Alaska News

Outgoing Senator Mark Begich Bids Farewell On Senate Floor

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-12-11 16:52

Mark Begich said goodbye on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Thursday. His six years in office end with this Congress.

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Begich, who lost his seat largely due to his embrace of Democratic policies, recounted how far the country has come since the great recession.

“I remember coming onto this floor as a freshman in ’09,” he said. “The chaos in this economy was unbelievable. The amount of jobs we were losing, 600+k a month – equal to my whole population of my state. Unemployed! Boom Gone.”

He says he and other freshmen wondered what they’d gotten into. Now the stock market is up, unemployment is down and the annual budget deficit has shrunk. Begich says there’s more to do and urged his colleagues to be optimistic.

“People may be angry with us, but they want to know what we’re going to do to solve these incredible problems,” he said. “And it will be incumbent on the next Congress to sit down and work together. It’s going to be tough. Because the politics of today are about the moment in time. It’s not about the long term.”

He told a few anecdotes about his time on Capitol Hill. Once, he said, he and his son Jacob dug out their car after a snow storm and parked it near the white-domed Capitol building.

“Those who know me – I don’t really follow all the rules around this place,” Begich said. “We started walking through the Capitol with our snow shovels over our shoulders. The place was empty. And I realized what an incredible place this is…,” emotion choked off his words a few times during the speech, particularly when he spoke of his wife and son. “…You just see the history…and in a small way we were part of it.”

Begich staffers sat in the back of the chamber, many in tears.

As is the tradition, other senators stood to laud Begich. One was Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who later said her own farewells. Landrieu says many senators assert their parents gave their lives to public service, but in Begich’s case, it’s quite true. Congressman Nick Begich’s plane disappeared en route to Juneau. As Landrieu noted, that left Mark and five siblings without a father.

“So when Mark walked in here, the first day I met him, I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was expecting someone to have a heavy burden on their shoulders because of that,” she said.

Instead, Landrieu says, Begich was one of the most optimistic people in the Senate, brimming with self confidence and encouraging to his peers.

“And I know that his father is truly honored that he didn’t get bitter. He wasn’t angry. He accepted that as God’s will, which is a hard thing to accept,” Landrieu said. “And he just, just did so much for the community that his father loved, the state that his father loved.”
Before Begich left the floor, senators stood in line to hug him. Their applause lasted nearly a minute. On Jan. 6, former Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan will be sworn in as Alaska’s 8th senator since statehood.

Categories: Alaska News

Senior Care Center Key to Development Plan

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-12-11 16:51

This drawing shows tentative plans for a senior complex along Revilla Road. The plan includes a senior care facility, condos for seniors, and housing and services for employees of the senior center. (Image from Ward Cove Group development proposal.)

A long-range plan to develop borough-owned land in Ketchikan’s Ward Lake-Revilla Road area is inching forward, albeit with hesitation on the part of the Borough Assembly.

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A huge part of the Ward Cove Group’s development plan is a proposed senior housing complex, close to the intersection of Revilla Road and North Tongass Highway. The company’s president told the Assembly that he’s been carefully researching senior centers over the years, and has a good idea of the kind of facility he’d like to see built.

Ketchikan has a shortage of housing options for senior citizens, specifically seniors who need assistance. Ward Cove Group President David Spokely said seniors often have to leave town, because there just isn’t space at the Pioneers Home, the state-run senior care center.

“When I came here years and years ago, there was a six year waiting list for senior housing,” he said. “There’s still a six-year waiting list.”

Spokely said his vision for the senior center is a true home, with different levels of assistance and various services, such as an urgent care medical clinic for seniors.

He said one section would be for seniors with memory problems.

“The best place I found Down South was, they have about four rooms that open up into a 20-foot by 40-foot corridor, that corridor has a little coffee shop and sitting area. It looks like someone’s living room,” he said. “So when you come out of your assisted-living room, you come right out into a living room that everybody is combined in. No hallways, no corridors, no place to get lost.”

There would be another section for residents who don’t have dementia, but need regular physical care; and for those residents who can move around independently, Spokely said the proposed facility has places to go.

“The center area is a food court, basically a community area where you can get food and services, a little movie theater,” he said. “Just an indoor community center that you would expect to find in a typical downtown area.”

Another section would offer apartments and condos for seniors who don’t need assistance, but want to take advantage of some of those services offered through the center.

“We’re looking at a senior community that (would) not just serve the people of Ketchikan, but to be an attraction to the rest of the state,” he said. “To invite people so they don’t have to go to Seattle and live without family members, and leave the state of Alaska to get care.”

All this might sound too good to be feasible, but Spokely said he has spent a lot of time researching senior care centers, and figuring out what is possible for Ketchikan.

“Most people take vacations at Disneyland. Ask my wife, our vacations are going through senior centers throughout the Northwest, and urgent care centers, asking them how they operate and how they fund it,” he said.

Spokely said starting the overall development with the senior center makes economic sense, because there is an established need for that service. He mentioned his mother-in-law, who has lived in Ketchikan since 1946.

“She still gets up, still walks every day, whether it’s raining or not all year round and she loves the rain,” he said. “She’s not going south. But at some point, she’s not going to be able to stay in her apartment anymore.”

Spokely said the senior center is for his mother-in-law, and seniors like her, who want to keep on walking in the rain.

Here’s a PDF version of the development proposal:   WardCoveGroupProposal

Categories: Alaska News

Arctic Expedition Uncovers Previously Undiscovered, Ancient Mollusk Specimens

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-12-11 16:50

During a 2010 expedition in the Beaufort Sea’s deep, Arctic waters off Alaska’s northern coast, scientists discovered what turned out to be a previously-unknown, ancient type of mollusk.

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The newly-discovered bi-valve mollusk, called Wallerconcha sarae, dates back about 1.8 million years.

This image shows the new species of bivalve mollusk was recently described and named Wallerconcha sarae. (Photo by Paul Valentich-Scott)

Paul Valentich-Scott, is the curator of malacology, which is the study of mollusks, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in California. He says the specimens are pretty small – only about an inch across and round-shaped.

