The long awaited entry of telecommunications carrier Verizon into the Alaska market is now happening.
The company announced it is about to light up its 4G LTE network in the more urban parts of the state and begins taking customers for data transmission Friday.
Verizon cellphone customers should notice an improvement quickly because up until now the company has been renting capacity from other carriers.
GCI and ACS have been preparing for Verizon’s competitive entry for some time. The company claims its 4G capacity will be much faster than what is now being offered, and is touting reliability, with generators located at its towers in case of power failures.
On Monday, BP committed to spending at least a billion dollars in Alaska over the next few years. The oil giant plans to use that money to bring two drill rigs to Prudhoe Bay and to potentially expand into undeveloped parts of that field. The announcement comes on the heels of a major change to the state’s oil tax system. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
Over the past three years, one of the biggest criticisms of Gov. Sean Parnell’s plan to lower taxes on oil companies was that those companies weren’t making any commitments to drill more in Alaska. Since the overhaul passed, producers like Repsol and ConocoPhillips have said they’re going to invest more in the state, and they’ve given the tax cut credit for that. Now, BP is the latest company to join the chorus.
“That change in the taxes really allowed us to move forward and get the support of the working interest owners to move these projects forward,” says Dawn Patience, a spokesperson for BP.
Patience says that BP will be adding 200 jobs to their Alaska operations just to bring on the new drill rigs. She says that BP is also working with Exxon and ConocoPhillips to start building up the western part of Prudhoe Bay, which could mean more than 100 new wells in that area.
BP can’t say how much new oil these developments will yield. But the Parnell administration is applauding the announcement, and the Department of Revenue says the new rigs are good for the state treasury. During the oil tax debate, the Department was estimating that the legislation would cost the state at least $3 billion in lost revenue over the next five years. Oil tax adviser Mike Pawlowski expects that number to go down substantially with BP’s new rigs.
“The fiscal note we always put out as a worst-case scenario with no new investment and new production,” says Pawlowski.” And this is obviously different. We’re seeing significant new announcements. So, I think overall it’s very exciting.”
Not everyone is celebrating BP’s announcement. At the end of the legislative session, Democratic lawmakers who opposed the oil tax cut said they expected to see lots of “brass bands” and “ribbon cuttings” for work that was already expected to happen. Bill Wielechowski, a senator from Anchorage, says that BP’s announcement is part and parcel of that.
“It’s a shame that the governor gave away billions and billions in tax breaks to get something that the oil companies were going to do anyway because it’s so profitable.”
Wielechowski adds that one of BP’s Alaska executives already acknowledged that some of the work that they’re planning to do would have happened anyway, just at a slower pace.
BP will be putting contracts for the rigs out to bid this summer, and they expect the first of the two to go online in 2015. Spokesperson Dawn Patience says that the company is not factoring in a referendum to repeal the new oil tax system in its investment decisions. That referendum could be on the ballot next summer, while the rig work is underway.
Major hurdles need to be cleared before Galena residents, who evacuated due to a major ice jam flood last week, can return home.
A draft Environmental Impact Statement released by the Air Force Friday recommends downsizing Eielson Air Force Base for cost savings, but Alaska’s leaders argue the document ignores requests for cost reduction estimates and fails to consider the local impact.
The long awaited EIS offers three alternatives. Two explore the impacts of moving the 18th Aggressor Squadron from Eielson Air Force Base to Joint Base Elmendorf- Richardson near Anchorage. The third includes no action.
U.S. Senator Mark Begich thinks the Air Force should have considered the benefits of keeping the F-16s where they are.
“First off, they’re adjacent to some of the best training ground in the country when it comes to the air capacity there,” says Senator Begich. “Along with the army is now looking at that space for additional partnerships with the Air Force.”
“There’s a lot of opportunity here and it’s almost like they ignored all that and they just said well we gotta check they box and get the EIS done. It’s a disservice to our military and to the people of Fairbanks.”
According to the Air Force, moving the F-16s will result in significant cost savings, but the Alaska delegation argues the move will actually cost money as the Air Force struggles to find appropriate housing and accommodations for both the aircraft and associated personnel.
Matthew Felling is the Communications Director for U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski.
