APRN Alaska News
Ebola Risk Low In Alaska, Plan In Place To Stop Spread
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
The State’s Department of Health says there is not much risk of Ebola reaching Alaska, but they do have a prevention plan in place.
Settlement In Mt. Marathon Race Suit
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
The Seward Chamber of Commerce has been freed from any responsibility in the death of Mt. Marathon runner Michael LeMaitre.
Jury Deliberates Pipeline False Statement Case
The Associated Press
A Fairbanks jury has begun deliberations for a man charged with making false statements about the 1978 bombing of the trans-Alaska pipeline.
BBEDC Releases 2013 Annual Report
Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham
Mailboxes across the Bristol Bay region have been filling up in recent days with the 36-page annual report from the community development quota organization that represents the region.
Yup’ik Language Assistance Available For Early Voting In Bethel
Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel
Early or absentee voting begins Monday, October 20th for those who want to cast their ballots before the General Elections on November 4th.
Village Shows Teamwork Breaking Up A Frozen River For Fuel Delivery
Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel
Residents from the coastal village of Kongiginak, in Southwest Alaska, rallied against nature to clear the way for a barge, carrying a load of heating fuel and gasoline earlier this week. Freeze-up has already started along the coast.
Environmental Concerns Raised Over Navy Training In Gulf of Alaska
Marcia Lynn, KCHU – Valdez
For several decades the United States Navy and other branches of the Military have performed a series of training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska during the spring and summer months. The Navy is required to file an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, which needs to be updated every five years. The public comment period for the latest Supplemental EIS closes next week. These exercises are conducted in some of the Alaska’s key fish habitats, so environmental concerns have been raised.
Unalaska School Board OKs Crisis Intervention Rules
Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska
At a special meeting this month, Unalaska’s school board approved a policy they hope they never have to use — one that tells teachers what to do if a student becomes violent or out of control. It’s part of a new state law banning what’s known as restraint and seclusion.
Teacher’s Pet: The End For An Educator
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
The Anchorage School District recently said goodbye to one of its longest-serving and perhaps most unusual educators. And the departure leaves the district with a gap not likely to be soon filled.
An investigation into fraud in the Alaska National Guard is now underway.
The audit team is composed of three investigators from the National Guard Bureau. They arrived over the weekend, and will look into allegations of embezzlement and misuse of funds. Their findings are due in a draft report this December. An earlier report by the National Guard Bureau documented instances where money was siphoned from family programs and government equipment was used for personal gain.
The fraud investigation is part of a six-point plan recommended by the National Guard Bureau, after its investigators concluded there was a crisis of confidence in force’s leadership and that reports of sexual assault were mishandled. Gov. Sean Parnell also addressed other reform efforts on Wednesday in a message uploaded to his official Vimeo account. In addition to describing the approach his office is currently taking, Parnell addressed criticisms that he delayed responding to allegations of malfeasance.
“To have the critics say that I would know about something that’s gone on in the National Guard and not done something for four years – that is just not true. It’s not who I am, and Alaskans know it,” Parnell said in the video.
Since a report by federal investigators into the Alaska force was put forward last month, whistleblowers have come forward to express disappointment with the response from the Parnell administration. E-mails and meeting notes from chaplains in the Guard show that they alerted the Office of the Governor to problems with Guard leadership in 2010. Parnell says he or his staff followed command protocol on every allegation, and that Guard leadership told him matters were being handled appropriately.
Just an hour before Parnell released his video message, the group Alaska Women for Political Action held a press conference calling for the firing of two top National Guard leaders – Brig. Gen. Mike Bridges and Gen. Catherine Jorgensen — along with Parnell chief of staff Mike Nizich.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a temporary halt to gay marriages in Alaska.
The federal appeals court in San Francisco issued the stay late Wednesday afternoon. It allows the state until Friday to get a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.
If that stay isn’t issued, the federal court action dissolves at 11 a.m. Friday, when gay marriages will be allowed to go forward.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess on Sunday struck down Alaska’s ban on same-sex marriages as unconstitutional.
