a number of opportunities including eco-tourism and value-added fish market products. Commercial fishing no longer offers adequate income, she said.

But nothing promised steady pay in desperate times. Fuel is $8.50 a gallon in Iliamna. Some villages must ration fuel, which limits the distance hunters can go for caribou or moose. This causes food shortages ultimately, Reimers said.

Some village schools are closing up because people have to move, she said. “Our reality is that Pebble is what came along and offered the jobs,” she said.

Currently, Engaging Com-munities is working on a film with footage collected at the mines and interviews. Charisse Arce is a marketing graduate of Seattle University who helped produce the Iliamna Natives’ first film exploring people’s thoughts on Pebble, “The Voices of Bristol Bay.” She is currently editing the film about the mines, which won’t be released until later in February. Like “Voices,” it will include interviews with a variety of people involved in mining, and those from communities impacted by the mines.

During the first week of October the group traveled to Santiago, Chile, for five days with some individuals from the Pebble Limited Partnership, Arce said.

“We toured Anglo American’s Operations at the Los Bronces Mine located just outside of Santiago. The goal was to learn about Anglo American, its business and social practices, any environmental issues, and the company’s interactions with the community,” she said.

The trip’s agenda was set by Angelo American, but Arce and Reimers, along with a dozen others from the Bristol Bay region, were able to look at possible social impacts of the Los Bronces Mine.

They were shown social causes Angelo had contributed to in the region. Financial assistance was given to the Municipality of Colina to build a public library center open to all ages, Arce said.

“It also provides a useful after-school program for the kids in the community to practice their reading skills,” she said.

They also visited a recently renovated health center.

“The emergency health center provides much-needed emergency care to people in the community of Colina. Another place we visited in Colina was a culinary school for high school-aged students. These students come from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend this ‘trade school.’ Anglo American provides financial support for the public school to operate,” Arce wrote in a preliminary report. “This school has a very high graduation rate and job placement rate after graduation.

“We toured the mining operations at Los Bronces, which included the tailings dam and also the concentrator located at Las Tortalas, where the copper is processed using froth flotation. The distance between Los Bronces and Las Tortalas is around 40 miles. We were able to learn and see the crushing, milling, and flotation processes,” Arce wrote.

Since the mine visits aren’t complete yet, Reimers and Arce are reluctant to form conclusions. But they will be finalizing the film and sharing the information with villages in Kachemak and Bristol Bay, Reimers said.

Some of their interviews include the president of a local environmental nongovernmental organization, which mediates conflicts between the community and industry, one being the mining industry; several small business entrepreneurs who have benefited from an entrepreneurship program funded by Anglo American, and students who are currently interning at the Los Bronces Mine.

“We learned a considerable amount,” Arce said. “We were there for five days and we did our best to pack as much in as possible. We felt we merely scratched the surface of learning more about the impacts a mining operation has on the environment and communities around it.”

Superior comedy — Play elevates insanity to heroic proportions

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Pajamas as daytime attire. Underwear as outerwear. Shoes either untied, on the wrong feet or missing altogether. A proclivity toward random outbursts, talking backward and vacant stares.

As Charlie, one of the characters in “Insane With Power,” says, this group is a few Fruit Loops short of a nutritious breakfast.

In the play, put on by Triumvirate Theatre, a reporter visits an insane asylum to interview four patients who think they’re superheroes.

“It made me laugh. I always loved superhero movies and comics, so I liked the whole premise,” said Angie Nelson, the show’s director.

It’s hard to say which is loopier — the patients for their delusions of grandeur, or the super weird personas they say they have.

Charlie, played by Adam Meyers, is Speed Freak, with the ability to run backward so fast he can’t wear shoes, lest they disintegrate from friction.

His power came thanks to an abduction by alien beavers, which also left him with a taste for wood products.

There’s Mental, played by Karlene Meyers. Ever since eating a radioactive Pop Tart, she can read thoughts (but apparently never any intelligent ones), and shares them loudly and at random.

“The armadillos have pink parachutes,” she yells.

Jamie Nelson plays Dim Bulb. After the fateful day he stuck his finger in a light socket, he can turn lights off without using a switch, by clapping, coughing and various other bodily functions.

Brainstorm, played by Chris Jenness, can control the weather through a series of dance moves, though he’s reluctant to perform them since he also seems to believe people are watching him. An entire audience, in fact.

“You people are sick!” he yells.

Terri Burdick plays a doctor caring for her wards, and Sally Cassano is the reporter sent to do a story on the supposed superheroes, but eventually starts wondering if there isn’t some power in crazy after all.

The actors have to demonstrate willpower, at least, to stay in character through Mental’s outbursts, Speed Freak’s beaver noises, Brainstorm’s funk review and Dim Bulb’s moments of brownout.

“The hardest part is not laughing on stage,” Adam Meyers said.

Angie Nelson said the script calls for a lot of the antics and idiosyncrasies the characters display, but they do have some leeway to embellish.

“They all came up with their own costumes,” she said. “It’s been pretty fun watching them develop their own characters.”

Capes and underwear over long johns or PJs is the wardrobe staple of choice. For at least one cast member, skivvies on stage weren’t an odd occurrence.

