Monthly Archives: December 2008

Shooting for the stars — Kenai teacher in the running to become NASA astronaut


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Like many kids growing up in the Apollo era, Allan Miller wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. Somewhere along the line of adolescence, college, adulthood, kids and careers, most give up that dream and make peace with being earthbound.

Not Miller. At 45, he’s getting another chance at outer space.

“I’ve always been fascinated by space,” Miller said. “My earliest memory is sitting on my dad’s lap, watching Neil Armstrong land and walk on the moon.”

The Kenai Middle School science teacher spent last week in Houston at the Johnson Space Center undergoing interviews and rigorous physical, psychological and intelligence testing to determine if he’ll be picked for NASA’s astronaut program. He and 4,000 other hopefuls applied for the program in July, and Miller made the cut down to the 120 selected for the interview stage. They’re being brought to Houston in batches of 20.

“I didn’t even think they’d give me a second look when I applied. I was very surprised when they gave me a call,” Miller said. “I lost 28 pounds because I don’t want to present myself as an overweight 45-year-old. I’m doing my best youthful impression. Anything to hide the wrinkles.”

Of the 450 astronauts in history, three were 45 or older, Miller said. But even so, he’s got some marks in his favor. For one thing, he’s already been through the selection process. He applied during the last round of applications in 2003 and also made it to the physical examination stage before NASA disqualified him because testing showed abnormalities with his eyes.

Tests since then show the abnormality was benign, and he was invited to apply again.

“Anytime NASA sees something they don’t understand medically, you’re out of the game entirely. It turns out I was just born with big optical nerves, bigger than most. They decided I just have weird eyeballs,” he said.

Being a military pilot is no longer the most direct route to becoming an astronaut, which is good for Miller because his early aspirations of joining the Air Force were squashed by his poor, 20/100 vision. Nowadays, NASA considers doctors, scientists, engineers and even teachers who can inspire the next generation of astronauts.

“When I walked into it five years ago, the most shocking part of it was to meet the other 19 people down there. I was just so humbled and feeling inadequate,” Miller said of the cancer researcher, Navy test pilot, people with multiple doctorate degrees and scientists in obscure fields of study who were in his interview group.

“You almost needed a translator when you asked, ‘What do you do?’ I spend my day hanging with seventh-graders. I just look at myself and go, ‘Why am I here?’ But they know who they’ve invited, and for whatever reason, I’m worth the recall.”

Miller speaks Russian, after teaching English in the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1988, teaching Russian at Skyview High School for six years, and being a translator for the Russian biathlon team in the 2002 Winter Olympics (he’s also been a cross-country ski and biathlon coach) and for an exchange program between Alaska and Magadan, Russia. That skill would be useful on the International Space Station working with its Russian inhabitants.

And he’s got a science background. Miller worked with the National Science Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., and participated in a research trip to Antarctica two years ago.

Since his last go-around with NASA in 2003, Miller has been actively involved with bringing outer space down to Earth in the classroom. When he taught at Sterling Elementary, prior to his sabbatical with the National Science Foundation, he established it as a NASA Explorer School, which opened up a host of projects in which students could participate. At Kenai Middle, where he teaches now, he just finished a project where students linked with the International Space Station and took pictures of Earth.

“The neat thing about NASA is they really have the corner on the market of inspiration,” Miller said. “What’s more inspiring than rockets?”

Science comes to life when it’s not just from a textbook, he said. Instead of reading about cells and cytoplasm on a page, he has students do a project simulating NASA’s Phoenix Mission, which put a lander on Mars to look for signs of life. So many of the advancements the space program has made seemed like science fiction 15 years ago, so it’s exciting to learn about new technologies and discoveries as they’re happening, Miller said.

“I just want kids to come away with an awe and wonder of science,” he said.

That’s a large part of Miller’s motivation for pursuing the astronaut program — he’s learning a lot that he can take back to the classroom.

“My passion is kids and education. For me, it’s just another part of being a good teacher,” he said.

NASA will continue its interview and testing process through the end of January and select 40 to 50 candidates to move on to the next round. From those, 10 to 15 will be picked for the astronaut program, Miller said.

The mission they’d be involved in includes spending three to six months on the International Space Station doing human physiological research to find out how to combat problems astronauts face when spending long periods of time in space, like bone and muscle loss from being in zero G, radiation exposure, immune system issues, and discovering ways to recycle water and grow food in space. Solving those issues would help make a manned mission to Mars possible.

If Miller is selected, he and his family — wife, Joan, and kids Xander, 9, Mackenzie, 7, and Sasha, 3 — would move to Houston. He’d spend four to five years training before flying a mission to space sometime in 2013 or 2014. Joan has been wonderfully supportive of him pursuing his dream, Miller said, and their kids are getting used to the idea.

“The big worry at this point is how much hockey is there in Texas. That’s the crisis decision,” Miller said. “They’re excited about it, but at the same time, it’s change. … The thought of Dad sitting on top of 7 million pounds of thrust is scary, and that comes with great risk.”

Miller said he wants to show his kids that some risks are worth taking if it means following your dreams.

“I think it’s a good life lesson. Sometimes life opens opportunities for you and you walk through the door,” he said.

He’s also prepared to show them how to make the best of things when they don’t work out as planned.

“This is so far from selected. It’s just a very, very remote chance,” he said. “It’s an honor to get to this level, especially to be there a second time. It could turn out to be nothing more than a wonderful pat on the back from NASA, and thank you for the time and some sunshine in December.

“If it doesn’t happen, sure, I’ll be disappointed, but so many things have happened in pursuit of those goals that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

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Imagination blasts off — Special guests spark interest in science


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Kenai Middle School students had some auspicious guests in class Friday, all the way from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, including their own teacher.

“I see you, Mr. Miller!” a few voices piped up as the videoconference link was established, letting the students see their science teacher, Allan Miller, and Miller see the 50 students in his classroom.

Miller was in Texas last week undergoing interviews and testing for NASA’s astronaut program. He’s one of 120 from a field of 4,000 applicants still under consideration in the nearly yearlong application cycle. NASA is in the process of winnowing that batch down to 40 or 50 by bringing them to Houston in groups of 20 for interviews. By spring, 10 to 15 will be picked to be the next astronauts.