Gay couples began applying for marriage certificates Monday, beginning a three-day clock to when ceremonies could be held on Thursday. However some couples received waivers from judges and have already married.
Voters in the Fairbanks North Star Borough have rejected a ballot initiative that would have continued a ban on local regulation of area clean air standards.
A final tally of question and absentee ballots following last week’s municipal election shows the initiative has lost by 356 votes. That means the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly now has the authority to regulate home heating devices and make decisions about area clean air standards.
The local group Citizens for Clean Air campaigned heavily for Proposition 2 over the last few weeks. They painted old tires with the phrase “Tired of dirty air?” To encourage voters to vote ‘No’ on Proposition 2. Group co-sponsor and long-time air quality activist Patrice Lee says she’s pleased with the outcome.
“I’m happy I’m excited for the whole group,” Lee said. “I mean you can’t believe the fun we had rolling around tires in the dark and with no light and with headlamps on. “Tired of Dirty Air?” Well, we are, but we’re here and now we have a chance to try to make some progress at the local level and that’s a good things for the community.”
This is the third time borough voters have considered the proposition. It was first considered in 2010 and again in 2012, failing in both those years. Lee says already had a meeting planned for Tuesday evening to strategize on how to move forward regardless of the outcome.
“We have a whole community that we care about and while we’re passionate about our side of the issue, we’re also cognizant of what people are dealing with,” Lee said. “So, we want to have a strategy that moves forward that accomplishes the goal of cleaning up the air, but also makes some assurances that everyone can stay warm.”
The Proposition to keep the Borough from regulating home heating appliances, including wood stoves and boilers, is sponsored by North Pole Republican State Representative Tammie Wilson. Previous failures of the initiative gave the state authority to regulate air quality in and around North Pole and downtown Fairbanks where air quality has been identified as a problem.
2014 municipal election results will be certified next week.
Two candidates running for Alaska Governor debated during a forum Tuesday in Fairbanks. Sean Parnell defended his administration when Bill Walker questioned what the current governor is doing about the high cost of energy in the Interior.
“I am totally focused on reducing energy costs and fuel costs here in the Interior and across the state and when I think about ways I have worked to do that, in this gasline negotiations and agreements that have been signed, I made sure Fairbanks residents would pay the lowest costs for gas whether that’s Cook Inlet prices or North Slope prices,” Parnell said.
Candidate Bill Walker says the cost of energy is his top priority.
“Governor Parnell has had six years to bring down the cost of energy we need an immediate plan a mid-term plan and along term plan,” Walker said. “The first thing I’ll do as governor I will issue a declaration of disaster on the cost of energy in in Interior and rural Alaska.”
Walker says he believes a declaration will make a difference because it will bring greater attention to the cost of energy in the region.
The candidates also addressed the closure of the Flint Hills Refinery in North Pole. Bill Walker says the Governor simply didn’t do enough to keep the refinery open.
“Well the first thing I would have done, what they should have done is the Governor should have met with them after they came to see him months before the announcement of shutting down asking for help saying ‘we’re in trouble, can you help us?’ I would have gotten back to them to be part of the solution,” Walker said.
Governor Parnell says he made an effort to keep the refinery open and he was surprised by the closure.
“I told them this is your moment to go speak with the Attorney general,” Parnell said. “Now my attorney general is Mike Geraghty, a Fairbanks boy. Do you really think he would just sit there and do nothing or do you think he went to work with it? I will admit the closing of the refinery is a huge blow. It’s something that caught me by surprise, but it is not something that I anticipated.”
The forum was hosted by the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan raised more money than Democratic Sen. Mark Begich during the latest fundraising quarter.
Sullivan raised $2.8 million for the period, which includes $264,000 reported in a July pre-primary filing. Begich reported raising $1.9 million, which includes $423,000 from the July report.
Begich and Sullivan each ended the quarter with about $1.2 million available. Sullivan reported $43,000 in debt, which the campaign said was from the primary.
The race’s outcome could help decide control of the U.S. Senate.