Jamie Nelson recently played the part of Randall McMurphy in Kenai Performers’ production of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” One scene called for him in boxer shorts. For Dim Bulb he’s decked out in black workout wear embellished with tighty whities so crisp they nearly glow in the stage light.

“Last time was boxers, this time briefs. I don’t know what’s coming next,” he said.
Humility takes a backseat to hilarity in the show so the actors can milk their characters’ quirks for all the laughs they’re worth. That’s challenging, in some respects, but the cast said it’s also fun to let loose with the premise.

“I kind of always wanted to play a dimwit,” Nelson said.

“ I always wanted to be a superhero,” Adam Meyers said. “It’s every boy’s dream. Now I get to play one on stage.”

The show is written by Scott Haan, who contacted Angie Nelson when he heard Triumvirate was going to perform his show. It’s the first time a community theater group has staged the play, and Haan was so excited he wanted to fly to Alaska from Indiana to watch it.

Plane fares kept him grounded, so he’s settling for a DVD of a Triumvirate performance. Nelson said Haan and the original cast of the play are planning a party where they all get together to watch the show.

Audiences on the Central Kenai Peninsula can watch it live this weekend and next, Dec. 12, 13, 19 and 20, at 7 p.m. at Triumvirate Theatre in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Tickets are $10.

Guest editorial: All industries not the same

As I often do, I was spouting off about just how shortsighted, how downright insane it was to consider building North America’s largest open pit mine in Bristol Bay. My neighbor, a thoughtful man, an avid hunter and fisherman, who often indulges my rants, was polite and waited until I was done.

“You are probably right,” he admitted before reminding me that he worked for the oil industry, as if that somehow precluded him from taking a stand on this issue.

His is a common response from friends who work in the “industry,” as if all industries are cut from the same cloth. Yet comparing the oil and gas industry to hard rock mining is like comparing eagles to penguins: while both are birds, that’s where the similarities end.

Likewise, with oil and hard rock mining you could not have two more distinct entities, conducting business in such a completely different manner and treated so differently by both state and federal governments. First, there is a large chasm in how they are regulated and taxed, one benefiting the state and paying for infrastructure and schools, the other actually burdening the government with massive oversight and cleanup costs that fall on the backs of taxpayers.

Second, there is a huge difference in how these resources are extracted. Oil extraction on land, with innovations like directional drilling, is relatively benign, while large-scale hard rock mining causes a massive upheaval of all land and water around it, with toxic byproducts that must be stored on-site forever.

The complete inequity with which we treat these two industries is quite frankly unfair. The mining industry has the luxury of still being regulated under the Mining Law of 1872, an antiquated piece of legislation signed by Ulysses S. Grant, which allows them access to public lands for only a few dollars an acre.

Furthermore, they often conduct business on lands where oil companies would never be allowed to set foot, despite oil’s “footprint” being dwarfed by that of the other industry. When it comes to taxes, the disparity widens further. Alaska collects over 20 percent of market value of oil produced here, compared to a meager 1 percent of mineral production by large-scale mines. So, despite mining’s claim of adding millions to state coffers, if you do the math and include all oversight and subsidies, such as the Red Dog haul road, we actually pay out more than we take in.

Compound this by examining the track record of the two industries. Oil companies’ problems have been mainly with transporting oil, not with extraction. Mining, on the other hand, has seen repeated catastrophes, evident from the fact that 62 hard rock mines are now Super Fund cleanup sites, costing taxpayers a whopping $2.5 billion since 1997.

That’s not including the 93 other mining operations that would qualify for inclusion if the Super Fund was indeed super and had enough funds. These aren’t just old mines that are having problems. Anglo American, the second largest mining conglomerate in the world and the company that will be mining Pebble, had two dam failures in 2005, and the Lisheen mine, in Ireland, where permitting is as stringent as here, has been a disaster.

This state-of-the-art mine, opened in 2006, has in no way lived up to its promises, with streams below the mine now closed to fishing.

Oil and gas companies are also required to cap wells and clean up after themselves. Studies show that existing bonds for mines, however, are woefully underestimated, typically only covering 25 percent to 80 percent of cleanup costs, leaving taxpayers once again holding the bag. And this does not even take into account remediation for people who live in the area and risk losing their livelihoods and way of life.

So, whether you agree or disagree with projects like Pebble, before they are allowed to precede these large foreign conglomerates should at least be held accountable and be held to the same standards as other industries, because right now it’s evident — not all industries are treated the same.

Dave Atcheson is the executive director of the Renewable Resources Foundation, the educational arm of the Renewable Resources Coalition. He also is a freelance writer and author of the guidebook, “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.”

Editorial: Both sides should stand together for kids

Contract negotiations between First Student and the Teamsters union representing school bus drivers on the Kenai Peninsula have several sticking points — wages, benefits, paid time off, fair treatment and maintenance issues.

There’s a lot to argue about, and the debate’s been going on since March. But there are a few things both sides of the contract talks between First Student and the Teamsters union representing the bus drivers can agree on: No one wants kids left standing on the side of the street. And everyone wants quality, experienced bus drivers.

The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Drivers have voted to authorize a strike in order to force First Student to come up with a better offer. Since they invoked the “U” word by voting to unionize last February, drivers have bite to their bark.

Unions draw fire in some camps for bullying companies into meeting unreasonable demands, collecting forced dues from workers who don’t want to be members, and for strikes that often hurt innocent bystanders more than anyone else. In this case, it’d be kids and parents.

