Daily Archives: February 18, 2009

Smoldering concerns — Smoking ban sparks clean air vs. city control conflagration

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Lines are being drawn in the battle over expanding smoking bans in Kenai and Soldotna to cover all places of employment and public entrances to them.

Except those lines are different in this smoking battle.

Smokers who support increasing restrictions, nonsmokers and owners of nonsmoking business establishments who oppose a more stringent ban — it’s not smokers vs. nonsmokers anymore. The crux of the argument isn’t even over whether smoking is harmful.

It’s become more a question of limits — how far should government go in protecting health and quality-of-life issues for some by restricting the rights of others. It’s either a question of when is it going to start? Or, for others — where is it going to end?

It’ll snuff out itself

Cyndi Day has been the manager of the Maverick Saloon in Soldotna for about 20 years, she said. She smokes at the bar and is a firm believer that people shouldn’t even start — especially her two teenage sons, which is why she doesn’t smoke at home or around them.

“It’s a nasty habit. I’m addicted, and I would rather people didn’t smoke,” she said. “I’ve been smoking since I was a teenager, despite numerous attempts to quit. I fully support teens against smoking. I think if they can convince their friends not to start, that would be great.”

But she is just as firmly opposed to expanding the smoking ban to include businesses like bars.

“We all realize smoking is bad for us and we don’t want people smoking, but the way you go about it is really important. You don’t make a law to make people stop. That’s not how you go about it. Prohibition didn’t make people stop drinking,” Day said.
This isn’t an area where government needs to be involved, she said — it’s a situation that will work itself out.

“It should be up to business owners. If the customer base won’t tolerate smoking, then businesses need to be nonsmoking,” she said.

Day posted a message on the Maverick’s reader board out front along the Sterling Highway that the bar is a smoking establishment. Anyone who doesn’t want to be in a smoky environment can go somewhere else, she said. And if her customer base dwindles due to people wanting to avoid smoke, she’ll change the bar’s rule on her own. But for now, the majority of her customers want to smoke.

“It’s not what the customer base is looking for right now,” she said. “I have a very firm customer base and most smoke, or don’t mind smoking.”

If the rule were to change, that doesn’t mean people will, she said.

“They’ll just start frequenting places out of town. It doesn’t change people’s habits — they just find places they’re comfortable,” she said. “I think it’s going to be very bad for my business, and a lot of my customers will go out of town. They won’t be here. I think it will be good for the J-Bar-B and the Duck and Parker’s.”

Katie Hager, who’s been going to the Maverick since 1995, despite the J-Bar-B being closer to her home, said she’d probably think about finding a different bar if she couldn’t smoke at the Maverick anymore. She said she already doesn’t spend time in Anchorage bars when she’s in the city, because of Anchorage’s no-smoking ordinance.

“It’s not illegal but they’re making it like it’s something illegal,” she said.

Part of the reasoning behind the ordinances is to protect employees from second-hand smoke. But Day said they can protect themselves by choosing where they work.

“They can work in a nonsmoking establishment, that’s a choice that they make. Nobody works here because they have to, they work here because they want to,” she said.

There are risks inherent in some jobs, and people accept them if they choose to work in those fields, she said. Policemen don’t get to say they’ll go on patrol only if no one shoots at them, and electrical linemen don’t get to declare they’re afraid of heights and have poles brought down to ground level. It’s the same with bartenders and servers — they know bars are smoky, and if they don’t want to be around that, they don’t have to work at a smoking establishment, Day said.

“If people are against smoking, this isn’t the bar to come to,” Hager said.

Health implications aside, a smoking ban isn’t something government should be involved in, Day said. Capitalism works through free market enterprise, and government interference mucks up the system, she said. The city councils should also consider that a loss of business at bars and other current smoking establishments means a loss of sales tax revenue, people being laid off and all the spiraling problems that causes — like people not being able to pay their mortgages and an increase in the need for social services, Day said.

“It’s important for everyone to think about once you start letting government infringe on you rights and the free market economy, where do you stop? It isn’t that many steps until socialism,” Day said.

Legislating manners

Tiffany Grimm, 26, of Kenai, used to smoke, but quit when she had her two kids.

“I’ve been a smoker, I’m not against smokers. I’m the daughter of a smoker and I’ve known plenty of smokers. It’s not like I’m this person that has no idea about smokers and their behavior and the way they think and things like that,” she said.

