Giving spirit at play — Toys for Tots gifts provide cheer for area children

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Danika (left) and Isaak Winslow help sort and count donations for Toys for Tots on Monday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. Between fundraisers and donations, the program will provide 1,605 toys to Kenai Peninsula families in need this year.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Danika (left) and Isaak Winslow help sort and count donations for Toys for Tots on Monday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. Between fundraisers and donations, the program will provide 1,605 toys to Kenai Peninsula families in need this year.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Ever wonder what a holiday elf feels like? Volunteering for Toys for Tots offers that experience.

“I’m a toy Sherpa,” said Cassandra Winslow, perennial hauler of donation boxes for the annual toy drive on the Kenai Peninsula, held Oct. 1 through Dec. 13 in Kenai, Soldotna and Homer.

Reindeer service is an important part of Toys for Tots, as the donations need to be collected from the 30-plus drop-off locations in area businesses and offices, as well as transporting the hundreds of additional toys bought Sunday at Fred Meyer with money collected in fundraisers this year.

By Monday evening all the toys had been hauled to the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center and stuffed in any secure area possible — much of them in director Johna Beech’s office.

“I think we have a lot to do,” said volunteer Dawni Marx, surveying the mountain of boxes and bags containing all manner of toys and games, leaving uncovered just Beech’s desk and a narrow path leading to it.

“It’s stuffed in here!” said Isaak Winslow, 7, who, along with sister Danika, 9, was a “Sherpa in training” with their mom.

“Yeah, it is,” Beech replied. “Count ’em as you drag ’em.”

Thus began the procession of toy-stuffed bags and boxes — some as big as the kids trying to lug, drag and slide them — from her office into the main gallery space down the hall, where everything was piled on one side of the room, then counted as it was moved to new piles on the other side.

From there all the items were loaded into a box truck and hauled yet again, this time to The Salvation Army, where distribution will take place. The most-important trip still awaits the toys, when they’re brought home with parents to be wrapped and stored under the tree to be given to their kids on Christmas.

“It’s so amazing to work (at the toy distribution), but it’s so sad to think we have that level of poverty in our community, too,” Beech said.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under community, holidays

Trusty Tusty trails — Volunteer effort expands learning beyond school’s classrooms, walls

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

There are the reading, writing and arithmetic standards that all students everywhere should learn. And then there is regional knowledge, inherent to a specific place or climate. In Alaska, that often means outdoor abilities. Those skills might not make it into any official curriculum, but some schools find ways to expand lessons to include those of the life variety.

At Tustumena Elementary School in Kasilof, learning takes place in the classroom during the school day, and beyond. In this case, surrounding the school, both before and after school hours, all winter long, thanks to resurrected ski trails that have been developed around the school.

Dave Michael, a fourth-grade teacher at Tustumena, was also a member of the U.S. Olympic cross-country ski team in 1980. He saw a need for ski trails available for school and community use that don’t require a drive to Soldotna or Kenai.

“Using all the potential loops, I will groom about 2.5 kilometers of very easy, gently rolling ski trail. I will attempt to keep both a classic track as well as a skate surface groomed on a weekly basis or as it is needed. It is definitely intended for community use on the broader scale,” he said.

The trails were defunct pathways though the forest behind the school.

“The first set of trails was established here probably close to 30 years ago when Al Besh was the building administrator. As I understand it, Al was able to get the Army Corps. of Engineers to bring in a small bulldozer and cut a trail that extended outward behind the school in a left-hand loop, which was about one to 1.5 kilometers in length,” Michael said.

The trails were actively used for a time, but as can be the case with things involving work to keep up, maintenance waxed and waned with time.

