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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 22 min 28 sec ago

5 youths, ages 10 to 13, suspected in Bethel school vandalism spree

Tue, 2015-08-18 17:36

Bethel police have identified five juveniles age 10 and 13, suspected of vandalizing preschool classrooms and smashing windows in more than a dozen cars owned by the Lower Kuskokwim School District. Charges are being sent to the division of juvenile justice.

Damages to the school and vehicles is pegged around $100,000. Photo: KYUK.

Lieutenant Joe Corbett says this is not the first time police have dealt vandalism in the school, which has high quality cameras that were rolling.

“We put the images around the police department, we put them in front of school administrators to try to get those kids identified. It normally doesn’t take us very long.”

The damage was discovered Sunday morning and closed the preschool this week. Corbett says the investigation is not entirely complete.

“The first confession isn’t always the entire truth. We need to work it from every angle and make sure that what we’re being told, the confession we did obtain are accurate, consistent, and make sure there is no one else out there who could be escaping punishment on this, if we’re to get all of the kids that were involved.”

The preliminary damage estimates exceed $50,000 for the vehicles and at least $50,000 to the preschool.

A Bethel school was vandalized over the weekend. Photo: KYUK.

“This amount, this level of damage is certainly out of the ordinary. But property damage from kids in this town has been a problem for a long time, and a lot of this is about parental supervision.”

Going forward, Corbett says the police will be enforcing a zero tolerance policy on the city’s curfew rules.

“It’s never been enforced at that level, we’ve always left that up to officer discretion. But when a problem’s been identified, it needs to be addressed. We clearly see there is a problem here. It’s our tool to address it, but it’s not the only tool that the city and citizens have. If you have responsible parents involved in what their children are doing… That’s the best tool of them all. Then we don’t have to write tickets.”

Parents can be fined up to $250 for curfew violations.

Categories: Alaska News

Yukon king run shows signs of recovery

Tue, 2015-08-18 17:35

“Chinook salmon, Yukon Delta NWR.” Photo: Craig Springer, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Via Flickr Creative Commons.

Chinook salmon continue to swim up the Yukon River, the latest indication that the long ailing run may have turned a corner toward recovery.

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An Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar counter near the Canadian border at Eagle  continues to tally king salmon. It’s near the end of the run, but counts have remained pretty good, anywhere from about 800 early in the month to nearly 300 August 10 and 11. That’s well down from the over 3,000 counted daily during the peak of the run a month ago, but State Fish and Game biologist Stephanie Schmidt says the extended strength of this year’s Chinook return is surprising.

“We’re actually at just over 83,000 chinook salmon. That’s the most we’ve passed over the border since this project began in 2005.”

The number is more than predicted by computer models and lower river return assessments, and well in excess of a border passage objective of 55,000 kings. This year’s return is the second in a row that appears to show movement toward rebuilding a run that once averaged over 150,000 Canadian origin fish, but has tanked in recent decades due to over fishing and suspected environmental factors. The downturn resulted in extreme fishing restrictions, Schmidt expects will be relaxed next summer.

“We’re still going to make sure we’re meeting escapement goals, but it does mean that there is hopefully more fishing in the future for Yukon River fishermen” she says.

Schmidt cautions that management of next summer’s fishery will hinge on what’s predicted by computer models that try to account for complex factors including the ages of the fish expected to return. She says a salmon research project near the river mouth also being used to predict run strength has been seeing more young Chinook.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage hospitals appeal state’s ER bed cap

Tue, 2015-08-18 17:34

Entrance to Anchorage’s Providence Hospital emergency room. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

Anchorage’s two largest hospitals are appealing the state’s recent allocation decisions in hopes of building more emergency room beds in the next several years.

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The Alaska Dispatch News reports that Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital have both filed appeals accusing the Department of Health and Human Services of making groundless assumptions about costs and the best interests of the public.

Too many emergency room beds can push up health care costs, so Alaska, like most states, has laws limiting the capacity of emergency rooms. In July, Providence Alaska received permission to add eight beds, six fewer than it requested. Alaska Regional’s proposal to add two freestanding Emergency Rooms in South Anchorage and Eagle River was denied, in an effort to prevent unnecessary ER costs.

The appeals will be heard by an administrative law judge, who will make a recommendation the state’s health commissioner.

Categories: Alaska News

Woman pleads guilty to running a sex-trafficking ring, sentenced to 5 1/2 years

Tue, 2015-08-18 17:33

Amber Batts was sentenced to five and half years in prison after pleading guilty to sex trafficking in the second degree Monday afternoon. The defendant was running the sex trade business “Sensual Alaska” that served people around the state.

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Batts connected sex workers with clients who were pre-screened for safety concerns then she took a portion of the fee. She already has two felonies on her record.

State Assistant Attorney General Adam Alexander prosecuted the case. He says the case was not about the morality or legality of prostitution.

“Our hope in prosecuting broader sex trafficking enterprises is to create a safer environment for individuals who are caught up as workers in that trade and in an environment that people feel comfortable disclosing when they’re being victimized. And unfortunately our experience working on the ground here in Alaska, more often than not the people who are working in the sex trade are victims of exploitation.”

Alexander says many participants in the sex trade are vulnerable and have experienced trauma.

But sex trade worker advocate Tara Burns says members of the industry are being prosecuted for actions that make the sex trade safer.

“So we work indoors instead of out on the street. And that is being called “having a place of prostitution now, which is felony sex trafficking in the third degree. We share clients and we communicate with each other about clients – “have you seen this client? Is he safe?” and that is now called a sex trafficking ring or a prostitution enterprise.”