She may not be against smokers, but she is against them doing it around her kids. She’d like to see a smoking ban expand even further than the ones being proposed for businesses and the entrances to businesses and public buildings, to cover outdoor public spaces like parks, playgrounds, parades and other community events.

“A person sitting right in front of the playground smoking, so everybody’s children in the park are having to deal with it, and there’s nothing we can do about it except ask them, and they can be rude. There’s nothing to stop them from smoking right next to the swing set,” Grimm said.

She doesn’t take her kids into smoking establishments, but in public places, like parks or in front of stores, she thinks smokers should avoid her, not the other way around. When she or her husband have asked people not to smoke next to their kids, they get rude responses, she said.

“We’ve encountered almost assaulting behavior when we’ve asked people if they could step away from where our children were,” she said. “We were getting people that would just start yelling at you and lighting up right next to the stroller or lighting up right at the entrance to the store when I’m standing there with a newborn and being rude when I’ve asked them to kind of move away, and blowing smoke right at us. It’s appalling.”

Even outside, second-hand smoke doesn’t dissipate enough when it’s right next to you, she said. Since not all smokers have the courtesy to consider others when they light up, Grimm thinks it is government’s place to enforce the matter, she said.

“There are all kinds of laws in place. People are allowed to operate ATVs but there are guidelines to regulate how they can do that, so it doesn’t interrupt the lifestyle of people in general,” Grimm said. “I personally don’t mind if people drive four-wheelers up and down my road, but other people do. It doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to do that, you just have to do that in a way that’s right for everybody as a whole. You can’t get drunk and belligerent in public, either. They can’t drink on a park bench and leave their bottles there. Why can they smoke and leave their butts there?”

For the past few months Grimm has been advocating for increasing Kenai’s smoking ban. She’s talked to teachers and parents at school, neighbors, community members and teenagers — a couple hundred people in all, she estimates. She’s also written letters on the issue and consulted with the Peninsula Smokefree Alliance.

“I know other smokers who are really in support of this, too,” she said. “… It’s amazing how 95 percent of the teenagers I’ve talked to are just totally in support of this. They’re really surprised. I think that our city really does need to listen to those young voices.”

Employing clean air

Kenai Councilman Hal Smalley said he’ll introduce an ordinance that would ban smoking in all places of employment — bars, pull-tab parlors, bingo halls, etc. — and institute a buffer zone around building entrances, at the council’s March 4 meeting. It will be up for a public hearing at the March 18 meeting. Depending on the response, it may have another public hearing April 1, or the council could act on it March 18.

He said he’s bringing the ordinance forward partly based on requests of constituents.

“Over the years a number of people talked to me about smoking going on and just patrons of businesses and employees visited with me, and in fact some owners of establishments talked to me about it. It’s not really about smoking, it’s a right to a clean, safe working environment. It’s a right to clean air. The ordinance doesn’t say you can’t smoke, it just says you need to take it outside away from people,” Smalley said.

In Soldotna, Councilman Shane Horan plans to introduce an identical ordinance at the Feb. 25 meeting, with a public hearing March 11.

“I thought, ‘Great. What an opportunity to act in concert with the city of Kenai, at least timewise, and maybe potentially adopting expanding the ordinance concurrently, and in that way you kind of avoid pitting one community against another,” Horan said.

The issue is one that’s within the council’s purview, Horan said, especially since the Kenai and Soldotna councils already passed ordinances in recent years banning smoking in restaurants. But he said he has been surprised by the uproar the ordinance has caused. He’d rank it up there in controversy with the debate over a cemetery site and an ordinance restricting sign heights a few years ago.

“I didn’t realize it would spark this much emotional fervor, but I think it’s a worthy discussion with our town and our community, because I love Soldotna for the health and well-being of all our community members and the quality of life we have here, and I just see it as an opportunity to put it on the table to see if we’re ready for such a ban,” Horan said.

Smalley said mounting evidence of the health impacts of second-hand smoke also prompted him to act, especially considering second-hand smoke isn’t filtered, and ventilation systems just remove the smell from the air, not the carcinogen components of the smoke, he said. Patrons can choose to avoid smoking establishments, as he and his wife do, but employees can’t, he said.

“When it gets into your clothes, we hang our coats out on the deck or garage because it gets so bad. I could make the choice not to go there, that’s a choice. But employees don’t have that choice. The job market the way it is, they’re just glad to have a job,” he said.

