Daily Archives: August 4, 2010

Happy birthday to ‘we’ — Redoubt Reporter turns 2

By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter

According to standard developmental milestones, 2-year-olds should be able to form two- to three-word sentences, be understandable at least half the time, use pronouns (such as I, me and you), draw vertical lines and begin to understand abstract concepts (such as sooner and later).

Phew. We’re not doing too badly then.

As of this edition, the Redoubt Reporter turns 2. As with human 2-year-olds, the paper is developing its own personality, sometimes in spite of what its “parent” intended it to be. Like a real parent, I went into this with two sets of standards that were light years apart:

Little Jimmy will cure cancer and be an Olympic athlete and solve the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle and never leave his dirty socks on the floor and listen to public radio and master the flaky pie crust and always use his turn signals. Barring that, Little Jimmy will have 10 fingers and 10 toes and be healthy and whatever happens in between those expectations is fine by me.

For the paper, I will admit to entertaining some, perhaps, overenthusiastic idealism about the potential of community journalism. This paper will right wrongs, celebrate the community’s uniqueness, commemorate its history and milestones, shed light on the ignored, encourage healthy dialogue, foster cultural growth, bring information and perspective to complex issues, and be posted on people’s refrigerators, all while allowing me the ability to sleep an average of seven hours a night, still go on the occasional camping trip and not have to search under my car seats for enough spare change to buy a cup of coffee.

On the other hand, I’ve worked in newspapers long enough to know you’ve got to cover your bases first — get the thing out on time, have something in there people actually want to read and, for God’s sake, make every effort to spell names right.

Two years into its existence, the paper has ricocheted between my expectational extremes. Some weeks it comes closer to achieving those warm-the-cockles-of-your-heart idealistic goals. Other weeks, I’m just happy to have time to spell-check words like “cockles,” squeeze in enough sleep to at least get my own name right, and send the thing off to be printed without having to resort to sprawling, freehand sketches depicting the view of my office parking lot to fill up space.

Ninety percent of journalism is a moving target. It’s an always-shifting mix of people, information, issues, ideas, resources, time, challenges and subjects that all has to be nailed down in accordance with the 10 percent that’s set in stone — deadlines and the fundamentals of accuracy, clarity and relevancy.

Another constant, for this paper, is my continuing respect, esteem and may-I-kiss-your-feet appreciation for everyone who makes the Redoubt Reporter possible — the crew of talented writers, editors, photographers, ad salesmen, graphic designers and paper deliverers; story and information sources and interview subjects; advertisers; supportive friends and family; and, of course, readers.

In honor of those contributions, I hope to always do my best to put out the Olympic-athlete, crossword-solving, flaky-crust version of the paper you deserve. Part of that, I believe, is knowing what you want to achieve.

On some stories you’ve got days to do interviews, revise drafts, tweak lead paragraphs, update information, hunt for accompanying art and polish the finished product. For others, the excrement hits the air conditioning and you’re left with maybe two hours or just 20 minutes to do a story that deserves two days worth of attention. In those situations, the danger becomes settling for done, instead of well done.

“Good enough” may occasionally, unavoidably be the result, but it should never be the goal. Journalists should always squeeze the most they can out of whatever time and resources they have available to make their product as good as it can be. That may not always be as good as it should be. If you care about what you’re doing and recognize the never-ending potential for improvement, it will never be as good as you want it to be. But it should always be as good as you can make it.

No matter the challenges, it’s important to keep the ideal in mind, even when it isn’t reachable. If you don’t know what you’re shooting for, you don’t know where to aim.

I haven’t lost sight of the goals I’ve set for myself and the paper. If anything, they’ve solidified and expanded over the past two years. In one sense, that’s daunting, but in another, it will be fun to see what of those expectations the Redoubt Reporter can reach as it embarks on year 3.

Hopefully, six- to seven-word sentences, cooperation with others, correctly naming colors and beginning potty-training will be in there somewhere.

Jenny Neyman is the editor and publisher of the Redoubt Reporter.