“Think of a 1-inch ball bearing, but they’re all white,” Valentich-Scott said. “They do have an outer skin that’s really dark brown and kind of heavy, a little bit hairy-like, actually.”

“And inside, when you open them up, just think of opening up a clam shell that you might eat and they look very much like a clam that you might have for steamers or that kind of thing on the inside.”

This description fits a variety of mollusks, but Valentich-Scott says the specimen does have a few unique traits that warranted both a new species and genus.

“This one had some very unusual characters in the sort of top part of the shell that had not been seen before; so, it’s all shell-based,” Valentich-Scott said. “Since we don’t have an animal, we can’t do any DNA work and compare it that way, we can only compare shells of both fossil species and recent species to this new discovery.”

There are about 75 species of mollusks documented in the region, but Valentich-Scott says new discoveries are rare.

“A few of them have been new, like in the 20th century, but not many,” Valentich-Scott said. “So, in terms of what we know of this group of animals up in the Arctic, this is quite significant.”

the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Beaufort Sea. (Photo by the US Coast Guard)

Wallerconcha sarae was discovered by scientists on a joint U.S.-Canadian expedition off Alaska’s North Slope aboard the U.S. Coast Guard ice breaker Healy in 2010. Their primary mission was to map the sea floor and sediment below to gain a better understanding of the region’s geology.

Valentich-Scott says the discovery was made when scientists were investigating an interesting spot on the bottom of the Beaufort Sea.

“This is one of the unusual situations where we have essentially an extinct hydrothermal vent system,” Valentich-Scott said. “We’re pretty sure that this was an active vent system somewhere in the 1-2 million years ago.”

The first hydrothermal vents were discovered in the mid-1970s. And since the science is so young, relatively little is known about them. But, by studying this extinct vent system, the picture is gradually becoming a clearer.

Even though researchers only have what are essentially mollusk bones to study, Valentich-Scott says they can still make educated guesses into certain aspects of the animal’s existence based on knowledge of active hydrothermal vents and other comparable mollusk species.

Chief scientist Brian Edwards collecting samples from the gravity corer. (Photo by Helen Gibbons, USGS/ECS Project)

“It probably used the bacteria in the environment of this hydrothermal vent to more or less feed,” Valentich-Scott said. “We know it was a filter-feeding organism and it might have been in fairly warm water, or it could have been a cold seep as well, we’re not quite sure.”

“But, in terms of other types of reproduction or what it did on a daily basis, we just don’t exactly know at this point.”

The shells were found buried as deep as 15 feet in the sea floor’s sediment, but Valentich-Scott says some were discovered much shallower, which opens up some interesting possibilities.

“We also found them within about 1 or 2 inches of the surface of the mud,” Valentich-Scott said. “So, it’s highly suggestive that they could, in the right circumstance, still be found alive.”

There are only about 15 specimens to work with so far, but as scientists delve further into Arctic research, Valentich-Scott believes more will likely be uncovered.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: December 11, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-12-11 16:45

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at and on Twitter @aprn.

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With Lower Oil Prices, State Expecting Major Deficits

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The Alaska Department of Revenue has drastically revised its financial forecast to account for lower oil prices.

Port Funding Tops Anchorage Mayor’s Budget Wish List

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

The City of Anchorage put out its wish-list for funding from the state Legislature, and topping the list is a request for $350 million for just one project.

Outgoing Senator Mark Begich Bids Farewell On Senate Floor

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Mark Begich said goodbye on the floor of the U.S. Senate today. His six years in office end with this Congress.

Anchorage School Board Discusses Charter Schools’ Facility Issues

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Charter schools in Anchorage are struggling with a facilities problem. The schools are part of the Anchorage School District, but they have to find and pay for their own buildings. Now the Anchorage School Board is discussing a potential solution.

Senior Care Center Key to Development Plan

Leila Kheiry, KRBD – Ketchikan

A long-range plan to develop 300 acres of Ketchikan Gateway Borough-owned land is inching forward.

A huge part of the Ward Cove Group’s development plan is a proposed senior housing complex. The company’s president told Ketchikan’s Borough Assembly that he has carefully researched senior centers over the years, and has a good idea of the kind of facility he’d like to see built.

Arctic Expedition Uncovers Previously Undiscovered, Ancient Mollusk Specimens

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

During a 2010 expedition in the Beaufort Sea’s deep, Arctic waters off Alaska’s northern coast, scientists discovered what turned out to be a previously-unknown, ancient type of mollusk.

Former NBA Coach Leads Haines Girls’ Basketball

Emily Files, KRBD – Ketchikan

Haines School now has a PE teacher and high school girls’ basketball coach who trained an NBA team for 20 years. And what might be even more surprising…Greg Brittenham says despite his high-profile jobs with the New York Knicks and later with Wake Forest University, what he’s really wanted is to end up in the 2,000-person town of Haines. 

Categories: Alaska News

Former NBA Coach Leads Haines Girls’ Basketball

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-12-11 16:40

Haines School now has a physical education teacher and high school girls’ basketball coach who trained an NBA team for 20 years.

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And what might be even more surprising — Greg Brittenham says despite his high-profile jobs with the New York Knicks and later with Wake Forest University, what he’s really wanted is to end up in the 2,000-person town of Haines.

During a recent basketball practice, Coach Brittenham leads ten girls in a layup drill. It looks like a humble job for someone with this on their resume:

(Courtesy Haines Borough School District)

“Prior to this was at Wake Forest University as a player development coach. Prior to that with the New York Knicks for 20 years as an assistant coach in varying capacities.”

But Brittenham waited years for the right opportunity to move to Haines. He would call or email school district administrative assistant Ashley Sage about once a year asking about job openings. Why?

“Look around,” Brittenham said. “I mean, that’s why everybody’s here, especially in the winter. People don’t leave this place, it’s just spectacular. It’s everything I’ve wanted. It’s taken me about 18 years to get here and I’ve finally made it.”