Miller rounded up some of his fellow applicants and others he met at the Johnson Space Center to talk to his students back in Alaska. They each told a little about their backgrounds, if they were applicants, or their jobs for NASA if they worked there. Then the students got to ask questions. True to middle school form, the students had a few curveballs for their guests.

“Would people say you’re cool?” was a question for an astronaut in training, who will fly a mission to the International Space Station in February.

The answer came with a laugh: “I have a 13-year-old back home who would probably say, ‘No way.’”

Students also wanted to know how long training takes before going to space (2.5 to three years), how big the International Space Station is (each of the seven or eight modules is the size of a school bus) and how astronauts train to do spacewalks (practice in a swimming pool).

A professor from Stanford University talked about his research trips around the world and the different opportunities students have for research and study with NASA, including a recent test of worms and bacteria from toilets sent into space.

He’s taught at the college and elementary school level, and said younger students are his favorite to talk to, “Because you guys actually pay attention.”

“Do you mean that, or are you just saying that to make us feel better?” a student wanted to know.

Two Navy jet pilots were a big hit with the students and got several questions about the kinds of jets they fly, how they got to be pilots and if they like flying jets.

“Absolutely. It definitely beats working for a living,” one of them said.

Another candidate talked about his job building satellites and his history playing football at Purdue University, a medical doctor told students he wished he had a teacher like Mr. Miller when he was their age, and a scientist with a doctorate degree told them how much he enjoyed going to school:

“How would you feel if, by the time you graduated from high school, you were only halfway done with school?”

Miller did a slide show of photos from Mission Control and other areas of the space center, and some shots of the tests he underwent, including one of him in shorts undergoing body measurements.

“Sorry about that. You really didn’t want to see that image, did you?” he said.
The final speaker was a mechanical engineer specializing in robotics that Miller had met when he applied for the astronaut program five years ago.

He showed students how far robotic hands have come over the years and showed some robots developed for space missions. The robots included “Robonaut,” a humanoid figure; a flying camera reminiscent of a training device Luke Skywalker fought in the original “Star Wars” movie; and “Spidernaut,” with eight legs to distribute its weight so it could walk on delicate surfaces.

His current project is designing wheels for rovers being developed for missions on the moon and Mars.

“What is the first robot you ever built?” a student asked.

“If you count Legos, then Legos,” he answered. After that, it was a version of Robonaut.

After a half hour, it was time for students to participate in a school fire drill, and Miller to get back to attempting to become an astronaut. But that doesn’t mean he stopped being a teacher.

He signed off with a yes or no question that would determine whether he assigned homework over Christmas break:

“Who wants to be a scientist or engineer when they get older?”

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Many reasons to celebrate — Kindergarten class learns Hanukkah holiday traditions


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

When Lisa Cotler was going to school in Cincinnati, December meant Santa Claus and Christmas carols, and getting teased because those things weren’t part of her Jewish family’s holiday traditions.

“I was one of two or three people in my class who were Jewish. We were very singled out and made fun of. They never acknowledged differences in religion,” she said.

So when Cotler’s son’s kindergarten teacher invited Cotler and the other Jewish parent in class to help with a Hanukkah activity, she was thrilled.

“For me, as a mother, it’s wonderful because my mom wasn’t able to have that opportunity and see that because our schools didn’t do that,” she said. “When I walked in there, they were shouting, ‘We’re going to have Hanukkah today, we’re going to have Hanukkah today.’”

Sharon Harris joined Cotler in presenting Hanukkah activities for Eileen Bryson’s kindergarten class at Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science on Dec. 16.

“Mrs. Bryson always has fun stuff in her class,” Harris said. “There’s always something that’s going on in the classroom. Kids at that age are so much fun because they’re very open to everything and very interested in learning.”

Bryson said she tries to incorporate all the kids’ backgrounds and traditions into class.

“I’ve been doing it for, oh, probably 12 to 15 years, actually. I just feel like it’s really important for children to be exposed to different cultures and different experiences. If people are open to that, I feel like that’s a wonderful tradition, along with everything else. Kids really love it. It makes them open to thinking of different ways of celebrating.”

Her classes have learned about Hanukkah and Kwanza, and she’s invited kids’ relatives from other countries to help with activities, like making a piñata and corn tortillas with a girl’s grandmother from Nicaragua.

“We always have people from different groups in class. We almost always bring them in to talk about what it’s like in their home, in the country they came from or wherever, and usually cook and do something food-related with them,” Bryson said.

On Dec. 16, Bryson read the class a book about a little girl who didn’t have her own hanukiah, also called a menorah, so her grandfather helped her make one out of potatoes. Harris and her daughter, Isabelle, and Cotler and her son, Seth, showed the class their families’ hanukiahs, and talked about what they mean, where the tradition comes from and how they are lit for eight nights.

Bryson said the class had dipped their own candles earlier, so it was a nice tie-in to the Hanukkah event.

Harris and Cotler helped the class make latkes, which are potato pancakes traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.

“We’re going to make lattes?” one student asked.

Bryson said that incorporating food into class is a great way to hold kids’ attention.

“I think anything hands-on, cooking or anything like that, they like it. They just need to be involved one way or another,” she said.

One of Harris’ friends that she met when she spent five years in Israel sent dreidels for Harris to give to the students. She explained what the Hebrew letters painted on each side of the four-sided top meant, and how you play the game. Each player usually has a pile of gelt, which is Yiddish for money, that is actual coins or, more often, coin-shaped chocolates. The kindergartners played with stacks of interlocking building pieces.

Harris explained the game. To start each round, players put a piece of gelt into a central pile. One player spins the dreidel and does whatever is dictated by the letter on which it lands. “Hey,” for instance, means “half,” so the player takes half the pot of gelt. “Nun” means none, so it’s the next person’s turn.

“I think it was really nice. I mean, with 5-year-olds it’s difficult to hold their attention for long periods of times,” Harris said. “I think especially the dreidel game was fun for them. It utilized some of their early math training.”

