Monthly Archives: July 2010

Sea of fish heads — Ski team skims up dip-netting garbage

By Jenny Neyman

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Above, Kenai Central High School ski coach D’Anna Gibson, right, and ski team members, left, scout for garbage at the Kenai north beach on Friday. The ski team cleans up trash and fish waste during the dip-net fishery as a fundraiser.

Redoubt Reporter

Snow may be a long way off this time of year, but the Kenai Central High School ski team is still focused on what’s covering the ground. In July at the Kenai beach during the personal-use dip-net fishery, that’s trash. Lots of it. Of all shapes and sizes — bottles, cans and food wrappers, lost or discarded clothes and shoes, fishing and camping gear, the occasional tire or dirty diaper, and fish heads — hundreds upon thousands of bodiless, eyeless, decomposing, sand-encrusted, seagull-picked-over fish heads.

And it all needs to be cleaned up. That’s where the ski team comes in.

“All the trash people end up leaving will get blown around or what not. We help pick it up because the dip-netters, I don’t think that they understand the kind of impact they have on the beach,” said D’Anna Gibson, KCHS ski coach. “For me, I’ve been a dip-netter in the past. I have a better appreciation for what goes into the city cleaning this place up. It’s like, ‘Oh, wow.’ All those fish heads, if they don’t get washed out with the tide, we have to pick them up — and the guts and trash.”

For three summers now, KCHS skiers, coaches and conscripted family members have patrolled the parking lots, access road, sand dunes and shoreline of the north bank of the mouth of the Kenai River two to three times a week during the dip-net fishery. It’s a fundraiser originally arranged as a civics project by now-graduated KCHS skier Trent Semmens. The city of Kenai directs the skiers where and when to clean, supplies them with bags and gloves and compensates them for their efforts. The team, in turn, picks up what others leave behind, as well as a new perspective on the importance of litter prevention.

Alex Springer hauls a bag of trash through the sand.

“It’s just so good for the kids to give back to the community,” Gibson said. “They get compensated, but it’s good for them to see what will happen if you don’t pick up your trash.”

What happens is it sits there until someone else cleans it up, in the meantime creating an eyesore as well as an ecological threat to the sensitive river mouth area.

Department of Environmental Conservation water-quality testing at the north Kenai River mouth beach from July 8 to 11 shows elevated levels of enterococci bacteria, which, at high levels, can cause stomachaches, diarrhea or ear, eye and skin infections.

The bacteria are found in the feces of warm-blooded animals, including birds, seals and humans. DEC hasn’t named a source of the contamination, and at this point is suggesting precautions to avoid getting sick ­— avoid swimming in or drinking the water, rinse after contact with the water, and cook all fish to a minimum of 145 degrees. But people may be to blame, with thousands of dip-netters swarming the shore as sockeye salmon surge into the river. Supported by parking fees, the city of Kenai has pumped an ever-increasing amount of funding into managing and facilitating the fishery over the years, including providing trash receptacles and portable restrooms to control waste.

A dip-netter carries a net and gear past Kenai Central High School ski team members picking up trash at the Kenai beach at the end of Spruce Street on Friday.

New last year were tubs for fish waste and trash barrels placed at regular intervals along the beach.

“From my perspective it gets a little better every year. I have noticed a difference this year as opposed to last year and the year before,” Gibson said. “The city works wonders, supplying garbage cans and totes for fish heads. It’s kind of catching on and people are better. (The city) makes leaps and bounds in what works and what doesn’t work.” Continue reading

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Kenai reds, more or less — Kenai sonar refigured to correct conversion mistake

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

For sport anglers fishing from the banks of the Kenai River or dip-netters wading into the muddy river mouth, sockeye salmon are easy to count — it’s one at a time, as each fish is reeled in or hauled by a net to shore.

For Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists, tracking numbers of sockeye in the Kenai River is no simple matter. Several factors are involved — where the fish are in the river, the user group for which they are allocated and what technology is used to track them.

Since 2008, a sockeye at the Kenai River Mile 19 sonar station counts as 1.4 to Fish and Game, while, this year only, one sockeye caught in the upper Kenai counts as one, and only one, fish.

The difference is the result of an upgrade in sonar technology used to track sockeye escapement numbers in the Kenai, and a correction to the way those numbers are related to the Alaska Board of Fisheries’ intention to allocate a certain number of sockeye salmon in the upper river for sport fish harvest.

It’s mostly apples-to-apples, oranges-to-oranges scientific shuffling that doesn’t have a net effect on the fish or those fishing for them, but a few oranges of upriver sport fish-designated sockeye have gotten mixed up with the apples of the in-river escapement goal in past years, and a change to separate the two means 60,000-plus extra fish this year over the past two for fishermen to sink their hooks, nets and teeth into.

