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Happy Fourth of July! The Redoubt Reporter will return July 9.

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Clams before the storm — State maintains strong warnings about common Alaska activity

File photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Clamming is a regular part of summer for many Alaskans, but it’s an activity with an unavoidable risk, warns the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Recreationally harvested shellfish in Alaska, such as these razor clams dug at Clam Gulch, carry the risk of paralytic shellfish poisoning. A recently reported case of PSP from clams harvested in Clam Gulch on June 15 demonstrate that there’s no way to tell by looking at clams whether they’re safe to eat.

File photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Clamming is a regular part of summer for many Alaskans, but it’s an activity with an unavoidable risk, warns the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Recreationally harvested shellfish in Alaska, such as these razor clams dug at Clam Gulch, carry the risk of paralytic shellfish poisoning. A recently reported case of PSP from clams harvested in Clam Gulch on June 15 demonstrate that there’s no way to tell by looking at clams whether they’re safe to eat.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Clam diggers beware: Any recreationally harvested shellfish collected any time, on any beach in Alaska could be contaminated with toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. Eating such shellfish — including clams, mussels, oysters, geoducks, scallops and the guts of crabs — could potentially result in sickness or even death.

The number of cases of PSP in Alaska is a tricky number to track. According to the Alaska Division of Public Health, two deaths in 1994 are directly attributed to PSP, and two more in 2010 are thought to at least have been exacerbated by PSP sickness. And the number of reports of highly likely PSP cases or cases confirmed by lab tests in the last 10 years is 45, ranging from none in 2008 to as many as 26 in 2011. And the assumption is that cases of PSP are underreported, meaning it’s likely more common than the statistics reflect. Medical providers in Alaska are good at recognizing symptoms and reporting possible outbreaks, said Michael Cooper, Infectious Disease Program Manager with the Alaska Division of Public Health. But many times people eating contaminated shellfish and feeling just a little sick won’t go to a doctor nor call the state to report their condition, Cooper said.

“They will go out, eat some clams, have really minor symptoms — maybe get a funny tingling on their lips — then will just sort of wait and get better and won’t seek care, and we’ll never hear about it,” he said.

The underreporting problem complicates being able to tell how big a risk PSP is in Alaska, though enough cases still are reported to keep state health departments on their toes. A probable case of PSP was reported from clams, likely surf clams, harvested June 15 at Clam Gulch. Test results for toxins in other sample clams taken from that beach are pending.

But one thing’s for sure — whether or not PSP ever crops up and sickens anyone, clamming definitely results in heartburn for the state agencies that deal with recreational shellfish harvesting, because even though managers and biologists realize that recreational clamming is a lawfully permitted, greatly enjoyed activity for many Alaskans, there simply is no way to guarantee the safety of those who participate in it.

“Our caution, our warnings exist all the time because you can never know when one clam or cockle or muscle is safe or not,” said Greg Wilkinson, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services spokesman.

Such a dire warning for an activity so mellow that whole families routinely participate — from elders to kids just barely able to toddle. It’s not like hunting wildlife that can bite or scratch back, braving rough water to haul in a halibut, wading into berry patches in bear territory or any number of other pursuits by which Alaskans gather food from the land. At worst shellfish harvesting is dirty, damp work, but it’s not like clams have claws, or that mussels have the muscle to put up a fight. So why the “woe-to-you, proceed at-your-own-risk,” warnings?

It’s because PSP is a serious illness with no antidote, no way to predict when or where it might show up and, even worse, no way for harvesters to easily tell if their haul is “hot” — affected by PSP-causing toxins — or not.

PSP is caused by eating shellfish contaminated with dinoflagellate algae that produce toxins harmful to humans. Early symptoms include tingling of the lips and tongue, which can start within minutes of consuming contaminated shellfish or can take an hour or two to develop. The tingling can progress to the fingers and toes, followed by loss of muscle control in the arms and legs, and sometimes even the muscles of the chest and abdomen can become paralyzed. Nausea, headache and/or a sense of floating can occur, as can difficulty breathing. High toxin exposures can result in death in as little as two hours from paralysis of the breathing muscles.

The toxins affect mammals consuming them by blocking sodium channels in neurons, preventing the neurons from functioning normally and resulting in paralysis. Some of the toxins are 1,000 times more potent than cyanide, and toxin levels contained in a single shellfish can be fatal to humans, according to information from DHSS. Symptoms can pass on their own, but anyone who thinks they are experiencing PSP is advised to seek immediate medical treatment. There is no antidote to stop the reaction, but at least medical professionals could treat the symptoms and, in dire cases, hopefully keep patients alive if they do lose the ability to breathe on their own.