“After some time, the interest and use of that trail seems to have died out. With lack of use and yearly maintenance, some of the trails became overgrown and some sections became inaccessible due to the development of adjacent roads, neighborhoods and homes,” Michael said.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Kasilof, outdoors, schools, skiing

Birds on the brain — Audubon Christmas Bird Count slated for Saturday

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The Central Peninsula Landfill is a hot spot to count bald eagles in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, coming up this year on Saturday.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The Central Peninsula Landfill is a hot spot to count bald eagles in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, coming up this year on Saturday.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

One bird, two birds, three birds, four or five hundred more — it must be Audubon Christmas Bird Count time.

Saturday is the date of this year’s count on the central Kenai Peninsula. Volunteers will divvy up 11 count sectors within a 15-mile circle centered about two miles west of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in Soldotna, and covering the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

It’s a long-standing, wide-ranging tradition, this being the 115th year of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count in the United States, with participation expanding across North, Central and South America. Each year, tens of thousands of volunteers take to the field in their area’s circle to count numbers of bird species and numbers of individual birds on a day they choose within the designated count window, encompassing the end of December and early January.

The bird count period actually extends three days before and three days after the selected count day. During that window additional species can be observed and included, but not additional birds. At the end of the count week, the data is sent to the National Audubon Society, which maintains it in an online, searchable database.

“Any person can log on there and look at any of the counts from the 1900s to the present, and you can see the conditions and how trends have changed over time in different areas,” said Jack Sinclair, who organized the last local bird count.

Sinclair has been participating in the Christmas Bird Count since 1985 in Seward.

“When I moved to Soldotna in 1990 I asked around. There was a circle that had been established but no one had been doing it for a while, so we kind of picked up the torch and ran with it,” he said.

It’s been a long time, but is worth the time, he said. On a personal level, it’s fun.

“It is a great activity. You don’t have to have a degree in ornithology, you don’t have to have great credentials, you don’t have to be a scientist. You just have to have an interest in getting outside and looking at birds. Here in Alaska, we have opportunities to see great birds. It’s something that I just enjoy doing, and once you start doing it you start to enjoy the habits of birds and watching them and seeing where they live. I’ve been enjoying it for a long time, probably since my first year in college,” he said.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under birds, outdoors

Harvesting a happy tradition — Imperfect Christmas tree a perfect fit for family

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Bringing home the Christmas tree, dog sled style.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Bringing home the Christmas tree, dog sled style.

By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter

The goodies, the gifts, the lights, the music — all are nice ways to experience the holiday season. But for me, selecting our family Christmas tree is a tradition I look forward to more than all others.

Notice I say “selecting” a tree, not putting one up. Blowing the inch-thick dust off the boxes of ornaments in the basement, hauling everything upstairs, straightening then anchoring the tree in the stand and decorating the whole assemblage is actually rather mundane to me. Getting the tree — now there’s the good stuff.

Selecting a tree means different things to different people. For some, the decision of a tree was made years ago while looking at a stock model in a store. I have a brother-in-law who long ago went the artificial tree route. To his defense, he always has his tree up the day after Thanksgiving, it always looks great and he never has to worry about vacuuming dropping needles as Christmas draws near. But to me, that’s just not natural.

In town, I see no shortage of people pushing a bright-orange cart out of Home Depot with a tightly tethered tree protruding like a lance several feet in front of them. Purchased trees are less work than harvesting your own and have more character than the mass-produced artificials. And they smell real, but it’s a purchased reality, rather than an experienced one.

More to my liking is taking advantage of the seasonal opportunity allowed by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to load up every family member, drive to a remote area, swaddle everyone in thick layers, plod through the woods seeking a suitable spruce, chop one down and lug it back to the vehicle for the trip home.

My wife and I are both nature lovers who have weighed the odds of which is more harmful to the environment — synthetically produced or naturally harvested trees. From the research we’ve done we believe harvesting is the better choice in the long run, and as dog mushers, my wife and I go an additional extra mile to find each year’s selection.

Running a team of dogs through miles of forest all around the peninsula affords us the opportunity to eyeball many prospective trees months in advance of harvesting one. My wife and I have to take many passes by prospective trees since we’re going by them so fast, and back home we weigh the pros and cons of each potential.