“We have yet to see anything that is not red ink from this equation,” says Felling. “Secondly, we know in Alaska that the Asia Pacific Region is heating up and the nation knows that the Pentagon has decided that this is going to be our focal point for the future, to take a look west.”
“Eielson is in the pull position for this new philosophy so why are we taking a look at undercutting it and short sheeting it when we should be building it up?”
According to the EIS, the move would result in the largest increase in unemployment in the Fairbanks are in the last decade. It would also force the closure of two schools in the Fairbanks North Star Borough and increase noise pollution in and around JBER.
A group of state and local leaders, who call themselves the “Tiger Team” have met regularly in Fairbanks for more than a year to discuss the Air Force’s proposal.
Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins says the group is also unhappy with the Draft EIS.
“It’s still the house of cards perception that is very disconcerting to me when we see a document that doesn’t have all the content we expected to have in it and in 10 working days you’ll have a public hearing,” Mayor Hopkins says.
Public hearings on the draft EIS are scheduled in Palmer and Anchorage on June 17 and 18. Hearings are also scheduled in North Pole in Fairbanks June 19 and 20.
Local leaders says that’s not enough time. The Air Force will accept public comment on the document through July 31. A final record of decision on the proposal to relocate the F-16s is expected this fall.
About 35 carpenter union locals in the Pacific Northwest have closed in the past three years to join larger locals. Earlier this month, Juneau’s Carpenter Union Local 2247 fell to the same fate and its members have been absorbed by Anchorage’s Carpenter Union Local 1281.
The carpenters’ umbrella union – the Pacific Northwest Region Council – says Southeast has not been forgotten. Officials met with members in Ketchikan last night and have scheduled a Juneau meeting tomorrow.
May 1st is the unofficial Labor Day in the U.S., a day for unions and locals to celebrate their unity and strength. For about 150 Southeast carpenters, who were members of Local 2247, it was the day they found out their hall had been shut down.
“I actually saw on Facebook. I follow the Pacific Northwest Regional Council page and there was an announcement that two halls in Alaska had been closed so I clicked it to see what it was and it was our local,” says Juneau carpenter Chris Dimond. Dimond has been a member of Local 2247 for ten years.
Dimond currently works for Juneau-based North Pacific Erectors and has never used his union local to find work, but he’s been a loyal member, attending monthly meetings, and taking part in union events.
“For me, personally, that was kind of a kick, when we’re supposed to have this brotherhood and this tight-knit community amongst ourselves and then to have that taken away without any forewarning or any real clear explanation of why it was being done.”
Local 2247 has been around since 1939. It was part of the Alaska Regional Council of Carpenters until this past February when the state council was dissolved and absorbed into the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, which represents 26,000 members in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and now Alaska.
Ben Basom is communications director for Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. He says shutting down Juneau Carpenter Local 2247 and moving its membership to Local 1281 in Anchorage is part of a nationwide effort by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters to streamline operations, run more efficiently, and save costs. Basom claims savings have even been passed down to members.
“The immediate benefit to the membership was a reduction in over-the-counter dues. I know, for example, in my old local I think I was paying $33 a month over-the-counter and all dues went down to $20, so right there out-of-pocket dues were reduced,” Basom says.
Basom says dues may go down for 1281 members, but it’s too early to say for sure.
Southeast carpenters are struggling with potential changes that may come about due to the closure of Juneau Local 2247. Juneau carpenter Mike VanderJack says it initially caused a lot of confusion.
“About exactly what that would mean for us. If they were taking over our retirement – we just had no idea what that meant because they had not discussed that with us previously. Maybe if we had had a few months to prepare ourselves and to understand what that meant for us, it would’ve been something different, but instead it was just upsetting, confusing,” VanderJack says.
Without a local union hall, members also fear losing their voice. They once met in Juneau, now monthly union meetings are in Anchorage. There’s concern Southeast-based carpenters will have to share Southeast jobs with their Anchorage counterparts. The concerns were great enough earlier this month that Juneau Senator Dennis Egan’s office heard complaints.
“Right now it just feels like we don’t get a say in what’s going on and that’s really upsetting and that goes against everything we’ve learned about what a union is,” VanderJack says.