On the other hand, unions can be a useful tool in ensuring workers are treated fairly and can bring about needed changes that workers standing alone can’t.

In this situation, both sides still seem willing to talk.

While unions sometimes can take advantage of people, companies and corporations can take advantage of people, too. With wealth inequality as high as its been in America since the late 1920s, 20.4 percent of peninsula residents without health care insurance and retirement plans torpedoed by stock market woes, it’s clear companies have been doing more than their share of advantage-taking lately.

Representation at the table isn’t the issue, whether it’s a union rep, a lawyer, or the workers themselves. What matters is finding reasonable middle ground that fairly compensates drivers for the valuable job they do, yet still allows First Student to be an effective — and that means profitable — private company.

Guest editorial: Spoof story pokes fun at state’s proclivity for pork, and blowing things out of proportion

Tundra Coast, Alaska (MEWS) — The 2008 Alaska hurricane season ended Nov. 30 and, for the 22nd year, there were no named storms. Alaska Hurricane Center director Hector Forum, Ph.D., conducted his annual end-of-hurricane-season press conference Monday morning before a sparse gathering of the press corps.

“Well, um, another hurricane season has come and gone,” Dr. Forum began as he replaced a pen into the pocket protector of his freshly-starched white lab coat. “And, as you probably know, we once again didn’t have a named storm. I’ve been with the AHC for some 40 years and this will be my final report. I will be retiring as of tomorrow,” Forum advised, raising his voice to be heard over the sounds of maintenance men who were busy dismantling the huge AHC operations center located near the tiny village of Tundra Coast.

“I began my career in 1968 at the National Weather Seer’s Anchorage office. I had a windowless cubicle by the elevator on the second floor. There were no funds available to send me out to western Alaska to make personal meteorological observations in those days, so I spent quite a lot of time reading, especially in the winter months.

“In 1972, Alaska’s junior senator came up with the money to relocate the AHC way out West here to Tundra Coast. As you can see, he made sure that there was plenty of room for expansion,” Forum added, alluding to the 20 fully equipped but unmanned operating positions in the multi-storied center’s main tracking room. “Senator Ted wanted us to be closer to the action.

“Up here in the Great Land, we are encouraged to use our own set of names for so-called ‘qualifying storms’ each year. I was tasked with making up the list. Although I would come up with 26 names each year, in alphabetical order, we rarely used even the ‘A’s’,” he admitted. “There was that one year, umm, 1982 I think, that we actually got as far as ‘Boopsie,’ but for the most part it’s been kinda quiet.

“My superiors in Anchorage suggested that it was time for me to think about retiring a few years ago after they discovered that I had put out a job vacancy announcement that called for ‘an assistant meteorologist, female, 30ish and attractive, who likes to hang around geeky weather guys. No experience necessary.’ I got a few nibbles, but nothing ever came of it. I did get a phone call from an attractive-sounding woman, but it turned out to be one of my bosses. She told me that it was time to get out of Dodge and/or get a life. Like most of my storms, she shall remain nameless.

“Well, I took the hint and put in my paperwork. But, due to there not being regular mail delivery out here, the boys in the Head Office didn’t receive it until last month, just after the senatorial election recount,” Dr. Forum disclosed. “They figured that this office would soon be put on the fast train to Palookaville. And so, in closing, as they say in the Austrian Alps: ‘So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu, adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu.”

Dr. Forum then donned a yellow hard hat, stepped down from the podium and exited gracefully. Staccato clapping could be heard from one or two reporters. As he reached the back door, Forum deftly sidestepped a crumbling wall and then turned to add a final thought.

“I only wish that I could have gone out with at least one more named storm,” he sighed wistfully. “My favorite was ‘A-coming,’ so that the disk jockeys and weather briefers could say, ‘Hurricane A-coming is a-coming’.”

That said, Dr. Forum then went out into the prenoon darkness. The workers paused for a moment, and then their foreman boomed to his crew, “OK, boys, back to work. Rumor is that the new junior senator from the Last Frontier wants this here building to be turned into a performing arts center by a month from Sunday.”

Bill Gronvold is a freelance writer who lives in Kenai and Florida.

Art Seen — Many moose

I see moose. They’re everywhere. They eat our compost when times are tough. Sometimes they get in the way of our vehicles, and vice versa. I’ve had one try to cross a small bridge with me, bumping my car into the opposite guardrail, ever so gently.

They are mysterious and majestic, powerful, gangly and awkward, all at once. Regardless of how we feel about them, they are a common part of our experience, one that is explored with visual media in an exhibit that is a brainchild of Bill Heath’s, and presented by the Peninsula Art Guild at the Kenai Fine Arts Center.

“Only Moose” is an invitational exhibit Heath had been thinking about for years and put into action about a year and a half ago. Rather than send out invites to a list of chosen artists, he used a more casual approach by mentioning the exhibit in random conversations. Interestingly, the latecomers to the project were the ones to enter more pieces than those who had significantly longer lead time. The artists came through in typical Kenai Peninsula fashion, entering a wide variety of media, including photography (both classic and digital), graphite drawing, pottery, fiber, found object sculpture, oil, acrylic and watercolor painting, and pen and ink.