Filed under anniversary

Well picked — Program connects farmers, volunteer workers

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Brian Olson, of Alaska Berries farm off Kalifornsky Beach Road, picks strawberries Saturday with Lilian Kass, a volunteer worker from Australia. Kass arranged a weeklong stay at Olson’s farm through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program. Olson gave her food and board in exchange for her free labor at the farm.

Redoubt Reporter

After 10 years of incremental growth, Brian Olson’s Alaska Berries farm off Kalifornsky Beach Road outside Soldotna has blossomed beyond his capacity to keep up with the workload on his own. But being a family-sized business with a profit margin that can wilt as easily as tomato plants have in this year’s damp, dreary summer, hiring full-time, season-long help isn’t a fruitful option.

After five years working in a travel agency in Australia, 25-year-old Lilian Kass yearned to be the one taking a journey to see the world, learning about different cultures and gathering firsthand experience in agriculture and raising animals to help accomplish her goal one day — to set up her own farm.

Olson and his wife, Laurie, enjoy meeting people from different cultures and areas of the world and were in need of an extra set of hands, especially around harvest time.

Kass wanted to check out Alaska, needed a place to stay while on the Kenai Peninsula and was nostalgic for childhood summers spent picking berries while visiting family in Finland.

They were a perfect match, made possible via the Internet and the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program. Kass spent a week starting July 26 working about four hours a day helping Olson around the farm — weeding, pruning, picking berries, butchering chickens and so on. Olson spent that time not only being more productive with the extra help, but also passing on his agricultural knowledge of the way farming works on the central Kenai Peninsula.

“I think it’s great. It’s such a win-win, I always think, for everyone,” Kass said. “It gives you a chance to live on the cheap for a while and extend your trip. You get to stay in different areas and see what those areas are like.”

“I don’t want her to leave,” Olson said. “It’s just been great.”

The WWOOF program, as it’s affectionately called, started in the United Kingdom in 1971 as a way to connect farmers interested in and able to accommodate willing workers seeking a place to stay and a venue to learn about sustainable ways of living. With the advent of the Internet, the WWOOF program — WWOOFing — has exploded, with a growing number of people of all nationalities becoming WWOOFers and lending their services to a growing number of farms in just about every part of the world.

WWOOF organizations, usually arranged by country or region, maintain and post lists of farms, ranches and agricultural operations of all sizes and specialties that welcome volunteer help. WWOOFers browse the lists of farms, organized by location, check out what they do, when they need help doing it and what accommodations they offer, and contact prospective hosts directly to arrange a stay.

“There’s no middle man, you get to contact the farmers yourself. You don’t have to wait for anyone and you get to speak to them and figure out if you’re both compatible,” Kass said.

WWOOFers are responsible for their own travel to and from the farm, and they and the WWOOFing host farms pay a minimal registration fee for membership in the program — usually $5 to $50 — to cover administrative costs of maintaining the directory. Other than that, WWOOFers stay for free, with food and board provided by the hosts, and work for free for about four to six hours a day.

Beyond that, everything is worked out between the WWOOFer and host. What languages do they speak? Will they be sleeping in a room with a bed, in a tent or on the floor with a sleeping bag, on their own or bunking with others? Will they share cooking duties? What work needs to be done? What dates and schedules work for both parties?

Brian and Laurie Olson first heard about WWOOFing about a year ago after friends returned from a trip to Costa Rica in which they’d spent part of the time volunteering on a coffee plantation. The program sounded like a great fit for Alaska Berries — they had room to house visitors and the workload has grown beyond what the Olsons can manage on their own.

“We didn’t have a business plan, it just slowly grew,” Olson said. “This was all timber before. As we wanted to expand more we’d open it up, put a little building up, clear some more land. Now it’s all cleared and it’s gotten bigger than we both imagined it would be. So the WWOOF thing fits in well with that.”

The Olsons also liked the idea of visitors from diverse cultures and nationalities, both for the opportunity to learn something as well as to share their culture and knowledge.