Basom is hoping the Pacific Northwest Council can make the transition as smooth as possible. He wants to assure Southeast carpenters the council’s intent is not to abandon Juneau.
“Transitions sometimes can be frightening and I completely understand that. But as far as the standard order of business such as finding jobs and having contractors and dispatching members to work, it is not going to change. It’s going to be business as usual,” Basom says.
The carpenters may be settling into the idea that Anchorage Carpenter Union 1281 is now their local. A union election is underway and one member from Southeast is on the ballot. The Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters is also opening an office in Juneau and is currently looking for someone to work as a Southeast representative.
Around this time last year, it looked like Adak’s jet service was in jeopardy. Alaska Airlines wanted to stop flying there, and it was only after much back and forth that they conceded to continue serving the community, on a trial basis.
Now, the uncertainty appears to be over. Alaska Airlines was the only company that responded to a recent request from the federal Department of Transportation for bids on the community’s Essential Air Service contract, and they’ve agreed to commit for two years.
Marilyn Romano is the airline’s regional vice president. She says Alaska decided to bid even after the news that Icicle Seafoods would be shuttering its processing plant on the island because other companies — and industries — are poised to make up some of the traffic.
“None of us can predict the future, but people in the community of Adak feel like there are some possibilities for growth, possibly even in the oil industry, and so we take all of that into consideration when making a decision,” Romano says.
But Alaska Airlines’ commitment to Adak in the face of an uncertain future will come at a cost. The company is asking the federal government to increase their subsidy for the route by half a million dollars, for a total of $2 million a year. Romano says that factors in the loss of passenger and cargo revenues from the processing plant, and potential increases in the price of jet fuel.
For its part, Adak appears to be fully in support of Alaska Airlines’ proposal. City manager Layton Lockett says continued jet service is critical to the community’s development, a sentiment that fish buyer Pete Hartman echoes in a letter to the DOT. His company, Hart Sales, started shipping fresh fish off the island after Icicle’s closure, and he writes “without the Jet services of Alaska Airlines to the lower 48 markets I will have to cease our operation.”
The DOT will review the bid and is expected to make a decision about whether to award the contract in the coming weeks.
The Federal Subsistence Board announced on Friday that the Copper River subsistence salmon fishery will not open on June 7 as previously scheduled.
A group that wants to convert Fairbanks dormant Polaris building into an indoor produce growing facility isn’t giving up. Project leader and executive director of the locally based Alliance for Reason and Knowledge, Robert Shields says he’s organizing a campaign to raise money to buy the 1950’s era Hotel, and do initial renovations for hydroponic farming.
For over a decade, the Matunuska-Susitna Borough has outstripped the rest of Alaska in population growth. From 2000 to 2012, the borough increased by over 34,000 residents. That 58 percent rate is nearly four times Anchorage and the state as a whole. One group finding the Mat-Su particularly attractive are Alaska Natives.
A little over five years ago, Billy Kay Lee moved directly from Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska to the Mat-Su Borough. The mother of three elementary aged girls never considered living in Anchorage, although her first job was in the city and demanded commuting for a year.
“Here in the Valley it just seems a little bit more put together for me. Everybody is right here. We go out somewhere and you see somebody you know whether from day care or work or where ever. It’s kinda such a small community. We always see each other and communicate with each other. Kids play together,” she said.
The last U.S. Census shows the Alaska Native and American Indian population of the Mat-Su jumped by more than 60 percent from 10 years earlier.
“No matter where you go, you see somebody that looks like from home, or they are from home. I have some girls from Noorvik who live out here. There’s actually some girls from Noatak that live out here that I know. There’s just so many people out here, I couldn’t even count them all. At least a hundred that are just from home alone, meaning the NANA region,” Billy said.
It’s not altogether surprising if the Knik area resident encounters a lot of familiar faces. Inupiaqs now outnumber all other Native groups in the Mat-Su Borough.
But even with all those folks “from home”, Billy Kay says teaching her daughters traditional knowledge and skills can be challenging.
“It costs a lot of money to bring them home, at least a thousand dollars per child. And when you work full time and you have three kids and you play sports and do all kinds of other things, and you have a mortgage, truck payment, you just don’t get to go home every other month and do stuff we do to harvest food,” she said.
