‘The Winter Bear’ tackles issues of suicide

Photos courtesy of Anita Algiene. "The Winter Bear" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 25 at the fairgrounds in  Ninilchik and 7:30 p.m. April 26 at Ionia in Kasilof.

Photos courtesy of Anita Algiene. “The Winter Bear” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 25 at the fairgrounds in Ninilchik and 7:30 p.m. April 26 at Ionia in Kasilof.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

In Athabascan culture, a winter bear is a powerful figure deserving of caution and respect, both in physical and spiritual form. A brown bear interrupted in its hibernation, rousing too early from its den, is dangerous, grumpy, hungry and more likely to fight than flee. In traditional times, it was a heroic right of passage for a young man to face the bear with just a traditional spear. In modern times, hunting is not as necessary to survival as it once was, but new challenges facing youth these days have every bit the power to destroy lives as the claws and jaws of the winter bear.

A play by Anne Hanley, to be performed this week on the Kenai Peninsula, uses the allegory of the winter bear as a way to explore one of today’s threats — that of suicide. Though particularly affecting Native youth in Alaska, suicide is unfortunately a widespread phenomenon.

“I think the issues are pretty universal,” Hanley said. “Most of us have had some kind of a brush with a suicide incident, whether it was a relative or ourselves or whatever. We’re all human beings sort of going through this together.”

The play is about a young Alaska Native man who is having a rough time in his life, so bad that he’s considering suicide. He gets sentenced to spend time with an elder, Sidney Huntington, but the sentence turns out to be a blessing.

“The elder turns him around using traditional culture. I think it’s a message of hope that the boy is able to turn things around, able to kind of individuate and become himself, and even in the end become a leader,” Hanley said.

The plot and the boy are fiction, though the elder is based on the real, now 99-year-old Sidney Huntington, of Galena. Huntington has had quite the storied life — father of 20, himself the son of an Athabascan mother and gold-miner father, serving on the Alaska Board of Game, helping found the school in Galena, starting a fish processing plant and running dogs with his brother, Jimmy, who served in the Legislature. Hanley, a former Alaska Writer Laureate, was commissioned in 2008 to write a play about Huntington, and chose to focus on his heart for mentoring youth.

“He’s just an incredible man, and in his life Sidney himself has mentored many young people, especially young men, because he’s gone through the same cycle of drinking and all that that it seems like too many people go through. He picked himself up and changed his life and has always taken it upon himself as a duty to be interested in young people and try to help them so that they can turn their life around if they need to and make good decisions,” Hanley said.

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Spring brings birds, beluga whales — Researcher seeks sightings, annual birding festival ready for liftoff

Photos courtesy of LGL Alaska Research Associates. MMPA/ESA research permit No. 14210 This adult beluga, designated R1238, was photographed in the Kenai River delta in 2012 by LGL Alaska Research Associates. It is presumed to be a mother based on photographs with an accompanying calf. Belugas can be seen in and around the Kenai River in spring and fall and have been seen by several people in the last week.

Photos courtesy of LGL Alaska Research Associates. MMPA/ESA research permit No. 14210
This adult beluga, designated R1238, was photographed in the Kenai River delta in 2012 by LGL Alaska Research Associates. It is presumed to be a mother based on photographs with an accompanying calf. Belugas can be seen in and around the Kenai River in spring and fall and have been seen by several people in the last week.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

As the dance that is the turning of the seasons quickens pace from the slow winter waltz to the sprightly jig of spring, wildlife picks up its pace, as well. On the Kenai Peninsula, bears emerging from dens, moose dropping calves and caribou migrating to their summer territory might get the most notice from humans this time of year, but for those with an eye for it, a more intricate choreography can be seen.

Unseen under the water, hooligan are returning to the rivers, drawing in more visible, yet still special-to-see visitors — beluga whales.

“In the spring and fall we have belugas coming in. This is the time of year and the sightings have gone up,” said Ken Tarbox, with the Keen Eye Birders group and a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist.

Belugas tend to hang out in the mouth of the Kenai River around river miles three and four, although they’ve been known to go up past the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge on Bridge Access Road. This year they’ve been sighted as far upstream as Kenai Landing, and also pushing up Cook Inlet past Salamatof toward Nikiski.

“They’re obviously coming in here, poking around, feeding and doing their thing,” Tarbox said. “We’ve counted as many as 30 whales before, but this year I think the peak count so far is 12 seen in one group going up the river.”

Not only is it exciting to catch a glimpse of the white undulations breaking the water’s surface, the sightings have scientific value, as well. The National Marine Fisheries Service catalogs all beluga sightings in Cook Inlet, with as much detail as reporters can include — time, date, location of sighting, number of whales seen, number of calves seen, activity, direction of travel, etc. But before the information gets to NMFS, Tamara McGuire with LGL Alaska hopes the reports come her way to aid in her continuing photo-identification projects of belugas in the inlet.