And it was fun for Isabelle and Seth to share their traditions with their classmates.

“She was just really happy to share with the other kids, and they’re happy to learn,” Harris said. “That’s the thing that’s good about Kaleidoscope, they’re very open to all holidays and customs. Isabelle, for one, likes to learn about all different things. That’s kind of what makes that school special.”

“I think that Seth felt very good about it,” Cotler said. “I don’t want to say he felt special, because I don’t think that was the intention. I think he was able to express to the other children, in 6-year-old terms, why it is that we do what we do.”

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Home from war for the holidays — Siblings return from Afghanistan, Iraq to spend Christmas with family

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

The Kauffman family celebrates a special Christmas this year — Tavia and Travis are home from Afghanistan and Iraq, where they’ve been serving in the Marines.

The two eldest of the Kauffman siblings have served several missions after each joined in different years. Cpl. Tavia Kauffman, who graduated from Homer High in 2003, is stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C., and joined the Marines in 2005. Sgt. Travis Kauffman, a Homer 2002 graduate, finished his last Iraqi mission Nov. 6. He signed up with the Marines a few days before the Sept. 11 attack in 2001.

“My friends said, after that attack, you are so unfortunate,” Travis recalls.

Through the years, the holiday season saw either Travis or Tavia return, but seldom both of them together. Charles and Carolyn Kauffman have two younger children as well, Ryan, 17, and Heidi, 13.

“It’s been a good Christmas already just having them back,” said their dad, Charles Kauffman. “We basically hang out together — their grandmother is with us, too. We planned on cross-country (skiing) and going ice fishing.”

With both young people involved in the war effort for several years now, the worry can weigh heavily on their parents.

“There’s a lot we don’t hear about until it’s after the fact,” Charles said.

Tavia is one of only about 140 “loadmasters” in the entire Marine Corps, whose role is loading C-130J Hercules. Each mission takes a reconfiguration of the cargo space in the belly of the aircraft. The Marines in charge of that space are known as loadmasters, and they are responsible for everything behind the cabin.

Becoming a loadmaster is no easy task. Training takes about two years, making it one of the longest training periods in the Marine Corps, Tavia said. She is a loadmaster with VMGR-252, Detachment A.

“Our job literally takes us to the ends of the earth and back. Who could ask for more?” Tavia was quoted as saying in a Marine Corps, publication.

Tavia recently completed a nine-month mission in Afghanistan.

Travis was part of a reconnaissance unit that made the initial invasion into Iraq after two years of training. His unit goes behind enemy lines to do enemy surveillance, conduct raids or do sweeps to find bombs and weapons caches. He also worked in villages on stabilization and support operations.

Travis can be recalled to Iraq, since he is in the reserve forces, though he feels it might be unlikely.

“You have to be mentally prepared,” he said.

The two say they came independently to the conclusion they wanted to join the Marines, though they had a lot in common that made them feel ready for the military.
Growing up in Homer, the Kauffman siblings gained a lot of experiences that made them grounded. For one thing, they credit being blessed with great parents who instilled in them strong spirituality. For another, they grew up being “outdoorsy” and athletic.

“I worked three seasons in Bristol Bay on a fishing boat. You get sleep deprivation, you’re starving sometimes. I’ve been put in so many crazy circumstances on other jobs — it’s good training for the military,” Travis said.

“We see people who want to be part of something larger — who want the Marines to make them amazing. We come from a strong, grounded background, raised here, and people remark how grounded we seem,” he said. “I think we’re really blessed we come from that kind of a foundation.”

“If your identity is solid, not much will shake you, even in the military,” Tavia adds.
The siblings haven’t served in the same units or missions, and often they are out of touch with one another for brief periods. On e-mail, they use a cryptic way of talking to each other, yet they remain close, both said. While being interviewed, they finish each other’s sentences.

As for worry and anxiety about how the other was faring in the midst of war in separate countries, “I didn’t worry too much,” Tavia said. “God can take care of Travis better than I can by worrying about him.”

Tavia is planning on a medical career when her tour of duty is up in 2010. She would like to be a doctor. Travis plans on flying helicopters. But for now, the Kauffmans are relaxing in their Alaska style — they’re heading out in a blizzard Tuesday to go skiing.

“It’s already been a good Christmas,” Tavia said. “It’s just good to see everyone and be home.”

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Column: Shouldering a burden to lighten the load

Debbie Clonan is funny. That’s the first thing I noticed about her.

She’s witty and quick, observant and animated. If she’s got an opinion — and she usually does — she voices it; if something strikes her as funny — which is most of the time — she shares it.

That’s not to say she’s lacking in social graces — far from it. You don’t end up with a husband as wonderful or teenagers as pleasant and friendly as hers are without displaying those qualities yourself.

But she isn’t one to hold her tongue. That’s what impressed me about her.

She’s all personality, and she lays it out there for anyone to see. If something touches her, she expresses it, if something impresses her, she praises it, and if something ticks her off, you know it.

And cancer most definitely ticks her off.

“It sucks rocks,” she once said about cancer in an interview about the importance of getting mammograms.

Debbie has been through all of it — tests, surgery, radiation and chemo, drugs to combat the cancer and drugs to combat the side effects from the drugs to combat the cancer. She’s got stories that would make your toenails curl, turn black and fall off.

She was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in December 2005, from her very first mammogram at age 41. Her tumor had soft edges, so it wasn’t detectable by touch. Her family doesn’t have a strong history of breast cancer. There was no good reason to think she may have had cancer. But cancer doesn’t listen to reason.

That’s why it’s so vital to get tested. Even if you don’t think you have it. Even if you statistically shouldn’t have it. Especially if you’re terrified you have it.

“I recommend that everybody get tested,” she said. “If you think something is weird, don’t give up until you have a real, determined answer. You know your own body. If you feel funny, don’t let them blow you off because you’re in your 30s or don’t have a family history of cancer. Get tested.”