You might think, then, that we select the tallest or fullest-bodied specimens. Quite the contrary. We realize we’re going to kill a tree, but we don’t want the added guilt of seeking out the choicest, healthiest tree. Instead, we select one that is closely competing with another tree that will likely, over time, die off anyway.

By cutting one out before that happens, not only will the other tree better thrive from the open space and sunlight now available to it, but we benefit from taking the competitor home for the holiday season. It’s a win win for everyone but the cut tree, though we console ourselves that it wasn’t long for this world anyway.

This tree might not fit a Norman Rockwell scene, but it’s a highlight of Christmas all the same.

This tree might not fit a Norman Rockwell scene, but it’s a highlight of Christmas all the same.

A side effect of this approach is that our tree is the most aesthetically pleasing. It tends toward the Charlie Brown, rather than Norman Rockwell, aesthetic. We’ve gotten used to our tree having one side that’s a little stunted, with shorter branches and thinner needles than the rest of the covering. No matter. This side just gets turned to face the wall.

Harvesting by dog team, while fun, is also no easy feat. Once the perfectly imperfect tree is selected, I have to get the dogs to stop close enough to it. As anyone who’s been around a sled dog can vouch, they’re good at going forward — but standing still, not so much.

If I can stop them within spitting distance of the tree, they have to stay that way long enough for me to step away, cut the tree and secure it in the sled. (And by “secure” I mean foisting it off on my wife who is riding in the basket of the sled, who wraps her arms around the tree and hugs it the whole way home to prevent the branches from being bent or broken on the return trip.)

It’s like Christmas algebra for me — there are many variables at play, but when all come together the resulting equation perfectly sums up the holiday season for me. Concerted effort and conscientiousness make for a celebrated tradition. Looking back at photos of past Christmases, I remember the character of each tree and what we went through to get it as much as anything that went under it.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Redoubt Reporter.

1 Comment

Filed under holidays, mushing, outdoors

Plugged In: Put it all together for prime photos

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

In recent articles, we’ve considered various aspects of “shot discipline,” the use of careful photo technique. Now, it’s time to put it all together.

To do that, I’ll discuss some of my own photos that, initially, didn’t make the cut due to my own inattention or carelessness at the time.

I’ve always enjoyed the intensely colored fields of lupine along the Sterling Highway just south of Ninilchik. It’s not really art, of course, but it’s fun and satisfying, which is as good a justification as any. Most of us have untold megabytes of brightly lit lupine and fireweed photos, myself included, so I wanted a different take on the subject.

Backlighting has always been one of my favorite approaches, shooting so that the light source is behind your subject and illuminating it from the rear. Backlighting often brings out subtle details, tones and colors absent from the harshness of high-noon sunshine.

When I got to Ninilchik late that June evening, the sunshine was still above the horizon but the wind was fierce and the east-dipping bluff shaded the fields of flowers from direct sunshine. Those conditions created quite a few problems.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

Time flies — Trout Unlimited offers knot your usual winter activity

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Mark Wackler gives a demonstration on how to tie a wooly bugger during a Tie One On event in Kenai last week, hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Mark Wackler gives a demonstration on how to tie a wooly bugger during a Tie One On event in Kenai last week, hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

By Joseph Robertia

Peninsula Clarion

Winter can be a long, long time for cold-averse anglers, but while the lengthy season of dry lines could drive some to drink, the Kenai Peninsula Chapter of Trout Unlimited is inviting people to meet at local watering holes to tie one on in a different way.

“In a nutshell, the purpose of the event is to have some food and a beer and learn to tie flies,” said Brendyn Shiflea, one of the organizers of the fly-tying demonstration last week at Main Street Tap and Grill in Kenai.

Trout Unlimited is a national organization with more than 400 chapters across the U.S. made up of roughly 150,000 members. Its goal is to conserve, protect and restore North America’s cold-water fisheries and watersheds, to ensure that future generations can enjoy them.

The “Tie One On” event was designed with these same goals in mind, Shiflea said.