This beluga whale, designated R875, was photographed in the Kenai River delta in 2012 as part of LGL Alaska Research Associates’ photo identification projects. Whales have been sighted in and around the Kenai River recently, and LGL asks anyone spotting a beluga to report it through the website www.cookinletbelugas.com.

This beluga whale, designated R875, was photographed in the Kenai River delta in 2012 as part of LGL Alaska Research Associates’ photo identification projects. Whales have been sighted in and around the Kenai River recently, and LGL asks anyone spotting a beluga to report it through the website http://www.cookinletbelugas.com.

Belugas bear distinctive marks — scars from injuries or infections — that stay with them throughout their lives, making them visually distinct and identifiable. Since 2005, McGuire has been photographing inlet belugas, building a database and distinguishing individuals by the marks on their left and right sides so that more insight can be gleaned from future sightings, such as about their habitat and migratory patterns.

The project has primarily focused on Upper Cook Inlet — around Anchorage, Knik Arm, Turnagain Arm and the Susitna area. In 2011, the Kenai Peninsula Borough divvied up federal money it was granted to gather information about belugas in borough waters to fund several scientific projects. Among them was LGL expanding its photo identification project to the borough-area waters of mid Cook Inlet.

From 2011 to 2013, LGL identified 85 belugas in borough-area waters, with 78 percent found in Turnagain Arm, 22 percent in Chickaloon Bay/South Fire Island and 9 percent in the Kenai River delta.

One of the questions LGL hoped to settle is whether belugas around the Kenai River in the spring and fall were a separate group from those that frequent the northern inlet. And indeed, they are not.

“The whales that we were able to identify from the Kenai River, we were able to match them up with a lot of the whales we see up by Anchorage. The ones we were able to identify look like they were the same ones, so that was pretty interesting,” McGuire said.

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Autism walk focuses on help, hope — Annual event offers support for families

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Maguire Merriman, 13, diagnosed with autism roughly six years ago, displays some of the bracelets and key chains he made and was selling during the Walk for Autism held Saturday in Soldotna.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Maguire Merriman, 13, diagnosed with autism roughly six years ago, displays some of the bracelets and key chains he made and was selling during the Walk for Autism held Saturday in Soldotna.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

When Tonja Updike’s child, Garret, was born 11 years ago, it didn’t take long for alarm bells to ring in noticing some odd behaviors: little eye contact with peers, playing near people but not with them or a preoccupation with cars wheels rather than the toy car itself.

“We knew something wasn’t right and we didn’t know what. We wanted to help him but didn’t know where or how,” she said.

Her son was diagnosed with autism. More specifically, autism spectrum disorder — a group of related brain-based disorders that affect a child’s behavior and social and communication skills.

Updike said that it was a relief to know what was going on so they could pursue treatment, but as a parent whose child had been newly diagnosed, it also meant navigating the foreign terrain of treatment options.

“You’re panicking and you feel alone. It’s a whole new world and a lot of people don’t even know what it is or what it means when they hear the diagnosis,” she said.

In order to help other parents in this boat, or those who have been navigating these waters for a long time, Updike, co-organizer Jerri Braun and a bevy of other volunteers held the Autism Society of Alaska’s Walk for Autism on Saturday at Soldotna Middle School.

“It’s a venue for those involved with autism to share their experiences, from parents to siblings and other family members, to members of the school district, to local agencies,” Updike said. “And we want all of these people to know what is available to them, since everyone may not be aware of all the resources in the state.”

This can especially be the case for single parents, adoptive parents and grandparents or other family members taking in and raising an autistic child.

“Some may have been diagnosed as infants, but some may not have been diagnosed until later in life,” she said. “Whenever they’re diagnosed, it’s important for people to have support and make connections, and that’s what we’re hoping to do with this event.”

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Away from home run — Baseball fan to bat 1.000 on visiting every MLB park

Photo courtesy of Justin Franchino. Justin Franchino, right, at a baseball game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis in 2006. He plans to visit all 30 Major League Baseball parks this summer. He’ll keep a running blog of his adventure at justinfranchino.tumblr.com.

Photo courtesy of Justin Franchino. Justin Franchino, right, at a baseball game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis in 2006. He plans to visit all 30 Major League Baseball parks this summer. He’ll keep a running blog of his adventure at justinfranchino.tumblr.com.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

It’s called 30 for 30. At least that’s how Justin Franchino is referring to his summer plan of celebrating turning 30 this year by attending games in all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums.

He leaves May 6 for a three-month trip, starting in Seattle and ending in Denver.

A lifelong Alaskan, Franchino described himself as a basketball enthusiast for most of his life, playing in high school and now coaching. But attending baseball games has been a favorite leisure activity for years — smelling the fresh-cut grass of a ballpark, seeing the first pitch thrown out and wolfing down a hot dog.

“It is America’s pastime,” he said.

Franchino said the impetus to see 30 games in a single season, traveling all over the Lower 48, came not long after watching his favorite team — the Baltimore Orioles — play in their hometown last summer.

