Monthly Archives: March 2010

Scouting out new fields — Girl Scouts workshops get kids enthused about science, arts

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Girl Scouts learn to play guitar in a Women of the Arts workshop at Soldotna High School on Feb. 2.

Redoubt Reporter

Sure, kids can do anything and be anything they want when they grow up. That’s a message often repeated to youngsters in school and enrichment programs. But the gap between hearing that message and being able to live it can be wide if kids lack the skills, knowledge, resources, education, exposure or confidence to make it happen.

The local Girl Scouts program has set about bridging the gap, giving girls the message that they can try anything, and the first-hand experience to do so.

In early February, troops from around the central Kenai Peninsula met at Soldotna High School for a Women of the Arts workshop, an afternoon of hands-on activities in dance, theater, music and fine arts.

“It was really good because the children are introduced to things they wouldn’t ordinarily be introduced to,” said Jessica Dobbs, a mom with the Kasilof Juniors Troop No. 626 from Tustumena Elementary School. “And it was interesting because then they could decide, ‘Is this something that I want to do?’”

In music class, members of her troop all had a guitar to practice on. Dance class had them moving around, learning dance terminology and choreography. In theater, simply gaining confidence was a huge benefit, Dobbs said.

“This is the happiest I’ve seen them,” Dobbs said. “(The theater instructor) did a really great job with the kids, getting them excited and teaching them about stage life. My oldest is soon to be 15 and just had her first opportunity to be on stage and was terrified but excited at the same time. And how neat is it for these younger girls to be able to experience it now instead of in their high school years?”

On Saturday, there will be a similar workshop, this one called Women of Science. It is open to all girls, whether or not they’re in Girl Scouts. The program will be held from 12:30 to 4 p.m. at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus, with presentations and activities including construction with dowels, straws and masking tape; robotics and making a Mars rover; and wind turbines.

“Nationwide, girls score lower in the sciences and math then boys. One of the ways the Girl Scouts is breaking down barriers in the sciences is to show that girls can do it and give them that hands-on experience and having them observe role models of women working in the fields of science and technology,” said Joyce Cox, with the Girl Scouts.

To register a girl for Women of Science, call the Soldotna Girl Scouts office at 262-7616. There is a fee.


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Filed under art, education, music

Make a break for it — Week off from school fills with fun, sun, some work

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Steve Cunningham, of Soldotna, poses with the snow Buddha he created at Kelly Lake on March 16.

Redoubt Reporter

Who needs the Caribbean for sun and warm weather over spring break?

Not Steve and Nemcy Cunningham, of Soldotna. The two were out soaking up the rays and temperatures in the 40s on Tuesday at Kelly Lake, off the Sterling Highway outside Sterling.

Cunningham is a teacher at Soldotna Middle School and was spending one of his spring break days skiing and having a cookout with Nemcy at a day-use picnic table and fire pit on the shore of Kelly Lake.

“We get outside all year. If you don’t like to get out then you shouldn’t live here. It’d be a bad place to sit out the winter,” Cunningham said.

He likes to ski and ice fish in the winter, although he didn’t attempt to lure any fish for dinner Tuesday. He and Nemcy brought reindeer sausage, instead.

“It’s kind of late in the year. The last few times I tried there was not even a bite,” he said.

He kept plenty busy practicing his sculpting skills.

“I made a snow Buddha instead,” he said.

The creation was taller than he was and surprisingly detailed for being essentially three large, stacked snowballs. Snow Buddha had arms folded over a modestly bulging belly, large ears with detached lobes, carved-out facial features, a foot-long pointy hat, long feet with curved-up toes topped with little round snowballs, and, of course, the requisite red dot in the middle of its forehead.

“It didn’t start out to be a Buddha, but it kept looking more like one, so I went with it,” Cunningham said.

Kelly Lake is a good day-trip destination this time of year, he said. It’s close to town, right off the highway and the road was passable, even with the sun turning snow to mush Tuesday.

There’s a cabin available to rent through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on the shore of the lake, a mere 10-minute walk through the woods or over the ice. Cunningham said he prefers Kelly to nearby Peterson Lake because there are better views of the Kenai Mountains.

But with the sun shinning, making it warm enough to ski or create random snow sculptures in a T-shirt, it’s hard to go wrong when going outside.

“This is nice. You don’t have to go anywhere to get some warm weather,” Cunningham said.

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Filed under outdoors, recreation, winter

Road trip patience comin’ round the bend

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

I was standing in the Delta Junction Food Cache at check stand No. 2, where a milepost pointed toward Homer read 486 miles. There’s something about a place founded on a junction and a town history tied closely to the development of different modes of transportation that made it the perfect road-trip destination to attend a Delta Waterfowl banquet put on by the Tanana Valley Chapter.