Up for the count

For the past eight years, Fish and Game has been working toward upgrading Bendix sonar technology, used in Alaska since the 1960s, to newer, more accurate dual-frequency identification sonar DIDSON technology. Bendix sonar had become so antiquated that it’s difficult to maintain, and the main individual who developed the system in the state has died, leaving no source of technical support, said Jeff Fox, area management biologist with Fish and Game.

Redoubt Reporter file photo. A computer monitor displays images of fish swimming in the Kenai River as recorded by a DIDSON sonar.

The switch to DIDSON is a statewide effort. On the Kenai Peninsula, DIDSON and Bendix sonar systems were used side by side in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers from 2004 to 2007 in order to compare accuracy. DIDSON sonar has a better ability to detect fish with better coverage of the water column. It has a longer range, higher power level, better interaction with boundary layers without losing fish images and a 29-degree field of view divided into several beams. DIDSON produces detailed fish images on a screen, can show direction of fish travel and the data can be stored and archived.

Bendix had between a 4-inch and 2-inch field of view, which missed many fish, especially close to shore. Its visual display was just a spike on an oscilloscope, which can be difficult to interpret and couldn’t be saved or stored. When a large glut of fish swam by, one spike on Bendix may actually have meant several fish.

It’s not that Bendix was junk, Fox said. It was cutting edge at the time it was developed and was a huge step up in the Kenai over the aerial surveys used to count fish before the 1960s.

“The average return in those days was 1 million fish. It’s now 4 million, so you can’t really say sonar didn’t help. It’s actually a very good tool,” Fox said. “The problem is it was developed when the escapement goal was 150,000 to 300,000. And then it got moved up to 250,000 to 400,000, then 400,000 to 700,000. So it’s not any stretch for it to have problems. It wasn’t developed for what we’re doing now.”

Fish and Game knew Bendix sonar wasn’t completely accurate and estimated an error range of 20 percent. But comparison with the DIDSON showed Bendix had actually been underestimating sockeye by more like 40 percent in the Kenai. That means one sonar count by Bendix is 1.4 as counted by DIDSON.

But even with DIDSON, the sonar count produced to estimate escapement isn’t each individual fish, because DIDSON isn’t a perfect system, either. It can’t detect every fish swimming by, especially if they’re in a large group, and can’t tell the difference between a small king or an early pink salmon and a sockeye. Fish and Game uses a fish wheel to check apportionment of the run — to estimate what percentage is sockeye versus other species. Species apportionment error isn’t much of a concern, Fox said, since small kings are relatively few and pinks don’t show up en masse until August, right around when the sockeye sonar counter is removed anyway. Continue reading

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Electrified idea — Good fences make good bears

By Joseph Robertia

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. While hungry brown bears often turn their attention to local rivers once the salmon return, it is not uncommon for a few bruins to seek an easy meal by getting into livestock pens, smokehouses or beehives.

Redoubt Reporter

Seeing a hungry bear prowling private property seeking pets or livestock for an easy meal can be a shocking experience, but a new cost-sharing program to put up electric fences aims to reduce negative encounters between wildlife and private landowners.

“This cost-sharing is localized to the peninsula, too, due to the brown bears here being designated a species of special concern by the state. Because of that, we can use cost-sharing dollars to protect the population by providing an alternative to shooting them,” said Meg Mueller, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service field office in Kenai.

Under the auspices of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the cost-sharing funds come through the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, re-authorized as part of the nation’s 2008 Farm Bill. Specifically, the project seeks to reduce potential up-close-and-personal interactions between people and bears at sites of human-induced bear attractants.

“Chicken coops, pigpens and other livestock areas, beehives, fish smokehouses, sheds with dog food or other animal feed — all of these are attractive items to hungry bears,” Mueller said. “And, since these things can’t be moved or taken indoors, a permanent electric fence around them can go a long way to reducing negative encounters.”

Bears spend as much as 80 percent of their waking day feeding or foraging for food. And it’s well-documented that when they are rewarded for their efforts with a fairly easy meal and experience no negative consequences while doing so, bears can quickly become habituated to the attractant. This can mean trouble to all parties.

“Sometimes encounters between humans and bears don’t turn out so well for people,” Mueller said. “But they almost never turn out well for the bear.”

When properly designed and installed, an electric fence provides an unpleasant experience to bears so that they quickly come to associate the attractant being off-limits.

“After receiving their first shock many bears appear to sense the electrical charge in the fence lines and learn to avoid them,” Mueller said. “Even the fence’s visual appearance can remind bears of their previous unpleasant encounter and they’ll avoid similar-appearing areas.”

When constructed by following the Natural Resources Conservation Service guidelines, these fences would be hard for a bear not to notice.

“The high visual appearance is as much a deterrent as the shock,” Mueller said. “So the fences should be 52 inches high with nine strands of highly visible wire, such as electrified tape or an electrified rope product like Electrobraid. The strands are affixed to permanent wooden posts, with each strand about 6 inches apart with every other one electrified.”