“It sounded really good to us because Laurie and I like to meet people from all over the world and share

Lilian Kass, of Australia, and Brian Olson, of Alaska Berries farm, prune tomatoes on Saturday. Kass spent a week helping Olson work around the farm — weeding, picking berries, butchering chickens and other chores. Alaska Berries is a host farm for the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program.

cultural stories and food and recipes and experiences,” he said. “I admire the courage to do that, and I think the people who are motivated to go do those things are the kind of people you’ll want to meet anyway.”

They registered for the WWOOF program that Alaska Berries would take workers from about April 1 to October 1. After several contacts and a few arrangements that fell through, Kass arrived July 26 as Alaska Berries’ first WWOOFer. Olson said the experience was completely positive. He and Laurie got to visit with the blond, affable, hardworking Kass and learn about her home and travels, all the while they got extra help in their busiest time of year.

In exchange, Olson tried to make the experience as rich in knowledge as possible for Kass.

“I probably talk way too much but I try to explain why I do something, because part of it is to learn,” he said. “It’s not a slave-labor thing where, ‘This is what you have to do.’ It’s a relationship thing where the person is trying to learn about either agriculture or farming or different tasks and how it’s done, so the host shouldn’t send them out and say, ‘Go fix that 40 acres of fence.’ Instead, explain what you do in order to pass something on. Say, ‘Well, we put the fence up because we’ve got to keep the moose out.’”

Kass said the variety of work she’s done while WWOOFing and everything she’s learned from it is a big part of the program’s draw.

“Usually it’s like weeding the veggie garden or splitting wood or whatever odd jobs there might be. Every farm is going to have something different, so it’s always interesting,” she said. “I would like to have a farm myself. I haven’t decided what I want to do yet. I love animals, so I had thought of working with that, but going to a whole range of different farms to get ideas and see what I want to work with later is really the idea, as well. I’m doing the whole range of things and learning a little along the way.” Continue reading


Filed under agriculture, travel

Weigh in on dunes fence — Kasilof, speak now before it’s too late

By Jenny Neyman

Photo courtesy of Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Campers park vehicles and pitch tents on fragile beach grass covering the dunes at the mouth of the Kasilof River during the personal-use dip-net fishery this July. Signs warn visitors to stay off the dunes, but the restriction is routinely missed or ignored.

Redoubt Reporter

Kasilof residents, dip-netters and anyone else with an interest in habitat protection and fishing access at the mouth of the Kasilof River have just one more day to make their wishes known regarding a proposed fence to protect fragile beach grass covering the dunes on the south side of the mouth of the river.

The public comment period on the fence proposal ends Thursday. Comments must be received by the Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mining, Land and Water by 5 p.m. Thursday at DNR, DMLW, Southcentral Region, Land Office, 550 W. 7th Ave., Suite 900C, Anchorage, AK 99501-3577.

“I think it’s really important that people recognize there’s a public process, and if they want to participate all they need to do is submit written comments to DNR and let us know what their feelings are,” said Adam Smith, Southcentral regional land manager for the Division of Mining, Land and Water, the division of DNR that has jurisdiction over the Kasilof River mouth area.

This is the public’s second chance to officially weigh in on the fence plan. The first comment period closed in mid-July and drew only nine responses. That may partially be due to confusion over the comment process. There was another public comment period open at the same time regarding how the proposed fence would jibe with standards of the Alaska Coastal Management Plan. Residents may also have assumed they already shared their views on the fence at a public meeting held in April by the Kasilof Historical Society, the organization behind the fence proposal. The meeting was attended by about 50 members of the public and representatives of the DMLW. But those comments don’t officially count. Only those submitted in writing are considered, so the DMLW decided to extend the comment period to give more people a chance to weigh in.

“One of the things that concerned us is there was an e-mail chain and some public reaction that a lot of people assumed that comments that were said at (the meeting) were going to have basically some weight in this public process. That was a misunderstanding that we want to clarify and just give people additional time to get their comments in so that it was not a missed opportunity,” Smith said.

Brent Johnson, president of the Kasilof Historical Society and a commercial set-net fisherman, said he was pleased to have the comment period extended, especially because the nine comments submitted in the first round were not representative of the views expressed by the majority of attendees at the public meeting.