In the early 1990’s, Brittenham visited Haines for the first time. He was working with a summer program in Klukwan called Camp of Champs. After that first experience, he kept coming back every year, even after the Camp of Champs program ended. He’s also done basketball clinics all over Southeast Alaska.

When the Haines PE teacher position opened for this school year, Brittenham saw his chance. He and his wife moved here in the summer.

“One of the things I believe is if the kids know that there’s no other agenda and they know I’m not in it to make the money, to use this school to get to another level, not at all, I’m only here to help,” Brittenham said. “Once you’ve gained their trust, then the job is easy because they know you’ve got their best interests at heart.”

Brittenham has never worked as a school PE teacher before. He says one of the most surprising things about the new job is what he’s seen from other teachers.

“These teachers work endless hours,” Brittenham said. “I came in on a Sunday off the ferry and there were teachers here preparing for Monday on a holiday weekend. The amount of hours that these people invest in the community is just astounding.”

Brittenham is now getting the unique chance to teach kids about movement in a way he often wished NBA players had been taught. He says youth sports are so competitive that kids go right into learning sports skills before they learn fundamental movement patterns, like how to tuck and roll when you fall.

“So when I go to the pros, there’s a lot of those guys that — they’re unbelievable jump shooters and they can dunk, but they can’t move. They don’t run the floor very well, or they don’t slide their feet, they can’t get over to play defense,” Brittenham said. “It was interesting to see, these guys made it that far, yet they’re really lacking the skills that we’re working on now with our fourth and fifth graders.”

Brittenham is enjoying the challenge of teaching, but he says basketball is his passion. So he’s happy to be a Glacier Bears coach.

“I’ve got a group of girls that just absolutely embrace learning how to play the game of basketball,” he said.

There are 16 girls signed up for the team. Brittenham says they’re working on mechanics:  Shooting, passing, keeping control of the ball. That’s something junior Kayley Swinton has noticed.

“It’s more perfecting everything,” Swinton said.

Swinton has played basketball in Haines since fourth grade. This season has been different.

“A lot more positivity and everybody’s working together,” Swinton said. “Coaches and everybody have just been more into basketball and they’re just more into the game.”

Brittenham says he plans to coach a little unconventionally. He wants to give team members more equal playing time regardless of talent.

“You know, the philosophy is if you’re going to invest time and energy into this team, then I’m gonna absolutely find minutes for you to play games,” he said.

He also doesn’t plan on choosing a team captain. He says he’d prefer to think everyone is a leader on the team.

The Glacier Bears girls play their first game in Petersburg December 19th. The first home game is January 2nd against Wrangell.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Massage Parlor Owner Charged With Felony Sex Trafficking

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-12-10 19:45

The owner of an Anchorage business owner is being charged with two felony counts of sex-trafficking after a four-year joint investigation by state and federal agencies.

Yin Mae Tran-Lau is accused of promoting prostitution at her Anchorage massage parlor since 2011. According to a lengthy deposition submitted to the court from the Anchorage Police Department detective leading the case, days of surveillance, undercover operations and witness cooperation are all part of the evidence in the state’s case against Ms. Tran-Lau.

The case involves local partnerships with the IRS and FBI as part of a task force to combat sexual exploitation in Alaska.

Such cases are complex, and extremely difficult to charge, explained Adam Alexander, Assistant District Attorney for the State’s Office of Special Prosecutions,”The perpetrators of these types of offenses are instinctively drawn to vulnerable populations as victims, and people who manage prostitute enterprises are almost by definition, or often times, are sophisticated business people.”

Charging documents in the case paint a detailed picture of how particular web-sites tutor clients in etiquette to exchange money for sexual favors, and the elaborate ways large sums of cash are managed by traffickers.

At one point the documents describe a Ziploc bag full of bills changing hands inside a Fred Meyer grocery store as a check is written out on the top of a grill.

During one six day period the lead detective observed 90 patrons enter one of Tran-Lau’s parlors, all of them men.

There’s also evidence of international flights and boarder crossings to bring workers from California to Anchorage.

Though multi-agency investigations are time consuming and resource intensive, Alexander said they fit with a growing push in to combat sexual exploitation,”Our offices here with the Alaska Department of Law are pretty aggressively investigating allegations of sex-trafficking state-wide, and unfortunately we’re seeing an increase in the number of cases.”

“We look forward to our day in court,” said defense attorney Steven Wells. “We’re going to raise a vigorous defense, and anticipate a jury will find Ms. Tran-Lau not guilty.”

An arraignment is scheduled for next week on December 16th.


Categories: Alaska News

With Lower Oil Prices, State Expecting Major Deficits

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-12-10 19:30

The Alaska Department of Revenue has drastically revised its financial forecast to account for lower oil prices, anticipating multi-billion-dollar deficits.

Oil revenue is expected to drop by more than half. The department’s fall report projects the state will bring in $2 billion in oil revenue this fiscal year, compared to nearly $5 billion in the previous year. The Department of Revenue made that calculation based on an average oil price of $76 per barrel. Brent crude oil is currently valued at $65 per barrel.

The Department of Revenue does expect oil production to increase slightly over the next two years, and projects that it will remain above a half million barrels per day over the next three years. Production is expected to decrease by 22,000 barrels this fiscal year.

The new numbers indicate the state is facing a major deficit. When lawmakers passed their budget this spring, they planned for a gap of $1.4 billion. The deficit for that same budget has now ballooned to $3.5 billion.

A similarly large deficit is expected for the coming fiscal year. Last week, Gov. Bill Walker released the budget his predecessor, Republican Sean Parnell, without endorsement. Parnell’s $5.5 billion proposal would result in a $3.3 billion deficit if accepted unchanged at projected oil prices.

The state currently has $15 billion in savings.