“I saw them play in Baltimore and then followed them to D.C and it was a fun trip, so I started thinking, ‘Next season I could do this stadium and that one,’ and then I decided, ‘Why not do them all?’ I’ve always loved sports and travel, so it’s always kind of been a pipe dream,” he said.

The push to make the dream a reality came after some reflection about where he’s at in life.

“I’m single, I don’t have a ton of debt, I just finished my degree and I don’t start my full-time teaching position ’til next year, so it seemed like it was the perfect time. It was now or when I’m 65,” he said.

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Setting new expectations — Game’s afoot in life with sporting dogs

Photo courtesy Christine Cunningham. Every dog has his day. In Winchester's case, any day in the field is his day.

Photo courtesy Christine Cunningham.
Every dog has his day. In Winchester’s case, any day in the field is his day.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

There’s nothing like walking into the house to see the place ransacked and the remnants of a loaf of bread next to your 100-pound Irish setter. If it had been one of the Labradors, there would be a grand display by the one who done it. My favorite ransacker is Cheyenne, a squatty chocolate Lab, who performs Latin dance moves whenever she is caught guilty of a crime. Red, the one who ate the loaf of bread, is the unrepentant sinner. His bread eating is a form of communication in itself: “You leave me at home, I eat your bread.”

Keeping six sporting dogs entertained is tough duty. They all want to go hunting, regardless of the season. Explaining the hunting regulations to dogs is like reading “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” to kindergarteners. At first, it’s sort of funny, and then it’s mutiny. Some want to eat the hunting regulations and some want you to throw them so they can retrieve them. Only Winchester, a refined English setter, is interested in furthering his study on the subject.

Winchester listens attentively to my rendition of the hunting regulations. He seems to have a good understanding of the game management units and the bag limits for ptarmigan. He is my favorite student. He has distain for his peer hunting dogs that do not aspire to his heights. His upland season is much longer than the waterfowl season, and his work as a pointing dog requires a higher degree of sophistication than the mere retrieval of ducks from swamps and sloughs.

He seems to say, “Read on, mother.” Cheyenne says, “Grrafelshelfinshup,” which means, “My butt is very itchy right now.” Red says, “Shut up and give me some bread.”

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Fools of April

Hunting, Fishing and Other Grounds for Divorce, by Jacki Michels

Every year, it’s the same thing. The sun blazes into the morning window, belying the actual temperature and wind chill outside. By afternoon the earth’s frosted coating melts away as the spring breeze grows sweet and beckons like a karaoke bar attracts a lonely sailor on furlough.

For those similarly affected, you’ll recognize that the symptoms of this affliction began back in February, when you openly lusted after the glossy pages of Burpee, Johnny’s and the like, wishing there was a centerfold pullout of a voluptuous squash. When the seeds finally arrived in the mail, it was as if the karaoke bar closed and now the band had begun to play, and they are smoking hot! It’s time to dance!

And for the April Fool, dance you will. You will go from the penguin shuffle (the move you did all winter to avoid falling on the ice) to the Alaska stomp. Why do we stomp? With a lack of far-north vineyards and fall grapes to crush, we are left to the peculiar tradition of stomping the snow and ice from the yard with insulated boots and waterproof hope. We stomp free the extension cords of winter, we stomp sheets of ice and banks of snow into submission. Giddy with the glory of spring we scamper across the yard and begin to circle the trees counterclockwise, disrobing them of their winter moose-deterrent garland and plastic yuletide prettiness.

The fact that “the last full moon of June” is homesteader wisdom concerning outdoor planting does not deter us from delusions of an earlier full, growing, glorious spring.

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Plugged In: New optic options from old manufacturers

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Until a few years ago, Sigma and other third-party lens makers got no respect, their products viewed as cheap, low-quality alternatives to “proper” optics from prestigious original equipment manufacturers like Zeiss, Canon and Nikon.

That’s changed over the past two or three years. Third-party optical companies have dramatically upgraded the quality of their products, in many cases surpassing the name brands, while remaining relatively inexpensive alternatives.

Partly, that reflects economies of scale. A third-party manufacturer can design and build the same lens for many different camera mounts rather than only their own cameras, spreading fixed research and development costs over many more units.

When a new generation took the reins of family owned businesses like Sigma, they realized that they could, and must, compete on quality as well as price. In the case of Sigma, for example, that renewed focus on quality became evident within the past two years.

Many new Sigma lenses crafted at their traditional Japanese factory simply outclassed the optical quality of brand-name optics, often now made in Third World countries. Despite the higher quality and manufacturing costs of Sigma’s Japanese-made lenses, they’re selling well below the price of comparable Zeiss, Canon, Sony and Nikon products.

Consumers clearly win on quality, variety and price. Even professional reviewers, usually a dour lot, are rooting for Sigma, the underdog made good. So, what products might work for you? We’ll start with Sigma but also mention products from rival Tamron.

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