Site inventory and assessment is part of the technical assistance landowners will receive, in addition to the help with the purchase and installation of a fence. Cost-share funding will be based on the size of the area to be fenced off, the location on the peninsula and priority. Those living in remote areas with high frequencies of bear encounters will be given precedence.

Application packets can be obtained at the Natural Resource Conservation Service field office on Trading Bay Road in Kenai. For more information, call 283-8732 or e-mail Mueller at

“This is going to be a really good deal for the peninsula,” Mueller said. “Now that the word is getting out, we’re seeing a lot of interest.”

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Drawing near — Hunters taking aim on preseason practice

By Joseph Robertia

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Jake Lautaret, of Soldotna, takes aim at a caribou target during a weekend 3-D shoot hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Archers. Many hunters are using the KPA range off of ARC Loop Road south of Soldotna to tune up their skills before the bowhunting season begins.

Redoubt Reporter

Teeth bared, claws out, it stood on its hind legs not more than 34 yards away, and towered over the tallest hunter in the group.

“Look at that bear,” said David Powell, of Sterling, to his wife, Charlee. “Look at how big it is.”

The fluorescent pink of her arrows might have given the impression of novice, but it was clear when she drew back her compound bow that she knew what she was doing. The movement was fluid and precise, and she lined up the bear’s vital area in her sights. But, as she let the arrow fly, her trajectory was a little off. The shaft found a home in the bear’s neck to shoulder area.

“Now you just pissed him off,” quipped Ron Homan, of Kenai, from behind her. “It’s OK. I’ve had a few shots like that today, too.”

The three of them, along with Jake Lautaret, of Soldotna, were taking part in one of the Kenai Peninsula Archers 3-D shoot events in an effort to tune up their hunting skills before opening day of bowhunting season, which is fast approaching. Bowhunting for many species, especially in Game Management Unit 15, opens Aug. 10.

Len Malmquist, president of the archery club, said practicing before hunting season begins — particularly on 3-D targets — can greatly enhance a hunter’s chances for success. He cited a survey conducted among bowhunters across 12 different states in the Lower 48.

“It showed that if a hunter got out about two weeks before opening day and just plunked a few arrows, their odds of hunting success went up 1 to 2 percent. If they got out to practice a month before, it went up 5 percent. If they practice all year, it went up 25 to 35 percent,” he said. “But if they practice all year using 3-D targets, their success jumped up to 65 to 75 percent.”

Ron Homan, of Kenai, removes his arrows from a 3-D target, while Jake Lautaret steadies the doe.

The 3-D shoots are much more realistic compared to firing down a clear lane at a paper or bag target. Archers must contend with obscuring vegetation, sunlight and shadows, wind and mosquitoes, and shooting from various distances and occasionally various heights — all of which could be encountered in a real hunting scenario.

“We have 32 3-D targets, with about 14 out on any given weekend, and we’re constantly switching up the game species and how they’re put out,” Malmquist said.

There are Alaska species, such as moose, caribou, bear, Dall sheep and mountain goat, and there are others species, including deer, pronghorn, puma, peccary and turkey, for hunters who travel Outside in pursuit of game.

The 3-D targets aren’t cheap, according to Malmquist. He said the full-racked, full-sized, bull moose cost the archery club roughly $2,000, including shipping to Alaska. To the archers who use these targets for tuning up, though, the practice they’re getting is invaluable.

“It’s so much more challenging,” Charlee Powell said. “I do a lot of shooting at home in the backyard, but I’m just shooting from either 20 yards or 30 yards away. This is much different. I’m constantly having to adjust.”

Powell said she hopes to get good enough to hunt black bear with her husband, but she thinks it’ll still be awhile before she’s ready to let a flurry of feather-tailed shafts fly at a living target.

“I’m getting more comfortable,” she said, “but I think it won’t be until next season, at least.”

Like Powell, Lautaret said his goal is to get good enough with his bow and arrow to bring down real game.

“I’m just getting into archery,” he said. “I’ve been a rifle hunter a long time, but this seems more challenging, and it opens up a lot more hunting opportunities.”

Lautaret said he was taking to the bow and arrow quite quickly since, like Powell, he could practice regularly at home, which is not an option with his rifle. At the archery range, he hit several vital-organ shots on the 3-D targets, but said he knew hunting real animals would be much more difficult.

“You’ve got to get a lot closer than when using a rifle,” he said. “I think the stalk will be much more challenging. I’d like to bowhunt sheep and goat one day, but I’ll probably stick to moose for a while, and think about the other species as I get more experience.”

Ron Homan said this is another lesson hunters learn from the 3-D shoots — until they know they can kill with their bow and arrows, sometimes the best shot is the one not taken.

“It has to do with archery ethics,” he said. “If you’re going to do something like this where you kill an animal, you want to be sure you’re going to kill it, and that it’s a quick, clean kill.”