Categories: Alaska News

Police: Felon Killed Prosecutor in Jealous Rage

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-12-10 16:23

Police in the country’s northernmost community say a convicted felon shot and killed a state assistant prosecutor in a jealous rage over a woman.

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Murder charges were filed Wednesday in Barrow against 47-year-old Ronald Fischer in the death of 48-year-old assistant district attorney Brian Sullivan.

North Slope Borough police say Sullivan was killed Monday night in the Barrow home of a woman who had a past relationship with Fischer.

Investigators say Sullivan was unarmed and seated on a couch when he was struck twice with blasts from a 20-gauge shotgun fired by Fischer.

They say security video from a nearby store shows Fischer entering the home.

Online court records did not list a lawyer for Fischer. Attorney Robert Campbell represented him this year in a felony case, but says he won’t be handling Fischer’s murder charge.

Sullivan was an Army veteran and former Washington state House representative.

Categories: Alaska News

New Report Questions Susitna-Watana Economics; AEA Responds

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-12-10 16:21

A new fiscal analysis of the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project questions the Alaska Energy Authority’s estimates regarding how much the 735-foot tall dam would cost the State of Alaska, if built.

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On Monday, economist Gregg Erickson released his analysis of the financial picture of the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project.  The report was commissioned by Trout Unlimited, a conservation group that opposes the project.  Erickson has worked for the University of Alaska Anchorage, a Washington D.C. think-tank, and in multiple roles for the State of Alaska.  He says that, from his perspective, Susitna-Watana doesn’t pencil out.

“There is no market test that this proposed project meets.  There’s every evidence that they’ve underestimated the cost and overestimated the demand.  It doesn’t seem at all likely that the project could be built without very, very large amounts of state subsidy.”

Gregg Erickson says that the Alaska Energy Authority and it’s predecessor, the Alaska Power Authority, have a history of projects going over budget, including Bradley Lake and the Healy Clean Coal Plant.

Wayne Dyok, Project Manager for Susitna-Watana, maintains that AEA believes its $5.2 billion dollar estimate is reasonable for construction of the proposed dam.  He says that claim is backed up by a third-party review.

“We want to make sure that our cost estimates are right on the money, and that’s why we requested an independent cost estimate.  They came in around ten percent of one another.”

One of the issues cited in Erickson’s report is the fact that that independent analysis has not been made public.  Wayne Dyok says that AEA plans to release a feasibility report next month that will include the methodology for estimating the cost of Susitna-Watana as well as information regarding the third-party analysis.

Beyond cost estimates, Gregg Erickson’s report calls AEA’s expectation that it will be able to borrow money at an interest rate of five percent “exceedingly optimistic.”

“There’s so much risk involved in this project that, unless the state wants to backstop this project…there’s no way you could borrow at five percent right now or in the foreseeable future.”

Wayne Dyok says that the five percent figure factors in money from the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service program, which could pay for up to half of the Susitna-Watana project.

“Right now, the Rural Utilities Services funding is less than four percent, so when you blend that with other funding you end up with five percent financing.”

According to Gregg Erickson, the federal money also comes with the condition that the state not only provide a backstop against cost overrun, but also guarantee that the project is finished once it begins.

Like Trout Unlimited, who commissioned the highly-critical report by Erickson, the Talkeetna-based Susitna River Coalition is opposed to the building of Susitna-Watana.  Mike Wood is the Coalition’s president.  He was handing out copies of the report at Mat-Su legislative offices on Monday afternoon.  Wood says Erickson’s analysis gives strength to opposition arguments based not just on conservation, but also on cost.

“What it really comes down to is economics.  All along, that should have been the first question…the state was asking itself.  What is this going to cost?  It never should have gotten to the environmental part.”

Beyond Gregg Erickson’s report, another potential concern for AEA is state funding to continue studies for Susitna-Watana.  In the last five years, the state has spent over $190 million on the project.  According to AEA, about $90 million more is still needed to complete federally required field studies in the area.  Last year, the project received $20 million.  The proposed budget left by Governor Parnell for the next fiscal year also contained just $20 million for Susitna-Watana.  If that number doesn’t go up significantly, it could mean additional delays for the project.  Wayne Dyok says AEA plans to work with Governor Walker and legislators to keep Susitna moving forward.

“…Our goal is to work with the [Walker] administration, and ultimately the legislature, to come up with the right number for the coming year.”

During his campaign, Governor Walker made it clear that he intends to take a close look at the state budget, and that some projects may end up on the cutting room floor.  Whether Susitna-Watana is one of those remains to be seen.  Walker has expressed support for hydro projects, and told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in August that he would support Susitna-Watana if it meant stabilizing energy costs in the Interior.

In the meantime, the Alaska Energy Authority is considering long-term financial options.  Wayne Dyok says the AEA board of directors will meet later this month to discuss the fiscal outlook.

Categories: Alaska News

Medicaid Expansion, Child Welfare Top Priorities For New DHSS Commissioner

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-12-10 16:19

Valerie Davidson. (Photo by Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage)

Valerie Davidson has been one of the biggest advocates in the state for Medicaid Expansion. Now implementing that expansion is one of her top priorities as Alaska’s new Commissioner of Health and Social Services. Another focus for Davidson will be child welfare- she just served on the U.S. Attorney General’s advisory committee on Native children exposed to violence.

Davidson started in the job December first. She says when she accepted the appointment she consulted her two daughters and her mom.

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Categories: Alaska News

Avalanche Survivor Says He’s Shaken, Humbled After Ordeal Near Rainbow Ridge

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-12-10 16:18

The Fairbanks man who was buried in an avalanche near Isabel Pass Saturday and lived to tell about it says he’s learned that even an experienced backcountry skier can get into trouble in a rugged area like the Eastern Alaska Range. He says unusual winter weather is making it more unpredictable.

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Three days after digging himself out from under a mountainside of snow, 63-year-old Michael Hopper speaks quietly and calmly about the near-death encounter that’s shaken his confidence and taken two of his closest friends.