Many of the pieces are fanciful, like Donna Steele’s “Asneakin & Apeakin,” a line
drawing in India ink, and Pat Lytle’s sweet portrait “Amble.”

Much of the photography is of the expected “look who I found in my yard” variety, but Heath himself included two thoughtful pieces, both with the media description “photo-based artwork.” “Moose Ears” is a nearly iridescent-on-black image that feels as if one is looking through stained glass at the fireweed and ears-only hint of a young moose. In “Brown Water,” you find the adult moose swimming in shallow water, but the image has been so abstracted as to feel like a monoprint on rice paper or even something more exotic.

Genevieve Klebba’s interesting photographic entry is of a male and female moose in a marsh. The image is quite grainy, and the contrast has been pumped up, also giving the effect of some sort of printmaking. Timothy Oliver’s quiet watercolor, “Thriving,” also deserves mention. It is understated and lovely, rendered in surprising greens and blues.

One of my most favored works is a freestanding piece by Joy Falls titled “Moose Diaries.” She uses a skull, barbed wire, stone, pencil and paint to create a really fascinating sculpture. An imaginary diary sprawls across the skull, which is both comical and tragic.

Gaye LaRane’s watercolor/acrylic strips spin freely, each suspended from a spot in the ceiling. The tones are earthy, and the textures inviting.

I decided to execute a fairly traditional work for this exhibit, which I have realized is especially unusual, judging from the responses I’ve gotten. One woman who has seen my work for years expressed surprise that I worked representationally. It is called “Law of Economy,” and is a fairly large oil over acrylic on canvas of a mother moose and her offspring who shines purple in the nighttime light. The handling is fairly loose, and the mood verges on ominous. Rarely do I mention my own work in these articles, but I thought I would throw that one in. It was an interesting task.

Two of my other favorites surrounded my own on display: Pat Lytle’s “Drifting” done in soft pastel with swirled and cloudy glazing, and Anne Louise Gillilan’s “Signs of Spring,” a photo of moose droppings revealing themselves as ice begins to thaw in a puddle. The composition is good and the printing basically flawless, with a nice tonal range of blacks, grays and full whites. Both pieces say a lot with just a little.

We really do seem to love our moose, whether we are recording their aesthetically pleasing droppings, or telling a loving story, like in Pam Mersch’s “Harvest I,” in fiber, and “Harvest II,” in mixed media, where she visually explains the missing broccoli from her garden-acquired meal. And even more so when we are pleading for their welfare, as in “Traffic Control” a digital illustration by Chris Jenness. From the looks of it, these powerful, lovely creatures are a revered and adored part of our community, and are here to stay in our hearts and minds. The exhibit runs through this week.

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 Dec. 10

Holiday arts, crafts fairs:
  • The Kenaitze Indian Tribe presents the Old Town Holiday Gift Shop from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 20 at Fort Kenay, across from the Russian Orthodox Church, with Alaska Native arts and crafts.
  • The Funky Monkey coffee shop in Kenai will host a homemade craft fair from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.
  • A holiday bazaar will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Aspen Hotel in Soldotna with handmade gifts, crafts and holiday idea from more than 15 vendors, and refreshments.
  • Hope Community Resources will hold a holiday bazaar from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday on Kalifornsky Beach road behind Ellis Automotive.

  • The Kenai Performers present Victorian Carolers, who sing a cappella carols at holiday events. To book a performance, call Dagmar at 398-0865.
  • The Soldotna Senior Center is looking for artists to display their work in the center's lobby. Shows are one month long. Artwork must hang on the walls. Call Mary Lane at 262-8839.
  • Art Works in Soldotna has photography by Joe Kashi on display through December.
  • The Funky Monkey coffee shop in Kenai has multimedia black and white art by Alissa Mattson on display through December.
  • The Gary L. Freeburg Gallery at Kenai Peninsula College has ceramics work by Steven Godfrey, head of ceramics at the University of Alaska Anchorage, on display until Thursday.
  • Kaladi Brothers on Kobuk Street in Soldotna has artwork by Anna Jo Warfle on display through December.
  • Kaladi Brothers on the Sterling Highway in Soldotna has art by Kathie Lee Painter and Donna Schwanke on display through December.
  • The Kenai Fine Arts Center in Old Town Kenai has children’s submissions to the VFW Women’s Auxiliary annual art show.
  • Veronica’s coffee shop in Kenai has photographs of Veronica’s through the seasons by Joe Kashi on display.

  • Peninsula Take-a-Break will hold a women’s brunch and Christmas tea party from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Solid Rock Conference Center, with carols, a tea cup and Christmas mug exchange, and an update on Stonecroft Ministries. Reservations must be made by Sunday. Contact Cindy at or 260-6262.
  • Peninsula Artists in Motion Dance Company is holding auditions for new dancers at 6:30 p.m. at Encore Dance Academy, 110 Haller St. in Kenai. The company is looking for adult women, preferably with dance experience. Call Katrina at 283-3140.