As hunting season draws near, Malmquist said more archers are drawing back their bows.

“Our membership is way up and growing each weekend,” he said. “We’re up to 171 members, which includes 22 families and 18 women.”

Malmquist said the Kenai Peninsula Archers are always looking for new members. Annual membership is $25 for individuals and $50 for families.

“We have the 3-D targets out most weekends from spring through fall, and members can come by and shoot the bag targets 24-seven, 365,” he said.

For more information, contact the club by calling 262-7375.

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Cooking up competition — Iron chefs go Dutch for camp cuisine event

By Jenny Neyman

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Dr. Nels Anderson, left, explains the Dutch oven cooking competition rules to judges, from left, Rep. Kurt Olson, Soldotna City Councilwoman Brenda Hartman and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey.

Redoubt Reporter

One hungry onlooker Saturday summed it up best as contestants in the open category of the Alaska Dutch Oven State Championship plunked their cast-iron cook-pot creations down on the judging tables and removed the lids, revealing the still-steaming temptations within.

“I didn’t know you could make all that in a Dutch oven,” a woman remarked to her friend while checking out the myriad dishes served up in the competition, held during Progress Days in Soldotna.

“All that” is a broad term, not particularly in keeping with the precise measurements, exacting temperature control and practiced perfection that goes into cooking competitions. But in this case, it was fitting of the smorgasbord of results — cast-iron pots of bubbling jambalaya and creamy chicken fricassee. Swollen mounds of golden-brown bread, studded with savory flavors or dripping with sticky-sweet confection. And desserts to tempt even the most diet conscious — springy chocolate cakes dusted with powdered sugar or oozing with molten morsels; fruit crisps and cobblers with toppings unable to contain the bubbling juices below, and ooey-gooey goodness with more accoutrements than should be legally allowed in one dessert.

“It has everything decadent you can think of,” said Carla Anderson, of Soldotna, of her dessert offering, a chocolaty pudding topped with fruit crisp and chocolate bits, meant to be served with homemade vanilla ice cream and drizzled with cast-iron-cooked raspberry sauce.

Anderson participated in the competition but didn’t allow her dishes to be in the running for prizes, since she helped organize the event with her husband, Dr. Nels Anderson. It’s the first of what they hope will be an annual event at Progress Days, with the winner qualifying to participate in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships. Anderson said he was pleased with how the inaugural event went. Despite intermittent rain and short notice for the event, there were still eight teams participating in the open, three-pot competition, and 10 in the youth, one-pot competition.

Fred Basquez and his wife, Sharron, of Milton-Freewater, Ore., changed their travel plans just so they could stay in Soldotna for the competition. They regularly cook in Dutch ovens while touring Alaska in an RV.

“I’m extremely pleased with the turnout. I was afraid nobody would show up,” Anderson said.

Adam Bauer came up from Homer to participate. He got into Dutch oven cooking from being involved with the Boy Scouts about a dozen years ago. Though his kids are off to college and he’s no longer a Scoutmaster, he still goes on camping trips and keeps up his camping cook skills.

“You know how it is, if I don’t go with them I don’t go,” Bauer said.

He wanted to support Andersons’ efforts in organizing the competition and spread the virtues of Dutch oven cooking to the uninitiated. For Bauer, Dutch ovens are the way to go for outdoor cooking.

He particularly likes them for their temperature control. Dutch ovens hold heat well yet it’s easy to turn up or down the temperature. Simply add a few more coals or charcoal briquettes on the lid or under the three stubby legs to increase the temperature, or remove them to turn it down. For a midsized, 12-inch Dutch oven, 27 briquettes will result in a temperature of 375 degrees, with 18 on top and nine underneath.

“I’m terrible with barbecue,” Bauer said. “It’s like the coals aren’t ready in time and they’re not hot enough and the meal’s late, or it’s too hot and you can’t turn it down again. This is a great way because you’ve got really good control over the heat and you can actually serve something on time. Anything you can cook in your oven at home you can make in these.”

For the competition, he made a chicken fricassee with homemade cheese and zucchini from his garden, a yeast-water-and-flour loaf of bread and a peach cobbler.

“I am absolutely pleased with the way everything turned out. It was just perfect. Everything came out on time, done and nothing got burnt. It’s hard to undo it when it’s overcooked,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. I’m glad Dr. Anderson put it all together, and if there’s a next year, I’ll come back.” Continue reading

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Common Ground: Facebook or fishing? Hook into online fun away from computers

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Grayling fishing in alpine lakes is an experience that can’t be duplicated in cyberspace.

Reuniting with old friends, acquaintances or obscure not-for-profit special interest groups is what Facebook is all about. A yearbook kept in seconds and individualized to our egos can be dangerous, but I can’t help but notice that I’m in constant contact with people who would otherwise be lost.