“I’m going back to the drawing board, is what this experience has taught me. And as I learn more about what actually happened during in the accident,” he said.

Happy memory: Michael Hopper slices through powder on a telemark turn down a slope in the Eastern Alaska Range near Black Rapids with his canine companion Rowdy back in 2010.
(Credit Mike Hopper)

Hopper has spent nearly 20 years as a backcountry skier – a form of crosscountry skiing done in remote locales like Rainbow Ridge, just this side of Isabel Pass in the rugged Eastern Alaska Range. That’s where the avalanche buried him and his friend, Erik Peterson, and his beloved dog Rowdy.

Their bodies remain buried while experts await safer conditions to recover them.

Hopper has also taken advanced avalanche-training. So by anyone’s estimation, he’s an able, if not expert, backcountry skier.

He says he knew the potential for peril, so a few years he built a cabin, in case he got into trouble.

“The Eastern Alaska Range is a tough place, he said. “It’s cold and windy and tricky, and you need a place to retreat to.”

Hopper says after all that time he’s came to love the area. So a few years ago, he and his wife Annie built the Lodge at Black Rapids, about 15 miles north of Rainbow Ridge, where they spend part of their time when he’s not at his psychology practice in Fairbanks.

He says he and his companions were itching to get going Saturday for the first real outing of the season, after the area finally got some measureable snowfall.

“So part of what happened this year was we were anxious to get going. We didn’t ski all of last year. So that was some of what was motivating me and Erik,” he said.

Hopper says he wanted to get back into an area, because he hadn’t been able to ski there since early last year, due to the odd weather that set in last winter, starting with rainfall just after the holidays.

“Then in January, it rained. And I went back up into that valley, attempted to go the next day, or a couple of days afterwards, and the entire valley, every spine that came down, had avalanched. It was like glaciers just carved down. It was impassable.”

Hopper says he now realizes that backcountry skiers now need to take into account the changing climate when traversing that area.

“I think if you talk to most Alaskans, it’s pretty evident that it’s much more erratic,” he said. “We’re getting rain. We never had that.”

He says as bad as the events of Saturday night were, they could’ve been worse.

“See, my son was supposed to go skiing with me on this trip. It was his 20th birthday,” he said. “Fortunately, he had a curling competition, which they won. And that’s one thing I’m eternally grateful for.”

Hopper says because of that, from now on, before heading out on another backcountry ski trip he’ll think of his son, Huckleberry.

“I’ll go in with the idea that, ‘Is this a condition that I would take my son in?’ And if I hold true to that, it won’t guarantee it, but it’ll back me off things that I might take a risk on my own.”

A memorial service for the family of Erik Peterson will be held Saturday at the Black Rapids Lodge. The Hoppers have set up an account at Mount McKinley Bank for donations to help defray the Peterson family’s expenses. More information is available on the Lodge’s Facebook page.

Editor’s note: This text was revised to clarify that Saturday’s event at the Black Rapids Lodge is a memorial service.

Categories: Alaska News

Eek Fisherman Catches Silver Salmon in December

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-12-10 16:17

Most fisherman have at least one story of, ‘the one that got away.’ Eek resident Floyd Roehl has a story with a different outcome from a recent trip up the Eek River.

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On an ice fishing trip last Friday, Roehl says he caught a couple of pikes, then dropped his jigging line into a hole hoping for a third pike. But he got something else.

“I felt something really jerk hard [on the line] and I was thinking, ‘Holy cow I got a big pike!’ I pulled it up and I looked at it and it was a silver salmon. I was just surprised and I said ‘Holy cow look what I got!’” said Roehl

A silver salmon that was caught by Floyd Roehl. (Photo courtesy of Floyd Roehl)

Roehl said the silver salmon was turned pink by the freshwater, but was in good condition, only fatter. The majority of silver salmon swim up the Kuskokwim to spawn in August, but United States Fish and Wildlife Biologist Lewis Coggins says some run late.

“There are quite a few examples where coho salmon will be found spawning late into November and even into December,” said Coggins.

Coggins said the areas that support later salmon runs are springs or upwellings in the river, these places tend to stay warmer than other areas. He also said there haven’t been enough studies around the Eek River to know for sure why the silver was running so late.

Roehl said his friends and family members were extremely surprised, having never seen a freshly caught silver or coho salmon in December.

Having not fished for salmon during the summer, Roehl and his wife plan to make salmon soup for a memorable meal over a story that many would consider a ‘fish tale’.

Categories: Alaska News

After Lobbying Effort, Haines Distillery Opens Newly Legal Tasting Room

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-12-10 16:17

Tasting room manager Macky Cassidy opens a bottle of champagne for a cocktail.

Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines is the only craft distillery in Southeast. When the business started, distilleries in the state were not allowed to sell their spirits on-site. But a law passed earlier this year removes that restriction.

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“I just can’t believe we made it happen,” Heather Shade, co-owner and distiller atPort Chilkoot Distillery said. “I thought it would take at least another year.”

Shade helped lead the lobbying effort to change Alaska’s distillery laws. She coordinated with the four other Alaska distilleries, along with tourism groups and local chambers of commerce.

This Haines distillery is the only one in Southeast, and one of five throughout Alaska.

When Shade and her husband Sean Copeland starting making vodka, gin and whiskey in 2013, they knew their business’s growth had a major legal roadblock. Distilleries in Alaska were not allowed to sell their spirits on-site. So Shade and Copeland set a goal: they would lobby to change the law in the next three years. It only took one.

House Bill 309 passed earlier this year. A few weeks after the law went into effect, Port Chilkoot Distillery opened its newly legal tasting room.

“Every step of the way when we were testifying in the committees and working with people to explain importance of this bill, it kind of felt like it was just going to die every step of the way,” Shade said. “And so when it passed unanimously through the Senate floor two days before the end of the legislative session, it just kind of felt surreal.”