Her parents and relatives bring traditional foods from Shungnak and the upper Kobuk Overall Billy Kay thinks her children are developing their cultural identity.
“We kinda teach them a sense of who we are in different ways and kinda use the resources that we have out here to kinda bring it together in every way we can. But every day, we don’t I don’t talk Inupiaq with them because I’m not close enough, I don’t hear it every day, so they obviously don’t hear it every day. They definitely know who we are and where we come from. They say they’re Valley Eskimos,” Billy said.
It was after her kids were grown and her parents had died that Lillian Lewis moved to the Valley.
“It was good. I got to raise my boys up there. They got to know my family,” Lillian said.
Lillian comes from Kotzebue. Her husband, Larry, is from Rhinelander, Wisconsin. They’re sitting in the back yard of their home on a hill not far from Knik Goose Bay Road. Beyond their gardens, berry bushes, apple and pear trees, is an unobstructed view of Pioneer Peak and the Chugach Range.
For 17 of their more than 40 years together, they lived in Kotzebue, where Larry relished his time spent hunting, trapping and commercial fishing.
In the late 1980s, Larry was hired for construction work at the developing Red Dog Mine That was followed by a mine job which meant a weeks on/weeks off schedule. They had some friends in the Valley and in 1992 purchased to their present home.
“For warmer weather . It was too cold up north. So I decided to come south.”
Larry, who is now retired, had lasted only six months living in Anchorage. The city noise got to him.
“I didn’t want to live in Anchorage after living in the Village, so we moved out here bought this house. My kids would come out from Anchorage and say, ‘Dad, what are you doing living out here?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘It’s so quiet.’ That’s why I live out here,” Larry said.
Then, too, there was all that hunting and fishing the Valley offered. Like Billy Kay, Larry doesn’t regret moving to the Mat-Su, despite all the changes that come with the population increase.
“It’s a good place to live. The hunting and fishing was great, but I see it disappearing, but we love the Valley and I think this is where we’re gonna be until the lord comes back or we go to meet him,” Larry said.
With that observation, Larry sought shade from the hot May sun, while Lillian scurried toward the garden.
As part of an on-going series on Alaska’s cultural connections, we’re taking A Closer Look at cross-cultural adoption.
Last winter, Anchorage resident Sarah Gonzales and her husband adopted a beautiful healthy baby boy; they met him when he was one day old at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.
She shares her thoughts about how to integrate his birth culture in their family life.
SUBSCRIBE: Get A Closer Look updates automatically — via e-mail, RSS or podcasts
Early Saturday morning a man assaulted a couple from the Pribilof Islands with his car in the parking lot of a hotel near the Anchorage airport. Reportedly the vehicle was occupied by two people, who first accosted the couple with insults and then went after them with the car. Hospitalized with multiple serious injuries is April Merculief, 34. Also hospitalized with a broken leg is Nicholas Philemonoff, 34. Family members say the couple has three children. At last report the attackers were still at large. The vehicle is described as a red sedan.
BP today announced a billion dollar spending program for the North Slope. The company said this decision was made because of changes made in Alaska’s oil tax. BP said some of the spending could come this year. Later BP plans to bring two more drilling rigs to the Slope by 2016 and says it is evaluating another $3 billion of development projects with its partners in the western end of the Prudhoe Bay area. And it says it is ready to start selling its natural gas.
The Athabascan elder who was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that strengthened Native subsistence fishing rights in Alaska has died.
Katie John passed away early Friday morning at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. She was 97-years-old.
The Athabascan elder who was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that strengthened Native subsistence fishing rights in Alaska has died. Katie John passed away early Friday morning at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. She was 97 years old.
John and the Mentasta Village Council sued the U.S. government in Federal Court in 1985 when the Alaska Board of Fisheries did not allow them to fish at an abandoned fish camp in an area which is now part of Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park.
The suit claimed the federal government had unlawfully excluded subsistence fishing from the protections of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The judge ruled in John’s favor in 1994. The state of Alaska battled that ruling, but in early 2001, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.