The United Fishermen of Alaska has inducted the late journalist Bob Tkacz into its Hall of Fame.
Tkacz, who covered the Legislature and specialized in writing about the commercial fishing and seafood industries, died last May at age 61.
He was one of five inductees by the trade association. The others were retiring state Sen. Fred Dyson of Eagle River, Albert Ball Sr., Jim Kallander and Keith Jefferts.
The fishermen’s group says Ball, Kallander and Jefferts died this past year.
Wednesday marked the opening of the Bering Sea crab season. Quotas are up almost across the board. But one species that usually takes a backseat is outshining the rest – and that’s got some fishermen changing their game plans.
Two years ago, there was no harvest for Bairdi tanner crab. Without enough legal females in the water, it wasn’t safe to fish.
When the season reopened last year, the quota was kept low. But now, Fish & Game biologist Heather Fitch says Bairdi seem to have bounced back:
“If you compare it to the whole history of this stock, it’s at one of its peak biomasses,” she says.
And that’s made for the highest quota since 1993. About 15 million pounds of Bairdis are up for harvest in the Bering Sea. That’s five times as much as last year. Fitch says new survey data shows legal-sized Bairdi spread out all across the region.
It also shows a surprising amount of red king crab — about 50 percent more of all sizes compared to the past couple of years. Fitch says it’s almost like they came out of nowhere.
“Just based on not seeing it come into the population, it does raise a lot of questions as to — where have these crab been? Why have we not been seeing them?” she says. “I would say it raises more questions than answers.”
But the harvest level for red king crab isn’t based on those numbers alone. Managers plug data from the past several years into a model — which gave them a new, increased catch limit of 10 million pounds.
This will be the first time in years that there’s less red king crab up for harvest than Bairdi — but reds are still worth more. To get the payoff, fishermen will have to rush to meet a Thanksgiving deadline in the lucrative Japanese market.
And that’s why the F/V Pacific Sun was heading straight for king crab as the season opened Wednesday. Captain Jeff Hochstein says they’ll lease their share of Bairdis to another boat, like usual. He thinks others might want to do the same.
“I don’t know how many extra boats are going to do it versus what has done it in the past, but it could be a lengthy season if they don’t split it up a bit,” Hochstein says.
That’s the plan for the seven crabbers in the Mariner fleet. Moore Dye is the captain of the F/V Western Mariner. Their strategy?
“There’s so much of the quota that we’ll have three of our boats fishing [Bairdi] on the eastern side, two boats on the western side, and then two boats are going up to do St. Matthew’s blues,” Dye says.
Blue king crab, up north near St. Matthew Island, is small potatoes compared to the rest of the Bering Sea’s species. The blue king fishery was closed in 2013. And now, the quota’s the lowest it’s ever been.
For the most part, the fleet wants to end their season like normal — with snow crab. That quota has increased, too, though it wasn’t an easy decision for managers.
Heather Fitch says Fish & Game’s standard snow crab model has been unreliable lately. So this year, they turned to surveys — and settled on a quota that’s up about 25 percent.
With so much crab up for harvest this season, Bering Sea fishermen could be working well into springtime — and hopefully, reaping the financial rewards.
A Seattle-based seafood company accused of stealing groundfish from the Bering Sea has agreed to pay up.
American Seafoods will pay $1.75 million to settle violations on three of its catcher-processors. The American Dynasty, the Ocean Rover, and the Northern Eagle were all accused of tampering with their scales for weighing fish at sea over a five-year period.
Crew members allegedly fixed the scales so they would weigh light — allowing them to take in up to 27 percent more fish than they were reporting. That’s a violation of the Magnuson Stevens Act and the American Fisheries Act.
American Seafoods tried to fight back against some of the charges by bringing the case to an administrative judge. Their settlement is about a million dollars less than what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration originally wanted to charge.
Besides the fine, the case also prompted a new set of rules for vessels that weigh their catch at sea.
Starting in January, factory trawlers will have to use scales that can track calibration data — and they’ll need to file digital weight reports every day. On top of that, the entire weigh-in area must be monitored on video.