The Kenai resident reporting PSP on June 16 became ill overnight after eating clams harvested June 15 from Clam Gulch, exhibiting a floating sensation, tingling around the mouth, vomiting, headache and shortness of breath, according to DHSS. The man didn’t seek medical treatment so there was no urine sample taken to test for PSP, and there were no leftovers from the suspect clams to test for the toxins. Still, DHSS was quick to warn the public to be wary of the possibility of PSP.

“There’s no way to know when they’re safe, so please be cautious,” Wilkinson said. “… People want us to be able to tell them, ‘Is this one safe? Is that one safe?’ and we can’t. You could take a dozen clams out of the ground but we can’t tell you which ones might have the toxins. Each one is a risk.”

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Hunter’s dream laid bear — Organization grants youth’s wish to hunt in Alaska

Photos courtesy of Hunt of a Lifetime. Hunter Paustian, who grew up hunting with his dad in Oregon, had his wish granted to go on a bear hunt in Alaska, out of Kenai, seeking a brown bear.

Photos courtesy of Hunt of a Lifetime. Hunter Paustian, who grew up hunting with his dad in Oregon, had his wish granted to go on a bear hunt in Alaska, out of Kenai, seeking a brown bear.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Stalking through the woods in search of a bear may be some people’s idea of a frightening, near-death experience, but for Hunter Paustian it doesn’t come close to the real life-threatening experiences he’s already faced and overcome.

“The more of a challenge it is, the more I want to do it,” he said, after returning from a 10-day hunt in the Drift River area across Cook Inlet from Kenai.

The 18-year-old, from LaGrande, Oregon, came to Alaska to hunt with guide Mike Cowan of Crosshairs of Alaska through the nonprofit charity Hunt of a Lifetime, which grants dream hunts to children with life-threatening illnesses.

Paustian was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma — a rare form of bone cancer — when he was 1. A year and a half of chemo and radiation therapy followed, which caused substantial damage to his young heart, requiring a heart transplant in his teen years. At 16, a cancerous tumor returned to one of the ribs in his back, requiring it to be removed.

Despite his illnesses and all the resultant treatments, Paustian has lived as much as possible like any other kid his age, and one of his hobbies has always been hunting. He primarily targets mule deer and elk using his bow or rifle, and also likes duck hunting from time to time. He started hunting with his father when he was 5, and over the years has refined his outdoors skills. His progressing led Paustian to want to hunt one of the apex predators — an Alaska brown bear.

“He doesn’t let his illness dictate his life,” said his father, Jon Paustian. “As parents, we’ve always tried to make sure the disease didn’t define who he is or what he does in life, and he makes it easy for us.”

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Called to duty, serving in love — Major found calling to God, country, ministry in military career

Photo courtesy of Gene Engebretsen. Maj. Gene Engebretsen, of Soldotna, during his career in the Army.

Photo courtesy of Gene Engebretsen. Maj. Gene Engebretsen, of Soldotna, during his career in the Army.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Growing up between Homer and Anchor Point in the 1960s, Gene Engebretsen didn’t know much about the great wide world beyond his family’s homestead along the Anchor River. There was fishing and wildlife aplenty, and other staples of an Alaska youth, but lacking among the salmon runs and moose sightings was a larger context to help him grasp his place in his country, much less his country’s place in the world.

Serving in the U.S. Army provided that.

“Growing up here in this river bottom when I was a kid I was not really understanding America or anything bigger than the Anchor River. And then getting in the military and ending up in Germany and seeing we are part of a much bigger picture than I ever understood, and I really just fell in love with serving our nation that way,” Engebretsen said.

Maj. Engebretsen, of Soldotna, will share his story of love and service as the featured guest speaker at the 23rd annual “Happy Birthday America God and Country Rally,” held at 6 p.m. June 29 at the Soldotna Church of God.

His love wasn’t at first sight, however. At first was the shock of having his authority over his young life superseded by the draft, and the unknown of what the military would entail. He was 19 in 1972, during the Vietnam War, when he was drafted.

“When I first got drafted I was very, very disappointed. My dreams as a 19-year-old kid was I was going to be a pastor,” he said. “… But I decided I was not one in that era that was willing to run away. I said, ‘That’s my duty, and I will do my duty.’”