“I was worried that their views weren’t being considered. DNR was good enough to extend the public comment period,” Johnson said.

Of the nine written comments, people were supportive of installing permanent, post-and-chain fencing around the beach dunes to protect the fragile, ecologically important grass that provides habitat for migratory birds and prevents erosion of the river mouth. But they didn’t want the entire dunes area fenced off. Comments asked that an existing trail already trampled into the dunes by years of vehicle traffic — despite signs asking people not to walk, camp or drive on the grass — be left unfenced.

“We haven’t heard of anybody yet that’s against protecting the dunes,” Smith said. “The concerns that we’re hearing basically are people are concerned about their access. How are they going to get to the river? Will they have the beach access to the mouth? They’ve come to rely and feel safer using some of those upland trails.”

Johnson wrote the proposal to fence in the entire dunes area, leaving people to access the river mouth by the sandy beach below the dunes. The Legislature approved $60,000 for the project, and Johnson said the money isn’t going to be enough if he has to install multiple chains of fence, one protecting the shore side of the dunes and one along each side of the unofficial access trail.

“When I listened to the public I heard the argument — and that makes the best sense to me — to protect the whole dune area and have people access the various fisheries along the beach,” Johnson said. “It would be a lot easier and cheaper to just build one fence to protect the area. The goal is to do the job with the money we’ve got.”

Fencing only the upland side of the trail would abandon the beach side of the dunes, Johnson said.

“The flaw of that idea is you leave the ocean side of dunes free to be trampled, denuded and eroded at a much faster rate. If it erodes enough, the tideline will move back and we’ll be right where we started from minus acres of dunes. So that’s not an option. I won’t do that,” he said.

Johnson had hoped to have the fence installed prior to this summer’s fishing season but got bogged down in red tape. Two Nikiski High School students also had hoped to install temporary webbed fencing to protect the dunes this season as part of a Caring for the Kenai science project, but that effort snagged on bureaucracy, as well.

Along with fence placement and public lands access, ownership issues need to be sorted out. A survey of the area completed in July determined that the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority owns the land at the end of Cohoe Loop Road, the main access point to the mouth of the Kasilof on the southern side of the river. Initially, a DMLW representative said the Kasilof Historical Society might have to go through a separate application process with Mental Health to get approval for the fence. Now, Smith said DNR and Mental Health are trying to avoid that.

“At this point there’s not a need for them to reapply with Mental Health. That could change, but at this point we’re trying to address it as one entity, which is complicated, but we’re trying to figure it out as landowner to landowner right now,” Smith said.

Once the public comment period closes, Smith said the DMLW hopes to have a decision on the fence permit by mid-August. That would mean construction could go ahead before winter. Johnson said he’d like to get the work done as soon as his fishing season wraps up.

But attention to the Kasilof shouldn’t end there, Johnson said. A fence will provide a physical barrier to people trampling the dunes, but there still will be no legal barrier. As it stands now, the mouth of the Kasilof falls under the management category of general state lands, which are subject to generally allowed uses, Smith said. Motor vehicle use is allowed on general state lands as long as it is under a certain weight limit and doesn’t break the vegetative mat. Technically, tearing up beach grass with truck tires isn’t allowed, but the main access trails at the mouth of the Kasilof are already bare of vegetative material, and there isn’t any enforcement authority to cite people for continuing to drive there.

“One of the problems we now face, even though Fish and Game puts a sign up every year saying, ‘Don’t drive on the dunes,’ the fact is there is really no law, as it were, to prevent people from driving there. People drive there anyway,” Johnson said. “I want the fence but I think it would be great, if somebody goes to the bother of lifting a four-wheeler over the fence or finding a way around the fence, then you could give them a citation.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game posts signs warning visitors to stay off the dunes, but they are routinely unnoticed or ignored. During the July dip-net fishery this year, visitors were driving, walking and camping on the grass just as they have in years past.

“I wasn’t aware we weren’t supposed to camp here, but I don’t see what the big deal is. We do it every year and the grass always comes back,” said Dan Williams, of Anchorage, who was camped on the grass at the mouth of the river.