NOAA spokesperson Julie Speegle says that should ”reduce the possibility of scale tampering” and make it easier for regulators to pick out fraud down the road.
At a public hearing Tuesday night in Juneau, locals spoke out nearly 4-1 against transportation officials’ effort to extend the capital city’s main road 48 miles farther north.
Mendenhall Valley resident Brandee Gerke summed up many of the opponents’ key concerns about the road-building option that transportation officials have favored for years.
“Perceived convenience is being prioritized over cost and safety,” she said.
Highway construction along the east side of Lynn Canal is estimated to cost $523 million. The new road would end at the Katzehin River where a new ferry terminal would make short connections to Haines, Skagway and the road system. The new terminal and ferries are estimated at another $51 million.
According to the EIS, the plan would also drive up the state Transportation Department’s operations and maintenance costs by about 30 percent compared to the status quo.
On safety, the document projects about 22 crashes per year on the new road and about one traffic death every six years, based on statewide data from similar roads.
But the safety concern folks repeatedly cited was avalanches. The proposed road crosses 41 avalanche paths.
“The fear of the road would probably eliminate a lot of people’s actual access out of as well as to Juneau,” said Larri Spengler, who lives on the avalanche prone Thane Road.
“Do we want our children on their school buses driving up that road to a ferry terminal? I’d much rather put them on the ferry in Auke Bay.”
The high risk would be driven down through engineering, explosive avalanche control and simply closing the road when avalanche risk is highest – forecast at about 12 days a year. Motorists would still face moderate avalanche risk, though; more than on Thane Road, but less than on Seward Highway, according to an avalanche risk index in the EIS.
Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford, speaking for himself, ticked off what the upside would be.
“To be able to transport 10 times the number of vehicles, provide 5 to 7 times the number of ferry trips per week, cut travel time in half or more, and cut traveler cost up to 75 percent,” Sanford said.
And he added, 3 to 5 years of construction jobs.
Wayne Jensen said it’s incumbent on Juneau as a capital city to support the road and improve access for other Alaskans. Enhancing Juneau as a capital city is the mission of the nonprofit Alaska Committee that he chairs.
Another common thread in opponents’ testimony was skepticism toward cost estimates and traffic projections in the 694-page EIS. A few people even made outright accusations that officials cooked the books.
That wasn’t exactly what project manager Gary Hogins said he’d be listening for.
“Federal Highways and the department will respond to all comments, but the comments that are most helpful to us is constructive—did we make a mistake? Is there a gap in our information? You know, that sort of thing,” Hogins said before the hearing.
Tim Haugh is the environmental program manager for the Alaska division of the Federal Highway Administration. His agency would pay for much of the capital cost of the project and has the final say in which option is greenlit. He said the selection is based on “a balanced analysis of the transportation need with the environmental impacts, be they social, economic or natural.”
He said building the road best serves the overall public interest while improving transportation. At this stage, he said politics aren’t a factor.
The public comments will become part of the Federal Highway Administration’s record and may lead to revisions in the final version of the EIS, expected next fall.
This year was the 50th anniversary of the Great Alaska Earthquake. And, earlier this summer, a magnitude 6.2 quake shook Southcentral Alaska.
This state has earthquakes on its mind. That’s why thousands of its residents have already signed up to participate in the largest earthquake drill in the world.
“On October 16th at 10:16, Alaska will be doing the Great Alaska Shakeout, but there’s many other states and nations around the world that will be doing a shakeout drill on the same day at the same time,” says Jeremy Zidek, who works with the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
He says to date, more than 20 million people are signed up to participate worldwide.
That includes more than 76,000 Alaskans. Of that number, 49,000 are from southcentral Alaska, including more than 10,000 from the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
“Alaska is the most active seismic region in the United States,” says Zidek. “We also have had the largest earthquake in North American history and three of the six largest earthquakes recorded in the world. So, it really is important that we prepare for earthquakes here.”
Participants of the Great Alaska Shakeout will simulate being in an earthquake and taking the necessary steps to protect themselves.