Engebretsen quickly discovered that he flourished in military service. He tested well, performed well, was promoted quickly and recruited to attend West Point. He declined officer training but did elect to re-enlist for another hitch, during which time he finished college, doing class work on evenings and weekends, and ended up getting commissioned as an officer after all.

What started as a life derailment turned into a 23-year career, with Engebretsen retiring as a major. He served during the Vietnam era through the Gulf War in Air Defense Artillery, being stationed in Germany with the 1st Armored Division, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, with the 101st Airborne, in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division, and at the Command and General Staff College.

In the last 10 years or so of his service, Engebretsen found himself increasingly involved in what had been his original plan for his life — pastoral work. He served with a division chaplain in Korea, as a unit chaplain at Fort Campbell, ran small groups and ministry opportunities in many of the places he was stationed, and in his last tour worked in a church as a youth pastor. He felt a strong link between his call to service in pastoral and his military work.

“My main thrust was the ability to attract people who came in behind me to a purpose for our nation,” Engebretsen said. “When you find out what you believe in, just learn how to let your passion go that way and make it work, whether you’re in the Army or in anything you do. And personal faith in God helps people to have something to aspire to. So I think that level of intensity that I grew up through in the military ranks has really helped me take that outside of the military.”

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Common Ground: Crisis can stink as a learning experience

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

Sometimes it takes a crisis to learn things about one’s true character. For instance, one time I was visiting a friend who was working late at her office one night. It was getting dark when she mentioned that one of the workers sometimes stayed overnight in the adjacent warehouse.

This worker lived an hour’s drive away and didn’t have running water at home. “We call him Stinky Mike,” she said.

“One time the other workers put a bar of soap in his locker as a hint he needed to shower but he didn’t take it.”

She said his truck wasn’t there so he probably wasn’t staying over that night.

“What was that?” I asked.

There was a noise from the back of the warehouse.

“Probably just rats,” my friend said. “Unless… ”

It didn’t occur to me to argue whether or not the place was infested with non-native rats. It was the “unless” that got my attention.

“Unless what?” I said.

“Unless it’s Stinky Mike,” she said, “Maybe he’s been listening to us.”

“I didn’t say anything,” I pointed out. “You’re the one calling him Stinky Mike.” I was just an innocent bystander.

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Plugged In: Don’t get weighed down by not traveling light

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Travel is good for everyone — broadening horizons, suggesting new ideas and approaches to common concerns. Traveling light is even better, allowing for more fun and flexibility.

Everyone wants to take vacation photos, preferably good ones, and I’m no exception. However, I also like to travel as light as possible, an attitude honed on winter hunting trips in the Interior, flying in aircraft with barely enough room to seat two people, let alone deep winter survival gear.

Over a period of 10 days recently, I had the opportunity to visit and photograph Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, the historic arts-centered town of Mendocino on the California coast, as well as the nearby Anderson Valley wine country. That trip concluded with three days walking about the arts and downtown districts of Portland, while my spouse, Terese, attended a neuropsychology conference there.

Although not intended as a photography excursion, that road trip resulted in varied and challenging photographic opportunities, ranging from gritty cityscapes through deeply quiet redwood forests, seaside villages and geologically active countryside. Some of those vacation photos inevitably would be typical photo memories, but I wanted to be prepared to properly capture anything that came my way.

Which camera gear to take along so that I was traveling not only light but also prepared? Further complicating that decision was the rain and forest-fire smoke predicted for at least part of the trip, suggesting weather-sealed gear.

In the end, I packed and carried an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Micro Four-Thirds camera with Olympus’ superb new 12- to 40-mm f/2.8 PRO zoom lens and a Sigma 60-mm f/2.8 medium telephoto lens. Several of the OM-D series cameras are weather-resistant, with excellent image stabilization and good low-light image quality, yet smaller and lighter than equivalent APS-C cameras. The Sigma telephoto prime lens is small, sharp and inexpensive, a nice combination. Between these two lenses on a Micro Four-Thirds camera, I could range between the 35-mm film equivalent of a 24-mm ultrawide-angle view and a 120-mm medium telephoto magnification.

As with so many plans, this sounded good in theory but was not optimal in practice. The OM-D E-M5 with that prograde zoom lens seemed pretty heavy after hanging from my neck for several days. The Sigma 60-mm telephoto just didn’t have the magnification and reach that I needed for shots across the big countryside through which we traveled. And the weather was clear and dry every day, so a weather-sealed camera and lens were not necessary.