Now, distilleries in Alaska can sell limited amounts of their own products on location. Just like wineries and breweries, like Haines Brewing Company, have done for years. Shade thinks the change in Alaska’s distillery laws is a result of a growing state and nation-wide craft distillery industry. Three years ago, there was only one distillery in Alaska. Now there are five.

Shade says the main reason they wanted a tasting room is so they could participate in the tourism industry. This past summer, visitors would come to the distillery and ask for tours. After seeing and smelling what they were making, many people wanted a taste.

“I just had to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, Alaska state law only allows to produce. We can’t sell you anything.’”

To actually try some Icy Strait Vodka or 50 Fathoms Gin, tourists would have to go to a local bar or liquor store.

“I think the laws restricting us from having on-site tasting room was the biggest hurdle in our industry,” Shade said.

Last year, Port Chilkoot and other Alaska distilleries started reaching out to their local senators and representatives. Shade invited Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins to the distillery.

Soon after, Anchorage Representative Chris Tuck introduced House Bill 309, which Kreiss-Tomkins co-sponsored.

Shade formed the Distiller’s Guild of Alaska and coordinated the distilleries to give feedback on the proposed bill, which needed some tweaking.

Shade says there was some push-back against the bill, because it’s helping an industry that creates alcohol. Rates of alcohol abuse are especially high in Alaska.

But HB 309 puts restrictions on how many bottles and drinks distilleries can sell per person in the tasting room and what hours they can be open. They aren’t allowed to have live entertainment or bar seating.

House Bill 309 was signed into law in July. In October, the new law went into effect. And, on October 31, Port Chilkoot Distillery opened its tasting room.

On a recent busy Thursday night, tasting room manager Macky Cassidy mixed drinks for a crowd of customers from a menu she created.

Cassidy is the distillery’s first employee. She’s part-time, but that could change once the tourists come to town. For now, most of the customers are locals.

“The Haines 75 has been popular [tonight],” Cassidy said. “That’s the one with champagne and cranberry and vodka. And then the Hot Apple Toddys have been popular because it’s kind of chilly.”

“There’s something fun about being able to go to the place something’s made and try it there,” said Haines resident Jedidiah Blum-Evitts, who was drinking his go-to cocktail — a gin martini.

Lindsey Moore was standing nearby drinking the Haines 75. She’s visited distilleries in the Seattle-area before, but this one is different.

“You walk in and automatically know three-quarters of the group that’s here if not the entire group,” Moore said. “And you run into people and get to have conversations with them. So that’s what kind of makes it Haines to me, it’s got a small-town feel to it which I enjoy.”

Cassidy hopes the tasting room will help infuse a “cocktail culture” in the beer-loving town of Haines.

And Shade says, the tasting room will make her and her husband’s investment into this distillery pay off sooner than they expected.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: December 10, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-12-10 16:16

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at and on Twitter @aprn.

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Police: Felon Killed Prosecutor in Jealous Rage

The Associated Press

Police in Barrow say a convicted felon shot and killed a state assistant prosecutor in a jealous rage over a woman.

Senate Gives Fishermen 3-Year Reprieve from EPA Regs

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The U.S. Senate today passed a Coast Guard bill that includes a three-year moratorium on vessel discharge regulations for boats 79 feet and smaller. The House is expected to pass it this week, too. If the moratorium doesn’t pass by Dec. 19, Alaska’s fishing fleet will have to comply with new regulations the industry claims are unworkable. An effort to permanently kill the regulations failed to get through.

New Report Questions Susitna-Watana Economics; AEA Responds

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

A new fiscal analysis of the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project questions the Alaska Energy Authority’s estimates regarding how much the 735-foot tall dam would cost the State of Alaska, if built.

Walker To Begin Reviewing Candidates For National Guard Post

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Since the election, new Gov. Bill Walker has been piecing together his cabinet. But a few positions still remain in question. Key among these is the job of National Guard adjutant general, who also serves as commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Medicaid Expansion, Child Welfare Top Priorities For New DHSS Commissioner

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Valerie Davidson has been one of the biggest advocates in the state for Medicaid Expansion. Now implementing that expansion is one of her top priorities as Alaska’s new Commissioner of Health and Social Services. Another focus for Davidson will be child welfare- she just served on the U.S. Attorney General’s advisory committee on Native children exposed to violence.

Davidson started in the job December first.  She says when she accepted the appointment she consulted her two daughters and her mom.

Avalanche Survivor Says He’s Shaken, Humbled After Ordeal Near Rainbow Ridge

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Fairbanks man who was buried in an avalanche near Isabel Pass Saturday and lived to tell about it says he’s learned that even an experienced backcountry skier can get into trouble in a treacherous area like the Eastern Alaska Range.

Eek Fisherman Catches Silver Salmon in December

Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel

An Eek ice fisherman jigging for pike was surprised to hook a silver salmon last week.

After Lobbying Effort, Haines Distillery Opens Newly Legal Tasting Room

Emily Files, KHNS – Haines

Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines is the only craft distillery in Southeast. Distilleries have not been able to sell their spirits on-site. But a law passed earlier this year removes that restriction.

Categories: Alaska News

Walker To Begin Reviewing Candidates For National Guard Post

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-12-10 15:49

Since the election, new Gov. Bill Walker has been piecing together his cabinet. But a few positions still remain in question. Key among these is the job of National Guard adjutant general, who also serves as commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Walker’s Republican predecessor Sean Parnell was in the process of finding a new adjutant general at the time of the election. Parnell had asked then-adjutant general Thomas Katkus to resign in September, because of a devastating federal report on sexual assault and favoritism in the Guard. Second-in-command Mike Bridges was promoted to the position in an acting role.

Bridges remains in the position today, but Walker says he will be reviewing candidates for the job next week and that a decision should be made shortly after.

“It’s in the works,” says Walker. “We expect that probably in the next 30 days.”

Walker says he plans to meet with the investigating team from the National Guard Bureau on Monday. He says they will start by looking at the applicant pool collected by Parnell before he considers soliciting additional names.