“Basically what we want people to do is drop to the ground before the shaking drops them, find some type of cover to protect themselves, and then hold on,” says Zidek.
He says his office found that groups that had regularly participated in earthquake drills were the quickest to act when the real quake struck earlier this year.
“Earthquakes are no-notice events,” says Zidek. “So, they’re going to strike and unless people actively practice what they’re going to do when that earthquake hits, there may be confusion, they don’t know what to do, they don’t remember drop, cover and hold and they try to run out or they expose themselves to other falling objects. So, we really want people to practice the drop, cover and hold, so when the shaking begins, and there’s a little bit of panic, they’ll know what to do.”
Many schools and medical facilities on the peninsula will participate in this year’s Shakeout.
For more information or to sign up, visit shakeout.org.
A federal court judge has denied a request from the state of Alaska to put gay marriages on hold until an appeal is heard.
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess denied the state’s request for a stay on Tuesday, two days after he struck down the state’s ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional.
The state intends to appeal that decision to the 9th Circuit Court. The state could also ask that court to delay gay marriages from going forward but the court has allowed marriages to continue in other states within its jurisdiction.
A message left with the state attorney’s office after hours Tuesday wasn’t immediately returned.
Gay couples began applying for marriage licenses on Monday, triggering a three-day wait period. But in at last two cases, couples were granted waivers of the rule and were married in Barrow.
Arguments have been scheduled on the federal government’s request to dismiss a lawsuit over the Interior Department’s refusal to allow for a road from King Cove to an all-weather airport at Cold Bay.
Government attorneys say the decision by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was reached after five years of environmental analysis and public outreach. They say Jewell wasn’t obligated to approve a road and her decision is owed deference by a federal judge.
The state joined the city of King Cove, tribal governments and individuals in challenging Jewell’s denial of a road through Izembek [EYE'-zem-bek] National Wildlife Refuge that could improve access to emergency flights.
Arguments on the motion to dismiss are set for Monday in Anchorage.
The Forest Service plans three more timber sales in a part of Prince of Wales Island conservationists say needs to be protected. They’re much smaller than a recent sale in the same area.
The sales are between Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove, on northeast Prince of Wales Island. They’re part of the larger Big Thorne sale area, which is tied up with court challenges.
Officials recently sold nearly 100 million board feet of Big Thorne timber to Viking Lumber, Southeast Alaska’s largest mill. Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole says the three smaller sales total less than 5 percent of that amount.
“There’s a fairly significant number of small operators on Prince of Wales and these projects have been set up specifically for them,” Cole says.
The smaller mills have lobbied the Forest Service for sales they can afford to bid on. Cole says the goal is to help keep them operating.
“They are larger than typical sales that they deal with. But the concept for these projects is similar to the Big Thorne, to try to get a longer-term amount of wood to the smaller operators,” he says.
Several conservation groups have sued to block sales in the Big Thorne area. One is Greenpeace, where Sitka’s Larry Edwards is Alaska forest campaigner.
“We think that the whole Big Thorne sale needs to be set aside and legal matters decided before any sales are made at all,” Edwards says.
Others involved include the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Alaska Wilderness League, the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community and the Center for Biological Diversity. They say Big Thorne sales will hurt deer and wolf populations.
Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration has filed to become involved in the legal battle. The state fears the Forest Service will not adequately defend its decisions.
While the sales are designed for smaller mills, Cole says there’s no guarantee they’ll get the trees.
“Everybody can put in a bid in on it. These are being put out as timber sales contracts, so the highest bidder wins. Given that the larger operator just picked up about 100 million [board] feet, we suspect there will probably be less interest there and more interest by the smaller operators,” he says.
Some small mills have expressed doubts about the bidding process for all the sales. Tongass officials won’t release contract details for the larger sale until it’s signed.
The Forest Service estimates the three small sales’ value at $750,000. They were advertised in the Oct. 4 Ketchikan Daily News. Bids are due in early November.