If the state really wanted people to stay off the dune grass, they would make a more concerted effort to let that be known, he said.

“Having a sign up that no one sees doesn’t do squat,” he said of a sign at the end of North Cohoe Loop Road. “At any given time there’s Port-A-Johns, overflowing Dumpsters and about a million cars parked in front of that thing.”

Jennifer Lipscomb, of Wasilla, said she had seen the sign, but since no one else was observing the rule, she didn’t either.

“There’s a couple dozen people camping up here, at least,” she said. “Why should I put my tent on the beach and get all that sand in everything? Why should I be the only one?” Continue reading

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Filed under dipnetting, Kasilof

Pets’ future rests in owners’ will — Unexpected deaths leave Moose Pass woman to find homes for animals

By Joseph Robertia

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Unwanted animals aren’t the only ones to end up at animal shelters. Sometimes even beloved pets have nowhere else to go if their owner dies or becomes unable to care for them.

Redoubt Reporter

They’re a companion on hiking trips and car rides. Their snuggling is warmth on cold winter nights. They’re protection from intruders. Their loving personalities and unconditional affection can brighten a stormy mood. The bond between people and their pets can be special, but for the unprepared owner, a fatal illness or accident could mean bad news for their animal companions.

“So often people think their pet will die first, but it’s not always true,” said Erin Knotek, of Moose Pass, who was recently left trying to help find homes for pets of people who had passed away unexpectedly.

“People think the family will take them, but that isn’t always the case,” she said. “In the month of June, I received two phone calls from families. ‘My mother died. Can you help me place her dogs?’ Another phone call was (regarding) a man who lived alone in Moose Pass. He died while working carpentry on a person’s home. His family, traveling from Outside, just couldn’t take his 10- and 13-year-old dogs.”

In cases of a death or incapacitation where a pet owner didn’t leave proper instructions or funds for the long-term care of their pets, the Alaska State Troopers, animal shelters and eventually the courts may all become involved in deciding the fate of an animal.

“It does happen from time to time,” said Marianne Clark, chief of the Soldotna Animal Control Shelter. “Usually it’s people who have passed away and left behind multiple pets. Their family may be able to take in one or two, but the rest are surrendered.”

Clark said she may contact the Alaska Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Anchorage to alert them of the unique situation, or, if the pet is a pure breed, she may notify rescue groups that specialize in that breed. But other than that, there isn’t much extra she can do for the suddenly displaced pets.

“Unfortunately, government agencies have to treat every animal equally, regardless of the circumstances,” she said. “We have limited resources and have to follow the ordinances on how long they can stay, which is 72 hours, not counting weekends and holidays.”

Clark suggested that people with pets have a solid plan in place for after they’re gone, such as working out an arrangement with someone who can attend to a pet’s needs.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A handler guides a dog through an agility ring. Training dogs and keeping them healthy makes them more easily adopted should they need a new home.

A trustee may need to be appointed to handle financial matters, while a beneficiary is responsible for the care of an animal on a day-to-day basis. These agreements may need to be made legal. Sonja Redmond, a Soldotna attorney of wills, trusts and estate planning, said there are several options available to pet owners.

“In the long term, people can appoint someone in a will, and it’s appropriate to leave a sum of money for the guardian or trustee,” she said. “People can also choose someone as a caregiver and provide a small life insurance policy by naming them as the beneficiary, but they need to be sure the caregiver will honor their wishes.”

There are numerous websites that offer legal services in establishing pet trusts, but Redmond said that, regardless of which option is chosen, someone — such as a family member, close friend or co-worker — should still be selected to attend to the pets right away.

“People with pets should think it through and discuss it all with someone,” she said. “An arrangement needs to be made to take care of the pets right away, because anything in a will or trust doesn’t become available immediately. Anything dealing with legal documents takes time.”

For those without close family or friends who can step in, Knotek recommends that pet owners join pet-related clubs or organizations. Faith Hayes, a member of the Soldotna Off-Leash Meet-up Group, said that organization also has a fund for caring for the pets of people who have had a tragedy befall them.