I like to say that I was born in the wagon of a travelin’ show, only because I like Cher music and spent more than a few road trips in the family’s conversion van in my reluctantly nomadic youth. The family had driven up and down the Pacific Coast and crossed the four North American Flyways in a single excursion before I could ever tell the difference between a mallard and a spoonbill.

Being a good traveler isn’t something with which you’re born. The torture of my sisters belting out “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain” while I tried to navigate the US-101 Ventura Freeway at the I-405 Interchange from the passenger seat using a foldout Rand McNally map spread out over the dashboard was more than a 10-year-old with motion sickness could handle.

Why my mother conceived that a 10-year-old was capable of charting our route through one of the worst bottlenecks in the United States is what has made me the person I am — someone who, no matter what high winds come up in the inlet, is the only one not vomiting over the side of the halibut charter. Nothing compares to the off-key chorus of “She’ll be ridin’ six white horses when she comes” and the exhaust fumes of missing your exit in 65-mph gridlock.

It’s a testament to the healing powers of nature that I ever agreed to 1,000-mile trip for buffet-style roast beef and a chance at winning camouflage firearms. Dinner tickets: $55. Fuel: $175. Taking one of the top-10 scenic drives in America and viewing a couple of emerald-headed drake mallards lift off an open-water creek in snow-covered mountain country: $230 plus tax.

The greatest thing about a road trip is that the destination is incidental. Much like the outdoors experience itself, the journey is the destination. Attending a Delta Waterfowl banquet in Delta Junction was a catchy excuse for getting behind the wheel with enough “deltas” in the itinerary to sound like a fraternal ritual. Although, the auxiliary motive was to attend a fundraiser for one of the oldest and most respected waterfowl preservation groups.

A March road trip in Alaska is not your usual fare of truck stops, bug-splattered windshields and the “world’s largest” random objects posed as roadside attractions. The uninhabited wilds of our state evoke awe at every leg of the trip.

Beginning on the Sterling Highway and traveling on the Seward, Glenn and Richardson highways, the sheer topography of the place, from the extreme tidal currents forming truck-size chunks of ice in Cook Inlet to the rugged points of the mountains forming the Alaska Range, is worth it if not just for a “home-cooked” meal at the Eureka Lodge.

The Richardson Highway offers great views of the above-ground Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, a modern marvel crossing three mountain ranges, mixed in with high mountain lakes, sparse lonely cabins with thick chimney stacks, closed lodges and the Black Rapids Training Site. It all makes you wonder what kind of people make their living in the harsh landscapes of 4-below winters without the luxury of an espresso cart every quarter mile.

Near Paxson, the fresh snow was covered with signs of ptarmigan, the state bird whose winter white acts like snow shadows.

They can’t be seen until, suddenly, the ground moves like a haunting north winder blowing up a layer of loose snow. Only the snow takes flight and you wonder how you failed to see these birds, which seem at that moment like mysterious winter ghosts. Five minutes later they’re waiting on the pavement as stupidly as farm chickens and they seem as redundant and uninteresting as seagulls at the harbor.

Delta Junction, 98 miles south of Fairbanks, is the official end of the Alaska Highway, famous badge of motorists, whether or not the myth of needing 17 spare tires to make the trip still holds true. I’d made it with the vehicle still intact and strolled into the local IGA as though I was a local, although nobody thought I was. It never ceases to amaze me that towns are characterized as friendly in tourist magazines, but when you arrive in any remote place, it’s hard not to hear the theme song to “Deliverance.”

My trip had started 486 miles or so earlier with a barista observing that I must not be up to my usual weekend activities requiring enough layers of polypropylene and polyester to wick myself into a state of dehydration. I announced my plans, trying to find another “delta” without the aid of music lyrics (Cher did cover “delta blues” in the song “Walking in Memphis” on her “Do You Believe?” tour), but I decided not to mention it.

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

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Filed under outdoors, recreation, winter

Science of the Seasons: Yellow boy bacteria has people seeing red

By Dr. David Wartinbee, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photos courtesy of Dr. David Wartinbee. A layer of iron-rich water seeps out of the Kenai bluff. The yellow deposits are created by bacterial growth. On closer examination, an oily sheen can be seen to the left, caused by breakdown of dead iron bacteria.

As the day warmed up and the winds died down, it seemed like a great time for an afternoon walk along the beach in Kenai. The incoming tide and the remaining ice boulders along the shore forced me to walk close to the steep bluff.

