Monthly Archives: June 2012

Where there’s a willet, there’s a way — Kenai Flats hosts 1st confirmed sighting of bird rare to Alaska

By Jenny Neyman

Photos courtesy of Laura Burke. A western willet has been seen on the flats at the mouth of the Kenai River. The bird is common to the East Coast, found in the West but never before definitively seen in Alaska. It was discovered Friday and has been delighting birdwatchers who have been flocking to Kenai from across the state since the sighting was confirmed.

Redoubt Reporter

Had Toby Burke been back East when he saw the long-beaked, long-legged shorebird sitting in the grass rimming a tidal pool along Boat Launch Road in Kenai on Friday morning, he wouldn’t have given it another look. But he was in Alaska, and once he realized what the bird might be, his eyes all but popped out of his head.

“There’s only been one previous sighting in Alaska, and it was unsubstantiated — never photographer or unequivocally proven — in August 1961 in the Minto Flats. So this one here is at least the first one that’s been documented, if not the first one that’s been seen in Alaska,” said Burke, a technician for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

He’s speaking of a willet, a migratory shorebird in the sandpiper family common to the East Coast, known in the West, and extremely rare in Alaska.

“We’re about 1,500 miles from its closest breeding range, and they don’t tend to wander a whole lot to the far north like this,” Burke said.

He had been out conducting a survey of breeding birds on the estuary flats at the mouth of the Kenai River on Friday morning and figured he’d take a quick detour down Boat Launch Road off Bridge Access Road to see if anything interesting caught his eye. He glanced at the tidal pool near the road, since there’s usually at least a dowitcher or some other shorebird hanging out.

“I looked over and just on the edge of the grass I saw this bird that superficially looks like a greater yellowlegs, which is a local breeder here. But then I looked at it and went, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not a yellowlegs,’” he said.

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Winging It: Mating season a sweet-sounding time for birding

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

The birding calendar has turned to breeding season. Field crews, deployed to remote regions of the 49th State, are trudging tundra and mudflats searching for nest treasure chests.

I flew home to southern Massachusetts on May 31, within the bird world’s window of rest between migratory travels.

Stepping onto my childhood swamp-side yard, relishing nostalgic aromas, familiar songs seem new again. I compartmentalize my hearing, trying to pick out a cardinal’s mingled whistles among the bells and teasing wheezes of tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees and flying finches’ chips and piks. A big voice elevators decibels, chanting several syllables, conjuring a go-to grouping for voice guessing — Carolina wren, common yellowthroat, ovenbird? Staccato nasal notes — “nah, nuh” — precede two white-breasted nuthatches, rather than Seward’s common red-breasted nuthatch, landing on overhead feeders. A mourning dove “cooo coo coos” on a bowed limb, flaunts its lime-mauve neck glitter, and leaps, snapping wings clapping.

Birding’s courting/singing/listening scene, which precedes the quiet nesting-hatching season, and follows the shorebirding season on the Kenai Peninsula, for me, can still be eloquently experienced even as many adults settle into long hours logged sitting on nests. Theories as to why noncourting birds are still belting — territorial, communication or for the recreation, joy or art of singing. It’s a special time to identify birds because every species found on a yard or town list can also be added to a list of that place’s likely breeders. While the individual pine siskin you might have heard ripping a long strip “zreeeee” may not be a nesting individual, its proven sustained presence in an area this time of year likely confirms its species as a local breeder.

The following musical tour will trade off paragraphs exhibiting birds observed in Massachusetts from May 31 to June 14 and Seward from June 1 to June 23.

In a pondside shrubby prairie bordered by white pine, stippled with cedar, a prairie warbler pitches its rising eight-syllable “zee zee zee zee zee zee zee zee,” as though it’s moving farther away with each note, gifting a hint to its location atop a beech tree, as if insisting we scope its black mask and stripes laid over rich, color-wheel yellow, which we do.

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Fight the bite — Mild winter means big, bad mosquitoes season

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. An adult female mosquito is drawn to exposed flesh by warmth and carbon dioxide, seeking a blood meal with which to lay eggs and complete its life cycle.

Redoubt Reporter

Summer arrived with a vengeance last weekend, with the central Kenai Peninsula’s first memorable occurrence of sustained warmth and shade-worthy brightness so far this season. The sun’s siren call enticed people outdoors in droves to work, recreate or just laze about and enjoy the weather.