Smalley said he has heard from about an equal number of people who oppose the ban as well as those who support it. Business owners are concerned it’ll hurt business, he said, but he doesn’t think it will drive patrons out of town to establishments that still allow smoking. It’ll just send them outside for a cigarette, he said.

“I imagine there will be some that will migrate there, but as a nonsmoker I find it hard to believe that someone would go to a bar (just) because they wanted to smoke,” he said.

“There’s no doubt this is going to be a hardship on some folks initially, and I think if it passes there needs to be some patience and there may be some adjusting — not adjustment in the ordinance, but adjustments made in businesses — that hopefully won’t be to the detriment of businesses,” Smalley said.

Following a trend

Smalley pointed to Juneau and Anchorage, both of which have similar smoking bans, and said he’s talked to business owners there who said business wasn’t harmed. Some, like Moose and veterans clubs, even praised the ban because it brought families back to the establishments, he said.

At Humpy’s in downtown Anchorage, manager Shawn Standley said he didn’t see any negative effects of the ban when it went into effect last year. Humpy’s actually switched to nonsmoking a month before the ban was instituted, since the bar and restaurant was remodeling and painting anyway.

“I would say it improved things. We got customer compliments that it was a more enjoyable dining environment,” Standley said. “It was the fist time they commented that they could smell the food.”

He said he thinks the clientele has been the same, and other than some griping from smokers having to take it outside, the ban wasn’t harmful.

“People were upset because they think that should be a bar to bar issue. They don’t think the state or city should be able to make that decision, but people just kind of deal with it. We got some initial grumbling, but a lot just accept it,” he said.

It would be a slightly different situation on the central peninsula if the bans pass, however. In Kenai and Soldotna, patrons who want to smoke wouldn’t have to go far to find an establishment outside of city limits that would still allow smoking. In Anchorage, a smoker would have to go out toward the Matanuska-Susitna area to escape the municipality’s limits.

Billie Milstead, manager at Polar Bar in downtown Anchorage, said the bar has lost customers due to the smoking ban. She doesn’t think they’re driving to Wasilla or somewhere that allows smoking, but she said patrons are choosing bars that offer covered, heating areas for smoking over ones that don’t.

“In the summer it’s not that big a deal, but in the wintertime it’s cold. We definitely see a drop in business,” she said.

Her advice for smoking establishments in Kenai and Soldotna: “Just fight it. Of course they’re (businesses) not going to be in favor of it. I know what’s going to happen to their business.”

Leave a comment

Filed under government, Kenai, Soldotna

Smoldering concerns — Smoking ban sparks clean air vs. city control conflagration

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Lines are being drawn in the battle over expanding smoking bans in Kenai and Soldotna to cover all places of employment and public entrances to them.

Except those lines are different in this smoking battle.

Smokers who support increasing restrictions, nonsmokers and owners of nonsmoking business establishments who oppose a more stringent ban — it’s not smokers vs. nonsmokers anymore. The crux of the argument isn’t even over whether smoking is harmful.

It’s become more a question of limits — how far should government go in protecting health and quality-of-life issues for some by restricting the rights of others. It’s either a question of when is it going to start? Or, for others — where is it going to end? Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under government, Kenai, Soldotna

Making change to fight cancer — Woman, high school start charity to help local families

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Crystal Sholin has been through a lot of ups and downs in her three bouts with cancer over the past seven years.

They’ve been mostly downs, especially counting the string of family tragedies she’s endured during that period, including the death of her son last spring. But in a way, all the stress, pain and heartache she’s suffered makes the good times, support and moments of happiness that much more meaningful. Now that she’s recovering from a particularly nasty recurrence of the disease, she’s determined to share some of the kindness she’s enjoyed during her bumpy road with others struggling through their cancer journey. To do so, she’s put her figurative two cents of an idea into action, and hopes others donate their literal change in return. Sholin, 39, a parent of a Soldotna High School student, started a Coins 4 Cancer project with the school about a month ago. A 5-gallon jug donated by Alaska’s Best Water sits on the counter at the school’s office most days, where anyone coming by can drop in whatever coins are rattling around their pockets. During school events, including sports games, the jug is moved out to the admission area.

All proceeds will be donated to the cancer fund at Central Peninsula Hospital, which awards grants to local people undergoing cancer treatment to help them with expenses.