In a number of places it looked like there were giant orange icicles painted on the cliff. They appeared in several places, and many seemed to start at a particular layer of rock or sediment. In some places the shiny orange areas were also tainted with what looked like an oily sheen. Is there something bad going on here?

Well, not really. What I was seeing was the perfectly natural result of masses of bacteria and their metabolic waste products.

The colored material is ferric hydroxide, or ferric oxide, and is commonly referred to as “yellow boy.” This stuff can be bright yellow, orange, dark red or even brown in color. It is insoluble in water that has a near-neutral pH, so it precipitates out of solutions.

The way yellow boy is formed involves a number of chemical changes that often are promoted by special bacteria. Most water has a small amount of iron dissolved in it. When the water is deep underground, it probably has no contact with oxygen so the common form is ferrous iron. When the water comes to the surface where oxygen is present, such as along a particular stratum of the bluff, the reactions begin. Iron atoms lose an electron (they are oxidized) and are converted into ferric ions. Then these ferric atoms form oxides of iron with the oxygen atoms. Ferric iron compounds were the brightly colored deposits I found.

There are a number of bacteria that use these oxidizing reactions to gain energy. We do a similar thing when we eat a candy bar, our bodies gain energy by breaking down the sugars. When we break down sugar, our metabolic waste product is carbon dioxide. When these bacteria finish their metabolism, their metabolic waste products are ferric iron compounds. These common bacteria can be in the genus Leptothrix, Conothrix, Gallionella or Ferrobacillus.

The iron bacteria often grow in long filamentous forms, while others have frequent branches in their filaments. Bacterial strands then trap the yellow boy into colorful and gelatinous-looking masses. If we put a pinch of this colorful material under a microscope, the bacteria are readily visible among the yellow ferric oxide compounds.

The oily sheen that is often seen with the yellow boy masses may look like an area where motor oil was spilled. However, this sheen results from the breakdown of dead iron bacteria. These colorful areas are created by huge numbers of bacteria, and bacteria don’t live very long. So wherever we see the ominous-looking oil sheen, it is a reminder of how the colorful material was created.

None of these bacteria are pathogenic and their waste products are pretty much nontoxic. However, they can take up residence in wells and water systems where they can cause problems. Yellow boy stains may only be considered unsightly but their filamentous masses of bacteria can clog filters. There are some reports of altered tastes in water or in drinks made with the water.

Bacterial growth in an area where iron-rich waters seep out of the Kenai bluff. On closer examination, the yellow masses appear to be almost slimy due to the bacteria masses where the water trickles along.

Sometimes another group of organisms called sulfur bacteria grow alongside the iron bacteria. When this happens, black deposits can be formed and there can be a release of hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide is the cause of a “rotten egg” odor in water.

There are a variety of treatments for wells with iron bacteria and I would advise contacting a water specialist. A common but often short-lived fix is the use of bleach in the well, since it will kill most bacteria it contacts. However, there are some serious complications due to required flushing before drinking the water. Again, contact a specialist if you have a water system with iron bacteria issues.

These reactions and formations of yellow boy have created disastrous problems in many parts of the eastern United States. When sulfur compounds are exposed during coal-mining operations, various sulfuric acids are formed. The water then becomes acidic and iron atoms are oxidized into ferric ions.

Through natural formation and iron bacteria assisting the reactions, huge amounts of yellow boy are formed. Because of the acidic conditions, the yellow boy remains in solution much farther downstream. When yellow boy finally precipitates out, it covers everything with thick layers of brightly colored ferric oxides. That in turn smothers the aquatic organisms and all their food resources. Essentially, the acidity and yellow boy deposits sterilize the stream. Trout streams in coal-producing states have been turned barren by the formation of yellow boy.

We can find iron bacteria growths along the Kenai bluffs, as well as along many of our local streams. Fortunately, the amount of iron coming to the surface is small and the amount of yellow boy being formed is equally small.

Next time you come across one of these colorful growth areas you’ll know that bacteria are hard at work oxidizing iron and creating colorful deposits of yellow boy.

David Wartinbee, Ph.D, J.D., is a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus. He is writing a series of columns on the ecology of the Kenai River and Cook Inlet watershed.


Filed under ecology, science, science of the seasons

Plugged In: Biggest bang for your bucks

By Joeseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Large needs and small budgets certainly tend to concentrate the mind upon finding the best buys.

During the past month, while purchasing equipment for the Rotary south Kenai Peninsula schools photo project, I’ve found some excellent bargains and photographic equipment while purchasing enough high-quality cameras, printers and other photographic equipment to fully equip six complete photographic programs at south peninsula schools. I’d like to share some of those bargains with you this week.