Although a few “arty” shots on that trip required the good low-light capability of the OM-D and fast zoom lens, most photos were taken in bright daylight at low base ISO sensitivities. Under these circumstances, most upper-tier cameras produce photos quite adequate for online posting or viewing on a computer or TV screen. They’re usually suitable for 13-by-19-inch prints, the largest size made by affordable digital photo printers.

With that recent experience in mind, I re-evaluated what I would take along on my next trip to optimize the balance between broad capability and easy traveling.

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Wildfire threat not just a Funny matter — Peninsula already at yearly average of number of fires

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The Funny River Fire was a small blaze when first reported May 19, but due to dangerously dry conditions on the Kenai Peninsula, quickly grew out of control. While it’s certainly the largest fire to hit the peninsula so far this year, it’s far from the only, and likely not the last as dry conditions persist.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The Funny River Fire was a small blaze when first reported May 19, but due to dangerously dry conditions on the Kenai Peninsula, quickly grew out of control. While it’s certainly the largest fire to hit the peninsula so far this year, it’s far from the only, and likely not the last as dry conditions persist.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Be warned, Kenai Peninsula — though 306 square miles of forest have burned so far in the Funny River Fire, that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods of fire danger yet. Fire season is far from over, although the peninsula has already seen as many wildfires from April 1 to June 16 as it typically does in an entire season.

By June 16 last year the Kenai-Kodiak Area had seen 35 fire incidents, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry. This Monday, the sign outside the Forestry office in Soldotna read 76 fires. Last year, the area had 78 wildfires, total, for the entire standard season, from April 1 through Aug. 31 (though fires occasionally happen later in the year, too).

“The last time we had anywhere close to 78 incidents, which is what we had last year, was back in 1997, when we had 80 fires. The year before (1996), we had 101 fires. And we’re on course to be above 100 fires this year. So that gives you a little bit of an idea how much activity we could be looking at. We got some rain today, but it only takes three days to dry out and we’re back into it. We’re definitely on course for a big year,” said Howie Kent, Kenai-Kodiak Area fire management officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry, on Monday.

Rain is a welcome occurrence for Forestry in a year like this.

“My guys are tired. We’ve literally put in a full season already and we’ve got a long way to go. This rain is nice to see. It gives us time to get our guys rested and get our gear refurbed and ready for the next round. And we’re ready to go, but it’s good to see the rain,” Kent said.

The Funny River Fire, the second largest recorded on the peninsula, required a massive outlay of personnel, equipment, time and money to combat and eventually contain from threatening structures and private property — at last count, about $10.8 million in costs. But it certainly hasn’t been the only incident to which Kenai-Kodiak Area firefighters have responded this season. Of the 76 so far in the Kenai-Kodiak Area, all but five incidents have been on the Kenai Peninsula. Nor do fires across Cook Inlet count to that total.

Luckily, no others have been a severe-enough threat to safety or structures to steal much limelight from the Funny River Fire, but with conditions this year being so ripe for combustion, it wouldn’t take much for a little smoke to lead to a big fire.

A mild winter with low-to-no snowpack and little moisture this spring created a dangerously dry situation on the peninsula, especially when paired with warm, sunny, windy days.

“The dead brown grasses are up, they’re not matted down, which gives a little more fire potential for a little more severe-burning, hotter fire because it would be standing up. It won’t last as long but will burn up a lot quicker and a lot hotter,” said Andy Alexandrou, Forestry public information officer, in Soldotna.

Fire conditions this spring were about two weeks ahead of schedule, Kent estimates. And even after rain, it only takes a few days of warmth and wind to dry things back out again. At that point, it doesn’t take much to spark a blaze. Mother Nature can do it, though that’s rare on the peninsula — only two of the area’s 78 fires last year were caused by lightning. Vastly more likely is a human cause.

“Ninety-five percent or more of ours are human caused,” Kent said.

That can mean a host of things, from more “oops” situations, like a tree falling onto a power line (power lines are manmade, after all) and sparking, or a lawnmower sparking off a rock, as was the case with a 1-acre fire Forestry extinguished last week near Nikolaevsk.

More often, though, it’s human fires gone awry — meaning campfires and debris burns that are abandoned and/or not properly extinguished.

“Folks walk away from their debris pile and go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know the wind was going to come up and take my fire away from me.’ We get that quite a bit,” Kent said.

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