In just barely a month, Sholin estimates the jug has accumulated a couple hundred dollars. She’s hoping the program will continue next year, and possibly grow to Skyview and Kenai high schools, as well.

“It is amazing. In just the few weekends that it has been set out at basketball games how much money we already have. And people are putting ones, fives and 10-dollar bills in there, so it’s awesome. They just see the label and they’re just dropping money in,” Sholin said.

Todd Syverson, principal at SoHi, said the program was a good one for the school to be involved in.

“We have several families at Soldotna High School battling with cancer right now. We wanted to do our part to try to help our local families,” Syverson said. “The expenses are astronomical when one’s battling cancer. A lot of times insurance may cover part of it but there are other expenses. The cool thing about this particular program is we’re able to gather these coins and it’s going to stay right here on the peninsula and help these families battling with cancer.”

He said even visiting teams and spectators have chipped in to donate, as well as locals.

“What’s neat is watching a student or a parent donate, and we’ve got a lot of folks who just like to come to activities, whether it’s a drama production or sporting event,” he said. “It’s neat to see what a generous community we live in, and what a giving community we are. I know I, personally, am very thankful to live in a community like that.”

Sholin said she’s happy to give back to the community that’s given so much to her, and having something proactive and positive to do helps take her mind off the negatives.

“This way I don’t sit and stress about things, because if I have too much downtime I really find myself thinking about my son and slipping into a depression. Not fun,” she said. “So if I’m here by myself I just become a blubbering idiot. I need to get out of the house and get something to do. I figured this would be a way to repay people for all of the stuff that they’ve done for me.”

Sholin has plenty to take her mind off of these days. Her life — married to her high school sweetheart, Steve, with daughter, Kaili, and lots of family and friends still living in the Soldotna area from which they graduated high school — started veering off track in 2002 when she noticed an indentation on her right breast. She was 32 at the time, with no family history of breast cancer, but she was diagnosed with an early stage of breast cancer.

Being a naturalist, Sholin chose to take an all-natural course of medication to fight the cancer. She said it worked well — regular checkups and blood tests showed the cancer had disappeared and she was feeling better. So much better that she stopped taking the medication.

“I’m a great starter of things and not a finisher,” Sholin said. “When I started feeling pretty good I stopped taking all my stuff. Almost exactly 12 months later it came back bigger and badder than ever.”

This was in 2003, and she was sent to Washington to do a full PET scan to detect if and where the cancer had spread. It found multiple lumps in her right breast. Sholin decided to have a double mastectomy at that point, in the hope that would be the end of the cancer.

“I chose to take both off. It’s such a high probability within the next couple years if you have it in one that it will come back to the next one. … Most people choose reconstructive surgery anyway, and the healing time and pain and everything is really not doubled so there’s no reason not to take both of them off, because if and when it comes back you have to have the other one off.”

She followed surgery with a course of Chinese herbs meant to combat cancer and keep red blood cell counts up, as well as a course of chemotherapy where she had to fly to Seattle every two weeks for six months. All but one of her 12 flights were paid for by the Angel Flight program, and for the one that wasn’t, a manager at the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center donated her frequent flier miles to Sholin to cover the ticket. Following that, Sholin traveled back and forth to Anchorage every day for five weeks for radiation treatments.
After that was periodic blood tests and scans, but doctors gave her an all clear from cancer. That didn’t extend to the rest of her life, however.

In December 2007 she started losing family members who were close to her, starting with her grandfather in northern Idaho, where she had grown up. When she was getting back to the central peninsula from that trip, her stepmother had a heart attack during a business trip to Anchorage with Sholin’s father, and the family made the heart-wrenching decision two days later to take her off life support.

A few months later, in May 2008, her 19-year-old son, Ryan, was killed in a car crash on Gaswell Road.

In July, her cancer came back, this time to her lungs. She and her husband were hosting an annual get-together with friends over the Fourth of July, and Sholin found herself too short of breath and tired to participate much in the gathering.

“I’d normally just make sure everybody had enough to eat and were set up to sleep. I could hardly breathe. I’d find myself sitting inside half the day and going to bed at 9 o’clock at night and not worrying that other people would have to clean up and stuff,” she said.

The cancer was growing on the outside of her left lung. Her body was producing fluid to try to flush out the cancer, but the fluid was building up in the pleura lining surrounding her lung. With nowhere to drain to, the excess fluid pushed against the lung and collapsed it.