This is a woman who speaks her mind, stands up, puts her foot down, does what she thinks is right and isn’t anybody’s doormat. And suddenly, her life wasn’t her own anymore. It was dominated by test results, treatments, medication, side effects and statistics. She went from taking care of her husband, kids, pets, parents and pantheon of friends to needing care herself.

Debbie’s response was to open her arms to cancer. Not to accept it, or “make peace with it,” or in any way condone that she had to be afflicted by it. More like to embrace it head on, so she could get a good grip around its neck and beat the livin’ snot out of it.

The amount of research she’s done would put a med student to shame. She’s been through every recommended treatment and course of medication, and soldiered through all the nasty side effects that come from them. Through it all she’s kept up her mission to be the “mammogram police,” encouraging everyone to get tested, and to help others make it through a cancer diagnosis. That’s what I most respect about her.

Even when Deb was sick, she’d call to see how my mom was doing when she was in treatment, or to ask if there was anything she could do to help another friend whose mom had cancer. She had “Stupid cancer!” buttons made up, and has helped make the Kenai Peninsula Relay for Life event the top fundraiser in the state.

Part of her support comes through humor, helping people laugh at a situation they don’t otherwise know how to deal with. Among her many helpful tips: Don’t tell someone with cancer, especially undergoing chemo, that they look “great.”

“What the hell did I look like before?” she said.

Or if you’re going to express your love and support through food, try to be creative.
“Don’t bring lasagna, because everyone brings lasagna.”

Debbie is about much more than cancer. She’s an outdoorsy girl, having grown up in Sterling with a horse field on the family’s property. She’s a talented writer who can project her voice as loud and clear on paper as well as she can in person.

She used to write the Sterling column for the Peninsula Clarion’s Neighbors section. She often used the venue as a platform to support kids in the community, especially being a mom, herself, and a library aide at Sterling Elementary School. She’d interview kids, talk about interesting things going on in the school, publicize 4-H projects and find myriad other ways to point out good things about the area’s youth.

I saw Deb on Friday. She wasn’t up for much conversation, but what she did say spoke volumes about her and what she values most in life. She talked about her girls, how they were having an orchestra concert that night, and how they did such a good job decorating the house for Christmas. She talked about her husband, how he was going to put the finishing touches — including a stained glass star she made herself — on the 17-foot tree when he got home from work. Her parents. Her pets. Kids in general, and how there needs to be more for them to do in the community.

That’s a woman with her priorities straight. That’s a woman who shoulders what “sucks” in life in order to lighten the load of others carrying the same burden.

That’s what I’ll always remember about her.

Merry Christmas, Deb.

Jenny Neyman is the editor/publisher of the Redoubt Reporter.

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Guest editorial: Many hands made light work of Crooked Creek project

With over 61 miles of direct stream and riparian habitat, Crooked Creek, in Kasilof, is one of the longest anadromous streams on the Kenai Peninsula.

It is a major tributary of the Kasilof River, and supports spawning and rearing for substantial runs of chinook and coho salmon and one of the northernmost steelhead runs, as well as migratory bird habitat.

During a flood in 2002, a road crossing the creek near the Crooked Creek facility washed out. For several years following the flood, the area was left with very steep, unstable and unvegetated loose gravel stream banks. This is a very popular community use area because it is one of the few public access areas for viewing spawning chinook salmon on the Kenai Peninsula. This site is also listed in several publications encouraging visitors to view fish in the creek. Community members and travelers are seen in significant numbers. After Aug. 1, it’s heavily used for fishing.

As the need for a restoration project grew, so did the interest of community members, various agencies and local elementary students. The Tustumena Elementary School sixth-grade Adopt-a-Stream program had been active in research work at Crooked Creek for 10 years. Students visited the creek monthly and were interested in partnering with the community and other groups to take on this project.

The Kenai Watershed Forum was granted funds from several agencies to attend to the needs of Crooked Creek. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ConocoPhilips all contributed money to accomplish the project goals of stabilizing the stream bank, creating a study/monitoring area for students, protecting habitat and improving fishermen and visitor access.

The KWF was to serve as the facilitator to bring all the parties together to work for these common goals. A coalition was organized, including KWF, Tustumena students and parents, Crooked Creek landowners, Kasilof area residents and business owners, local government leaders and staff, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Alaska Department of Transportation.

The first matter of business was to bring the community and agencies with a stake in the restoration together. A community planning meeting was held at the Tustumena school in fall 2007, and a site visit was organized with all parties and agencies.

An older student from the area was looking for an Eagle Scout project and approached the watershed forum about adopting the Crooked Creek viewing platform portion of the project. Keith Clancy applied for and received all the appropriate permits. He was instrumental in securing the final design, and put a work crew together for the installation of a new, elevated study platform.

Throughout the planning and restoration stage of work, the students at Tustumena helped support the program. Classroom education continued with testing the waters of Crooked Creek through the Adopt-a-Stream program. Students organized and executed a creek cleanup day, and researched platforms, walkways and habitat restoration techniques. They designed and installed signs to educate the community and visitors about Crooked Creek, explaining how to help protect the area, respect wildlife and “leave no trace.”

Other agencies stepped in with time and materials to help make this project a success. Adjacent trails were improved by Fish and Game, improving visitor fishing and view access. DOT peeled back the original road and a visitor parking area with guardrails was established.

From the beginning, one of the focuses of the project was to bring the community together with various agencies to provide a successful restoration project that would enhance the Tustumena area and Crooked Creek. With the driving force of the Adopt-a-Stream students — known as Tustumena Streamkeepers — and their parents, the project moved forward and involved all the necessary parties.

Although huge steps have been made in making this former flood washout a desirable place to view spawning salmon and other wildlife, there is still more work to come.
KWF looks to complete the project during summer 2009 with installation of permanent viewing signs, further improvements to trails and another viewing platform. And Marathon Oil has come on board with a financial donation to the project. Our streambeds, creeks and watersheds are valuable assets to our communities. We are fortunate to have an abundance of support from the schools, residents, merchants, government agencies and private corporations to protect these critical habitat areas.

Rhonda Orth is the accounting and office manager at the Kenai Watershed Forum.