  • Santa will visit the Nikiski Senior Center from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Pictures with Santa will be available for $5, as will cookie decorating, hot chocolate and door prizes.
  • The Class Act performers of Triumvirate Theatre will stage a dinner theater production of “A Christmas Carol” at the Funky Monkey coffee shop at 6 p.m. Tickets are $30 per person, and seating is limited.
  • Triumvirate Theatre will perform “Insane With Power,” a superhero comedy by Scott Haan, directed by Angie Nelson, starring Jamie Nelson, Chris Jenness, Terri Burdick, Karlene Meyers, Adam Meyers and Sally Cassano, at 7 p.m. at the theater in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Tickets are $10.

  • Santa will visit with kids from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, with live holiday music and goodies for kids.
  • Class Act presents “A Christmas Carol” at the Funky Monkey at 6 p.m. See Friday listing.
  • Triumvirate Theatre performs “Insane With Power” at 7 p.m. See Friday listing.
  • First Baptist Church of Kenai will hold a Christmas Cantata with Christmas music at 7 p.m.
  • The Harlem Ambassadors will perform a basketball show game against a local team at 7:30 p.m. at Skyview High School. Advanced tickets, available at Cook Inlet Academy, are $10 for adults, $5 for kids ages 4 to 8. Tickets at the door are $12 for adults, $6 for kids.

  • First Baptist Church’s Christmas Cantata at 7 p.m. See Saturday listing.

Coming up
  • The Class Act performers of Triumvirate Theatre will stage a dinner theater production of “A Christmas Carol” at the Funky Monkey coffee shop at 6 p.m. Dec. 19 and 20. Tickets are $30 per person, and seating is limited.
  • Triumvirate Theatre will perform “Insane With Power,” a superhero comedy, at 7 p.m. Dec. 19 and 20 at the theater in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Tickets are $10. ¬¬
  • Kenai Peninsula Orchestra presents an Evening of Christmas concert at 7 p.m. Dec. 19 at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna performed by soloists and ensembles, including the Redoubt Chamber Orchestra conducted by Tammy Vollom-Matturro. General admission is $8, with a special family price of $20.
  • Santa will visit with kids from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 20 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, with live holiday music and goodies for kids.
  • The Central Peninsula Writers Group is accepting submissions for its 12th annual Central Peninsula Writers Presentation on March 14 at Triumvirate Theatre in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Adult and high school writers from Cooper Landing to Ninilchik to Nikiski may enter. Entries are due Feb. 6. Entry forms and complete guidelines are available at the Kenai Community Library and online at under the Writer Group link.

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

Live music
  • The Crossing in Soldotna has folk, blues, Hawaiian and classic acoustic music by Mike Morgan at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
  • The Funky Monkey in Kenai has folk music on Wednesday night.
  • Hooligans Saloon in Soldotna has music by 9-Spine on Friday and Saturday nights.
  • Kaladi Brothers on Kobuk Street in Soldotna has live music by The GoodKind at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
  • The Maverick in Soldotna has The Free Beer Band on Wednesday night.
  • Moosequito’s in Sterling has open mic Wednesdays and DedZep on Saturday night.
  • The Place in Nikiski has bluegrass by Them Other Shuckers at 7 p.m. Friday.
  • The Rainbow Bar in Kenai has The Mabrey Brothers at 10 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
  • The Riverside in Soldotna has Travis B. and Sean on Wednesday night.
  • Veronica’s in Kenai has open mic music at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

  • 9 p.m. Thursdays 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. Tuesdays and Wednesday at Hooligan’s in Soldotna.
  • 8:30 p.m. Friday at J-Bar-B in Kasilof.
  • 9:30 p.m. Monday at the Maverick in Soldotna.

  • 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.

Winding road — Life’s twists hold many surprises for Kenai resident

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

The year was about 1950 and Fiocla Wilson and her husband, Philip, were driving south of Soldotna on a recently opened section of the Sterling Highway. Suddenly, Wilson spotted something puzzling.

“We were going for a ride toward Kasilof, and I said, ‘What’s a horse doing back there in the woods?’ I only saw the back end, you know,” she said. “He said, ‘That’s not a horse. That’s a moose.’”
For Fiocla, that sighting was a first.

“I never saw a live moose until the highway was built to Homer,” said Fiocla, who was born in Kenai in 1916. “I never knew what a moose looked like.”

This may seem like a strange proclamation from someone who began life in Alaska 92 years ago and who subsisted, in part, on a diet of moose meat, along with salmon and wild berries, and some store-bought goods. Philip regularly hunted moose during open season, but Fiocla said that she never accompanied her husband on his hunts and never saw a moose wander into town prior to that drive to Kasilof.

Of course, Wilson knows that life can be full of surprises.

Born Fiocla Sacolof to a part-Russian father and a half-Russian, half-Athabascan mother, she found herself an orphan at the age of 9. Because of her young age then, Wilson said, she was unsure what caused her parents’ death, but she did realize that her life was about to change.

Her older sister took in her younger siblings, but could not afford to take in Fiocla, too. Since there was no road yet to Kenai, Fiocla was sent by boat to Anchorage to live with a relative. She attended school in Anchorage until she turned 12, at which point she decided to receive vocational training at the Eklutna Industrial School for Natives.

She arrived by train in Eklutna and stayed at the school until she was 16, attending regular classes in the mornings and training sessions in the afternoons. Wilson said she learned to work in a kitchen and a laundry, learned to sew and learned how to be a waitress, among other skills.