For instance, a single road trip taken in the 1990s with a coffee shop co-worker is one of a number of life experiences that left no contact phone number. This chance encounter over a decade ago was recently recaptured and redefined in cyberspace. That old acquaintance and I are now “friends” on Facebook.

On Facebook, every day brings the possibility of a high school-like reunion. And, likewise, there are the inevitable questions asked at every high school or college reunion: Who gained weight, who married whom, who is now working as an “Ice Road Trucker?” I was as surprised to find that my friend was a historian and father living in New Mexico as he was to find that I was independently wealthy and experiencing the endless fishing vacation dreamed of by young boys and old men — except for the independently wealthy part.

Just as Facebook does not equal “Facetime,” corresponding with a long-lost friend using the equivalent of Post-it-size messages did not equal a spontaneous road trip to confer the idealism of youth. And, just as being friends is better in real life than in live chat, going fishing is not something that can be experienced virtually. There’s something about seeing the dorsal fins of grayling vying the surface waters in a high mountain creek, the water clear as vodka and the sun filling the valley so that the surrounding foliage and mountain flowers smolder, giving off an exotic and fermented aroma. Each cast into the water is the possibility of hooking one of the most acrobatic members of the salmon family.

The senses involved in the outdoors are, in the words of one Homer charter boat captain, “The difference between a prison life and getting to see ‘this’ every day.” The boat was passing the Barren Islands, the northernmost islands of the Kodiak Archipelago. I had always thought that, if a series of unfortunate events landed me in prison, it wouldn’t be “that” bad. I would read books and work out. I would write those letters I’d never got around to writing. Perhaps, depending on the degree of my offense, earn a law degree … . But after hearing the captain’s words, I realized to what extent the outdoors define freedom.

The terminology of Facebook is such that “online” means “logged in” instead of “fish on.” A “window” is a “rectangular display appearing on your screen,” instead of something that has a screen. “Account” is a personal, password-protected relationship between you and your network, and not the number of fish you’ve caught. The Internet is a place where we can find friends and the answers to questions in a matter of seconds — depending on our service provider. The endless source of information is all merged into one giant database, and a coaxial cable runs through it.

The high school-reunion world of social networking and easy answers has its appeal, but I will always prefer the world as Norman Maclean knew it — a world where he spent the moment before casting to wonder what the fish were thinking — something that Google cannot answer. And when I’m posting my “status update” on Facebook, I can’t help but think of Maclean’s definition of a Spot of Time: “Poets talk about ‘spots of time,’ but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone. I shall remember that son of a bitch forever.”

Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. She can be reached at

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Winging It: Birds, bears, belugas — oh my!

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Sean Ulman. Sadie Ulman scouts the Chickaloon River off Turnagain Arm for birds, but recently had sightings of beluga whales and seals.

July 17-18 — Reinforced by Kenai National Wildlife Refuge bio intern recruits, we reaped the statistical rewards of our first four-man crews — doing double-plot surveys and trapping nine birds.

We watched two short-billed dowitcher chicks — nubby-winged puffballs with lichen-camo-speckled fuzz — feeding alongside their parents.

Four marvelous black brant flew into Chickaloon and foraged and preened on the misty shore. When predicting new sightings prior to our 2010 season, I pointed out canvasback (I had seen a pair from our car at nearby Potter’s Marsh in 2009) and black brant (which can be seen in Bird Babylonia’s 2009 production, “Lady Liberty.”)

A new species neither of us thought about calling — northern shrike — was added to our project list three days later. A technician and I spotted one on Plot 2 perched on a bare spruce tree, where a week ago a brown bear was spotted hanging around with two cubs.

After scanning over paw prints and scat, which a flood tide had scattered with seaweed, we scrutinized the hook-billed predatory songbird — black mask, black wing lapel, black bobbing mimidlike tail.

July 19-20 — Camping two nights at Chickaloon River, that mighty, murky chasm carving the flats in two, we found several new wildlife species that utilize the marine river habitat.

Vole. Red fox. Coincidence? Pink salmon. Harbor seals. Hmm … .

It’s solid birding on the river plot, too. I saw seven whimbrel and six pectoral sandpipers.

Staying four nights instead of two at the river, Sadie saw a lot of birds (and beasts, too). I considered paraphrasing or passing off her sightings as my own, but it’s only right to let her tell. So I stole the following notes from her journal:

July 21 — Noticed white crests appear in a sliver of river about a kilometer away. Knowing that belugas come up the Chickaloon to feed during high tides, I was anticipating their arrival. We worked our way toward the shore, negotiating the incoming water on the slough fingers.

Watched the belugas quick, graceful surface and dive. Seeing three bright whites and four off-white/gray at one time leads me to believe there were at least double that, maybe a dozen?