“These projects are all old growth and off the existing road systems. We’ve got about 2,300 acres of young growth that we intend to put up at a later date. It’s in a form of commercial thinning and we have not got to that point yet,” he says.
While the Forest Service is moving ahead with the sales, it’s promised to delay logging until next spring. Cole says that should be enough time to address the court challenges.
But Greenpeace’s Edwards says it’s not a done deal.
“We haven’t heard from the court yet if they’ve agreed to the April 1st date, so there’s still a question mark there. But if there’s no activity on any of these projects until a decision is made by the court, that’s certainly a plus,” he says.
The sales are the 500,000-board-foot Buck Rush, the 1.6-million-board-foot Last Stand and the 2.3-million-board-foot In Between.
For reference, Cole says about 10,000 board feet can go into a good-sized house. And 25,000 to 30,000 board feet of old-growth trees can be logged per acre, which about the size of a football field.
A coalition of environmental organizations are criticizing the state for issuing a coal mining permit for a site near Palmer.
As climate change brings new threats to subsistence communities across Alaska’s coastlines, a conference held in Anchorage is advocating community-based solutions, and not waiting any longer for government assistance.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has released its summary report for the 2014 commercial salmon fishing season. Continued low king salmon numbers and new management tools were at the heart of this year’s fishing.
The man who oversees all of the rural campuses of the University of Alaska Fairbanks has been touring those campuses since being appointed to the job back in July. Evon Peter visited the Bristol Bay Campus last week.
About 5 percent of Juneau’s population identifies as Hispanic. Some are non-English speaking immigrants who need help translating official documents or government forms. Others require assistance navigating the Alaska Court System. A national nonprofit that started a Juneau branch last year now offers Spanish translation and interpretation services in Juneau. Piedra de Ayuda, or A Helping Rock, began as a homeless outreach program on the East Coast.
A Latin American immigrant moved to Juneau recently with her boyfriend and met a local man who helped her get settled and find an apartment. She claims he asked to live with her family temporarily, and then things went downhill.
“Tuesday he was a good man, Wednesday he was a good man, Friday he was a good man, but Saturday he was a monster,” the woman says in Spanish.
We’ve omitted her name due to the ongoing nature of her case, which involves accusations of domestic abuse and sexual assault. She claims the local man was often drunk and abusive.
“I was afraid,” she says. “Because, I said, ‘What if he kills me? What do I do?’ Because he said he was going to make me disappear.”
She needed a protective order from the courts, but her English was limited.
“She didn’t know her way around and basically was harassed by this man because of the lack of the language,” says Wanda Peña. “She couldn’t communicate with anybody, so she ended up going to the courthouse and they provided her with our number and she immediately called.”
Peña is a volunteer with Piedra de Ayuda, a national nonprofit that started a Juneau branch last year and now offers Spanish translation and interpretation services. Peña helped the woman fill out paperwork and interpreted for her in court.
New Jersey native Eddy Reyes helped found Piedra de Ayuda, or A Helping Rock. It began as a homeless outreach program on the East Coast and is now based in Florida. After he moved to Juneau, Reyes started a local branch. He says government agencies like the Division of Motor Vehicles had not provided many language services in the capital city.
“Because there’s not maybe an interpreter or they don’t understand the language there to fill out a form, suddenly someone had to walk out of there without a picture ID,” he says. “Cause of course, if you’re gonna try to get a job, you have to identify yourself. Well, how do you do that if you have no ID?”
Reyes says Piedra de Ayuda is made up entirely of volunteers. Since last year, the local branch has added seven board members and helped about 20 different clients.
Although the law requires courts to provide interpretation to people with limited English proficiency, nonprofit and commercial organizations that offer language assistance are rare in Alaska. Neil Nesheim is court administrator for Southeast. He says 60 to 70 percent of interpretation is done over speakerphone, which is not always the best option.
“Obviously it’s more effective to do it in person only because you get to see subtleties such as facial language, hand language, intonation and those sorts of things,” Nesheim says.