“For people who find themselves in the hospital without anyone to take care of their pet, this fund allows people to care for the dog or put it in a kennel until they can get out and pay it back,” she said.

The Peninsula Dog Obedience Group and the Kenai Kennel Club offer classes in training and agility, which could help pet owners find like-minded people who may be able to help. These classes also have the added benefit of making pets more manageable for the beneficiary, according to Knotek.

“Folks need to train their dogs in such a way that will lend well into another person’s home,” she said. “Get your dog around kids, other dogs, older folks and such. Socialize them in case you can’t care for them anymore.”

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Hunting season in sight — Harvest success looks likely in 2010

By Joseph Robertia

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Not all moose with antlers, such as this young animal spotted recently near Clam Gulch, are legal for harvest. Hunters preparing for the upcoming season should be well aware of what constitutes a legal bull.

Redoubt Reporter

There’s little time left to gear up and sight in rifles as hunting season on the Kenai Peninsula is fast approaching. Bowhunters can let arrows fly at moose Aug. 10, while rifle hunters get to squeeze the trigger Aug. 20. Wildlife managers are predicting the 2010 hunting season should be productive for both.

“Harvest success has been around 10 to 15 percent, and that’s what we should see again this year,” said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Many of last season’s 2,949 hunters fared well. According to Fish and Game records, a total of 410 moose were harvested, which Selinger said is close to the five-year harvest average. Most of these moose, 246, came out of Game Management Unit 15C, the bulk of which is made up of the Caribou Hills, Homer area and Kenai Mountains south of Kachemak Bay. GMU 15C should again be the most productive area on the peninsula for moose.

“For a while after the wildfire, the numbers weren’t jiving like they used to,” Selinger said, referring to 2007 when more than 55,000 acres of the Caribou Hills burned. “I think some animals changed their behavior and dispersed, but we’re already starting to see good re-growth. It takes five years for it to really start to show benefits for moose, but in general I’d expect we’ll see some benefits in 15C from that fire and several others in the area.”

Only 36 moose came out of GMU 15B last season. This area, which roughly runs from the Kenai River south to the north shore of Tustumena Lake, should be relatively on par with last year.

“A good chunk of 15B is a trophy hunt permit area, and we’re just not seeing as many trophy animals in that area,” he said. “We did some survey work last fall and, in terms of rack spread and points, we’ve seen a great reduction in the size of the animals.”

Most of the 36 moose that came out of 15B were harvested by hunters taking moose on the other end of the size spectrum — young, spike-fork bulls hunted in a legal manner, but not far from roads or neighborhoods.

“We see a lot of ‘backyard moose’ come out of the rest of 15B,” Selinger said.

In GMU 15A, which roughly runs from the Kenai River north to Point Possession, hunters harvested 110 moose last season. This area used to be the most productive area on the peninsula for moose, but Selinger said that harvest numbers have declined in the last few decades.

After roughly 300,000 acres burned in this area in 1947, followed by another 90,000-acre blaze in 1969, there was a vegetation explosion that provided good, leafy browse for moose, Selinger said. Now, though, with many years since a significant fire, there are primarily dense stands of tall trees.

“The habitat in that area needs manipulation,” he said. “It needs to go back to an earlier succession stage.”

Selinger said there are also healthy predator populations in 15A, including brown and black bears. And wolves have moved in since 1969, he said.

For the remainder of the peninsula, GMU 7, which encompasses most of the eastern Kenai Peninsula, only 26 moose were harvested last season. Selinger said that he didn’t have high expectations for more moose coming out of this area this year.

“Overall, it’s not productive moose country,” he said. “There’s just a few strips of good moose habitat and the rest is mountainous or heavily timbered, and then closer to Seward heavy snowfalls and predations play a big role.”

Much like moose, caribou harvests should be similar to years past, Selinger said.

There are four caribou herds on the peninsula, but only two can be hunted (by permit drawing): the Kenai Mountain herd and the Killey River herd, which have an estimated 300 and 250 to 300 caribou, respectively.

“For the Kenai Mountain herd we issued 250 permits, and 18 animals were harvested, which is about the average,” Selinger said. “For the Killey River, we issued 25 bull-only permits, and we had six bulls taken.”