Watched the whales feed for 20 minutes until they slowly made their way around the bend in the river. After doing vegetation survey and negotiating another slough, we popped up two hours later toward the inlet. It was 17:14, peak high tide and the belugas (maybe the same pod?) were cruising back out to the inlet. This time we were standing in the mud with water at our feet. The white crests eased by us unaware. They usually aren’t diving with humans 15 feet away. After standing shoreside for a while, we retired 20 meters to sit on the vegetated edge to watch this dinner theater play out.

Survey started at 19:45 at the mud. This seems to be the gathering spot of the evening — 31 black-bellied plovers, 29 semipalmated plovers, 14 Hudsonian godwits, seven red-necked phalarope, six black turnstone, 33 least sandpipers, 14 semipalmated sandpipers, eight Western sandpipers, flock of 110 peeps in distance, six Arctic terns.

A mirage hauled out on the next substantial gut mouth was a blob of harbor seals — 30 to 40? By the time I edged closer to distinguish one blob from another, the whole group was gone, returning with the outflowing water to the (Turnagain) Arm. Continue reading

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Ode to old and new — Home is where the art is for poet from Soldotna, Ireland

By Clark Fair

Photo courtesy of Mary Mullen

Redoubt Reporter

In her poem “August Lament,” Mary Mullen conjures the faces and places and touchstones of her old home in Soldotna — but she does so from her current home more than 4,000 miles away, in Ballinderreen, County Galway, Ireland.

Both locales figure prominently in her recently published collection of poetry, “Zephyr.” Although Mullen has lived in Ireland for the past 14 years, she spent most of her first 43 in Alaska, and the assembled poems in this slim volume explore her early and later years through a variety of poetic forms and styles.

In “August Lament,” she dreams of fireweed blooms and canning salmon, quaking aspen and changing summer light, her sister grating cabbage and boiling potatoes, and her mother employing a tea towel to shoo a moose from the garden. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the images cause Mullen, who loves the life she has, to awaken and to ache with a longing for what she does not.

This poem and the 43 others in “Zephyr” are rife with such imagery and passion. They are poems about her childhood on the Kenai Peninsula, about life in her adopted home in Ireland, and about the unexpected and delightful entrance into her life of her daughter, 12-year-old Lily, who was born with Down syndrome.

Mullen, a single parent at age 57, does not shy away from her feelings about motherhood, about Lily’s biological father, who walked away from their relationship, and the challenges of raising a disabled child.

In her prose poem, “First Response,” her clever use of color helps guide the reader through the anxiety of her discovery that, at age 44, she is about to become a mother for the first time. In “Pint of Milk” — which Mullen calls a “revenge poem” — she metaphorically sands away the existence of her former lover, turning his absence into something more useful. And in “Love Sonnet,” she pours forth her affection for her daughter into 14 well-crafted lines that reveal the tenor of their life together.

Photo courtesy of Mary Mullen

Mullen, who is currently on vacation in Alaska — in part to help celebrate the 90th birthday of her mother, Marge Mullen — said that raising Lily has taught her much about herself and about love, and was one of her inspirations for her writing:

“I grieved her extra chromosome and all the complications in life that her disability would mean for both of us for a few years, while at the same time being extremely smitten by her,” Mullen said. “And I gave myself to her completely. When the nurse with the Brothers of Charity came to our home to give me suggestions about what to do to bring Lily on to her fullness, we did everything, and more. When the speech and language therapist gave us homework, we did it all, plus more and more.

“I was motivated by a powerful love. I was determined that she was going to be the most competent person with Down syndrome in the world, or at least in the West of Ireland, which of course did not happen. She is just Lily, a 12-year-old girl who is very busy being herself — perfectly herself: moody, lovely, charming, sassy, stubborn, bright. She is a handful.

“Giving so much of myself to Lily’s early childhood helped me take my writing more seriously. In fact, writing the poems for ‘Zephyr’ not only gave me a big kick in the arse; they kicked me toward my own life and grounded me as a writer.” Continue reading

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Art Seen: Forming natural art skills — Harper drawing on human shape

By Zirrus VanDevere, for the Redoubt Reporter

William Harper leads life-drawing sessions at the Kenai Fine Arts Center.

William Harper was basically in Utah just long enough to be born, and was raised in Alaska, both in Dillingham and then on the Kenai Peninsula. Harper has a very matter-of-fact style to his personality, and seems to be a planner. He attended Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and also the University of Alaska Fairbanks, achieving a bachelor’s degree.

Instructors in both schools were able to impart some critical skills, and Harper is most thankful for the critiquing knowledge as well as the business savvy that Miho Aoki at UAF and Celia Anderson at KPC offered. He said that Anderson was always able to find something he could improve on because of her large amount of previous experience and her innate intelligence.