“It’s a way to promote fly-fishing and angler education in the area, grow membership and understanding of Trout Unlimited, and just to have fun in the winter,” he said.

The event series started in 2013, the idea spawned at a Trout Unlimited board meeting.

“It was an idea from board member and local fishing guide Lee Keupper. Lee, myself and Mark Wackler have spearheaded the event, and typically will lead the group by instructing the first part of the evening,” Shiflea said.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under fishing

Skating prevails on canoe trails — Wild ice awaits along Swan, Swanson lakes

Photo courtesy of Pete Snow. Winter ice skating offers a fast and mosquito-free way to tour the Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Routes, but mind the lily pads and other lumps and bumps along the way.

Photo courtesy of Pete Snow. Winter ice skating offers a fast and mosquito-free way to tour the Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Routes, but mind the lily pads and other lumps and bumps along the way.

Every time I fly over the northwestern corner of the Kenai Peninsula, I marvel at the number of lakes that make up the Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Routes and think about ways to explore them. Ways that don’t involve hiking in hip boots on soggy trails in the rain with a full pack on my back and canoe on my head while being tormented by mosquitoes.

Call me soft, but I like to travel fast and light and mosquitoes drive me absolutely insane, so I’ve pretty much given up on traveling deep into this wilderness from May to October. I have the utmost respect for those dedicated canoeists out there who paddle and portage the system during the summer months, and I’m sure they have fantastic experiences, but it’s just not for me. Fortunately, however, summer always ends in Alaska, and when the lakes finally freeze, the Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Routes open up to skaters. Then, wild ice season begins.

There are a number of roadside lakes up Swanson River Road and out Swan Lake Road that are great for ice skating and are easily accessible to anyone with a vehicle and a pair of hockey skates. If you want true roadside skating, you’ll need to head up Swanson River Road at least as far as Weed, Dolly Varden and Rainbow lakes. Park your car, put on your skates, step onto the ice and go (after you’ve checked the thickness of the ice, of course).

Other lakes on Swanson River Road, such as Mosquito, Silver, Forest, Drake and Skookum lakes, require a short hike in to get the goods. These lakes are beautiful, slightly removed from the truck traffic on the road and can be great fun when the conditions are good.

If you want to really explore the Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Routes that depart from Swan Lake Road and link multiple lakes together in a wide-ranging tour, you’ll need some specialized skating equipment that will allow you to tackle the many portages more efficiently than you can with hockey skates.

Constantly lacing and unlacing your skates with frozen fingers and changing into hiking boots and back into skates for the portages, or — yikes — hiking in skate guards? No. To get deep into the system to the truly wild ice in a way that’s fast and fun, you’ll need Nordic skates.

Nordic blades, which clip on and off of ski boots, make for a quick and efficient way to traverse the canoe trails with their many portages.

Nordic blades, which clip on and off of ski boots, make for a quick and efficient way to traverse the canoe trails with their many portages.

Nordic skating was developed in Sweden (långfärdsskridsko), but it is also quite popular in Norway (turskøyting) and Finland (retkiluistelu) and is slowly catching on in Alaska (obscurenichesport). Nordic skating is all about going far and fast with a minimal amount of effort.

Imagine effortlessly gliding through a blurring landscape at dreamlike speeds with the freedom to go in any direction you choose and you’ll have some sense of Nordic skating. It’s always exhilarating and when conditions are perfect it can be downright euphoric. You’re not just walking on water, you’re flowing across the top of it catching wolves by surprise.

Nordic skates aren’t really skates as much as they are long, hard steel blades (50 centimeters or so) with cross-country ski bindings mounted on top. You use warm, comfortable Nordic ski boots and clip into the bindings as if they were skis. Your heels, and your mind, remain free. Since clipping in and out of the bindings takes mere seconds, you can go from skates to boots and back to skates in less time than it takes to say, “I love portaging these mosquito-free trails without a canoe!”

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under outdoors, skating, winter