Selinger said research on both herds has also revealed that the overall body conditions and size of the animals is on the decline.

“We got a count in on the Kenai Mountain herd this past year, and got some animals collared in spring. Overall their body condition was pretty poor,” he said. “For the Killey River herd, we also saw evidence of habitat decline having an effect. They used to have the heaviest calves in the state, but we did calf surveys a few years ago and the weights were way down.” Continue reading

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Filed under ecology, hunting, outdoors, wildlife

Winging It: Fleeting flights — Look fast before ID chances pass

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photos courtesy of Sean Ulman. Red-necked phalaropes dot a pond this summer.

July 24 to Aug. 1 — Inclement weather coincided with our fatigued inclinations so we took off a proper weekend. We rested, read and redesigned the remaining schedule. Believe it or not, we barely birded.

Recharged, we returned to work with relish. There was only four weeks left of the fieldwork portion of the project. The demand to collect as much data as possible has never seemed so dutiful.

Whenever the rain broke or rested we’d rush out to trap. We don’t net birds when it’s raining. Handling them in wet conditions can hinder their proper thermoregulation.

Revisiting varied habitat points to classify vegetation can be conducted rain or shine. As long as the weather isn’t unbearable (thankfully the wind hasn’t been bad) we can do our transect survey point counts or pond scans, which have seen increased shorebird use since being refilled by rainwater.

Anytime you go outside, especially in a remote marshland used by birds as a migratory stopover site, there will be birding.

On three different days, we’ve spotted three solitary sandpipers, including some close-up looks at specimens near our net. Watching them feed or bob alongside the bird they most resemble — lesser yellowlegs — it’s easy to break down the differences. The solitary sandpiper has a shorter neck and shorter, paler legs. It’s darker breast blends into pewter wings. In flight, the yellowlegs’ costume is entirely shed. The dark, horizontal tail stripe stands out during its flicking wing beats (much like a spotted sandpiper’s flight). When it calls — higher, more urgent whistles — it’s as though the bird is chastising the birder for mistaking it for a yellowlegs.

Peregrine falcon made our list from July 26 to July 29, often arrowing low over the marsh. The most striking sighting was when we watched it on a stark spruce perch picking apart fresh prey, feathers floating down one at a time like fluffy snowflakes.

A semipalmated plover pokes along the sand.

On July 31 we walked to the shore in between pond scans, arriving a half hour after high tide. After 74 mallards picked up off the mud we sat on a log and counted the other species — 41 semipalmated plovers, 24 red-necked phalaropes, 18 greater yellowlegs, eight herring gulls, six Bonaparte gulls, two mew gulls.

After studying plovers plopping down to roost in mud divots, phalaropes plying the shoreline and flopping down to swim and spin up bug bites, and juvenile Bonaparte gulls, unattended by adults, practicing with their new wings and flashing their coveted black ‘M’ marked coverts, there was still plenty of time to interpret improving weather and reflect on how lucky I am to spend so much time out here getting fertile birding under my belt.

Nearing a peak feeling of entrenchment at Chickaloon is the perfect time for a stumper to fly over and humble the seasoned or improved birder.

On July 28, four gull-like birds flew directly over us.

“What are those birds?” Sadie shouted.

The regret that she had packed up her binoculars for the double slough crossing was obvious. I responded by naming the closest shape association.

“Frigate birds?”

The heavy birds above us, similar in length and width to herring gulls, were all white underneath but had angular wings and a long tail. I lent my binoculars a couple of seconds late. We listened closely but the ghost gulls never called.

“Tropic birds?” I suggested half-seriously, aware that their southern coastal range would render such a sighting ludicrous.

Back at the cabin, Sibley guide book open, we listed possible species based on field marks and home range.

Caspian tern? Too small. Long-tailed jaeger was my official, best guess.

Sadie, familiar with that species from fieldwork in Barrow, dismissed it, convincingly citing our mystery species’ bold whiteness and thicker tail.