Because large quantities of the specific photographic items were not readily available in Alaska, we had to order almost exclusively from Internet vendors. Wherever possible, we purchased either fully warranted, factory-refurbished equipment or new equipment from lower-priced sources when they offered free shipping. Amazon and Otter Creek Trading were particularly good about providing free or low-cost shipping.

I was amazed at variation in shipping costs quoted for Alaska delivery. I quickly learned to check the shipping cost for every individual item before deciding whether to order it.  For example, Rotary bought five new Canon Pixma 9000 Mark II printers for the various schools.  The first one cost $566, including shipping, from reputable computer parts vendor, while the delivered cost for the final three was $415 each because Amazon threw in free shipping that only took a few days longer to arrive.

We found a reliable and expensive source that sold us several dozen factory-refurbished Kodak cameras at about 60 percent off list price. These factory-refurbished Kodak cameras come with a full Kodak factory warranty, so there’s little risk when purchasing higher-end items that normally would be much more expensive. In the end, we purchased 68 higher-end Kodak models from Otter Creek Trading Company ( and every camera worked perfectly when received, although some of the included one-use Kodak batteries were dead.

In order to reduce the chance that we would be disappointed by the quality of any camera models ordered sight unseen in large quantities, we first purchased individual copies of each unit in order to evaluate them prior to ordering large quantities. Some didn’t make the grade.

For example, we planned to purchase eight Canon SX120IS long-zoom cameras for about $225 each. However, when I took some photographs with our initial copy of the Canon SX120IS, I thought that the images did not appear to be particularly sharp.

About the same time, Otter Creek Trading Company unexpectedly received a shipment of refurbished Kodak z8612 long-zoom cameras, which I knew from prior experience to have both a good sensor and a sharp 12X lens. The z8612 had noticeably better image quality than the Canon while costing only $96 each, allowing us to purchase 12 copies of a better camera while saving about $650.  I checked all 12 cameras and every one worked perfectly, producing sharp images.

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Filed under computers, photography, Plugged in, technology

Reasons for the seasons — Distance doesn’t cause changes in warmth, sunlight

By Andy Veh, for the Redoubt Reporter

Graphics courtesy of Andy Veh. Winter in the Northern Hemisphere is depicted on the left as the Earth’s axis points away from the sun. Summer in the Northern Hemisphere is depicted on the right as the Earth’s axis points toward the sun.

Since we’re just past the equinox, I figured I’d talk about the reasons for the seasons.

One could just say that it’s warm and thus summer when we’re close to our sun, and cold and thus winter when we’re far away. That explanation makes sense, but it’s wrong.
It’s not correct because Earth has its closest approach to our sun at 91.4 million miles around Jan. 3, and is farthest at 94.5 million miles around July 4 (the average distance being 93.1 million miles). We can check this in any good astronomy book, Google “perihelion and aphelion,” or we can make our own observations by taking photos of the sun in early January and in early July. On second thought, I don’t recommend that because it’s dangerous.

Instead, visit or do a Google image search for “sun size perihelion aphelion.” On first glance, you don’t see any difference in size, thus the same Earth-sun distance during either month. Ergo, that can’t be the reason for the seasons.

On second inspection, the sun’s size is ever so slightly larger in January, meaning the Earth is closer to it, which is contrary to the seasons.

This is caused by Earth’s elliptical orbit, which perpetuates this wrong explanation. However, as explained, the difference is minimal and even placed in the wrong season. The Earth’s ellipse around the sun is virtually circular, giving rise to very little differences in distance.

Another strike against the distance hypothesis is that the Northern and Southern hemispheres have opposite seasons at the same time. The Australian Open tennis tournament, always played in January, has players battling the typical 90- to 110-degree midsummer temperatures, and the World Cup in soccer will be played in June 2010 in South Africa, with typical 50- to 70-degree midwinter temperatures. South Africa has mild temperatures in winter because it’s closer to the equator, just as Texas and Mexico are.
A third strike against the distance hypothesis is that it doesn’t explain what we actually observe throughout the year. In winter, the sun makes a small, low arc across the Southern horizon for a short time, while in summer it makes a large, high arc across most of the sky for a long time. We can see these different-size arcs extremely well in Alaska, and also notice a big difference between six hours of daylight in winter and 19 hours in summer. Again, we can’t explain these very familiar observations by invoking anything about a perceived change in the Earth-sun distance.

Instead, seasons must be explained differently. It’s the tilt of Earth’s axis that produces them. In order to understand seasons, model them by using a bright lamp and an Earth globe in a darkened room (note that all globes are manufactured with the correct 23-degree tilt). Position the globe about 3 feet from the lamp, so that the northern part of the axis is tilted toward the lamp and also points at the top shelf of your bookcase. That top shelf shall substitute for Polaris, the North Star, toward which Earth’s axis always points.