At the school, she was surrounded by more than a 100 other Natives from villages scattered throughout Alaska. Despite the many different cultures and languages represented there, only English was allowed to be spoken. If they were caught speaking Russian or any Native tongue, they were punished.

“There was another girl from Kenai, and I said something to her in Russian and the matron heard it,” Wilson said in a 1985 interview, recorded in a book called Our Stories, Our Lives. “We both had to wash our mouth out with soap! I don’t remember what I said. Wasn’t anything bad or anything.

“That’s how strict they were. And that’s why I can’t understand now why everything’s getting back so that they want us to talk our Native language.

“At that time the government wouldn’t allow us to talk in those languages. And now, they’re giving funds to get back to our heritage.”

Despite the strictness, however, Wilson — who was called “Fanny” by the matrons — said she was pleased that she had the opportunity to attend the school, and she fondly recalled one particular home-economics teacher who taught her an important lesson.

“I had a teacher that always told me, ‘Never be ashamed of your nationality.’ And it wasn’t your nationality that counted as much as your character and your personality. And she always told me that I would go a long ways if I would just be the way I was with my personality and character. Because she said I had an awful sweet personality.”

When Wilson left the school in 1933, she had a surprise waiting for her. A man she had always known as “Uncle Dan” met her at the train station in Eklutna, where he handed her $25 and an envelope containing a photograph of himself. He said he had written something on the photo, but he did not want her to read it until she had boarded the train.

On board, she learned that “Uncle Dan” was her biological father, who had run off to Anchorage with another woman when Fiocla was too young to remember. The man she had believed was her father had actually been a stepfather.

On the eve of her first steps into adulthood, “Uncle Dan” had reached out in his own way to let her know the truth.

A few days after leaving the boat in Kenai, Fiocla turned 17. Before the year was out, she was married to her first boyfriend, Philip, in a ceremony officiated by the Rev. Paul Shadura at the Russian Orthodox Church.

Philip, the son of a Caucasian father and a half-Russian, half-Athabascan mother, had been born in Kenai in 1912. He fished commercially in the summers and trapped in the winters. By the time the Wilson family had grown to six children in 1949, he also had an airplane, a single-engine Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser, which he used occasionally to fly out men on hunting trips.

One of Fiocla’s favorite times of year occurred when the family ventured down to their setnet site below Wildwood.

“I enjoyed that, taking the kids out on the beach,” she said. “Living in tents. It was just like a vacation for my children. They really enjoyed that.”

Fiocla smiled as she remembered the work involved in commercial fishing. “I liked picking fish. I used to think that was fun. I used to see how many I could carry. I could have 10 fish, you know — you put your fingers in their mouth and carry ’em like that.”

As she explained, she held out both hands, palms up, fingers and thumbs curled like hooks.
“And I used to run to (Philip’s) dory to put the fish in.”

From the dory, the fish went to a scow, and then on to a tender that carried them to the Libby, McNeil and Libby cannery across the wide river mouth. She said that when they began fishing in 1934, a single sockeye salmon fetched 7 cents, while a single chinook fetched a dollar. At the Kenai Commercial store at the same time, a pound of butter cost 25 cents.

Fiocla and her family fished the site until the early 1960s, when Philip decided to sell the place and buy a drift boat, which he named the Kenai. In her home today, Fiocla has a Jim Evenson painting of Philip’s plane on skis in the winter, and another painting, by one of her daughters, depicting Philip’s boat on choppy water, with the Kenai bluffs stark in the background.

Philip, who suffered from diabetes, died in 1975. Several years later, Fiocla moved into the home that she still maintains by herself, although one of her daughters lives right next door. She keeps busy with her large family — including 16 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, and several great-great-grandchildren — and as a member of both the Kenaitze tribe and the Kenai Bible Chapel.

These days, the moose are more plentiful in Kenai. Some of them even wander into the neighborhood.

Have a ball — Harlem Ambassadors bringing high-flying basketball fun

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

When playing against the Harlem Ambassadors, being a good sport is better than being good at sports.

The professional show basketball team puts on charity games that are part basketball competition, part comedy act. They’ll perform at Skyview High School on Saturday, facing a team of central peninsula players, as a fundraiser for Cook Inlet Academy’s athletics department.

“It’s an event where you’ve got these players who are very highly skilled in what they do going up against folks that have maybe touched a basketball once or twice in their life. The crowd definitely falls in love with them. The local team kind of turns into the bad guys, in a sense,” said Matt Wilson, of Soldotna.

Wilson was part of a celebrity team that played against the Ambassadors in Kodiak two years ago as a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity.

“At the time I was on the radio there, so they asked, ‘Do you want to make a fool of yourself in front of everyone in town?’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”

On Saturday he can try that shot again, since he was recruited to play for the central peninsula team.

Wilson works at KSRM Radio Group now, and met with CIA Principal Mary Rowley when she came to the station to work out advertising for the game. He mentioned he’d played with the Ambassadors before. That was all it took to get him signed up to play again.

“She’s like, ‘You’re in.’ I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.’ She’s like, ‘No, great. We need another player, you’re in.’”

Wilson said he has no experience at basketball, other than the occasional weekend community pickup game. With the attention he’s gotten from his co-workers about the game, he’ll either have to acquire some skills or a thick skin before Saturday.