Burns has worked in the industry for 20 years, and her organization Community United for Safety and Protection is lobbying to change the state’s laws. More than 30 thousand people have signed an online petition in support.

“We’re asking the Alaska legislature to repeal the new sex trafficking laws. We want to be able to go to the police to report crimes like sex trafficking without having to worry about being charged with felonies now instead of just prostitution.”

The laws passed in 2012. The human rights group Amnesty International recently adopted a resolution supporting the decriminalization of consensual sex work saying that it will make it safer for the workers.

Categories: Alaska News

From working to homeless and back again — a story of hope from the Brother Francis Shelter

Tue, 2015-08-18 17:32

Mike Hindman at the Brother Francis Shelter. (Hillman/KSKA)

People don’t usually plan to experience homelessness; life just takes unexpected turns. But for some guests of the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage, like Michael Hindman, the experience leaves them with more hope than anything else. When KSKA’s Anne Hillman spent the night at the shelter late last month, he greeted her and other guests at the door.

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“Alright, anybody and everybody who wants inside, please line up on the right hand side,” 26-year-old Hindman says as he opens the self-locking door to the shelter. He greets a guest. “How you doing, sir?”

It was an unusually calm summer evening. Hindman was monitoring the entrance area to the shelter and checking for contraband like weapons or alcohol.

“Anything inside of your pockets I can see?” he asks a woman as she gazes a bit past him.

Burly and tall with a goofy smile, the name of an ex-girlfriend tattooed in delicate script on his arm, Hindman never saw himself in a place like Brother Francis. He was young, strong, making good money.

“In the back of my mind I thought, ‘Why are people homeless? And I’ve always had a job. Why don’t people work and why don’t people do this?’ Maybe I didn’t have compassion or sympathy at first,” he recalled.

But a few years ago, he made a mistake.

“This is the part of the story where I’ve got to tell the truth, ok? This is my big blip. I was in Dutch Harbor, Alaska working as a longshoreman…” he starts his history.

Hindman got involved with drugs, was busted for buying narcotics for an undercover cop, pleaded guilty to a felony, and went to prison.

“I learned my lesson right off the bat. My first 30 minutes in jail I realized this is not for me and then besides that 30 minutes I had another 18 months to learn the same lesson thinking, ‘This is definitively not for me.’”

As part of the plea deal he gave the state everything he owned. He was released this spring with nothing but purple prison underwear, donated clothing, and a quarter in his pocket. After sleeping rough for a couple nights, someone told Hindman about Brother Francis. He began volunteering as a door monitor in exchange for secure housing at the shelter and help finding a job. Hindman said it completely changed his perspective.

“I no longer pass judgment when I walk by somebody, its more what can I do to help? Because whether the person, maybe they are an alcoholic, or maybe they do have a temper problem, or maybe they do have a flaw, but I think all of us do. What I worry about now is, is that person cold?”

Working at the door lets him see people’s lives turn around, he said. One day they’re tired and stressed and a few weeks later they have a job and are looking bright. That’s his story, too. He was recently hired as a cook on the North Slope.

But during his off weeks he’ll be back at the shelter, helping out, and saving money to rent a place of his own. Hindman sees beauty in the echo-filled concrete halls.

“I’ve seen people with nothing to their name but they give everything they can to the next guy who also has nothing,” he said, recalling people offering up their only jacket to protect others from the rain. “I know people that make $100,000 a year that probably wouldn’t let you borrow their jacket, you know?”

He says he stays positive and hopes it helps others stay that way, too.

Categories: Alaska News

A short history of Alaska LGBT rights

Tue, 2015-08-18 17:31

Alaskans voted in 1998 to define marriage in the state constitution as only between a man and a woman. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated that definition, Alaska and the entire country has marriage equality. To some it may seem like things are changing fast, but Alaska’s fight for gay rights began half a lifetime ago.

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In the course of Alaska’s legislative history, there have been six bills to outlaw sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. In Anchorage, there have been at least three ordinances.

They’ve all failed.

(left to right) Jay Brause, Gene Dugan, Fred Hillman and Les Baird. In 1982, the board members were moving out of the Alaska Gay & Lesbian Resource Center, which closed down. It was later revamped and named Identity, Inc. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Green)

The fight may have begun in 1975, when the Alaska State Human Rights Commission took a formal stance that sexual preference should be included in the state’s non-discrimination policy.

House Bill 125 was introduced in 1987, during the AIDS epidemic. The commission director, the attorney general and the governor all supported the bill.

“[It was] just something that seemed to me, it was time to make some noise about it,” says former Democratic Gov. Steve Cowper.

He introduced the bill less than two months after taking office. He had served in the Vietnam War and made a friend who was gay.

“They served just as well or better than other people,” Cowper said.

Cowper can’t remember why exactly he introduced the bill, but cites that personal experience as a possible reason. Old files also suggest commission Director Janet Bradley asked for his support.

“But as a general principle, people shouldn’t be discriminated against any more than you should be able to discriminate for racial reasons,” Cowper said.

Cowper’s friend died from AIDS years later. HB 125 never made it out of committee.

Janet Bradley left the Human Rights Commission in 1988. During the last decade of her career, she had taken an aggressive approach to more inclusive legislation.

After she left, Paula Haley became the commission’s director. She’s still the director now and she hasn’t touched the issue.

In 1989 through an LGBT advocacy group, researchers Melissa Green and Jay Brause published a statewide survey documenting the experiences of Alaska’s lesbian and gay community, including issues of discrimination and health.

Janet Bradley ended the report’s forward with a call to action: “This report then becomes our challenge; for if we believe that our vision of Alaska is marred when discrimination exists, we must commit ourselves to eliminating sexual orientation discrimination.”