Each school had a small art department, so critiques could be quite thorough. Interestingly, he found KPC to inhabit a broader-minded approach to art making. Gary Freeburg taught him a lot about finding beauty in surprising places, and about recognizing that art can be confrontational and meaningful and rich and varied. Continue reading

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Almanac: ‘In case I get hit by the bread truck’ — Phrase resonates with Madden family

By Clark Fair

Photos courtesy of Carroll Knutson. Don and Marge Madden look into each other’s eyes in this California photo from the 1940s.

Redoubt Reporter

As strange as it may seem, Carroll Knutson, of Kasilof, would not exist today if not for the lore attached to an old family phrase: “In case I get hit by the bread truck.” The origins of this phrase can be traced back to the histories of two individuals — her parents.

In 1930, Marjorie McCulloch was 12 years old and living in the prairies of South Dakota when she announced to her family her intention to become a homesteader someday. She had listened to the North Dakota homesteading tales of her uncles, and she had been swept up in the romance of owning and developing her own piece of land.

“Well then,” said her Uncle Louie, “you’re going to have to go all the way to Alaska because that’s the only place there’s still homesteads left.”

And she replied, “Then that’s what I’ll do.”

After graduating from Barnard High School, McCulloch traveled 17 miles south down U.S. Highway 281 to Aberdeen, where she earned a nursing degree at St. Luke’s Hospital, and then began to work her way west. In Portland, Ore., in 1939, she joined the nursing staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and in 1942 she was temporarily assigned to a clinic in a lumber camp near White City, Ore.

What happened next for Marge would not have occurred if it hadn’t been for the bread truck — and that’s where Don Madden comes in.

During the Great Depression, Don Madden lost his job in a lumber camp near the tiny town of Forks on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. Like many unemployed young men at the time, he turned his attention northward, deciding to look for work in the sprawling countryside of the Territory of Alaska.

Madden boarded a steamship in Seattle and traveled as far as Ketchikan before he ran out of money, so he left the ship and worked in Ketchikan until he could afford to venture farther north. The second leg of his journey took him as far as Valdez, where he gained employment with a crew building the Richardson Highway.

His third stop was in Fairbanks in 1938, and he worked on the railroad and in a mine there until 1941, when he moved south to Anchorage. It was there on Dec. 7 that he heard the news that the Empire of Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor and, the following day, that the U.S. Congress had declared war.

Don and Marge Madden pose at the edge of the forest in some West Coast locale in 1942, the year they were married.

“Like a lot of single men at the time that were up here working when they heard about Pearl Harbor, they quit doing whatever they were doing here and they would go to Seward and take the steamship back to Seattle with the intention of enlisting in the Army,” said Knutson.

“So my father gets to Seattle, and he borrowed a motorcycle from a friend to be the transportation to get him to the enlistment center. And on the way to the enlistment center he was hit by the bread truck, literally the bread truck, from Gai’s Bakery in Seattle.”

The accident resulted in the 31-year-old Madden receiving a compound fracture of the right leg, and after he recovered in the hospital, the U.S. military classified him as 4F (“not acceptable for military service”), so his desire to help in the effort against the Japanese was thwarted.

As a consequence, Madden remained in the Pacific Northwest, instead of returning to Alaska. Eventually he found himself back in the lumber business, working as a sawyer in a lumber camp near White City, Ore. That’s where, in 1942, he met a nurse named Marjorie McCulloch.

By the end of that year, they had moved together to Long Beach, Calif, and had gotten married.

“She (Marge) always said that she married my dad because he’d been to Alaska and said he was going back after the war,” said Knutson. Continue reading

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Plugged In: Splish, splash and video with new camera models

By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Germany was the center of the professional photography industry for many decades. Perhaps for sentimental reasons, or maybe plain inertia, Germany is still the location of the world’s largest, most important photo gear exhibition, Photokina, held once every two years.

In the months leading up to September’s Photokina opening, many manufacturers have announced both greatly improved products and entirely new product lines. This week, we’ll look at some interesting new products and take a break from composition, cropping, Gestalt and all the rest.

Water, water everywhere

This is the year for waterproof and water-resistant cameras if there ever was one.

There are several feasible options — cameras sealed against water as part of their basic construction, standard digital cameras in a waterproof case, or weather-resistant dSLR cameras that are not waterproof but that give some protection against the elements when you’re outdoors.

Pentax’s W90 (about $300 from is the latest version of their classic waterproof camera line. Pentax claims that it’s waterproof to several meters, but I would always treat such claims conservatively. A camera such as this would be very useful for shallow scuba dives or carrying while boating or dip-netting.

When shot at its base sensitivity of ISO 80, the Pentax W90 shows better-than-average image quality for a waterproof camera. As a general rule, waterproof cameras usually produce poor-quality photographs.

Unfortunately, as ISO sensitivity is raised, degradation of image quality also rises. Still, the W90 can produce good-quality enlargements up to 13-by-19 inches, and that’s better than most of the competition. Another approach is to use a high-quality digital camera for which a special waterproof housing is made. These sorts of waterproof cases usually provide more protection at a greater depth. Although initially somewhat more expensive, this is usually a more reliable, more versatile and higher-quality option because you can use an excellent-quality compact camera.