Notice that the sun (the bright lamp) shines more directly onto the Northern Hemisphere. The sun appears higher and its radiation is more intense. When you rotate the globe, we get long hours of daylight and, thus, long hours of heat. Therefore, it’s summer. At the same time in the Southern Hemisphere there’s a low sun angle and short days.

Now make the Earth orbit halfway around the sun with the axis pointing at the top shelf and keeping a distance of about 3 feet. On the opposite side, the Earth’s axis is now pointing away from our sun. We get sunlight under a much more shallow angle, which produces a lower arc. When you rotate the globe, you can see that we get few hours of daylight and, thus, few hours of heat. Therefore, it’s winter. Notice that the Southern Hemisphere gets more direct sun and longer days, so it is summer for them.

Fall and spring are in between these extremes.

For more information, check out my seasons lecture at

Andy Veh is a professor of astronomy at Kenai Peninsula College.


Filed under astronomy, science, science of the seasons

‘Something horrible going on’ — Rally takes government to task

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Schaeffer Cox speaks at the Second Amendment/Constitutional Task Force Rally in Kenai on Thursday. Seated behind him are Norm Olson, of the Alaska Citizens Militia, Seymour Mills, of Sterling, and Bob Bird, of Nikiski.

Redoubt Reporter

Buoyed by abundant doughnuts donated by The Moose is Loose bakery in Soldotna and a reunion-esque feel to the gathering of the Second Amendment/Constitutional Task Force in Kenai on Thursday, a follow-up to a similar event held in Soldotna last April, emcee Bob Bird initiated the presentations with a cordial tone.

But not even the stickiest-sweet apple fritter, the a cappella renditions of the national anthem and Alaska Flag Song, led with gusto by Bird, or the occasional moments of levity interjected by the speakers could sugarcoat the overall tenor of the presentations: anger, distrust and frustration with government, and a sense of urgency to prepare to do something potentially drastic about it.

“I know how all of you feel. I know why you’re here. You feel like there’s something horrible going on and you can’t quite put your finger on what it is, but you know it’s there, you feel helpless to stop it and you feel frustrated because the only thing that you can do is beg a tyrant to be a better kind of tyrant,” said Schaeffer Cox, of Fairbanks. Cox is a leader of the Second Amendment Task Force in Alaska and helped form a militia group in Fairbanks, the Alaska Peacemakers Militia.

Cox and Kathy McCubbins-Carlson, of Nikiski, were two of three Alaska delegates to a Continental Congress held in St. Charles, Ill., in November, and gave a report on the proceedings at Thursday evening’s Freedom Rally at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium in Kenai.

The purpose of Continental Congress 2009, according to the organization’s Web site, is to “determine a legal and peaceful means to stop the violations of The Constitution of The United States of America and to restore Constitutional governance.”

Bird, a teacher at Nikiski High School, applauded the delegates’ in-depth study of constitutional issues, as a way of combating the myths and misinformation he sees in popular media.

“Global warming has been discredited. Swine flu, same thing. It seems that yesterday’s wild-eyed conspiracy theory becomes today’s mainstream news,” Bird said.

The convention produced a call-to-action declaration, McCubbins-Carlson said, that, “We demand that government immediately re-establish the constitutional rule of law, lest the people be forced do so themselves. And we hereby serve notice that in the defense of freedom and liberty, there shall be no compromise to which we shall ever yield.”

McCubbins-Carlson gained the conviction that Alaska’s most pressing need is the establishment of counties, rather than boroughs, with local sheriffs, she said.

“This is something I feel very strongly about, that we need to see about getting sheriffs in the state of Alaska because they are pretty much, aside from the militia, the sheriff is the one who can tell the federal government, he can tell the FBI, you have no jurisdiction unless I give it to you in my county. We don’t have that last line of defense here,” she said.

The need of sheriffs was an often-revisited topic throughout the evening, with the idea presented as a protection against governmental intrusion.

“The sheriff in his locale is the ultimate authority. Sheriffs have ordered the IRS out in certain counties. The idea that a sheriff is different than state troopers is very important. A sheriff is chosen by the people and is responsible to the people. State troopers are not,” Bird said.

The Constitutional Convention movement is a way to recognize the rights people have beyond what current government acknowledges.

“God gave you rights, just as a human beings. He didn’t give rights to a government that they can then give to you if they want, which would leave you begging at the feet of government as a subject. As a sovereign, you have the right to life, liberty and property, and a corresponding individual duty to protect those rights,” Cox said. Continue reading


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