In 2012, Green published her final report on a survey on LGBT discrimination in Anchorage through Identity, Inc. It was a few weeks before Anchorage voted on Proposition 5, a sexual identity anti-discrimination measure that failed. She says the report received a lot of criticism.

“It has important things to say. I hope that people might still read it, but I’m done. I’m done. I’m off on my own life,” Green said.

She’s burnt out and says she’s kind of bitter.

“It ate up a lot of my life and a lot of my time, and it had, I wouldn’t say exactly zero impact, but pretty close to that,” Green said. “Nobody really cared— outside of the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community, nobody really cared.”

In 1986, the Anchorage Daily News interviewed a gay man working at Identity, Inc., an advocacy organization. He was collecting violent and homophobic voice mail the office received for a research report on gay and lesbian discrimination.

That man’s name was Jay Brause.

“Through the AIDS crisis we started finding out how important our relationships were,” Brause said.

“We started finding out we had no rights. We were denied in so many ways.” Brause said.

He said he knew of couples who’d been together for decades and if one of them would become ill or die, often their relationship meant nothing when it came to hospital visitation, burials, military honors and home ownership.

“How do you explain that to people? It’s a potent, virulent form of discrimination,” Brause said.

During the same year the ADN published the story, he interned with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in D.C.

Brause and his now-husband Gene Dugan applied for their marriage license in 1994. The controversial act eventually led to the 1998 constitutional amendment defining marriage.

He paid for being a prominent gay figure in the 80s and 90s in more ways.

“I felt the prejudice and the discrimination very personally and directly. In a way, you don’t know if you’re hiding or you haven’t disclosed (your sexuality),” Brause said.

Like his friend Melissa Green, he’s disillusioned about his fight and American liberties. His reaction when Alaska got marriage equality?

“I did not have the person-in-the-street’s reaction. No, not even a smile,” Brause said.

In 2006, he and his husband moved to England, where he has dual-citizenship. In September, he’ll travel back to Anchorage to clean up to the last few bits of his life in America before leaving for good.

“Thank you to every single one of us who took on that work as activists, who took chances to make a difference, and believe me, there’s more to be done.”

State Legislative Reference Librarian Jennifer Fletcher researched legislative files. This article could not be produced without her assistance.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Can We Call It Hoo-Brew? New Brewery Opens in Hoonah

Tue, 2015-08-18 17:30

On Saturday, a Hoonah microbrewery is opening its doors to serve the village a variety of craft beers. Kegs used to become scarce around the same time tourists did. Now fresh pints are guaranteed through winter.

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Dan Kane and his business partner Todd Thingvall. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Todd Thingvall and his business partner Dan Kane have been working hard to renovate a 100-year-old house on pilings above water, the site of the new brewery and taproom. Both left good jobs to start the business. Kane says his kids asked if he was having a midlife crisis.

“There’s been a lot of sleepless nights,” Kane says. “I’m sitting in Anchorage at my house there and I have a good life. There’s a lot mornings I would be sitting there going, ‘Have I lost my mind, is this really what I want to do?’”

He’s been homebrewing for about 20 years. They met each other through their wives.

“Dan had beer so I instantly liked him. We hit it off ever since,” says Thingvall.

He pitched Kane the idea of opening the Hoonah brewery. They invested about $400,000 and are living upstairs. The long-term plan is to move the tanks to another site but for now, they’re on a patio above the water.

Usually stainless-steel fermentation tanks are labeled one, two, three.

(Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

“We decided, eh. Let’s stay with a Southeast theme and we went with keta, humpy, king, sockeye and coho. Of course, the king is the big seven barrel,” Kane says.

They’re cooled by a refrigeration unit that runs partially off solar panels. Electricity can be expensive in Hoonah and the panels could pay for themselves in a little over a year.

On the bottom of the king tank is a well kept brewer’s secret.

“You’re very lucky to see this. It’s called a sample valve. It allows you to take samples or actual drinks out of a vessel. So this is our pale which was the first beer that we made here,” Thingvall says.

He fills up a frothy golden glass of beer made with Cascade hops.

With no connecting roads, the Pacific Northwest hops and brewer’s yeast is shipped using FedEx. Thingvall and Kane say it can be nerve-wracking waiting for the delicate ingredients to arrive. Most need to remain temperature controlled. It travels from Seattle to Juneau, then over to Hoonah by small plane. A few weeks ago, their yeast was overdue.

“One great thing about a small town, even the postmaster, she knew exactly what I was looking for and it came in Saturday after their closing hours and she called us. And said, ‘Hey it’s here.’ And waiting for us to come pick it up,” Kane says.

They’ll serve pale ale, IPA and hefeweizen. A pilsner and stout are also in the works. Production will be about 500 barrels a year, and some of the kegs could be distributed to Southeast’s smallest communities like Gustavus and Elfin Cove–maybe eventually making its way to Juneau.

What Kane says they’re really looking forward to the most is experimenting with ingredients like Hudson Bay tea, a medicinal plant that grows in the muskeg.

“When it first hits your palate, it was more of light clean, crisp beer and then as it hit the back of your palate that’s when that tea just came alive,” Kane says.

It can be tricky getting FDA approval for ingredients that are locally sourced, but they say they’re up for the challenge. They want Icy Strait Brewing to reflect the community.

“Hoonah has a slogan: The little place with the big heart. And it’s true. The people here are wonderful,” Thingvall says.

And now it has a microbrewery to match.

Overlooking the taproom of Icy Strait Brewery. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Categories: Alaska News

4 missing in Sitka landslide event

Tue, 2015-08-18 14:02

A sinkhole had opened up beneath a pair of propane tanks on Halibut Point Road. (Rebecca LaGuire, KCAW)

Four people are believed missing in a landslide that occurred in Sitka early this Tuesday morning.