“Everybody’s making fun of the fact, ‘Come see Matt make a fool of himself.’ Now the pressure is building to either deliver or make a fool of myself,” he said.

Wilson isn’t worried about winning the game. That’s not really what it’s about. The score of the Kodiak game is eclipsed in Wilson’s memory by the tricks and skills the Ambassadors displayed, although the highlights of the game didn’t have anything to do with clean, straightforward basketball.

“I shot a 3-pointer and they smacked it out of my hands. The ref just kind of looks at me and says, ‘Oh, I didn’t see that,’” Wilson said.

Rowley said she’s looking forward to a fun night.

“Matt said they were just laughing so hard down in Kodiak, they just had the best time. You can’t take something like that too seriously,” she said.

CIA’s athletic director came up with the idea to host the Ambassadors as a fundraiser, Rowley said. Local businesses sponsor the event to pay to bring the team to Soldotna, and money from ticket sales will be used by the school’s athletic department. She said it’s turned out to be a positive fundraiser, but she was skeptical at first.

“Being a principal of a nonprofit school, you always look at the practical side of things, but as we’ve gotten into it it’s very exciting because they’ve been very helpful,” she said. “They’ve got a very comprehensive program that gives you timelines, good marketing hints. … I think it’s going to be really a fabulous, fun, family night for our community.”

The school invited some past CIA basketball alumni for the team, and others in the community who’d developed reputations around open gym for being good players. They didn’t get a single “no,” Rowley said.

Also playing are Noah Shields, Jacob Peterson, Jason Hofseth, Reid Kornstad, David Holloway, Ryan Baldridge, Matt Johnson, Kara Johnson, Nick Christenson, Chet Nettles, Rob Smithwick, James Arness and Jeremiah Taylor.

Wilson may have been tempted to turn down the offer, but he said he was willing to suffer some embarrassment for a good community cause.

“There sometimes isn’t a lot of activities to do in the winter to get the whole family out to participate in,” he said. “I think it’s a good opportunity, whether you’re 1 or 101, to go to something like this and enjoy this event.

“And the timing they picked for this is good because basketball season starts in the next couple weeks. With high school basketball starting, it’s a nice way to segue into the basketball season on the peninsula.”

The Harlem Ambassadors will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Skyview High School. Advance tickets, available at CIA, are $10 for adults and $5 for kids ages 4 to 8. Tickets at the door are $12 for adults and $6 for kids.

Clear for landing — Flight ends a little too smoothly for pilot’s liking

Takeoffs and landings in a small plane can sometimes be a challenge in the wintertime, especially when there is snow covering the runway. With a little practice, I have found that my softest landings are ones on a runway with 3 to 6 inches of fresh snow covering the pavement. If I do it just right, I won’t know that I’m on the ground until the plane starts to slow down below flying speed.

A couple fellow pilots invited me to join them for a picnic at Snag Lake last fall. They assured me the ice was plenty thick, and if I could take off and land at Soldotna’s airport, I could land and take off from Snag Lake. I followed them north and was No. 3 landing on the lake. They were absolutely correct. Landings and takeoffs from the lake were like landing on a mile-long, snow-covered runway. I can do this! We had a great picnic, too.

The next weekend I gathered my ice fishing gear, loaded the plane and headed for Snag Lake to see if there really were any rainbows under the ice. During the week, the gale level winds had blown virtually all of the snow off the lake. The temperatures had been below zero all week, so I knew the ice was still solid enough to support the plane and its occupant again. As I lined up to land on the superwide runway, something was very different.

Approaching a touchdown, my brain told me I was about to take a bath. I could see aquatic vegetation and the lake floor flashing past under the wing. I was about to settle into this aqueous mass and take a very cold dunking. How can this be?

I then realized that the plane was slowing and I was already in contact with the glassy smooth and crystal clear surface of the lake. I had somehow landed on the water but hadn’t sunk yet. As I taxied to the place where I wanted to fish, the water was so clear that I could see submerged stumps and unknown dark things passing by underneath. I awaited the sinking of the plane into the water. When would it start? I finally taxied up on a small patch of remaining snow, somehow figuring that if I couldn’t see to the bottom of the lake, I would be safer. Is that silly or what?

Stepping out of the plane, I found myself a little apprehensive of stepping off the snow patch for fear of sinking into the crystal-clear water, only to find it was crystal-clear ice. Could something that clear hold my ample girth? I wasn’t sure. It was spooky, to say the least.

I drilled a hole in the ice and it was 18 inches thick — plenty thick! As I waited for the fish to visit my tantalizing menu, I kept feeling like I was floating on the water surface, awaiting the gentle waves. The fish were big and hungry, but I’ll save the fish story for another time.

Departing Snag Lake gave me the exact same apprehensions as landing. I kept thinking about what it would feel like when I sank into the water I could see through so clearly.

Once I was airborne again, I kept telling myself that there was no reason to worry about landing on the glassy smooth ice and that I would return for another ice fishing trip. I did return several times, but each time my brain told me I was going for a midwinter swim.

David Wartinbee, Ph.D, J.D., is a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and a pilot.

Plugged in: Low-cost computer fixes for tough times

Now that it’s official that the U.S. has been in a recession since December 2007 and North Slope crude oil sold for $35.61 a barrel last Friday, it’s even more critical to get the most for your money when upgrading your computer. It’s even better if you can boost your computing performance for free.

