There in spirit — Kalifornsky Village leaves rich legacy

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Dr. Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College, leads a tour of Kalifornsky Village last month. The Native settlement was abandoned in the 1920s but is still home to a rich cultural history.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Dr. Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College, leads a tour of Kalifornsky Village last month. The Native settlement was abandoned in the 1920s but is still home to a rich cultural history.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

These days, there isn’t much to see of Kalifornsky Village. An unmarked footpath leads away from Kalifornsky Beach Road into the woods, single-file and nondescript. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you knew it was there.

Dead trees and undergrowth have been cleared recently along the muddy path winding toward the bluff overlooking Cook Inlet, affording a clearer view of more branches and tree trunks, sprouting among indentations in the undulating ground.

The structures have long since been dismantled or disintegrated, and the Dena’ina Natives who once lived here were the original “leave no trace” campers, considering it bad form to leave much of anything behind.

Farther along, near the slowly, steadily eroding bluff, there’s two obvious indications of human habitation, or, at least, expiration — a hand-hewn, falling-down fence ringing a cemetery that contains 16 graves, with another just outside, the paint flaking off the whitewashed Russian Orthodox crosses with their telltale slanted bars. Just beyond it, closer to the bluff, is another fence, surrounding the site of an old Russian Orthodox chapel.

But who had lived here? Who had died here? Who is buried here? There is no explanation as far as the untrained eye can see. But on April 15, there was plenty of history for the ears to hear and the mind to ponder. A group of about 15 joined Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor Alan Boraas on a tour of Kalifornsky Village, to get a sense, through senses beyond just sight, of what is so special about the place.

“How many times have people driven by here — going to wherever they’re going, doing whatever — tucked away in this woods, this remarkable place, this powerful place. That we hope will continue to be a powerful place,” Boraas said. “I’m not saying it will be spiritual to everyone, but it’s a place where we can tell the story of the Kenai Peninsula in many different ways, in dimensions that are far beyond the, ‘Gosh, that’s interesting. Hey, that’s interesting,’ but really get to the core of the relation between people and place. That’s what’s important.”

Kalifornsky Village, or Unhghenesditnu, meaning “farthest creek over” in Dena’ina, was founded by Qadanachen Kalifornsky in about 1820 on the Cook Inlet bluff four miles north of the Kasilof River mouth. Qadanachen had just returned from working at Fort Ross, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, built by the Russian American Company to grow grain to feed Russian colonies. The grain was a bust, rotted by the damp climate.

Qadanachen’s heart was likewise deteriorating, from sadness at being away from home. He had brought a bag of soil from his home village of Ski’tuk at the mouth of the Kenai River, which gave him some comfort of connection. He wrote a song about his homesickness.

“‘Another dark night has come over me, we may never return to our home, but do your best in life, that is what I do.’ When your break down the third line, ‘do your best in life,’ it could easily be translated as, ‘live to enhance your soul.’ ‘Another dark night’ — we all have them, and will have them. Do what you can to live to enhance your soul,” Boraas said.

When Qadanachen returned home, he found disputes in the Kenai village and decided to establish a new village with his clanspeople, choosing an old village site dating back to prehistoric times. Dena’ina thrived here long before European explorers came to Alaska, living in multifamily log houses, called nichił, which were partially dug into the ground, with a hearth in a large room for sleeping, warming and cooking, and smaller rooms along the sides. Scattered around in the woods were food cache pits, in which Dena’ina would preserve the summer catch of salmon to sustain them through the winter.

In the second occupation of Kalifornsky Village, they built new houses and planted gardens. And there was a log Russian Orthodox chapel, where a priest from Kenai would visit periodically to tend to the spiritual needs of the villagers. Dena’ina spirituality and the imported Russian Orthodox religion were an amicable fit.

“Spirits and angels, powers of place, powers of ritual — all of these things would have been common, and just as many Dena’ina and Yup’ik today do not see serious conflict between the orthodoxy that they practice and the traditional ways,” Boraas said.

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Soldotna to study expansion — Council approves money to look into annexation

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

The Soldotna City Council has a lot of questions regarding the possibility of annexing land to expand its cramped, 7.5-mile footprint — What areas would be appropriate to consider? What would be the costs versus the benefits? And how to go about it?