Those missing were all likely involved in the construction of several new homes on Kramer Avenue. The slide in that area destroyed one of the new homes entirely, and damaged another.

Neighbors have reported a second slide on the northern end of Kramer Avenue, in an area that has not yet been developed.

Heavy rains triggered what now appears to be three landslides in Sitka in the early hours of the day. A slide across Sawmill Creek Road heavily damaged the administration building at Gary Paxton Industrial Park, but no injuries were reported. The building was evacuated, along with the Silver Bay bunkhouses.

Sawmill Creek Road remains closed beyond Whale Park.

The National Weather Service recorded over 2-and-a-half inches of rainfall in the six-hour period between 4 and 10 AM.

The flash-flooding prompted trail closures at Sitka National Historical Park. Flooding in the parking lot of the Sitka Laundry Center opened a sinkhole in the pavement. Two propane tanks on the edge of the sinkhole have since been removed.

Sitka Police and Fire departments are asking residents to please refrain from calling, as phone lines are needed for emergency communication. Also, there is no need for additional volunteer help at this time.

Categories: Alaska News

Three landslides prompt Sitka to declare state of emergency

Tue, 2015-08-18 13:54

This is a breaking story, check back for updates.

The City and Borough of Sitka has declared a state of emergency after heavy rain triggered at least three different landslides this morning.

A sinkhole had opened up beneath a pair of propane tanks on Halibut Point Road. (Rebecca LaGuire, KCAW)

The Sitka Fire Department has reported one slide on Halibut Point Road, one on Kramer Avenue, and one on Sawmill Creek Road, near the Gary Paxton Industrial Park.

The slide on Kramer Avenue has damaged at least one house. The extent of the damage is not yet clear.

Anyone who was working on the construction on Kramer Avenue is asked to call the Sitka Police Department at 747-3245. Sitka Search and Rescue is trying to account for everyone who might have been in the homes affected by the slide.

The Fire Department has closed Sawmill Creek Road at Whale Park. Kramer Avenue is also closed. Halibut Point Road remains open.

KCAW has also received reports from residents in the 2200 Block of HPR below Kramer Avenue that homes have been evacuated.

Cascade Creek was running high after heavy rainfall Tuesday, August 18. (Rebecca LaGuire, KCAW)

 

Categories: Alaska News

Sitka diesel spill now estimated at 2500 gallons

Tue, 2015-08-18 08:47

Officials are now estimating that about 2,500 gallons of diesel spilled into Sitka Sound this weekend, after a fuel tank failed at the city’s Jarvis Street Power Plant. That’s significantly less than the 7,000 gallons feared on Sunday.

By Monday evening (Aug. 17), much of the spill had been cleaned up or dispersed — and officials were hoping that a storm would help finish off the rest.

Fire Chief Dave Miller on Eagle Beach at 7 a.m. on Monday, August 17. Diesel from the Jarvis Street Power Plant spilled onto the beach from the storm water drainage system. (Photo courtesy of Mark Gorman, City of Sitka)

When it failed over the weekend, the storage tank at the Jarvis Street Power Plant released about 30,000 gallons of diesel. Most of that was caught in a cement containment enclosure designed for exactly this sort of event. But when responders pumped the diesel back into the tank on Sunday, they found about 7,000 gallons missing.

Some of that diesel leaked into the city’s storm water drainage system and spilled into Sitka Sound at Eagle Beach, near the mouth of Indian River.

But a significant amount likely evaporated — as much as 4,000 gallons, according to estimates from the Coast Guard.

Bob Mattson is the state’s on-scene coordinator for oil spills in Southeast. He works for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

“When oil is exposed to the air and the elements it undergoes a weathering process,” Mattson said. “A lot of it is lost due to evaporation — and of course people in Sitka know what the weather was over the weekend, had some pretty nice days, especially on Friday and Saturday. So we know that the amount of oil which actually evaporated is going to be significant — with diesel oil it is — but we won’t ever really know exactly how much.”

The diesel from the Jarvis Street Power Plant leaked into Sitka Sound through this storm water drain at Eagle Beach. (Rachel Waldholz, KCAW)

For now, officials are estimating that about 2500 gallons may have made it into Sitka Sound.

Mattson says he’s pleased with the city’s cleanup efforts so far. Coast Guard and city personnel laid absorbent material throughout the storm water system and on the beach on Sunday and Monday, catching and mopping up much of the spill.

By Monday afternoon, the only sign of the cleanup were several layers of containment boom in a small area around Eagle Beach. Mattson says what’s left is a sheen on the water.

“It looks bad,” he said. “But fortunately it’s a thin layer, and in terms of a volume, there’s not a lot.”

The spill is near Indian River and the Sitka National Historical Park, but speaking Monday afternoon, Superintendent Mary Miller said that so far, no diesel has showed up in the park.

“We swept the park first thing this morning to see if there was anything that was moving in our direction,” Miller said. “And not even any evidence, not any smell, not any anything. And so right now it looks like things are as good as could be expected.”

Officials say there have been no confirmed reports of wildlife affected by the spill. Subsistence users are being asked to avoid the area, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has determined there is no threat to commercial fisheries.

Officials are also anticipating some help from Mother Nature. Storms moving into the area this week are expected to help break down and disperse the diesel.

Mattson says that predicted rain means that Indian River will likely be running higher than usual.

“Any of the oil sheens that wants to move along there…into the mouth of Indian River will meet this big wall of freshwater and it will shove it back out,” Mattson said. “So that’s good, that protects the mouth of the river.”