Later that year, then governor of Alaska Tony Knowles announced he would not fight the 9th Circuit decision before the US Supreme Court. A delighted Katie John said the governor told her of his decision in person
“This morning he called me he said no more. You got everything. So I was so happy, I was pretty sick, too, this morning and the last couple of days I’ve been sick, I got a cold. So when he talked to me about the case, I was jumping around. [laughs] I forgot my sickness. “
At the time, Knowles told the Alaska Public Radio Network that he made his decision because the litigation was only widening the gap between urban and rural Alaskans
”I think anyone that would talk to Katie John and to look at what she does would believe that what she does is right. It’s not wrong, to provide for her family in the best way that she knows how is right for her, for her family and for thousands of other families from Metlakatla to Bethel to Noorvik. This is something the state must support. You know, we have to stop that losing legal strategy that we have pursued for ten years, and stop the permanent divide that it has threatened to cause among Alaskans. “
Native American Rights Fund attorney Heather Kendall Miller, who represented John in court, says John continues to be a role model for Alaska Natives
“She represents the Alaska Native determination to hold onto their way of life, that is intimately connected to the land and is a very rich and rewarding life that has become known as subsistence way of life. And she wanted to pass on the customs and traditions to her family and her children and her community. And that is what she spent her life doing. “
John received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2011 for her advocacy of indigenous rights and her ongoing efforts as a teacher of culture and language. Dr. Jim Kari with the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks, worked with Katie John on efforts to preserve Alaska Native languages by developing an alphabet of the Athna Athabascan dialect.
” One memorable statement by Katie John is ‘everything I know, I keep in my head.’ Just this morning I spoke briefly with Chief Fred Ewan, who said this, ‘we lost the best woman we ever had.’ “
John raised 14 children and six adopted children with her husband Mentasta Traditional Chief Fred John.
Family members have not released plans for a funeral yet.
A fire in the Matauska Susitna Borough has spread to 45 acres and destroyed one cabin in its path.
A fire in the Matauska Susitna Borough has spread to 45 acres (check at newstime) and destroyed one cabin in it’s path. Hot shot crews have been called in from Kenai to help battle the blaze.
Norm McDonald, state fire management officer for the area, says the fire was reported at about 10 acres around 6:30 last [Thursday ] evening
“Right now, the suspected cause is an escaped campfire. “
Last night, state firefighters made air drops of 2000 gallons of fire retardant last [thursday] night, attempting to slow the fire’s spread.
A helicopter also dropped buckets of water on the fire, which is not accessible by road. Crews are being shuttled in on ATV’s to a point off Point MacKenzie Road.
“One crew Granite Glacier, and a helitac crew, so a total of 18 people. We have a second crew Pioneer Peak coming in from Kenai, should arrive on scene this afternoon, and we’ll keep both crews on it for the next several days until we have the fire contained and out. “
Low humidity and temperatures close to 80 degrees are not helping the effort to control the fire. The closest homes are within 4/10s of a mile near New Homesteader Ave.
“Right now we are calling it about 10 percent contained,um, they do have the main fire knocked down, although with the fuel types and the heavy snags and the standing dead trees in the area, it’s difficult to get it fully contained until we get all those trees down and put out. “
McDonald says no other structures are in danger at this time. McDonald reminds people that there is a burn ban in place in the Mat Su Borough.
A lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service has been settled in District Court in Anchorage. Native and environmental groups took issue with some of the math the agency used in calculating how many Cook Inlet Beluga whales would be affected by seismic testing for oil and gas.
The next U.S. Senate race in Alaska is still 18 months away. A number of Republicans have jumped in the race, or are publicly mulling taking on Senator Mark Begich in November 2014.
But, they’re likely to have a long, drawn out primary campaign first.
Virtually everyone in Washington agrees the Republicans need to win Alaska to take back control of the Senate. It’s one of the six most closely watched races.
So far the only official challenger to Begich is Joe Miller. Miller, who beat Senator Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 primary but lost in the general election, filed his intent to run May 2.
“It is an election against the president, but broader than that, it’s an election against DC. DC has turned its back on the American people,” Miller said.
Republicans plan on tying Begich to the national party. He serves in the Democratic leadership of the Senate.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee – the wing of the GOP tasked with winning the Senate – is trying to make the 2014 race about President Barack Obama’s health care bill. That law was largely upheld by the Supreme Court.
But many across the country are deeply skeptical of it.