Twenty-six people testifying at its meeting May 13 were happy to provide answers — Not their neighborhoods, the cost would be public outrage, and the city shouldn’t go about it at all.

“Tonight you have the opportunity to exercise democracy in action. Do the right thing and put a stop to this once and for all. None of us want to continue to experience the cost emotionally or financially that will occur if this continues,” said Brian Olson, president of Borough Residents Against Annexation. The group showed up in force Wednesday to urge the council not to pass an ordinance that would appropriate up to $150,000 to study the economic, social and logistical implications of annexation.

Of the 28 people who testified, only two — Soldotna resident Penny Vadla and daughter, Kaitlin Vadla, were even notionally open to the idea of annexation.

The rest expressed their vehement opposition in a variety of ways. From touch of local humor, with a resident of the River Hills Subdivision off Ciechanski Road suggesting spending the money proposed to study annexation on studying to remove the new roundabouts on Binkley Street.

To strident pronouncements:

“Don’t force nobody in. That’s what the communist people does, they force you to do stuff,” said Fred Sturman.

Liberty, freedom and America were buzzwords of the night.

“You plan to take my liberty away for economic growth,” said Martin Hall, who lives on Lonesome Street.

“If they want to land a plane on the lake out front at four in the morning, I don’t care. To me, that’s the sound of liberty,” said Mike Denison, of East Lake Avenue.

“This is still America and we should still have freedoms and the right to choose where we live,” said Daniel Lynch, of Soldotna.

“I didn’t vote for you. You don’t represent me. You have interest for people who live in the city, but not me. There’s something fundamentally un-American about the fact that you can have annexation without representation,” said Faith Hall, who lives in the Echo Lake area.

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Cultivating learning experience — Kasilof students digging the opportunity to grow

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Students at Tustumena Elementary School spread soil, dig holes and plant willows and garden crops last week as part of Schoolyard Habitat project.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Students at Tustumena Elementary School spread soil, dig holes and plant willows and garden crops last week as part of Schoolyard Habitat project.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

For some students, particularly those living in metropolitan or urban areas, learning about wildlife and wilderness habitats is an abstract concept learned from books or seen only by taking field trips. Not so for Alaska kids. They need only look out the window to see the woods and quite possibly a moose or some other wild animal.

Wanting to capitalize on the unique opportunities afforded students in this area, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed the Schoolyard Habitat program, which aims to make school grounds more hospitable to wildlife, while simultaneously providing a place for children to learn about and connect with nature.

Now in its second full year, the program has expanded to three peninsula schools — Kaleidoscope School of Art and Sciences in Kenai, Sterling Elementary and Tustumena Elementary in Kasiof, which took on an ambitious end-of-the-year project.

“It doesn’t look like much now, but come back in five years,” said Dan Funk, district Schoolyard Habitat coordinator, about the fenced-in, 60-by-40-foot area adjacent to Tustumena Elementary. Fifth- and sixth-grade students spread topsoil, dug holes and planted 200 willow saplings, as well as some garden foods, last week.

The bulk of the funding for the project came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, augmented by in-kind contributions of materials and labor from the community, and a grant from the Scott Paper Company via the Department of Natural Resources.

“We ordered felt-leaf willow, which is a hearty variety and one often used for stream bank restoration projects,” Funk said, adding that currently, the demand for these willows exceeds the supply.

“The intent is, in a few years, these willows could be cut to be sold for those purposes, and in the meantime, the schools can pack in as much education around them as possible,” he said.

Marina Bosick, a teacher at Tustumena and one of the people who championed getting the program at the school, said the willow planting and eventual harvest would be in line with several objectives already taught.

“It’s our hope to be able to use cuttings from our willows to help with projects on Crooked Creek, where the sixth grade is already a part of the Adopt-A-Stream Program. There may also be other projects on the Kasilof we could help with in the future, as well. Hopefully, these activities will translate into good environmental stewardship,” she said.

The willow is only one part of the project. Some of the designated area will be used for a small garden.

“We didn’t want to do just willow. We wanted to do something annually, and a little more exciting for kids,” said instructor Shonia Werner, another key person in bringing the program to Tustumena.

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View from Out West — Name that plume — Song identification can be for the birds

Photos by Clark Fair. Yvonne Leutwyler and Nathan Coutsoubos watch seabirds on a University of Alaska “Birds of Alaska” trip to Cape Constantine near Dillingham recently.