Eagle Beach at 2 p.m. on Monday, August 17. By Monday afternoon, the spill had been mostly mopped up and contained. (Rachel Waldholz/KCAW)

Meanwhile, officials hope that wind and wave action will break down the remaining diesel so that bacteria in the water can take care of the rest.

“Oil wants to break down naturally in salt water,” Mattson said. “It gets into smaller and smaller droplets, and this wave energy is going to force it into smaller and smaller micron-sized droplets, and that’s available for bacteria…who can actually use that as a food source.”

Officials don’t yet know what caused the tank to fail, or why the oil leaked out of the containment area, though the investigation is focused on a faulty valve.

And Mattson says it’s too soon to consider whether there will be any fines or penalties associated with the spill. That often depends on how proactive the responsible party – in this case, the city — is during the cleanup. Sitka had actually staged an oil spill response drill this spring in almost the exact location of the actual spill.

For his part, Mattson says he’s here for the duration.

“I’ve got a one-way ticket to Sitka,” he said. “I won’t be returning to Juneau until I’m satisfied that things are good.”

Officials are reminding subsistence seafood gatherers to avoid the area between Indian River and Cannon Island. Residents are also encouraged to report any oiled wildlife immediately, by calling the Fire Hall at 747-3233.

Categories: Alaska News

Roasting Twinkies & Other Kid Wisdom From Camp In the Togiak Refuge

Tue, 2015-08-18 08:26

The Togiak National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 4.7 million acres in southwestern Alaska, from the west side of Bristol Bay, near Dillingham, west to Togiak and north to the Quinhagak and Platinum region. Each year, refuge staff organizes a high school science camp, conducted via float trip, to show area students a little sliver of the refuge in their backyard. Earlier this month, six students from Dillingham and Twin Hills floated the Pungokepuk River.

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Togiak National Wildlife Refuge Education Specialist Terry Fuller shows students, and adult chaperones, fire-starting skills at Pungokepuk Lake on August 5, 2015.

Bristol Bay is known for fish, and the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge is no exception.

During the high school float camp on the Pungo river, it was rainbows and resident fish, not reds, that lured anglers to keep casting.

“Good day, I should be tallying up what fish I catch.”

That was Savanna Sage catching yet another a rainbow, while Refuge Manager Susanna Henry rowed our inflatable blue raft down stream. Prior to the trip, she had caught just one rainbow this summer, up at Lake Alegnagik.

A day into the trip, her tally was up to more than half a dozen, and climbing.

Soldotna High freshman Drew Wassily snorkels in Pungokepuk Lake while Dillingham senior Savanna Sage casts with a spinning rod on August 5, 2015. Fish were a highlight of the four-day float from the lake to the Togiak River.

The Pungo stretches 16 miles from Pungokepuk Lake to the Togiak River. The sun was shining nearly the entire time we were on the water, and until the final day, a light breeze kept the bugs away.

And while 16 miles might sound like a short trip – there’s enough fish in the Pungo to make every mile last. It took us four days, with plenty of stops for fishing.

Drew Wasilly caught his first rainbow on the trip. But he said it was his tentmate and fishing partner, Carleton Small of Twin Hills, who was the most prolific fisher.

The Togiak National Wildlife Refuge was held on the Pungokepuk River, shown on August 7, 2015, this summer. The camp took six students on a 16-mile float.

“He’s the rainbow slaying machine.”

That doesn’t include the smolt caught by the whole group.

Campers set out minnow traps before bed on the first night, baited with bacon. The next morning, refuge education specialist Terry Fuller helped intern Connor Ito and the campers ID the smolt they found waiting for them.

“I’ve got a little bit of white and black look.”

“Yes.”

“So this is a silver.”

“There are silvers to be found.”

Camp wasn’t just about catching fish. Students put on a dry suit to snorkel with fish. And there were non-fishy activities, too – fire-building, berry-picking, a leave-no-trace activity, and hours on the river identifying plants and birds.

Dillingham senior Savanna Sage and Togiak National Wildlife Refuge Intern Connor Ito roast Twinkies at Pungokepuk Lake on August 5, 2015.

But Ito, a former camper herself, offered perhaps the most important lesson of all: how to roast Twinkies.

“Now you want to very slowly roast the Twinkie until it is crunchy and golden brown on the outside, more than it already is, and the filling is bubbling out of the holes on the bottom.”

The verdict?

“It tastes more buttery,” Sage said.

“He caught another rainbow.”

And it’s back to fishing on Pungo Lake.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Monday, August 17, 2015

Mon, 2015-08-17 17:46

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

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Shell Gets Final Approval To Drill Into Oil-Bearing Rock in the Chukchi

John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska

The Interior Department gave final approval to Shell Oil to drill into oil-bearing rocks at the company’s “Burger J” drilling site. The company has until late September to complete this summer’s exploratory drilling.

24 Apache Choppers To Nest At Ft. Wainwright

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The first U.S. Army apache helicopters to be based in Alaska are scheduled to arrive at Fort Wainwright this week. They’re part of a new unit that will include 24 helicopters and 400 soldiers.

Legislators Plot Their Next Move As Medicaid Rollout Looms

Associated Press

A legislative committee plans to meet Tuesday to discuss whether or not to challenge Gov. Bill Walker’s plan to expand Medicaid in Alaska.

Bethel Preschool Trashed by Vandals

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Vandals in Bethel smashed school district car windows and trashed preschool classrooms over the weekend.

VA Sec. Visits Point Hope, Kotzebue; Bush Vets Share The Woes of Accessing Remote Care

Emily Russell, KNOM – Nome

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, traveled to Point Hope and Kotzebue to address their concerns. Remote access to care and information are among the most common problem facing veterans in Alaska.