But Alaska rarely gives a carrot without some sort of caveat: Abundant run of sockeye salmon? Beware of bears. Midnight sun? You’ll have to create your own dark to sleep. Pleasantly warm weather? Watch out for bugs.

Not that anyone needs to put any particular effort into noticing bugs so far this summer, as mosquitoes are out in droves far thicker than the crowds at even the busiest campgrounds and fishing holes.

“Yeah, they’re thick. I’ve got bites all over me,” said Janice Chumley, integrated pest management specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Office on Kalifornsky Beach Road.

“They’re buzzing around me right now,” agreed Dr. David Wartinbee, a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College. “I would say that they’re pretty aggressive, and there’s lots of them.”

Large, aggressive mosquitoes have hatched in abundance on the Kenai Peninsula, thanks to favorable conditions during the winter.

“It’s because we had a lovely, mild winter,” Chumley said. “All that large amount of snow was the perfect insulating layer. It caused the ground not to freeze very deep, so all the bugs said, ‘Thank you,’ for the large quantities of snow that insulated the ground so well. If you have a deep-enough freeze — if the frost goes deep enough into the ground before it snows enough — it kills the insect larvae and knocks back (the bug population) for a couple of years. But when we have a large snow layer before it gets frozen, then you have a lot of insects.”

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Take a whack at adventure — Backcountry race tests: Navigation, endurance, teamwork … sanity?

By Clark Fair

Photo by Clark Fair, Redoubt Reporter. Faces brimming with tentative optimism, the K-Pen Cats take a moment for a group photograph just before the start of the 2012 “Bushwhack This!” adventure race. Left to right are Mike Crawford, Yvonne Leutwyler and Clark Fair.

Redoubt Reporter

Lying inside a down bag in the bed of my truck, I had almost drifted off to sleep when another burst of automatic weapon fire jolted me awake.

I cracked open my weary eyelids, noted the graying skies of evening, and wondered if the shooters were ever going to tire. For three hours now, and with a wide assortment of guns, they had been plugging away at targets propped against a copse of birch trees on the nearby hillside.

Just then, a trio of four-wheeler riders blasted past us, jumping a nearby ditch and roaring off into the gloom down inky trails dotted with puddles and lined with sprawling alders. It was nearly 9 p.m. Our race was slated to start at midnight, with a prerace meeting scheduled for about 10. I doubted I would get a moment of real sleep before the race began.

Nestled in her own bag, my teammate, Yvonne Leutwyler, had remained motionless throughout the latest artillery barrage. Either she had actually managed to drift into a sleep deep enough to escape the noise or she was simply remaining stoically still. Ensconced in the cab of the truck, my other teammate, Mike Crawford, also seemed immobile.

We were entered as a coed team in the 2012 “Bushwhack This!” adventure race, billed as a 12-hour competition encompassing approximately 40 miles of mountain biking, orienteering, trekking and paddling. At about 10:30 p.m., we were to be informed of the exact nature of the race course, along which we would be expected to locate nine hidden checkpoints and punch a card proving we had passed through.

Of the three of us, only Yvonne had had experience with the race. A strong athlete with solid endurance, she had participated in 2011 in a cold, daylong August rain and had vowed never to do it again. Mike, in great shape from his continual triathlon training and his work as a P90X instructor, had, like me, no experience with a competition of this duration. And I, as the oldest member of the group, was by far the biggest racing newbie — having entered only two races since graduating from high school: the 1980 Mount Marathon race and the 2012 five-kilometer Run for the River.

Yes, there are 32 years between those experiences.

On this particular weekend, with Father’s Day looming only two days away, the campers, motor homes and heavy-duty trucks had

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Leutwyler. A gravel pit in Jonesville, near Sutton, provided a beautiful backdrop for the race start. The Alaska Adventure Racing group set up their tent in the middle of a gathering of RVs of people enjoying a weekend of off-roading and target shooting practice in this backcountry area.

infiltrated the site en masse, with trailers packed with motorcycles, ATVs and four-wheelers, providing us with myriad illustrations of the Doppler effect, and creating a makeshift RV village.

It was literally in the middle of all this motorized mayhem that a group of 22 helmeted, sleep-deprived, adventure-racing participants were about to clamber onto their mountain bikes and launch into a fully human-powered competition.