The daily list lacuna was booked as “unidentified gull.” Hopelessly scouring the sky the next day we were simultaneously rankled and thankful by what might have been.

The missed ID reminded me of a long-billed curlew I thought I saw last year at Big Indian Creek, which better bird minds convinced me to demote to a whimbrel. I can still clearly imagine that cinnamon chimera winging against a peach sunset, its decurved bill impossibly long — the long shot ornithological opportunity, like the unattainable tropic bird triumph, long gone before it ever was.

Sean Ulman received his MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. He and his wife, biologist Sadie Ulman, are conducting a two-year bird survey on the Chickaloon Flats for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

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Almanac: Tripping through the treetops — Pilot nearly hits home in 1960s Soldotna airstrip crash landing

By Clark Fair

Photos courtesy of Al Hershberger. Roger Waldron’s blue-and-white Piper Tri-Pacer is crumpled after the February 1960 accident. The plane, which crashed during an attempted takeoff, struck nose-first and then likely rebounded onto its tail.

Redoubt Reporter

Each time Al Hershberger looked out behind his home in the early 1960s, he would note the large aspen with the top broken off of it, and it would remind him of the only serious airplane accident that ever occurred at the old Soldotna airstrip.

It happened on an early February day in 1960. Hershberger and his brother, Dale, were sitting around in Al’s Radio and TV Shop, which fronted the Sterling Highway about where Blockbuster Video is now. In those days, the airstrip lay just south of the shop, approximately in the same location as the current Wilson Lane, behind the Soldotna Police Station.

Suddenly, they heard the sound of an airplane, but something about the sound wasn’t right.

“I ran over and looked out the window,” Hershberger said, seeing a plane that was airborne but in trouble. “There he is, coming up, mushing through the trees. He had the nose high, trying to climb, which is the wrong thing to do when you’re losing airspeed. You keep that nose down. If you have to clip a couple of trees off, you clip a couple of trees off, but you keep that speed up.

“But he was mushing, and I said, ‘He’s going in!’ And before he actually hit the ground, we were out of the door and headed over that way. He went in over behind my house.”

The pilot of the aircraft in trouble was Roger Waldron, son of Art Waldron of Anchorage Sand & Gravel fame, and he had been attempting to take off with a single passenger on their way to Bethel. Waldron, who had wrecked a plane a few months earlier over in Seward, was about to crack up his second aircraft.

Seen from behind the plane wreck is Louis Soper’s shop (foreground) and Al Hershberger’s home. The Hershbergers and Sopers shared a common driveway out to the Sterling Highway. Today, this is the location of the parking lot in front of the Central Peninsula Mall.

The Soldotna airstrip, which ran roughly north-and-south, had been constructed on a piece of Howard Binkley property and had opened for business in late 1953. Hershberger had been the first pilot to land on the airstrip, and he routinely parked his own airplane next to his house, at the end of a short curving road off the airstrip’s north end.

According to Hershberger, most pilots took off north-to-south on the old strip because a hill covered with tall birch trees rose off the north end, making a takeoff in that direction riskier. Hershberger said he took off south-to-north only if the direction of high winds made a south approach unsafe.

On the day Waldron attempted to leave Soldotna in his blue-and-white Piper Tri-Pacer, there was only a light breeze, Hershberger said, and the crash occurred on the last of several attempts by Waldron to take off that day. The Tri-Pacer was mounted on skis, and the airstrip was covered with a veneer of slightly sticky snow.

As the Hershberger brothers raced from the shop, Al said he heard a THUNK indicating that the plane had struck the ground. Around the shop and down a path through the woods and then in the front of Al’s house, they ran, hurrying across the driveway that Al shared with the Louis Soper family. The plane, crumpled in the nose and tail, sat in open ground behind a workshop that Soper had built behind his house.

Hershberger estimated that he and his brother reached the plane about 30 seconds after it struck the ground.

“I opened the door, and they both sat in there in shock, and the gasoline was coming out of the tank and dripping on the hot exhaust,” Hershberger said. “I said, ‘You gotta get out of here!’

“It didn’t blow. It didn’t burn. But it could have.” Continue reading

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