Staffing the Grill & State: Walker’s First Governor’s Picnic

Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau

Bill Walker hosted his first Governor’s Picnic in Juneau on Friday at the University of Alaska Southeast.

2015 Dungeness Season: Lackluster Against 2014’s Harvest, But Still Average

Joe Sykes, KFSK – Petersburg

Southeast’s Dungeness summer crab season ended on Saturday. There aren’t any preliminary numbers yet but it’s looking as if this year hasn’t got close to the bumper season crab fishermen had last summer.

Roasting Twinkies And Other Wisdom From Kid Camp In the Togiak

Molly Dischner, KDLG – Dillingham

The Togiak National Wildlife Refuge encompasses almost five million acres in southwestern Alaska. Each year, refuge staff organizes a high school science camp, conducted via float trip, to show area students a little sliver of the refuge in their backyard. Earlier this month, six students from Dillingham and Twin Hills floated the Pungokepuk River.

Dispatch From the Couch: Google Trekker Lets You ‘Hike’ the Chilkoot Trail

Greta Mart, KHNS – Haines

A century ago, to hike to the Klondike gold fields via the Chilkoot Trail meant a grueling trek carrying a required one ton of supplies–enough to last a year. Soon armchair hikers can breeze along the 33-mile trail virtually, in a few minutes, using Google’s Street View.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Shell Gets Final Approval To Drill Into Oil-Bearing Rock in the Chukchi

Mon, 2015-08-17 17:38

The Fennica and its yellow capping stack in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor on July 18. (KUCB/John Ryan photo)

The Obama administration approved Arctic oil drilling Monday.

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The Interior Department gave final approval to Shell Oil to drill into oil-bearing rocks at the company’s “Burger J” drilling site. The company has until late September to complete this summer’s exploratory drilling. Megan Baldino is a Shell spokesperson:

“Our plan is to make the most of the time that we have in theater, and whatever we don’t accomplish this summer, we can potentially… do in 2016.”

Shell’s Polar Pioneer rig began drilling on July 30.  But Shell couldn’t get permission to drill into oil-bearing layers until its missing icebreaker and the well-capping stack on its stern returned from the Lower 48. Greg Julian is a spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement

“Now that the capping stack is on hand, Shell is allowed to drill into potential oil-bearing zones, [at the Burger J site.]” BSEE spokesman Greg Julian said.

Federal inspectors have been living on board both of Shell’s Arctic drill rigs for the past two weeks of shallow drilling.

“Nothing noteworthy to report,” Julian said. “Things are going smoothly.”

That icebreaker, the Fennica, hit a rock on its way out of Dutch Harbor on July 3. It then sailed to Oregon for repairs. Greenpeace protesters swinging beneath a Portland bridge further delayed the Fennica. Environmentalists reacted with dismay to the Obama administration’s announcement. [Today’s/Monday’s] Approval of Arctic oil drilling comes a few days after the president announced that his upcoming visit to Alaska would focus on his push to fight climate change.

Annie Leonard is the head of Greenpeace USA.

“Obama’s relation with climate is a little schizophrenic… doesn’t make sense to recognize what a serious problem climate change is and then….drilling in the Arctic. You’re either on one side or the other.”

The President will visit Alaska at the end of this month. The White House video promoting Obama’s trip as part of his legacy of leadership on protecting the climate did not mention his Administration’s support for Arctic drilling.

Categories: Alaska News

24 Apache Choppers To Nest At Ft. Wainwright

Mon, 2015-08-17 17:37

The first U.S. Army apache helicopters to be based in Alaska are scheduled to arrive at Fort Wainwright this week. They’re part of a new unit that will include 24 helicopters and 400 soldiers.

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An Army AH-64 Apache Helicopter flies over U.S. Army Soldiers from Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Charles Probst/Released, via Wikimedia Commons)

Categories: Alaska News

Legislators Plot Their Next Move As Medicaid Rollout Looms

Mon, 2015-08-17 17:36

A legislative committee plans to meet Tuesday to discuss whether or not to challenge Gov. Bill Walker’s plan to expand Medicaid in Alaska.

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One point of contention is if the thousands of lower-income Alaskans who comprise the expansion population are a mandatory group for coverage or an optional group.

The federal health care law expanded eligibility for Medicaid, but the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 said states could not be penalized if they didn’t participate in expansion.

Some read the court’s decision as meaning the expansion population is optional and that legislative approval is necessary for giving the group coverage.

In July, Walker announced plans to accept federal money to expand Medicaid after legislators tabled his bill for further review. The targeted expansion rollout date is Sept. 1.

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel Preschool Trashed by Vandals

Mon, 2015-08-17 17:35

Vandals trashed preschool classrooms and smashed windows in 13 of the Lower Kuskokwim School District’s vehicles over the weekend.

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LKSD Superintendent, Dan Walker, says it appears people threw rocks at cars parked near the district office. Inside the M-E preschool they made an absolute mess.

“All of the toilets were clogged, the water was left running. We had several smart boards that were torn off the wall. There are computers that were thrown off onto the floor and a few computers that were missing,” said Walker.

A Bethel school was vandalized over the weekend. Photo: KYUK.

The preliminary estimates of the damage exceed $50,000 for the vehicles and at least $50,000 to the preschool. Bethel police are investigating. Walker is hopeful that the school’s camera system can develop leads in the case.

At least 13 of the school’s vehicles had their windows smashed. Photo: KYUK.

“Our technology folks are going thought video footage right now. I’d be surprised if we don’t have some footage. The question will be if we can identify people from the footage or get an idea of who we need to talk to,” said Walker.