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No glow — Low point in sunspot cycle means little chance of Northern Lights


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Clear night skies are a trade-off in Alaska. They make for frigidly cold temperatures, but they also make it possible to see one of the most colorful perks to living in the North — the aurora borealis.

Except this year. When it’s clear, it’s just cold, with little chance of getting a light show.

Aurora displays are caused by sunspots — magnetic storms on the sun. Sunspots produce particles — mostly electrons and protons — called solar wind, that shoot out toward Earth. When solar wind particles collide with Earth’s magnetosphere, it can cause light emissions as the particles slam into the atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere.

Sunspot activity runs on an 11-year cycle, with some years being active, and some not so much. This would be a not-so-much year.

Andy Veh, professor of astronomy and physics at Kenai Peninsula College Kenai River Campus, said the sunspot cycle was at its maximum activity level in 2000 and 2001, and will be most active again in 2010 and 2011. But 2006 through 2008 is the low point in the cycle.

“Right now it’s, well, if you get a clear night, which are few and far between, and then you look, if it’s not there, it’s not there. If you have good luck, then it’s there. I have to admit I didn’t see any last year. This year, maybe one, I’m not sure. If they don’t move a lot, it’s tough to distinguish them from high clouds,” Veh said.

But just because the northern lights are a no-show this winter, doesn’t mean people should ignore the night sky. There are plenty of other reasons to look up.

“Instead of looking at the aurora, I noticed that Venus is out,” Veh said. “I was surprised when I saw it. I thought it was too far below the horizon in Alaska, but it’s really nice. It’s really bright when you’re driving at night to the south.”

When clear skies do happen at night, Veh recommends taking advantage of them.
“Astronomy is really hard in Alaska. It has to be really cold in order to get clear skies. So every other week we get a couple of nice nights,” he said. “The winter sky is nice because when they’re out, the brightest stars are in the winter.”

Orion, Taurus and Gemini are plenty bright and visible to the naked eye. Saturn can also be seen this time of year, rising after midnight in the east.

The Geminids meteor shower was covered by clouds last week, but the Quadrantids meteor shower may be visible to early risers on Jan. 4. Watch the sky around 6 a.m. for streaks of lights.

A good viewing spot away from man-made lights makes it easier to appreciate nature’s night lights. Veh said traveling on the Sterling Highway toward the mountains offers some dark pullouts that are good for stargazing. In town, Bridge Access Road is a decent spot, although passing traffic can interfere.

“The Kenai beach, as far as accessibility is concerned, the beach is good because you have a free view to the west and south, which you don’t have anywhere else,” he said.

Just don’t forget your mittens, since clear nights this time of year usually mean temperatures at or below zero.

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Winter solstice: 5 hours, 41 minutes and counting

According to Wikipedia, “The winter solstice occurs at the instant when the sun’s position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer.”

That may be the most precise and necessary definition. In slightly more plain English, one can also say that the winter solstice occurs when the Earth’s axis in the northern hemisphere is tilted the farthest away from the sun, which also means that the sun appears the closest on the southern horizon at noon, which produces the shortest daytime and longest night of the year.

Since the Earth takes 365 and one-fourth days to orbit the sun, the true time of winter solstice shifts by six hours each year. And since time zones are generally spread from Hawaii and to Japan, the winter solstice can occur on the calendar between Dec. 20 and 23.

However, I checked tables, and in Alaska the winter solstice always seems to be Dec. 21, with five hours, 41 minutes, of daytime for Soldotna and Kenai.

It’s interesting to note that the earliest sunset and latest sunrise do not happen on the same date as the winter solstice.

In Alaska this winter, the earliest sunset occurs Dec. 17 at 3:53 p.m. for the central Kenai Peninsula, while the latest sunrise will be Dec. 27 at 10:12 a.m. for the central Kenai Peninsula.

This has to do with the tilt of the Earth’s axis and the Earth’s elliptical orbit. Although the rotation of the Earth is constant at 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.09 seconds, the length of a day changes due to these two factors.

While the tilt of the Earth’s axis is constant in space – 23.5 degrees from the perpendicular of its orbit – it changes with respect to the sun during our orbit. We notice both throughout the year because stars at night always reach the same highest or lowest point in the sky above the southern and northern, respectively, horizons. That’s why the North Star Polaris is always in the same spot. In contrast, the sun appears very high in the summer and very low in the winter.

Because of that change in axial tilt with respect to the sun, the length of day is changing as well throughout the year. For those wanting a more lengthy explanation, check out http://www.larry.denenberg.com/earliest-sunset.html.
The second part is that, due to the Earth’s orbit being slightly elliptical, Earth is sometimes a little farther and sometimes a little closer to the sun. Therefore, the gravitational force between Earth and the sun changes a bit, which changes Earth’s speed in its orbit a little. We are fastest at 67,700 mph when we are closest to the sun around Jan. 3, and slowest at 65,500 mph when we are farthest from the sun around July 4.

Earth orbiting adds almost four minutes to its rotation, which makes for a day being an average of 24 hours long. But due to Earth orbiting faster or slower at times, and due to its axis tilt changing with respect to the sun, a day may be up to 29 seconds longer or shorter. That adds up throughout the year and, in turn, changes the exact time of local noon throughout the year. Since sunrise and sunset times are symmetrical before and after noon, that adds a slight variation.

Hence, the earliest sunset and the latest sunrise happen on different dates from the winter solstice.

Andy Veh is an astronomy and physics professor at Kenai Peninsula College Kenai River Campus.

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‘Cued up for success — Barbecue is Davis family tradition at the Pit in Kenai


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Sure, making money is nice, especially for a fledgling business like the Pit BBQ in Kenai trying to survive its first winter. But if you really want to make owner Dwight Davis happy, tell him you like his food.

“I feel just as good when a person tells me how good it is and is sincere about it. That’s just as good as getting paid,” Davis said.

Davis and his wife, Helen, started the Pit BBQ this summer on the corner of Main Street Loop and the Kenai Spur Highway. It was the realization of Davis’ dream to have his own pit someday, and the continuation of family history.

Most of Davis’ family are cooks, and his father used to barbecue for the Texas Cattle Association.