Her doctor removed a liter and a half of fluid, then went in the next day when Sholin was still feeling awful and took out another liter and a half. A doctor in Anchorage did surgery on the lung to prevent further fluid buildup, but there was no way to remove the tumor itself. Sholin was told the best she could do was chemotherapy to wipe out the growth this time, and again if it came back — which it probably would.

“The tumor was inoperable. With all of the stress with losing all of the family, all of a sudden finding out that my cancer is treatable, not curable, that it will continue to come back for the rest of my life. I was just overwhelmed. I said I need some downtime before I start all of the cancer treatment,” she said.

The Sholins’ 20th anniversary was coming up in September. They had talked about going to Jamaica to celebrate. Sholin asked her doctors if they thought it would be OK if she took a two-week trip before starting treatment. They didn’t think the cancer was that aggressive, so they said fine — but no scuba diving.

“I said, ‘OK, snorkeling’s just fine.’”

But near the end of the trip her breathing problems came back. She got home and she and Steve took their daughter, Kaili, to Anchorage for her 16th birthday, but Sholin ended up at Alaska Regional Hospital on Monday morning, to find she had another collapsed lung and the cancer had spread.

“It was more aggressive than any of the doctors thought. It ended up not being just in my lungs but was in the P7 vertebra, in my diaphragm and lymphatic system. It was more like vines than lumps, just kind of smashing things in there and I was unable to breathe,” she said.

Sholin started radiation on her vertebra while she was still in the hospital, and another round of chemo. A CAT scan in December showed the cancer had shrunk so much that she’s finishing up chemo this week. She’s feeling better and her breath capacity has grown, although she’s fighting fatigue and will for some time. But now she’s got some breathing room, which she hopes will last for a long time to come. She plans to research Chinese herbs and any other alternative, natural treatments she can find.

“What they say is it’s inevitable it will come back, just everybody is different,” Sholin said. “One person was only off chemo for a month, other people stretched it out for like two years. Still, I just think, God, every two years for the rest of my life to do chemo, and I’m only 39 now. That doesn’t sound fun to me.”

Rather than watch the clock or dwell on her prognosis, Sholin decided to take action. She’s received support from the Central Peninsula Hospital cancer fund, Angel Flight, Soroptimists and friends who organized a fundraising dinner and auction in her name. Sholin wanted to return the favor.

After her first go-around with cancer, she started a business, called Move to Live, where she turned the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon image into a running figure and had it put on clothing, hats, coffee cups and other items, to donate 10 percent of sales to cancer research and Angel Flight. With Coins for Cancer, the proceeds benefit the hospital’s cancer fund.

In turn, those organizations will help many more people like Sholin and the friends and family who have helped support her.

“I don’t think there’s probably one person that hasn’t been affected by cancer somehow,” she said.

Leave a comment

Filed under community, profile

Making change to fight cancer — Woman, high school start charity to help local families

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Crystal Sholin has been through a lot of ups and downs in her three bouts with cancer over the past seven years.

They’ve been mostly downs, especially counting the string of family tragedies she’s endured during that period, including the death of her son last spring. But in a way, all the stress, pain and heartache she’s suffered makes the good times, support and moments of happiness that much more meaningful. Now that she’s recovering from a particularly nasty recurrence of the disease, she’s determined to share some of the kindness she’s enjoyed during her bumpy road with others struggling through their cancer journey. To do so, she’s put her figurative two cents of an idea into action, and hopes others donate their literal change in return. Sholin, 39, a parent of a Soldotna High School student, started a Coins 4 Cancer project with the school about a month ago. A 5-gallon jug donated by Alaska’s Best Water sits on the counter at the school’s office most days, where anyone coming by can drop in whatever coins are rattling around their pockets. During school events, including sports games, the jug is moved out to the admission area.

All proceeds will be donated to the cancer fund at Central Peninsula Hospital, which awards grants to local people undergoing cancer treatment to help them with expenses.

In just barely a month, Sholin estimates the jug has accumulated a couple hundred dollars. She’s hoping the program will continue next year, and possibly grow to Skyview and Kenai high schools, as well. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under community, profile

Helping hand-me-down — Collaborative research, years of effort turn donated family heirloom into cultural display


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Kenai Peninsula College’s newest cultural artifact was a long time and distance coming.