Photos by Clark Fair. Yvonne Leutwyler and Nathan Coutsoubos watch seabirds on a University of Alaska “Birds of Alaska” trip to Cape Constantine near Dillingham recently.

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

It may be unfair of me to say, but, as of now, I find trying to learn the identities of birds by their songs disturbingly akin to trying to learn French in college by closing my textbook and just listening to my instructor.

I’m trying, damn it, but it’s hard. And I don’t want to give up, as I did with French.

In the 1980s at the University of Montana, after two and a half years of German and one year of Spanish — two languages that sound the way they look — I decided to tackle French. In the first class, our instructor told us to put away our “livre de langue française” and simply listen. At that point, she ceased speaking English and spoke only French. She pointed to herself and said, “Professeur.” We dutifully echoed her word. Then: “Bonjour, classe!” That was an easy one. We responded with a chorus of, “Bonjour, professeur!” But each subsequent sentence or expression grew increasingly complex, and the more visual learners among us became increasingly perplexed learners.

I dropped the class after only one term.

Flash forward more than 30 years. I’m in Dillingham in mid-May, I’m with friends on a chilly early morning “bird walk” — my very first — and I’m doing my darnedest to follow the chorus of whistles and cheeps and tweets and chirrups that some of my companions are identifying faster than I can process the French words for “totally confused.” (That’s totalement confus, by the way.)

I realize, of course, the near necessity of learning the musicality of birds, particularly the LBBs (“little brown birds”) that frequent the forests and tundra and waterways of Alaska. To begin with, with the exception of robins and thrushes, most of the LBBs have a body the size of a golf ball, so they’re tough to see well unless the light is perfect or they happen to land on a branch next to one’s face. They also don’t stand still long — they dart, they flit and they zip. The moment I’d raise my binoculars for a closer view, they’d be gone. They also prefer deep cover — the branches of spruce trees, for instance, or tall grass or thick brush — so their sounds can appear directionless, almost coming out of nowhere.

So learning birdsongs is the best alternative. If one can learn their individual tunes, one can nail down the species — even if, like the French words in my textbook I wasn’t allowed to use, one never sees the actual bird at all.

HOWEVER, confounding the whole process is the fact that nobody seems to have informed these LBBs that it’s not polite for all of them to talk at the same time.

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Plugged In: New organization has heart for public art

ART SPACE FONT OUTLINED1

ART SPACE FONT OUTLINED1

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

We’ve had more than enough discussion in this space about lenses, gear and other technical topics lately, so, as the Italian side of my family would say, “Basta!” (Enough, already!)

Instead, let’s give some thought to how art and other visual attractions might make our area a more pleasant place to live and work, in the process boosting the local economy over the long term.

There’s a lot of public art happening in Soldotna this summer, with something for everyone. Soldotna’s free public arts festival will be held May 23 in Soldotna Creek Park, attracting new and emerging artists from around Alaska. There’s music, free snacks, demonstrations, a lot of fun and the award of some serious cash prizes on the agenda. It’s a free, new, family friendly event with accessible artwork suitable for all ages.

Soldotna’s Alaska Emerging Artists Festival is open to any “emerging artist” working in a 2D medium who has not had more than one solo exhibit. Established artists with several shows on their resume are just that, “established,” and more easily able to secure recognition and exhibits. “Emerging” artists, on the other hand, are usually students or people with a regular job who need a first “break” and some encouragement and public exposure. The invited musicians, too, are “emerging.” More information and the day’s schedule are posted at www.artspaceak.org.

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Skilak stuck in same spring ruts — Lower section reopens to 4×4 traffic Tuesday

Photos by Jenny Neyman, ,Redoubt Reporter. Skilak Lake Road has been closed since Thursday. The lower section of road, miles 19 to 8.5, was reopened to four-wheel-drive vehicles Tuesday, though RV and trailer traffic still is not allowed.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, ,Redoubt Reporter. Skilak Lake Road has been closed since Thursday. The lower section of road, miles 19 to 8.5, was reopened to four-wheel-drive vehicles Tuesday, though RV and trailer traffic still is not allowed.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Alaska in the springtime is a sloppy situation.