Senator Begich does not shy away from his vote for the bill, he likes to highlight popular elements of it.
“Preexisting conditions are no longer reasons to deny insurance, seniors are going to get better reimbursements on prescription, the Alaska Native Healthcare System was finally reauthorized after 19 years of pending in the US Senate and House,” Begich said. “Now it’s permanently reauthorized.”
Jennifer Duffy is senior editor at the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes races. She says early signs show the 2014 race will play out like most midterm races with low turnout, and the party out of power gets more voters to the polls.
“Obviously one of the things we’re going to be looking at is what Democrats are going to do to help Senator Begich put together the kind of voter identification and get out the vote program that was so helpful to President Obama in 2012,” Duffy said.
Duffy says one major voting bloc to watch will be Alaska Natives – a group that assisted Senator Lisa Murkowski’s write in victory. For his part, Miller says he’s working on Alaska Native outreach, and plans on having a stronger rural election strategy this go around.
Miller would need to win the Republican primary to face Begich. That’s not until August 2014. And he won’t have an easy path.
Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell will make his decision in June. He says he’s intensified his exploration of a run since Governor Sean Parnell said he’ll seek reelection.
Treadwell cannot run concurrently for Lieutenant Governor and Senate.
“I’ve certainly enjoyed serving as Lieutenant Governor. I’ve worked hard to help the governor’s agenda. I believe we’re on the right track in being more competitive and attracting industry to the state, long term jobs to the state,” Treadwell said.
So he says the remaining big issues are federal.
“Our biggest problem is access to our land, and in Washington, I’m not sure we’re getting the results we need to get,” Treadwell said.
That’s an argument every candidate – and would be candidate makes: Begich, Treadwell, Miller, and Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, who’s rumored to be mulling a bid as well.
Miller says Alaska’s resource development will be the theme of his campaign, despite the commonalities with the others.
“Well I think there are a lot of similarities on resources. I don’t think there’s much doubt about that,” Miller said.
He his unwillingness to vote for the heads of agencies that regulate federal land sets him apart.
Whoever wins the GOP primary will face a well-financed Begich. He’s sitting on more than $1.5 million cash on hand. Miller has a little more than $400,000 – and he’s just now starting to fundraise. He didn’t take in any donations in the first quarter of this year.
By all accounts, Begich is a prolific fundraiser. He says he averages two to three hours on the phone every day asking for money.
“In this world we have to be realistic about the amount of resources you need to run. And I have no problems picking up the phone and asking people for help and support,” Begich said.
And in the era of more lax campaign finance laws, that will be more important than ever. Begich cannot assume whoever survives a long, bruising GOP primary will be too beaten to win the general election, because any outside group can come in and prop up any candidate.
Field work on a pipeline capable of moving half a billion cubic feet of gas daily is expected to start next week.
In an update to legislators on Thursday, Frank Richards with the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation explained that they’re in the process of trying to figure out the safest places to lay down the pipe, which should stretch down from the North Slope to Southcentral Alaska. Because the line would cross active seismic areas, workers are mapping the terrain using remote sensing technology.
“So we will know if the Denali fault, for instance, is going to potentially move four meters during the next event, then we want to make sure we put in place mitigation for that pipeline so it can handle that type of movement,” Richards said.
The geotechnical program is expected to go through this summer, with efforts ramping up July 1. Once the advanced engineering work is done, the plan is to go ahead with an open season where companies can commit to a project. That’s scheduled to happen next year.
In a small white house at the end of gravel road near Anchor Point, Ray DeMeo has been making instruments in an attached workshop for nearly a decade. He carefully crafts violins, violas and mandolins, mostly from local wood, some of it found in his own backyard.
Inside DeMeo’s house, a large work table sits in the middle of a room that doubles as the kitchen and workshop. The walls are lined with shelves that hold tools, works in progress and completed instruments. Ray’s first instrument is included in that collection.
“I just had an interest when I was a young kid, I grew up in Chicago and I used to play hooky and hang out in places where they made ‘em, and museums, and I just had an interest in [it],” DeMeo said. “So I actually started making them in high school and that was one thing I did in high school – that lute.”
Since that lute, he’s made another 58 instruments. When he was in high school, Ray would go to one of the libraries in downtown Chicago with pockets full of quarters and copy pages out of the instrument-making reference books.