After starting up the new school year last week, nearly fifty families with preschoolers are now waiting again for school to start. Walker says there is no firm timeline.

“Right now we’ve cancelled classes until further notice. Probably later this week we’ll have a better idea of whether we’ll be far enough along getting the building cleaned up so we can have classes next week,” said Walker.

Damages to the school and vehicles is pegged around $100,000. Photo: KYUK.

Before cleanup goes too far, Walker says his team needs to know whether the air is hazardous from fire extinguishers that were emptied. He says the district can’t simply move preschoolers to another classroom because the facilities have to be licensed.

“We have limited time with them anyway, and we want to do everything we can to maximize the learning time, so we’ll do everything we can to get the facility back up and open,” said Walker.

And in the meantime, Walker says the district wants to look at adding additional lighting outside and cameras.

Categories: Alaska News

Staffing the Grill & State: Walker’s First Governor’s Picnic

Mon, 2015-08-17 17:33

Gov. Bill Walker hosted his first Governor’s Picnic in Juneau on Friday at the University of Alaska Southeast. While serving up hot dogs and salmon, KTOO’s Elizabeth Jenkins asked picnic-goers what they’d do as governor for the day.

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Walker greets people at his first Juneau Governor’s Picnic. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

The community lined up on a warm, sunny afternoon to mingle with state officials but also for the free food: hot dogs, salmon, and locally made ice cream. Gov. Walker was dressed for the occasion.

“Well, I’m wearing my cook outfit. My apron. My governor’s picnic apron and it’s the third time I’ve worn this outfit,” he says.

He says it can be tough doing double duty: serving the public filets of fish and being a politician.

“My problem is this: I like to shake hands and say hello to people and I have to wear a plastic glove and then I have to take it back off, put it back on, take it back on,” Walker says.

Brenda Calkins and her daughter are waiting in line. They’re inching closer to the governor but not sure what they’ll say as he serves them a piece of salmon.

“Yeah, I don’t know if I have anything. … I might have to think up a question in, like two seconds,” Calkins says.

In years past, the governor’s picnic has been held at Sandy Beach. This year, it’s on the UAS campus to highlight education and kids activities.

A fire truck is parked nearby for children to hop aboard. And like the food, there’s a line for that, too. Volunteer firefighter Steven Anderson is making sure everything runs smoothly.

“I’ve been doing this about five years. As much as I can I come out to the community events,” Anderson says.

What would he do if he was governor for the day?

“I don’t know much about politics and I don’t think I could change much for a day. I’d be kickin’ back in the mansion,” he says.

After thinking a few seconds, he says he’d work on increasing the budget for firefighting.

The Thunder Mountain High School football team also helped out at the event.

“Just kind of picking up trash, handing out fliers and at one point we were helping people find a place to park,” says left tackle Josh Quinto.

He has his own ideas about what he’d do if he were governor–more community events.

“I think at most, maybe throw a big party. I’d have different music everyday. Maybe some rock, country occasionally. So random stuff like Fall Out Boy or Nickelback, I guess,” Quinto says. “Definitely not the same food. Maybe something other than salmon, I don’t know like halibut. Fish and chips, those are always good.”

Picnic-goers lounge on a half-moon concrete bench, scraping food off paper plates and watching people play corn hole.

Andualem Fanta is watching the fun. He travels for work with Delta Airlines.

“I am originally from Ethiopia so I migrated to U.S. I lived in different state. But this my first time the governor invited everybody and having a good time,” Fanta says.

What would he do as governor?

“If I’m a governor, today? Serve the people like this. It could be a great opportunity to show you care about the people,” Fanta says.

From everyone, there was a variety of responses from dog racing, building a pipeline and making it permanently sunny in Juneau.

Brenda Calkins and her daughter make it through the end of the food line. Unfortunately, Gov. Walker ducked out for a photo-op with a costumed bear but first lady Donna Walker is still there.

“I didn’t know it was the first lady,” Calkins says with a laugh.

Which is what the Governor’s Picnic is all about. Getting to know your officials.

Categories: Alaska News

2015 Dungeness Season: Lackluster Against 2014, But Still Average

Mon, 2015-08-17 17:32

Southeast’s Dungeness summer crab season ended on Saturday. There aren’t any preliminary numbers yet but it’s looking as if this year hasn’t got close to the bumper season crab fishermen had last summer.

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Tor Benson and Leif Mattern prepare to clean down the boat one last time. (Photo: KFSK/Joe Sykes)

Crab fisherman Tor Benson is waiting to unload his final dungeness catch of the season at Icicle’s dock.

It was a slow day and while he says he’s still making money:

“It’s getting to that point where we might not. It’s a good time to end,” he said.

Benson’s boat reeks from the stench of rotting crab bait after a long day out in the Alaskan sun. And deckhand Leif Mattern, cleaning bait boxes at the bow of the boat one final time says he’s glad it’s all over.

“We’re all jaded from last year. Last year was a great season. It’s hard when you do that well and then you come back and it’s not so good,” he said.

Many crab fishermen say last summer will go down as legendary in the history of Southeast’s dungeness fishery.

Crabbers caught 4.06 million pounds earning a value of more than $12 million. That was more than double what they earned in the 2013 season.

And Benson says since fishing started in June he’s caught about 30 percent of the crab he brought in last summer.

“This year’s slow, last year’s an epic year, the best in a decade but that’s fishing, you have good years and you have bad,” he said.

And the numbers seem to show that rather than it being a bad year, the catch has returned to somewhere close to the average season yield. While the final week’s fish tickets have not been entered yet, the crab harvest through August 13th for the 2015 season is 2.56 million pounds, close to the 5-year average of just over 3 million pounds.