“Well, we want to see first what the group was that was brought to us,” says Walker. “We haven’t gone through that yet, and also the process that was used. We want to make sure that it was broad enough to include Alaskans as well.”

Walker has also kept Parnell’s education commissioner, Mike Hanley, and his environmental conservation commissioner, Larry Hartig, in acting roles. At a press availability on Tuesday, Walker said he was “seriously considering keeping both of them” in permanent roles.

Categories: Alaska News

Senate Gives Fishermen 3-Year Reprieve from EPA Regs

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-12-10 10:48

The U.S. Senate today passed a Coast Guard bill that includes a three-year moratorium on vessel discharge regulations for boats under 79 feet. Both Alaska Senators spoke in favor of it. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, argued from the Senate floor for a permanent fix but she said Republicans insisted on a temporary moratorium.

“It’s the best we can do. And I want the American people and the fishermen to know we tried so hard to get this fixed permanently,” Boxer said.

The bill passed the Senate by consent, with no actual vote. It’s awaiting action in the House. The threat of regulation for incidental vessel discharges has been hanging over Alaska’s fishing fleet for years. If the existing moratorium is not renewed by next week., the EPA will begin regulating all kinds of fluids that flow from or over fishing boats, including bilge water, fish hold effluent and deck wash. The regulations the agency drafted say boat owners could comply by obtaining a form, keeping it on board, signing it every year and conducting their own quarterly inspections. Fishermen, though, say the requirements could become more onerous in time. Republican Sen. David Vitter from Louisiana today offered the three-year fix the Senate passed. He didn’t explain why it was preferable to  permanently  lifting the regulation for fishing boats and other commercial vessels . Boxer alleges it’s so  Republicans can use the measure to force senators to pass what she called bad bills in the future. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska says she’ll continue to work for a permanent solution when the new Congress convenes in January “We don’t need to inject this uncertainty of our hard-working fishing families. We need to have a permananet solution,” she said. She says it will require addressing the problematic issue of ballast water, which can transfer non-native marine organisms from one port to another.
Categories: Alaska News

St. Vincent de Paul to build 41 affordable housing units for seniors

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-12-09 17:03

St. Vincent de Paul general manager Dan Austin looks out onto the land where the new senior housing facility will be built. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Juneau nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul and partner agency Seattle-based GMD Development have been awarded $9 million in tax credit financing from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. The award will allow the agencies to build 41 units of affordable housing in the capital city for low income seniors.

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Thomas Smith is 70 years old and lives in St. Vincent de Paul’s transitional housing for people getting out of homelessness. He’s excited about the new senior living facility.

“Because that means within two years, I can move out of this room and move into my own apartment with a kitchen,” Smith says. “I’m really a good cook and I love my kitchen but I don’t have that here. I have to use a communal kitchen across the way.”

Smith has Parkinson’s disease and other medical conditions that necessitate a wheelchair. He takes eight daily medications. Between social security, senior benefits and general assistance, Smith makes about $1,100 a month. He can’t afford Juneau’s housing prices.

“The rents are so high. I would have to give up eating in order to move into, say, an apartment that cost $750 a month,” he says. “The bills I need to pay for and the medications I have to buy that Medicare will not pay for – it’s very difficult to get by from month to month.”

Dan Austin is general manager of St. Vincent de Paul. He says Smith would be one of the first people to move into the new facility. Austin says some people spend up to four years on the waiting list for the organization’s current 24-unit senior housing.

“The only turnovers here are when somebody goes to the nursing home or somebody passes away,” Austin says.

The percentage of Juneau’s population age 65 and older has doubled in the last 10 years. Seniors now make up 10 percent of the city’s overall population. A recent Juneau Senior Housing and Services Market Demand Study found that in next two decades, seniors will make up 20 percent of the city’s population.

Austin sees that growth reflected in St. Vincent de Paul’s shelter.

“Over the last five and 10 years, we’ve seen the percentage of seniors who are homeless looking for some place to live increase exponentially,” he says.

The new facility will be a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units with commercial space on the ground floor. The retail space will house the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. The complex will be built on a lot adjacent to the nonprofit’s current property near the airport.

The target population is low to moderate income seniors. Austin has been working on the project for 10 years and is happy to see it come into fruition. He hopes to break ground late next summer.

“Having worked here for 20 years and watching this organization grow from 10 units of homeless apartments for homeless families to an organization that now owns and manages 124 units throughout this town, what that means to me is, it’s not 124 units, it’s a 124 families that have a decent place to live,” Austin says.

St. Vincent de Paul also plans to renovate two existing housing facilities in Juneau and one in Haines. Once those projects and the senior facility are done, the organization will own and manage about 200 units in the capital city.

Norton Gregory says every unit and every house built in Juneau is a step in the right direction. Gregory sits on the Juneau Affordable Housing Commission. He says the 41 units will target a population the commission sees as one of the most vulnerable.

“We have a lot more seniors that are aging out of the workforce and unfortunately they may not be able to afford to live in our community without these subsidized rental units, so to give them more options is definitely going to make an impact on our community,” Gregory says.

St. Vincent de Paul’s new senior housing facility is expected to be complete by fall of 2016. The project was named the Home Run by a board of directors member who said to Austin, “‘If we get this, man, we hit the home run.’ So that’s what it is. For St. Vincent, it’s a home run.”

Austin says Juneau needs many more home runs.

Categories: Alaska News

New Hoonah Dock Could Boost Tourism Numbers

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-12-09 17:02

Hoonah’s Icy Strait Point tourist attraction will see more visitors once a new cruise ship dock is built. That’s according to officials, who expect it to attract more cruise lines to the town 50 miles west of Juneau.

But critics worry the location will not help the rest of the city.

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The Huna Totem village Native corporation opened Icy Strait Pointback in 2004.

This image from the 2012 Hoonah Berthing Facility Site Alternative Analysis Report shows three possible dock locations. (Courtesy PND Engineers)

Its main attraction is a renovated salmon cannery that houses a museum and gift shops. It’s a base for bus tours, wildlife-watching excursions and a mile-long zipline.