Not only is the Native Eskimo, black-and-white, bird-skin parka probably around 100 years old, it took about 25 years for Gwen Gere’s parents, and then Gere, to decide what to do with it, and another two to three years for the parka to be repaired, researched and readied for display in the Kenai River Campus commons area.

These days the family heirloom parka that was made in a region at least 1,000 miles away from where Gere lives is on display where she works.

Gere’s parents, Russ and Doris Riemann, lived in Anchorage since the early 1950s, running Book Cache stores and a magazine and book wholesale distributor around the state. The business would take Mr. Riemann to Nome and Kotzebue periodically.

“A lot of time people didn’t pay their bills,” Gere said. “In the ’50s and ’60s he was his own collections agent. He’d fly to Kotzebue and say, ‘OK, give me my money.’ A lot of time they’d say, ‘We don’t have any money, but here, would you like this ivory carving or a baleen basket?’”

Once in a while, Gere and her two sisters would take turns accompanying their dad.

“It’s one of those things you don’t get to appreciate at the time. He told me to take your shoes off and go wade in the Bering Sea, and I didn’t appreciate it. I just felt like a dork then,” she said.

On one of these trips about 25 years ago, he came across a historic bird-skin parka, worn by Natives of the region because of its waterproof, insulating qualities. The owner was considering selling it to someone from the Lower 48, but Riemann didn’t want it to leave Alaska, Gere said.

“A gentleman wanted to buy it for a collection someplace on the East Coast, but my parents didn’t think it should leave the state,” she said. “I don’t know how they ended up with it, if my dad bought it before the other gentlemen did or what, but they bought the coat then spent 25 years trying to figure out what to do with it.”

Gere said her parents wanted the parka to be preserved and displayed. Mrs. Riemann contacted the Smithsonian Institute, but didn’t get a response. And the Anchorage museum said it’d end up in storage, since it already had similar parkas. When her parents died about four years ago, Gere took on the task of finding the parka a suitable home.

“It was something my family really wanted to do because my parents really wanted it to be something where people could see it and enjoy it and learn form it, and they hadn’t been able to find that spot,” Gere said.

Gere is the bookstore manager at KPC’s Soldotna campus. She thought the University of Alaska system might be interested in the parka, so she approached KPC Director Gary Turner about it, with somewhat mixed feelings. She wanted the parka to be displayed and cared for, but she knew by donating it she was giving up her say in where it ended up and risking losing track of her family’s heirloom.

She was happy to hear that not only was the university system interested in displaying the parka, but that the parka would stay at KPC.

“He had the vision to see that it was something that was valuable and a learning instrument in the university, so I’m delighted that it’s down here because if you give it away, you give it away and you don’t know what will happen with it,” Gere said. “They realized the worth of it and the value of it. It really is a dream come true for me.”

The parka is now on display in the commons just outside the bookstore, with information about the parka, historic photos and a plaque about Gere’s parents, with their picture.

“My parents were visionaries. They really had a love for the state of Alaska,” Gere said. “That’s why they did what they did, why they tried to keep Alaskan things in Alaska and why they promoted reading and literature. It was their vision and they loved the state, so I think if that comes through, then I think it’s wonderful.

“It meant so much to my parents, all this time they hung onto it and tried to figure out what to do with it. It’s nice for me because I get to see it every day and people have appreciated the quality of it and its legacy, because it’s from a time that is no longer.”

The display itself took a long time to prepare — two to three years, Gere said.

Holly Cusack-McVeigh, a cultural anthropologist with the Pratt Museum in Homer, was teaching a course on Alaska Native cultures when the parka was brought to her attention. Her class just happened to be studying cultures of the Bering Sea region, where the parka was made.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for my students to learn about identifying an object, trying to connect it to a specific cultural group, and be able to follow all that research, as well, and learning how to handle objects,” she said.

Cusack-McVeigh took on the task of researching and preparing the display. First, the parka itself needed tending.

“Based on how long the family had it, and when it may have been made, it’s in really excellent condition for its age,” Cusack-McVeigh said.

A conservator from Anchorage mended a tear in the seam of a sleeve and created a museum-quality, custom-fitted mount that would support the parka, and a case design and the commons location was determined to protect it from harm.
“It’s fairly fragile and fairly delicate. It’s sensitive to light, in that bird feathers are one of the more light-sensitive organic materials,” Cusack-McVeigh said.