Best-case scenario, breakup mud is shallow, short-lived and segregated to soggy spots away from where anyone walks or drives. Skilak Lake Road, though, is more of a worst-case scenario, every year turning to mush when the trees turn to green. This year has been so bad the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities closed the gravel road to all traffic Thursday for as long as conditions dictate, potentially up to a week.

“It is very wet and very saturated in a number of places to the point where even four-wheel drives are getting stuck. Having vehicles try to get through the area, they’re creating huge ruts, that, a, they’re getting stuck, and then they’re destroying the road surface, so the whole thing is shut down,” said Shannon McCarthy, spokesperson for DOT.

McCarthy said the plan was for maintenance crews to work on the road Thursday and Friday and reassess the situation Monday. The lower section of road, miles 19 to 8.5, was opened to four-wheel-drive traffic Tuesday. The upper section, Miles 0 to 8.5, remains closed, and the entire road is still closed to RVs and trailer traffic.

“They got some dozers down there. First of all they filled in the ruts and then they leveled the road with a crown of course in the middle so if it can shed any water it will. And then time. They have to have the road dry out because if you let cars back in on a road that’s that wet they will just re-create those ruts, and of course ruts hold onto water really well,” McCarthy said.

The 19-mile loop road off the Sterling Highways at Mileposts 58 and 75.2 accesses several trails, campgrounds, cabins and boat launches. And while May isn’t peak activity time for the popular Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area, the closure is having an effect. McCarthy estimates the road gets an average of 100 vehicles a day, as many as 200 in the summer, and as little as 25 to 50 in the winter.

Keith Burton, from Utah, and Taryn Dixon, from Texas, are two of the more dramatically affected. They got to Alaska last week, planning on heading to their summer job at Alaska Wildland Adventures Lodge across Skilak Lake on Saturday. Instead, they couldn’t even head down the road to the boat launch.

“We haven’t seen it yet,” Burton said.

“I’ve seen what I saw on the Internet when I applied, and we drove out and saw the road closed sign, but that’s it,” Dixon said.

They were making the most of their change in plans, since the road closure gave them the weekend to explore the central peninsula.

“We like what we’ve seen so far, it’ll be a good summer,” Burton said.

“I’m from flat Texas, no mountains no trees, no anything. I saw my first moose yesterday, so that was cool,” Dixon said.

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Kenai project a step ahead —  No bluffing: Final feasibility study is furthest erosion work has gotten so far

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

For Kenai’s mile-long bluff stabilization project along the mouth of the Kenai River, the easy part will be building the thing. And that’s saying something, because construction will be no easy task — piling giant boulders to armor the toe of the bluff, plus re-sloping and revegetating the bluff face and installing drainage and erosion-control systems throughout.

But compared to the process of getting approval and funding for the project, construction will be a piece of cake. The city has been actively pursuing a fix to the 3-feet-per-year erosion problem for 30 years, and the estimated price tag for the project has risen in that time from a lowball $10 million to the current $43 million.

“So, you think about a century ago there was a football field out here. But you can see here’s the senior center and it’s really riverside property in 2053, and there’s a loss of improvements and properties along here,” said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch, who moderated an open house at city hall May 6 to update the public on the project.

There wasn’t any great news to share — that a construction date had been set, for instance — but there was the good news that progress is being made.

“We will continue to be diligent. I know the council, as I’ve told you, has year after year after year, identified this as number-one priority project … especially since we are slowly moving forward and the Corps is involved in a way that hasn’t happened before,” Koch said.

The city and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently executed a funding agreement to go ahead with a final feasibility study on the project, which will coalesce all previous studies, prepare documentation for National Environmental Policy Act permitting, and come to a final recommendation on whether or not an erosion abatement project should be built. That should be finished in August 2017. And at that point, assuming the conclusion is to build the thing, the process to obtain federal funding will begin, said Dave Martinson, a representative with the Corps.

“Because I’m sure next thing that you’re wondering is, ‘OK, when will something be built? When will construction happen?’ And, to be honest, that is really out of my hands, because we’re at the mercy of a nation that is struggling with a pretty incredible debt, with a project workload that they’re trying to accomplish. So, no offense, but the community of Kenai doesn’t weigh very high, as you can tell, from a national standpoint. … With us doing as much as we can to show the importance of this we’re going to present that argument,” Martinson said.

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