“He was the kingpin of cooking. Man, he was the best,” Davis said.

He made all manner of barbecue, smoked ham and “the best sausages you’d ever eat,” Davis said. The sausages were hand-tied in intestine casings and hung in the smokehouse. Davis’ father grew his own vegetables and raised his own livestock, sometimes enlisting Davis’ unwitting help.

“He gave me some little pigs to raise. The next thing you know he’s putting then on the pit. I’m thinking those were my pets,” Davis said. “He was a character. Man, he was a good cook.”

Davis learned to barbecue from his dad starting when he was 9 years old. He’s been perfecting the craft in his 51 years since.

“I do a lot of things, but cooking is my best thing. I do it the same way my dad did,” he said. “I can make anything tender.”

Davis’ mother owned the Coffee Cup restaurant in Anchorage. When she was diagnosed with cancer, Davis moved to Alaska to help out. About four years ago, Helen brought their grandkids to Kenai in search of better schools and a smaller community. Davis went back and forth until his mother died, then he used the money from her estate to start the Pit.

“It’s been a dream of mine to get my own pit,” he said.

But not just any pit. Davis designed his own grill and had it fabricated at Kenai Welding. He’s had to modify his technique somewhat to fit Alaska. He closes down when it’s below zero because it takes too long for the meat to cook. And he isn’t able to import a mesquite tree, so he has to go with regular charcoal. But no matter how efficient it may be, there’s one change he won’t make.

“Gas is no good. That’s not barbecue,” he said.

Ribs are the standard on the menu, and Davis shows up between 6:30 and 7 a.m. to start cooking them. As with any serious barbecuer, he’s tight-lipped about details. Ask him how he cooks or what’s in his spice rub and all you get is a look, then a laugh.

Davis did say he uses a dry rub with Cajun spices on his ribs, and uses a marinade spray while cooking to keep the meat moist. Even if he wanted to give up his recipe, he said he wouldn’t be able to write it down because he doesn’t know what the exact measurements are.

“People say, ‘How much do you put in there?’ I say, ‘I don’t know. I just put it on there and it’s the right amount,’” Davis said.

The other key to the process is time.

“You have to take a lot of time to make anything real good,” he said. “The flipping and turning of the meat, keeping the right heat on it. I don’t (have a set time) when it’s done. I just look at it and try it and I know.”

The Pit also serves coleslaw and potato salad, and occasionally has specials. Davis barbecues brisket on Tuesdays and Fridays, and uses any leftovers to make barbecue sandwiches on Wednesdays and Saturdays. But you won’t find leftovers more than a day after they were made, Davis said. If food isn’t eaten the day it’s made or the next, it’s tossed.

“I never take food to the third day. I’ve seen people try to revive it and try to make money that way, but you can’t make money if you run people off,” Davis said.
More than anything, he wants to build a reputation for having a clean, consistent operation, with good food served in a comfortable atmosphere.

“I want people to enjoy the food and say this is a nice place to go eat,” Davis said.

There’s no seating in the small restaurant building, just the food preparation area, a bathroom, an office table and the service counter. But there’s plenty of parking space outside for people to sit in their vehicles and eat. The pit itself is behind the building, encased in a cement enclosure that a friend helped make.

The Davises got quite a bit of help in starting the Pit, from donated labor on the pit and the building to signs for the parking lot and along the front railing.

“It’s a blessing. Everything kind of fell in place after I started,” Davis said.

The owner of the lot was reluctant to let Davis rent the spot, since he was skeptical a year-round barbecue stand would make it in Kenai, Davis said. But Davis wouldn’t even consider another spot.

“I saw this and it was just like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ There’s no other spot in town that I’d want but this,” Davis said.

Business was good this summer, with word of mouth bringing in a steady stream of new customers. Helen’s been doing the bookkeeping and business management, sometimes staying up almost all night working, Davis said.

Business is slower this winter, but they’re still getting by, he said.

“It’s always a struggle when you’re first starting a business. It’s slow now, but we’re making ends meet. And it’s not as bad as we thought,” Davis said.

The Pit also does catering. They provided food for a ConocoPhillips event, Davis said, and really had a chance to shine this summer cooking for a community picnic Mark Begich put on while he was campaigning for Ted Stevens’ Senate seat.

“They expected 40 or 50, but over 300 showed up and I fed everybody,” Davis said.

Begich talked to Davis later about the food.

“He said, ‘That was amazing. I thought we would run out of food,’” Davis said. “But that’s what I do.”

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Plugged In: All you want for Christmas is a new PC?

I wrote a nice, frilly lead for these last-minute Christmas computer shopping tips, but didn’t even send it to the editor because, really, it makes more sense to cut to the chase.

It’s nearly Christmas and, if you’re reading this article, you weren’t able to get a seat on any plane out of Alaska over the holidays. You or your spouse instead have decided to buy a hot new computer to warm the cold nights and want the most for your money. What should you buy on Christmas Eve or at the post-Christmas sales? Here are some subtle hints that you can give your spouse in the form of highly detailed specification sheets.

For many years, the best deals in computing hardware have been custom-configured systems using standardized, high-grade components. Not only are custom-configured systems more tuned to your particular needs, but they’re easier to upgrade and repair later. Most brand-name computers use proprietary components that are not easily replaced by third-party parts, many of which are often as good or better than the original equipment.

In Alaska, the most common proprietary systems are Dell computers, usually purchased over the Internet, and HP computers sold at Costco, Fred Meyer stores and other retail chains. Of the two, I prefer HP for solid basic hardware. I have heard some recent service reports that suggest the potential for reliability problems on Dell systems, although they have been generally reliable. The extremely low advertised prices for Dell systems do not necessarily reflect the final price after you’ve completed the customization process and added all of the necessary (or desired) components.

There’s one other drawback to long-distance computer purchases by nontechnical users: something may go wrong, and the central Kenai Peninsula is a long way from the nearest service personnel. Overall, I believe that nontechnical users are better off buying a custom-configured “white box” system from a local computer shop, of which there are several in Soldotna and Kenai, including the source of the price quotes for these articles, Peninsula Technology in Soldotna across the Spur Highway from Beemun’s.