It took a few years to finish studying the parka and doing research for the display information — and there are still questions left unanswered.

Cusack-McVeigh figures the parka probably dates from the early 1900s, if not earlier. There were three district Eskimo groups of the Bering Sea region that made similar hooded, bird-skin parkas — the Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik and Central Yup’ik cultures — so she wasn’t able to determine where, specifically, it came from. Such parkas were worn as daily outerwear, since bird feathers are so water-resistant.

Murre, puffin, cormorant, loon, auklet, goose and duck skins were traditionally used to construct the parkas. Biologists with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge helped identify the birds in this specimen. The main black-and-white pattern comes from murres, with a greenish sheen from pelagic cormorants.

The director of Arctic studies for the Smithsonian branch in Anchorage shared parkas from the Smithsonian’s collection with Cusack-McVeigh for comparative studies. And a linguist from the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks helped Cusack-McVeigh make sure she had the correct words for the parka — “atkuk” for Central Yup’ik and Siberian Yupik, and “atigi” for Inupiaq — for the display, since the region’s cultural groups had different names for different types of parkas.

“There was actually quite a bit of research over the course of two or three years as we worked on putting the exhibit itself together,” she said.

Cusack-McVeigh said it’s a relief to have the parka protected and the display complete, so everyone at the college can appreciate the piece, just as she had.

“One of the most amazing things about this parka is the skill with which it was made. I feel that in part it survived and it’s in the condition it is in because the original maker was highly skilled — highly skilled in cleaning skins, highly skilled in preparing skins and just a meticulous sewer,” she said.

“This really is a legacy piece and there’s just an incredible amount of knowledge and skill that went into making a piece like this.”

Leave a comment

Filed under history, Kenai Peninsula College, Native

Helping hand-me-down — Collaborative research, years of effort turn donated family heirloom into cultural display


By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Kenai Peninsula College’s newest cultural artifact was a long time and distance coming.

Not only is the Native Eskimo, black-and-white, bird-skin parka probably around 100 years old, it took about 25 years for Gwen Gere’s parents, and then Gere, to decide what to do with it, and another two to three years for the parka to be repaired, researched and readied for display in the Kenai River Campus commons area.

These days the family heirloom parka that was made in a region at least 1,000 miles away from where Gere lives is on display where she works.

Gere’s parents, Russ and Doris Riemann, lived in Anchorage since the early 1950s, running Book Cache stores and a magazine and book wholesale distributor around the state. The business would take Mr. Riemann to Nome and Kotzebue periodically.

“A lot of time people didn’t pay their bills,” Gere said. “In the ’50s and ’60s he was his own collections agent. He’d fly to Kotzebue and say, ‘OK, give me my money.’ A lot of time they’d say, ‘We don’t have any money, but here, would you like this ivory carving or a baleen basket?’” Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under history, Kenai Peninsula College, Native

Growing pains for Gruening — Plans to found new community in present-day Nikiski foundered


By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Dreams of a better life have urged many people northward. Big dreams have urged people to take chances — to seek gold, invest in land or start businesses. In the North Kenai area, particularly in the burgeoning 1950s and ’60s, some of those dreamers envisioned whole communities and believed they were the ones to give impetus to making those visions into reality.

There was the dream of Radar, Alaska, near Wildwood in the early 1950s. There was the dream of Petroleum City, Alaska, on Holt Road in the late 1960s.

And there was the dream of homesteader Paul Costa and surveyor F.J. “Francis” Malone of a community called Gruening, which they hoped would become the centerpiece of North Road development, the nexus of North Road activity.

The dream of Gruening germinated in the brain of Costa in the mid-1960s, according to Ron Mika, one of the main investors in the project and the current owner of Nikiski Building Supply and the Lamplight Bar and Liquor Store.
Mika, now 71, said that when he homesteaded in North Kenai in 1962, Costa was already living in the area. They had been acquainted previously when both worked on the White Alice early warning system — Costa as a bull cook and Mika as a radio technician.

Costa had been in the bar and entertainment businesses before coming to Alaska, and he wanted to build such a venture along the North Road. He purchased a few acres from homesteaders Ken and Margaret McGahan and constructed the Lamplight Bar at the junction of the North Road and Lamplight Road. After that, in 1966, Costa “wanted to build a town,” Mika said.