About 5 percent of Juneau’s population identifies as Hispanic. Some, like the woman Peña helped, don’t speak English and need help translating official documents and government forms, or navigating the Alaska Court System.
The woman says she’s grateful to Piedra de Ayuda.
“She came to help me so quickly,” the woman says. “They didn’t charge me anything. They were wonderful people.”
Conducting research at sea in Arctic, ice-filled conditions is a tricky endeavor, requiring a host of high-tech gear. But, on the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ new, ice-capable research vessel Sikuliaq, at least one piece of equipment dates back generations.
In a few months, the ice-classed research vessel Sikuliaq, owned by the National Science Foundation, will be equipped with about a half dozen Arctic Native ice testing sticks as part of the ship’s safety outfit.
“It’s a multi-tool. Sometimes there’s a hook on the end for retrieving things, and the other end is used for poking the ice. It could be a harpoon with a rib bone, or some type of bone sticking out on the other end to test the ice,” said Brandon Ahmasuk, subsistence director at Kawerak. “Obviously, if it goes through, you don’t want to step there.”
Ahmasuk said it’s a highly valued safety tool for Alaskans who live in coastal communities and venture onto the ice for hunting in the winter. By testing the ice in their path with the stick, they can prevent accidentally falling through the weaker patches. He said his family always takes this tool with them on the ice because of its many functions.
“If you do happen to fall through, hopefully you can catch yourself before you fall past your waist and pull yourself back out,” said Ahmasuk. “If you do happen to fall all the way through, it’s still there, so you can pull yourself up like you’re doing a pull up. It’s a safety tool. They almost always have a dual function—whether it’s a harpoon, a retrieving hook, or a mooring hook.”
Ahmasuk said, fortunately, he has never fallen into the water, but he’s seen it happen to others, and it can be pretty terrifying.
“One of my brothers did fall in, and he said immediately it just took his breath away. He couldn’t breathe,” said Ahmasuk. “I mean, within a second he was able to pull himself out. A lot of times, individuals are out seal hunting or walrus hunting, and they’re miles and miles from the nearest town or village. So, if you do fall in, you’re going to be soaking wet. More than likely, you’re not going to make it back to wherever you came from because, within a matter of minutes, hypothermia is going to set in, and you’re going to freeze to death.”
The Sikuliaq is not an icebreaker, but it is an ice-classed vessel capable of breaking through up to two-and-a-half feet of ice. The vessel will operate in ice during some of its research missions in the Arctic—and scientists may be walking out on to the ice to collect data samples, which means they must be prepared for potentially dangerous situations.
Daniel Oliver is the marine superintendent at UAF’s Seward Marine Center. Oliver was in the U.S. Coast Guard before taking his current job at the Seward Marine Center, and he said it was through visits to coastal communities aboard Coast Guard icebreakers that he realized how functional and necessary the tool is. After consulting with Gay Sheffield, Marine Advisory agent in Nome, he decided to request those ice testing sticks as safety tools for the Sikuliaq.
“I found it was a pretty universal tool within the coastal communities, [with the people] that spend a good portion of their lives out on the ice with subsistence hunting,” said Oliver. “From talking with a number of folks from the villages, it certainly made sense to me. Which is why, when we were looking at what we were going to carry on board Sikuliaq for equipment, having this capability aboard made sense to me.”
Perry Pungowiyi is a craftsman in Savoonga, a member of the National Science Foundation Sikuliaq Oversight Committee and alternate commissioner on the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission for Savoonga. Pungowiyi will be making the sticks with materials Sheffield and Oliver have sent over to St. Lawrence Island. He said the tools are “time-tested by ice walkers of Alaska.” In Siberian Yupik, the name for the ice testing stick is “unghaq.”
Oliver said he hopes someone from Savoonga who is part of the ship’s science oversight committee will be able to join theSikuliaq crew at some point during ice trials, to share knowledge about the ice testing sticks and Bering Sea ice conditions.
The Sikuliaq, which is home-ported in Seward, will be used by U.S. and international scientists. Its first funded science trip this fall will be in the western Hawaiian island chain.