Here are the considerations that I would take into account when buying a new computer. I have personally built all of my own systems for the past 20 years and have had my share of both good and bad decisions, most of which linger in memory because I spent my own money on them.

Intended uses

Nearly any computer made within the last three or four years is fast enough for casual Internet use, basic word processing and basic business accounting.
Contrary to a lot of hyped advertising, these simple applications do not demand a huge amount of performance and a reliable lower-end system is quite adequate.

On the other hand, people buying computers to play video games are never content with the performance of any system costing under about $6,000. That’s partly because cutting-edge video games require extremely high performance for smooth response, and partly because some gamers don’t have much of a life when there’s a power outage. Bragging rights about whose system is minutely faster seem to count for a lot among gamers, as well. Graphic artists, multimedia authors, engineers and PhotoShop users also welcome high-end performance. Most business users are somewhere in the middle.

Operating systems

All major operating systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Both the Macintosh and Linux operating systems are probably technically superior to Microsoft’s current offerings, but there’s no realistic probability of a wholesale abandonment of the massive installed base of Windows systems. As a result, most current business and recreational software runs natively on Windows systems, and that commonality is a major benefit.

Most Windows users grew comfortable with 32-bit Windows XP, introduced in 2001 and still the most common installed version of Windows. Over the past two years, Microsoft has tried to move its installed base to the more recent Windows Vista system, but with decidedly mixed success.

There are in fact two major versions, and several sub-flavors, of Windows Vista. The 32-bit version of Vista has developed a deservedly bad reputation for poor performance and other problems, to the extent that many people actually buy a copy of Windows XP and reformat their new computer with the older XP operating system.

I did that with an HP mini-notebook computer I recently purchased. This low-power computer took over five minutes to boot with the 32-bit version of Vista, but only 45 seconds when I installed Windows XP instead. Given the choice between Windows XP and 32-bit Windows Vista, go with XP any day, even though Microsoft has been trying to kill XP for two years despite the protests of no-nonsense business users who couldn’t care less that Vista’s interface looks more like a Macintosh.

The choice is a bit more complex at the 64-bit level. All other things being equal, a 64-bit computer operating system should run faster than a 32-bit operating system because a 64-bit operating system is capable of taking better advantage of modern CPU processors and memory.

The 64-bit version of Windows Vista is actually pretty solid, fast and reliable. It’s built upon Microsoft’s less well-known, but highly stable, 64-bit version of Windows XP Professional, usually called Windows XP x64. Indeed, the commonality between these differently named operating systems is so high that 64-bit Vista “device driver” software usually works on a Windows XP x64 system. I have not encountered any unsolvable problems running regular Windows software on Windows XP x64.

Memory

DDR-type Random Access Memory is both inexpensive and one of the best ways to avoid computer performance bottlenecks, especially with demanding applications like PhotoShop or Adobe Lightroom. I suggest 2 gigabyte (2 GB) RAM for Windows XP computer systems and 4 GB for Windows 64-bit Vista and Windows XP x64 systems.

Use DDR type RAM that’s matched to the CPU and system board of your computer and that is certified to run at the full speed of your system board. RAM is pretty much a commodity anymore.

Any major brand should suffice so long as its base speed is at least equal to that required by your computer system.

Next week, I’ll discuss cost-effective CPU processors and main system boards.

Local attorney Joseph Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and has been writing and lecturing about technology throughout the U.S. since 1990 for American Bar Association, Alaska Bar Association and private publications. He also owned a computer store in Soldotna between 1990 and 2000.

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Lucky move — Tachick family beat the odds in Alaska relocation effort



By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Most members of the large Tachick clan knew they might be pushing their luck when, in mid-October 1951, they packed up their home in Washington state and headed north to Alaska to start a new life in the Last Frontier. By Christmas, they hoped to be living in a house of their own in Soldotna.

They had no definite jobs waiting for them. They also had not yet purchased property or ordered any building materials. In order to succeed, they would need good timing and good luck.

Patriarch of the family, Paul Tachick, had chosen Soldotna — which, according to the 1950 U.S. Census, had 21 residents — because it was home to three other families headed by men he had worked with on the Hanford nuclear project in Washington: Chell Bear, Bill Stock and Jake Dubendorf. All of the men had dreamed of one day living in Alaska. Stock and Dubendorf were working for the Alaska Road Commission, and Tachick hoped to join them.

Tachick and his wife, Anna, both originally from Wisconsin, had seven children, and all but one of them made the trip north. Chuck, the eldest, was stationed with the Army in Japan, but the others — four boys and two girls — helped pack up a Ford sedan and a 2½-ton Ford truck, and hit the road.

“In the car, tucked here and there, were Mom’s houseplants. There was one birdcage, with two yellow canaries,” recounted older sister Shirley in “Once Upon the Kenai,” a book of peninsula memories published in 1984.

“In our equivalent to a covered wagon were tools to clear the wilderness and to build a house, guns and fishing gear to enable us to live off the land,” she continued. “Mom had packed her treadle sewing machine, a wood stove, a gas engine wringer washing machine, plus countless jars of home-canned goods.”

Paul drove the car, while Bob, at 19 the second oldest, drove the truck, accompanied by brother, Melvin, 17. In the car with Paul were Anna, Roger, who turned 15 on the Alaska Highway, Wayne, 12, Shirley, 7, and Arlene, 3.

On Halloween night, 10 days after beginning their journey, they pulled into Anchorage, where they had expected to have to load their vehicles onto the train for Moose Pass and Seward. Instead, they were told that they might be able to drive all the way south on the new road along Turnagain Arm.

On Nov. 1, they trundled down the rough dirt-and-gravel Seward Highway until they reached a construction zone, and the crew there allowed the Tachicks to pass through. Later that day, they arrived in Soldotna and located the Dubendorfs, who gave them a place to stay while Paul searched for work and tried to find land for sale.

It was not to be a typical month. As Bob recalled, “It was the best November I can remember. You could walk around in shirt sleeves and the sun was shining. There were still robins here.”