First, Costa involved Malone in his dream. Malone, the father of former Alaska Speaker of the House of Representatives Hugh Malone, made drawings of the prospective community.

“He laid out a circle in the middle and a regular town site,” Mika said.

When it came time to name their town, staunch Democrats Malone and Costa thought of Ernest Gruening, who had served as Alaska territorial governor from 1939 to 1953, and was in his second term representing Alaska in the U.S. Senate.

“F.J. wrote him a letter asking if we could name a town after him,” Mika said. “And he wrote back and said he would be very pleased.”

Mika’s involvement in the project began with an injection of his own cash.
“I was working, so I had the money,” said Mika. “And he had the ideas. He had lots of good ideas.”

From the McGahans they purchased 10 acres just across the North Road from the Lamplight Bar. Then they “spent a bunch of money for a guy in a Cat to come in and strip the trees off it and level it out,” Mika said.

Afterward, they hired log cabin builder Johnny Parks to erect a small building in the middle of the clearing to become Gruening’s first post office.

“That was going to be the center of the community,” according to Mika.

In those days, he said, North Kenai had no defined center, while today many people consider the center to be in the area of the old Mac and Dolores McGahan homestead, the current site of Nikiski Middle-Senior High School, the fire station and the cluster of businesses around M&M Grocery.

To the west of Gruening in 1966 were several new subdivisions, a community hall, a trailer court, the Arness Terminal and the Shell Oil storage bulk plant. The land to the south and east was dotted with lakes, which were perceived as ideal locations for future residential and recreational development.

In The Cheechako News on April 15, 1966, Costa’s attempts at promoting his new community earned this headline: “Community of Gruening Begins Building Spurt.”
The article stated that clearing for the Gruening town site was beginning that week, and that construction plans were in the works for a restaurant, grocery store and two-stall Chevron filling station.

According to the paper, these businesses would bring the total in the greater Gruening area to five, including the Lamplight Bar and Home Realty, owned and operated by licensed broker G.J. Spracher. Additionally, said the Cheechako, more than 70 percent of the North Kenai population at the time lived within a three-mile radius of Gruening.

Joe Ross, a primary contractor, had been selected, and two more investors were being brought on board for the building phase — Hank and Mattie Bartos, longtime residents who had recently sold Salamatof Beach land to the Union-Marathon oil companies, who used the land to build Rig Tenders Dock. The Bartoses, the paper said, would own and operate the grocery store, while the filling station and restaurant would be leased.

In light of these plans, the Cheechako offered up this view: “Among the many newly beginning business areas in Alaska, the community of Gruening is unique in one respect. It is strictly a local development. There has been no ‘big money,’ no federal or state funds, no ‘help from the top’ of any kind — and none such has been sought.”

The only bump in the road to success so far, the newspaper said, had been the failure of Gruening’s promoters to land a post office license. According to the article, a proposal and a petition containing more than 100 signatures had been sent to the Post Office Department, but their proposal was termed “premature” and rejected.

Mika said that the rejection stemmed from the community’s name. It was apparently against post office policy to name its structures after individuals who were still alive.

In the end, despite the hype — Costa even had matchbooks made up with covers that said “Lamplight Bar, Gruening, Alaska” — the community of Gruening never materialized.

Malone submitted their proposal for the town site to the fledgling Kenai Peninsula Borough, but it was never officially recorded.

“It was just on paper,” Mika said. And, beyond that, creating an actual town proved to be too much.

“We just didn’t know how to do it, I guess,” Mika said. “We ran out of ideas and steam and money. And everything.”

In 1967, Costa allowed some people to stay in the post office cabin, and on the Fourth of July that year it burned to the ground. Eventually, Costa wanted out of the project and deeded the land over to Mika. Costa also sold the Lamplight Bar, and then it was destroyed in a fire in 1971. Mika and his wife, Louise, purchased the bar site and rebuilt the business.

The Mikas still own the town site, and still refer to it privately as Gruening, although it is empty except for the returning natural growth. The trees were allowed to refill the site, and now it is difficult to distinguish from other surrounding woods.

“I used to think of an antique-type town,” Mika said of his dreams for Gruening. “Steep roofs, a ‘North Pole, Alaska’ type thing. You know, snow on the roofs, sidewalks out front. Decorations out there. A little quaint mountain-village type thing.”

Like many dreams — like the site itself — Gruening is fading away.

Leave a comment

Filed under Almanac, history