He tried college after high school, but it really wasn’t for him. Since then he’s worked in construction, drove truck, served as a soldier and was a logger in Canada. Eventually he decided to put his focus back on instruments, so he went back to school to learn how to repair violins and violas.
“The teacher was a master violin maker, and she taught me, at the same time I was learning to repair on my own time, kind of. I was able to make a violin with her. She showed me how to make a violin and then there was a night class at the same time of mandolin making,” DeMeo said.
Ray also has learned from masters from places like Japan and India. That’s translated into a more traditional approach to instrument building, which he says some people shy away from these days.
DeMeo: “So I cook my glue. This is just hide glue.”
Van Cleave: “It kind of smells sweet.”
DeMeo: “Yeah, it does. It’s just from the animal parts.”
Van Cleave: “You make your varnish? Out of what?”
DeMeo: “Ever hear of lac? It’s a bug. So they leave this hard secretion. I use seed lac, because it looks like little seed, and then it’s mixed with a couple other things.”
Those more traditional methods, like making your own glue, tend to make the business of putting an instrument together that much harder. Everything Ray does has to be deliberate and controlled.
“This, you have seconds, you only have a minute at the very top. And a lot of time you’ll heat the parts to give it a little extra time. You know, we’re talking seconds,” DeMeo said.
But he says the easiest way doesn’t always mean you’ll get the best result.
“There’s modern stuff, and modern ways and bolts and new kinds of glues, but there’s a reason the 1960s Martins sound so nice and going even further back in time, you know, the 20s, all mahogany, you could buy them for $30, there’s a reason they sound really good,” DeMeo said.
Ray couldn’t give me an exact time for how long it takes to make each instrument. But from what I saw, it take a while.
“This is how it starts, this is the roughing out of a violin, mandolin, arched up mandolin, cellos, it’s all the same, and it starts out just like this,” DeMeo said.
The sound you’re hearing is Ray basically scooping pieces of wood away from the body of what will eventually be his personal viola. And he makes it look really easy.
“It’s not necessarily the strength, it’s the control,” DeMeo said as he scraped.
Ray says the building process starts with selecting a piece of wood. Maple and spruce are pretty typical choices. And some of those pieces come directly from Ray’s yard. He draws lines with a pencil on the wood to tell him where not to go, then gets to cutting.
Ray says it’s part science, part instinct. He tests his work by tapping the board to hear certain tones.
“These are tap tones for viola, the top of C-sharp and the back is a D. Mandolins are different, they’re a full step away,” he said.
Ray loves what he does. And you can really tell as you talk to him about his craft. And when you hear him play and instrument he’s made.
This week, we’re heading to Gulkana on the Richardson Highway north of Glennallen. Angela Vermillion is tribal administrator for the Gulkana Village Council.
“My name is Angela Vermillion and I am the tribal administrator for Gulkana Village Counsel.
The village is located in-between the Gulkana River and the Copper River. And we are located on the Richardson Highway. And we are a small a small village of between 75 to 100 people.
We have Spruce Trees and in our background we have the Wrangell Mountains. We got a lot of hills, we got rivers and creeks.
People in Gulkana we are employed. Some work in the Copper River School District, work for our native regional corporation and we actually have a quite a few that work here for the Gulkana Village Counsel and various jobs.
For some in the summertime, we’re very much involved in our subsistence way of life. Have fish wheels and a lot of people are involved with fish[ing] for the wintertime. We do that and various ways of smoking it, drying it, jarring it [and] freezing it.
And then for fun people actually instead of on the fish wheel they actually go fishing with [a] fishing pole.
There’s just a lot of activities [like] biking [and] hiking.
We have street lights and we have paved roads and paved sidewalks which that…not…that’s kind of unusual for a smaller village to have all of that.”
It took a strong subsistence culture to live on King Island, and that culture is still remembered long after the island’s last occupants left in the 1960s. Now one artist believes the time has come to return to King Island. Meet Inupiaq poet and author Joan Naviyuk Kane, on the next Talk of Alaska.
Video archived at the Smithsonian Institute.
HOST: Steve Heimel
- Joan Kane, author, “The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife“
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LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.