Over the years, tens of thousands of tourists have arrived at the point via cruise ship. But those ships have anchored nearby and brought passengers ashore via small boats called tenders.

That will soon change.

“Having the dock will make a difference,” says Ruth Banaszak, Huna Totem Corp.’s marketing manager.

She says the new dock will allow more and different ships to deliver passengers.

“For instance, Disney can’t tender. The ship that comes to Alaska does not have tender boats on it. So we have talked to Disney about stopping in once we have the dock,” she says.

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation. Banaszak said another line that only uses tender boats occasionally may also be interested.

Huna Totem, the city of Hoonah and the state recently formed a partnership to oversee the dock’s design and construction. But it hasn’t always been that friendly.

The city of Hoonah wanted another location, closer to town and easier for fishermen and other locals to use. The former mayor and city council members cited a study showing the current site to be too windy in the winter.

“Considering the kind of weather they get there, I’m sure it’s going to take a hell of a beating,” says Bob Prunella, a former interim Hoonah city administrator who lives in Wrangell.

“That spot that the city picked, it’s just more protected because, quite frankly, the ships anchor in a little deeper water right there anyway,” he says.

Other former city officials didn’t return calls asking for comment.

The cruise industry opposed the city-backed site. Officials said it would only use the one now slated for construction. And the state said it would only pay for a site cruise lines would use. Then, elections changed the balance on the city council.

Now, a $23.7 million contract is going to Anchorage-based Turnagain Marine Construction.

The state contributed about $14.5 million, which is passing through the city. Banaszak says the remaining $10 million or so will come from Huna Totem.

“Nothing can be done strictly just by Huna Totem or just by the city, it really is a partnership and everyone working together to do this, because it’s quite a huge opportunity,” she says.

She says construction will begin by March and finish by the end of August. She also says the 400-foot floating pier is large enough to accommodate all ships that sail Southeast.

Former city administrator Prunella says he hopes the site decision will reduce community tensions, even if he doesn’t like the location.

“I think the important thing is, one, they’ll get the dock, and two, maybe there won’t be so much infighting in that little community,” he says.

Huna Totem estimates more than two-thirds of last summer’s 140,000 cruise passengers left their ships to explore Icy Strait Point. It expects about 20 percent more to visit the attraction with the new pier in place.

Categories: Alaska News

Climate Change and Alaska Natives: Food

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-12-09 17:01

Wild foods are important to Alaskans, and especially to rural residents, but subsistence users and scientists say climate change is affecting wildlife populations, access to subsistence resources, and food preservation.

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On its website, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says subsistence hunting and fishing make up a large share of the food supply in rural Alaska - about 375 pounds per person, compared to 22 pounds per person in urban areas.

Stanley Hawley, tribal administrator for Kivalina in Northwest Alaska, said subsistence involves more than putting food on the table.

“Once we get exposed to that livelihood, that way of living, it gets ingrained in our spirit, and in our soul, and in our psyche,” said Hawley.

Leroy Adams is the Housing Coordinator for Kivalina, where one bowhead whale would feed the village for a year.

“And that’s one good thing about Kivalina is the sharing of the food,” said Adams.

According to a health assessment of Kivalina by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, or ANTHC, the ice there in years past was as much as 12 feet thick and provided a stable surface for travel and hunting. But in recent years, the ice has been thinner and sometimes isn’t there when the whales are passing by, headed to rich feeding grounds farther north. Adams said it takes more gasoline, and it’s more dangerous, to travel the distance to the whales in small boats.

“The migration pattern is about 60 to 90 miles out,” said Adams. “Although they haven’t landed a bowhead whale in 10 or 12 years, they still haven’t given up.”

Mike Williams of the Native village of Akiak said access to subsistence foods is changing in western Alaska too. For instance, when the Kuskokwim River froze, then thawed in November, Williams said fishermen were left with no way to empty their fish traps, and his were damaged.

“They busted open,” said Williams. “It’s just not regular checking every day. We just had to wait for a freeze so it could be safe enough to get to our traps.”

Williams said [hunters'] reports of walrus with empty stomachs at a time of year when they need to be piling on the blubber, and salmon runs that don’t meet escapement goals for spawning – also raise concerns about wildlife populations. He said some years when they did catch fish, wet, warm spring weather interfered with food preservation.

“We can’t even dry our fish when it’s raining all the time and it’s moist,” said Williams. “The fish can’t dry after we cut them up, and they spoil.”

Mike Brubaker, director for the ANTHC Center for Climate Change and Health, is launching a program to give hunters in the Bering Strait region test strips to check for germs, viruses and parasites that cause disease in humans. He said one of the pathogens they’re checking for is the parasite toxoplasmosis, which can cause birth defects, and eye and brain damage in vulnerable populations. He said it once occurred only in land mammals, including domestic cats, but that’s changing.

“It’s in about ten percent of caribou that’s been sampled and also in about 50 percent of harbor seals that have been sampled,” said Brubaker. “So somehow these pathogens are moving around the wildlife population  and they’re moving into new sectors of wildlife, like from land mammals to sea mammals.”

Brubaker said the program will allow hunters to check food safety, and provide baseline data on the prevalence of pathogens in wildlife, as well as any changes that may occur as temperatures continue to rise.

Brubaker’s shop has completed health assessments in 20 Northern and Northwest Alaska communities. He said the reports document the effects of thawing permafrost, melting sea ice, and changing river and lake conditions on wildlife populations, access to subsistence resources, and food preservation throughout those regions.

Categories: Alaska News

‘Sandbar Mitchell’ Restoration Takes New Approach

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-12-09 17:00

Restoration of a World War II bomber salvaged from a Tanana River sandbar will benefit from a similar relic in Nome. Some of the parts needed to restore the plane known as “Sandbar Mitchell” will be come from another B-25 that crashed in Nome over 70 years ago.

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Categories: Alaska News