Before any of us contemplated another good night’s sleep, however, we would be pedaling about 25 miles (over muddy mining roads, along stretches of highway, down a deteriorating old railroad bed paralleling the Matanuska River and through the streets of Palmer), trekking approximately 10 miles (down empty city streets, up a pair of wooded buttes, along mosquito-infested trails and swamps, and even down a hard-packed gravel road), and paddling six miles of slack water in one-person, flat-bottomed pack rafts.

Prior to race start, I laid out my goals: (1) Avoid injury to myself or my teammates. (2) Finish the race. (3) Have fun. I assumed that success in the first two categories would ensure success in the third. I also assumed that the high character and athletic prowess of my teammates improved the likelihood of accomplishing all three goals.

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Bumps along the way to re-pave Cohoe — Residents vocal about state of busy summer road

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

When it comes to firsthand accounts of how bad the asphalt surface of North Cohoe Loop Road has become since being paved in 1986, Dorothy Hermansen’s tale is a tough one to beat, not that anyone would want to.

While driving into town from her mother’s house on Tri Road two years ago, she hit one of the long — some 1,000 feet or more in length — latitudinal cracks that snakes its way down the road’s surface near Webb Ramsell Road. It jerked the front wheel of her Ford Escape and sent her vehicle spinning violently into the ditch in a rollover accident. She suffered only minor injuries, but her car was totaled.

Hermansen shared this story Saturday, as did many others who have had close calls on Cohoe Loop Road, during a town meeting to discuss what could be done to get the road repaired to ensure the safety of everyone who travels on it, whether commuting daily to and from a home in the area or visiting one of the popular Kasilof River-area fisheries in the summer.

“Everyone is tired of dodging around the potholes and ruts in a fight to stay on the road,” said Gail Garcia, a Cohoe Loop resident who organized the meeting. “We want the whole road done and done properly.”

“It’s reached a point where it’s become dangerous,” added Leif Jenkinson. “It used to be cracks that could suck in a Schwinn bicycle tire, but now they’re the size of a full-size tire and can jerk a vehicle around.”

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Drinking on the Last Frontier: Adhere to beer temps — not too hot, not too cold

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Bill Howell. Frosted glasses may look fancy but aren’t recommended for proper serving of beer.

In my experience, Alaskans are usually pretty sensitive to temperature. By that I don’t mean that we let the temperature decide what we can and can’t do — people who routinely go outdoors when it’s well below zero are obviously not deterred by how cold it is. However, we do want to know how cold (or warm) it is, so we can dress accordingly.

A bad clothing choice in the Lower 48 means you’ll be uncomfortable. In Alaska, it may mean hypothermia and death.
Temperature is very important to brewers as well, especially brewers of the cold-fermented beers known as lagers. Ale yeasts like to work at relatively warm temperatures, at or just below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s not hard to achieve in most climates, except perhaps at the height of summer.

But lager yeasts are very different. To be brewed properly, such beers must be fermented at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Once primary fermentation is completed, it then needs to be stored (lager in German, hence the name) at near-freezing temperatures for several weeks to allow this slow-working yeast to finish its task.

When done properly, the result is the clear, crisp, clean-tasting lager beers with which we are familiar.

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Art Seen: Tasteful interpretation — Hillhouse celebration invites edible art

By Zirrus VanDevere, for the Redoubt Reporter

“Kinetic Frog,” a dyed fiber piece by Juanita Hillhouse

It was nearly a year ago that Juanita and Clayton Hillhouse opened their dual exhibit at the Kenai Fine Arts Center with a reception that included edible art for attendees to enjoy. It was a hit, both for those creating the food and for the attendees who got to consume it.

Juanita died just a half a year after that event, on Jan. 12, 2012. She was a prolific artist, and just as prolific a gardener. There are many who came across Juanita in both or either arena, talking art or talking vegetables, and she had a great enthusiasm for all of it that was endearing and engaging. Clayton tells me she was happiest when she was planting or had a tape measure in her hand, creating art.

Juanita was born April 22, 1930, in Augusta, Ga., and was involved in learning and teaching about art her whole life. She moved to Alaska in 1975, living just outside Soldotna, and she and her husband sold herbs, jams and vegetables from

A watermelon sculpture by Juanita Hillhouse

her garden at the Soldotna Farmer’s Market.

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