Hard disk performance has a much greater impact upon a computer’s performance than most nontechnical users might realize. Speeding up hard disk performance can make as much improvement as upgrading to a new computer with a later generation processor. Luckily, increasing hard disk performance can be straightforward and doesn’t require you to replace your entire computer system.

The newest locally available Western Digital and Hitachi hard disks, typically holding 300 to 500 gigabytes or more and spinning at 7,200 rpm, really pack data tightly. As result, not only do these hard disks have a very high storage capacity, but they also move a great deal more data under the read-write heads every second, making them potentially much faster under the right conditions than older, lower-capacity hard disks.

Sensible hardware upgrades

In some cases, just replacing the boot-up hard disk and reinstalling Windows and your programs and data can greatly rejuvenate a computer that’s a few years old and seemingly too slow. The local cost of a suitable new hard disk is well under $150 locally, even for a very high-capacity one, but replacing your primary hard disk and reinstalling Windows, programs and data is not a job for those who are technically faint of heart.

However, there are programs like Acronis Migrate Easy 7.0 that can simplify and ease the task by automating the entire hard disk upgrade and transfer process, particularly if you make the transfer using a USB portable hard disk enclosure to temporarily run your new hard disk during the transfer process. A free, 15-day trial copy of Acronis Migrate Easy 7.0 is available from

If the thought of opening your computer case causes trepidation, then include the cost of having this upgrade done by local professionals. If you have a professional open up your computer, then it may be worthwhile to upgrade the existing CPU processor if a significantly faster compatible CPU is still available, and to upgrade the RAM memory, preferably at least doubling it. If you plan to use Adobe’s new Photoshop CS4, then also consider replacing your existing video card with a fast new display card that has lots of memory onboard. The newest Photoshop CS4 uses the video card’s own processor to greatly increase Photoshop’s performance.

Improving existing hard disk performance

The performance of all hard disks, whether old or new, gradually degrades as they are used and files are stored and moved around. This is an inherent problem with the Windows operating system, not the hardware. The Windows operating system has a tendency to scatter partial fragments of each computer file all over the hard disk. That makes the hard disk’s read-write heads work much harder to load an application program or to read and write a data file, thus greatly slowing down a computer’s overall operation, regardless of how fast its processor might be.

The best solution is to continuously defragment your hard disk. In an ideal world, Windows should defragment every drive automatically in the background in order to maintain optimal performance, but Windows does not do so. Windows does include a disk defragmenting utility under the Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Defragment menu item, but that Microsoft utility is mediocre. It has few options, must be run manually by the operation, slows a computer to a crawl while running for an hour or two, and does not really optimize disk performance. Still, it’s better than nothing and it’s provided free with the Windows operating system.

Several other system utility collections, such as Norton, include somewhat better hard disk optimization programs. However, in my experience, the clear choice for hard disk defragmentation and performance optimization is the Diskeeper family of products, available as downloads from Diskeeper allows you to download a free trial copy of the program that remains fully functional for 30 days, after which you must purchase a license and activate the product to continue using it. A free 30-day trial is useful as a one-time shot in the arm for a slowing computer, and allows you to evaluate whether purchasing the product is worthwhile.

Diskeeper’s “Home” version sells for $29.95, the “Professional” version for $59.95 and the “Pro Premier” version for $99.95. I suggest that the “Professional” version makes the most sense economically. It continuously optimizes and defragments your hard disk in the background without imposing a serious drain upon computing resources. There is no reason to buy the optional “Hyperfast” add-on module unless you have one of the new, cutting-edge, solid-state hard drives, and I don’t know a single person who does.

Even if you should replace your old hard disk with a new, faster drive, you’ll still notice a substantial performance improvement with continuous defrag-mentation.

Removing junk and temporary files from your hard disk and compressing the data can also improve system performance under some circumstances and, in any event, maximize your available storage. To access Microsoft’s hard disk cleanup tools, click on My Computer, then right click to select the hard disk to be cleaned and compressed, then click on the Properties menu item. A graphic display shows how much of the total hard disk space is in use.

In the graphic display for that hard disk, first click on the Disk Cleanup radio button. This will scan the selected hard disk for unused old files, temporary Internet content files, and other files that can be safely deleted. Then, left click on the Compress drive and the Allow Indexing Service check boxes, and start these operations by left clicking on the Apply button.

Then, sit back, make some coffee, and find a good book. You’ll not be using your computer for some time. After you’ve completed these tasks, and they must be performed separately for each hard disk, click on the tools menu item at the top of the disk’s graphic display.

You’ll see several options, including Error-Checking a hard disk and Defragmentation. Run Error Checking prior to defragmenting the drive. Otherwise, any disk errors may spread during the defragmentation process. If you have purchased Diskeeper, then that optional program will start when you press the Defragmentation program. Otherwise, Microsoft’s defragmentation accessory will run.

At the end of this rather tedious process, your hard disk should be in pretty decent shape and running noticeably faster.

Next week, we’ll discuss some nifty system cleanup programs that measure and fix computer system performance from a different angle.

Local attorney Joseph Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and has been writing and lecturing about technology throughout the U.S. since 1990 for American Bar Association, Alaska Bar Association and private publications. He also owned a computer store in Soldotna between 1990 and 2000.