And Joe Stratman, who’s a crab biologist at fish and game says irrespective of the slowdown, crab quality has been good.

“We’ve had nice hard-shell crabs landed to processors. Crabs generally have been hard-shell and full of meat,” he said.

And much of that meat has been caught by an expanded fleet. Stratman says because of the bumper harvest last year, the number of permits reporting catches is 192, almost 30 more than average for the last five years.

While many of these numbers are preliminary it seems fishing hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.

And at Icicle’s dock a long, hard season has taken a toll on everyone. Juan works as an unloader at PFI and has dropped down from the factory to help take the crab up to be sorted for the final time.

I ask him if he’s pleased that the crab season is over.

“Yes,” he replies. “I hate crabs. No more.”

And with that he starts transferring the dungies into his tote and another summer crab season scuttles swiftly to a close.

Categories: Alaska News

VA Sec. Visits Point Hope, Kotzebue; Bush Vets Share The Woes of Accessing Remote Care

Mon, 2015-08-17 14:48

Walking among the old sod and whalebone houses on the edge of the Bering Sea, it’s easy to let the world around you fade away. We’ve come to Point Hope, Alaska, one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

McDonald at a listening session in Point Hope. Photo: Mitch Borden, KNOM

The barrier between the old abandoned town site and the new community is the airport, which sees multiple small-plane departures and arrivals each day, though today is a bit different. Today a pearly white plane is parked on the runway. On the side it reads “United States of America,” which feels like a million miles away from where we are.

The official aircraft came all the way from Washington, D.C. to made good on a request from local. Leonard Barger, Transportation Director of the Native Village of Point Hope, wrote to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, last year requesting a visit to honor the community’s veterans.

Barger explained the importance of McDonald’s visit to the 49thstate. With the highest number of veterans per capita in the country, even the most remote communities throughout Alaska have vets. Along with Point Hope, Barger acknowledged the veterans in communities like Barrow, Point Lay, and Unalakleet. “All these people in Alaska, they’re going to Afghanistan,” Barger said, “they’re leaving their family, but they’re serving their country, they’re sacrificing their lives for us.”

At the listening session in Kotzebue, McDonald gave veterans a coin with his seal and signature. Photo: Mitch Borden, KNOM

Along with visiting Point Hope, McDonald also held a listening session that day in Kotzebue. It took Walter Sampson, a Vietnam vet living in Kotzebue, 11 years to get serviced by the VA in Anchorage, a 500-mile journey and a $600 plane ticket away from home. Sampson made sure to remind McDonald of the unique challenges that many of Alaska’s vets face in accessing the benefits they’ve earned.

“Remember that we’re in bush Alaska,” Sampson said, “we’re in roadless communities.” While Fairbanks and Anchorage have the clinics, the VA officers, and the hospitals, he stressed that, “for bush Alaska we’ve got nothing at all.”

Without the VA facilities and representatives, information has a hard time reaching vets in bush Alaska. Sampson expressed a feeling that many vets seemed to share. “As a veteran, do I really know who [the] VA is?” Sampson asked himself. “What benefits does it have for me?

Sampson is frustrated by the convoluted nature of the VA support system, which often requires multiple phone calls, website logins, and, in the end a system too complex for its own good. McDonald was quick to acknowledge those inefficiencies.

“Walter’s right,” McDonald admitted, “we’ve got too many 1-800 numbers, it’s too confusing.” With over 900 1-800 numbers and 14 websites that require different usernames and passwords, many vets get lost in the system before they ever get help. “We’re going to go to one 1-800 number, we’re going to go to one website,” McDonald promised, “it’s just too complex, we’ve got to simplify it, that’s what we’re working to do.”

But a simplified system is only one step towards getting vets throughout Alaska the benefits they deserve. With McDonald gone and many questions left unanswered, the support system that seems the most promising comes from within the state.

Chester Ballot, another Vietnam vet in Kotzebue, was trained in Anchorage as a tribal veteran representative and now works to sign up fellow vets to the VA. The Alaska VA also sent two representatives to both Point Hope and Kotzebue to sign up and inform vets of their benefits. So far the Alaska VA has sent representatives to 39 of the state’s nearly 300 villages.

Although McDonald is back in D.C., Leonard Barger hopes this will not be his last visit to Point Hope. Barger and other community members encouraged him to return in the spring to take part in a whale hunt, one of the many benefits of living on the edge of the Bering Sea.

McDonald greets veterans and their family members at the Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue. Photo: Mitch Borden, KNOM

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Man Held On Non-Criminal Charges, Dies In Correctional Facility

Mon, 2015-08-17 09:23

A Juneau man died at Lemon Creek Correctional Center Friday morning, about 12 hours after he was brought in. Forty-nine-year-old Joseph Murphy was booked at the prison around 7 p.m. Thursday night and was being held on non-criminal charges.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sherrie Daigle says Murphy was being kept in a holding cell and was due to be released after 12 hours.

“I don’t know the specifics in this case and I can’t give any specifics in this case, but in general, people are brought in on a 12-hour hold if they are intoxicated and they can’t be on the street, but are combative and can’t go to a detox center. There also could be some type of behavioral health issues that people are brought in on non-criminal holds.”

In the past, Murphy had been found guilty of at least two misdemeanors for driving while intoxicated, according to online court records.

Daigle says Alaska State Troopers are investigating the death and the state medical examiner’s office is conducting an autopsy. She says it could take three to six weeks until a cause of death is known.

Corrections will do its own investigation, which Daigle says takes up to four weeks. She says those results are confidential due to attorney client privilege between the attorney general and Corrections, and they contain medical, security and personnel information.

Categories: Alaska News

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