This is one of the options that I personally chose, purchasing a waterproof case for my existing Canon G Series camera. Canon’s WS-34 waterproof housing fits the G Series nicely and costs a bit under $200 from This is clearly the best option if you already have a G series Canon compact camera. Even if you have to spend $450 to purchase a G series Canon, it’s still a sensible option if you’re outdoors a lot and want high overall quality. Image quality is clearly superior to ordinary waterproof cameras and the cases can handle more adverse conditions.

Another option would be Canon’s waterproof WC-35 case, about $200 from, for its even more compact S90 camera. An S90 currently sells for about $370 and is a favorite second camera of professional photographers for its high image quality and very small size.

Some digital SLR cameras, such as the Pentax K20D and K-7, are water-resistant. Basically, when equipped with a weather-resistant lens, such cameras are able to shed light rain, misting and the like without damage, but they are definitely not intended for extremely wet conditions. That’s also true for almost all weather-resistant, professional-grade cameras, unless they’re enclosed in an optional, fully waterproof case.

Pentax’s midrange and upper-end cameras are the least-expensive, weather-resistant dSLR cameras on the market by a substantial margin, especially when you consider that a weather-resistant Pentax 18- to 55-mm water-resistant kit lens can be purchased for as little as $134 from Comparably weather-resistant Nikon and Canon dSLR cameras retail for prices nearing $2,000. Continue reading

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Something fishy — Lampreys: Eerie, but ecologically important

By Joseph Robertia

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. While they are eerie-looking and have no shortage of teeth, lampreys are an ecologically important animal. There are three species of lampreys found on the Kenai Peninsula, including this Pacific lamprey caught in Crooked Creek in Kasilof.

Redoubt Reporter

Long, slimy and with rows of sharp teeth like a tiger shark, lampreys look like something out of a fisherman’s worst nightmare.

“And they writhe around and act like they’re possessed when you catch one,” said Rob Massengill, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.

Lampreys are an eel-like species of fish that has no true jaw, bones or fins.

“We see a lot spawning in the Moose River,” he said. “But they’re also caught in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers and just about everywhere else there’s flowing fresh water.”

There are about 40 species of lamprey that exist in the world, five of which can be found in Alaska. Three are native to the Kenai Peninsula — the Arctic lamprey, the brook lamprey and the Pacific lamprey, which is the largest and most commonly encountered.

“The Pacifics can get up to about 30 inches, and their scientific name is Lampetra tridentate,” Massengill said. “The ‘tri’ referring to the three large, conical-shaped teeth they have in addition to the rows of smaller, rasping teeth.”

Lampreys put these teeth to good use. As parasites, their aggressive dentition helps them latch on to prey and suck out blood and other bodily fluids.

“They’ll attach externally,” Massengill said. “They’ll suck to a fish, then use their teeth to rasp their way through the scales and body wall. They’ll target any fish, but especially trout and salmon.”

Feeding on other fish only occurs during the year that they live at sea, which is a small portion of their overall life cycle.

“They’re anadromous,” Massengill said. “So they are born in fresh water and live there for a few years. Then they migrate to the salt water for about a year, but they return to fresh water to spawn.”

Spawning, which largely occurs in spring, is likely coming to an end this year, and like salmon, lampreys die after they pass on their genes.

“They don’t feed while migrating back into fresh water and they typically die within four days of spawning,” Massengill said. “They’re very purposeful while spawning, though. They’ll pair up and build redds, or nests, by using body movements to dig into the sand, and they’ll use their sucker mouths to pick up and move gravel and rocks.”

For mating, females also use their mouths to suck onto a stone to hold position in the river, while the males use their mouths to adhere to the back of the female.

Females can lay over 100,000 eggs, which are fertilized externally by the male, Massengill said. The larvae, called ammocoetes, move downstream to find fine silt deposits where they bury themselves.

“They are born blind and without the sucking disk to their mouths — they’ll develop those later. They feed initially by filter feeding on plankton and detritus, but as they grow they’ll feed on carcasses or whatever else they can find,” he said.

The larvae remain in their burrows for roughly four years, changing locations to deeper water and coarser sand as they mature. Upon reaching the eyed, juvenile stage, lampreys will migrate to the ocean, which can occur anytime from November through June.

Anglers shouldn’t hold any animosity toward lampreys for the brief period of their life that they feed on sport fish, according to Massengill.

Juvenile and adult lampreys serve as food to some salmon, as well as numerous other species. Coho fry feed on young lampreys, as do gulls and other birds that might otherwise prey more heavily on young salmon. And larger adult lampreys function as a buffer to reduce predation on adult migrating salmon from seals and sea lions.

“While (lampreys) often feed on salmon, it works both ways,” Massengill said.

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