Within a week, Paul had been hired as a mechanic for the Alaska Road Commission, and he had convinced homesteader Lawrence “Mac” McGuire to sell him a five-acre lot just across the Kenai River bridge (the current site of The Crossing restaurant).

After Morris Coursen used his bulldozer to clear a building lot, the Tachicks erected a 16-by-32-foot canvas wall tent over a hastily constructed wooden floor. As the building project got under way Anna set up house inside the tent.

Just inside a framed door installed in the front of the tent was Anna’s kitchen, the centerpiece of which was a barrel stove that the Tachicks kept burning 24 hours a day. Toward the back were wooden bunks, lined with warm blankets, on which everyone slept. The family used kerosene lamps and Coleman lanterns as light sources, and an outhouse as a substitute for indoor plumbing.

On the building site nearby — after they had located a nearby sawmill to supply them with the lumber they would need — they drove a sand point into the ground until they struck good water, and then they built a floor on pilings around the wellhead.

With Paul working, and all of the younger children, except Arlene, in school, the bulk of the building effort fell to Bob. One obstacle he encountered early on was the accessibility of lumber. When the Tachicks had inquired about a sawmill, no one had mentioned that a large operation called the Bear Lake Lumber Company, in Seward, could have supplied all of their needs at once. Instead, without knowing it, they had settled for a small-time operation.

“I could’ve went over there (to Seward) and got a whole load. Built the whole house with one load,” Bob said. “But they said, ‘(Fred) House out in North Kenai.’ Well, he couldn’t cut it fast enough. You know, you had to go every day to get some lumber, every day to get lumber.”

Bob also had to travel to Homer for all the required hardware and accessories, such as doors and windows, boxes of nails, roofing supplies and trim materials.

Still, despite all the back-and-forth hauling necessary, the Tachick project moved along smoothly. They pounded the green-spruce boards together to frame and enclose a one-story structure with a large loft for extra bedrooms. Within a few weeks, a new front door faced the mostly quiet highway.

On Dec. 5, just as the real Alaska winter was making an appearance, the Tachicks were ready to move. “About the fifth of December, it was down to about 40, 50 below. It just changed, just like that,” Bob said.

The Tachicks, all of whom would eventually settle permanently in Alaska, moved in and continued to finish the inside as winter progressed. They heated the house with a wood stove and continued to use lanterns for lighting. According to Shirley, the water in the well inside the house contained too much iron, so they hauled most of their water from a clear spring nearby. Electricity was not available for some time, until Paul purchased a small generator that he installed in an insulated shed near the house.

Despite these inconveniences, however, the Tachicks had achieved their goal, and later went on to create Tachick Construction and Tachick Freight Lines.

As Shirley wrote, “Our first Christmas was one filled with the aroma of fresh-cut lumber, sawdust, a fragrant spruce tree decorated for Christmas, and Mom’s baking. We were home.”

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Moved to smile — Hula dancing shines light, laughter in winter season



By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

A minicrisis was brewing in the makeshift dressing area at the Sterling Senior Center for the Na Manu Olu hula dancers Monday.

Jan Fena, one of the dancers from the group based at the Soldotna Senior Center, had forgotten her costume for the second half of the performance that was scheduled to begin at 12:15 p.m. — 15 minutes away.

Not to worry. The tightknit group — they call themselves hula sisters — was on it. One fellow dancer had an extra black skirt Fena could wear, while another braved the snowstorm outside to drive home and get a spare red top for Fena to borrow.

With only a few minutes to spare, she returned and gave Fena the top, while the rest of the group gave her a good-natured hard time.

“I hope this fits,” Fena said, eyeing the red sweater.

“Suck it in,” came the response.

“They bond very tightly,” said Bunny Chong, the group’s founder and choreographer. “They compliment each other and scold each other. We know if somebody forgets something, look — she tries to get out of (dancing), but everyone went to get her things.”

Na Manu Olu hula group, Hawaiian for The Graceful Birds, celebrated its fifth anniversary at the Soldotna Senior Center’s annual luau in June. The group began as a free class Chong taught at the senior center.

“We heard from Jan (Fena, the senior center director) there was going to be hula dancing. We just all said, ‘Hey, we haven’t done that yet,’” said Glenda Graham.
Estelle Parks said the group had already been doing line dancing, so hula was another fun thing to try.

“It’s like being in an extended family,” Graham said. “It’s just a wonderful group of people, and the dances are really fun to learn. Bunny is an excellent teacher and it’s good exercise.”

“Physical exercise and mental exercise, because it’s hard,” Parks said.

Chong said she’s proud of how far they’ve come and how dedicated the group is to dancing, including ladies up to their 80s, some with hectic schedules and various physical challenges.

Hula involves intricate hand gestures and swaying body movements. They can be basic when starting out, but Na Manu Olu has been at it for long enough that Chong tries to come up with more intricate movements.

“The purpose of hula is to tell a story with your hands and facial expressions. The facial expressions express what the heart is saying. The feet movement is the choreographer’s challenge to the dancers, is what I say. But they’re a challenge to me because I’ve got to think of what else to do to keep them interested,” Chong said.

Most importantly, Chong said, even if all else fails, just remember to smile.

“The mission of hula is to dance for joy, so if I see panic on their faces, I scold them. ‘You look frightened, you’re supposed to be joyful,’” Chong said. “I tell them, just go out there and smile and get everyone else to smile. If you make a mistake, keep going, pretend the other gal made it and the main thing is to have fun doing it.”

At the Sterling Senior Center, the group performed hulas to holiday standards, including, “Oh Holy Night,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “Mele Kalikimaka.”

The Silver Belles, a group of line dancers from the Soldotna Senior Center, many of whom are also hula dancers, performed a few numbers. And the Pua Mae Ole — “Never-Fading Flower” — hula dancers, made up of the Murray family, of Sterling, also performed.

In contrast to the snow outside, the dancers brought a burst of color and warmth to the senior center. That’s the whole point, Chong said.

“We dance for smiles. The more you smile, the more we enjoy it,” she said.

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