Daily Archives: August 11, 2010

At war with weeds — Specialty crew roams state to combat plant invasions

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Milo Wrigley, left, and Peter Nicholson were on the Kenai Peninsula last week to help survey and mitigate invasive weed populations, like this clump of pineapple weed on Tsalteshi Trails.

Redoubt Reporter

To help carry out her crusade, Janice Chumley called in the cavalry last week — a roving crew of specially trained hit men, of a sort, called out all over the state this summer to take care of situations that are growing out of control.

Their mission is to seek and destroy. But instead of guns and handcuffs, they carry plastic bags and shovels. Instead of cowboy boots or military fatigues, they wear rain gear and leather gloves. And instead of criminals and outlaws, they hunt weeds.

Chumley is the integrated pest management specialist for the local branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Under the “pest” bailiwick is invasive weeds — introduced species that compete with native plants and can take over natural habitats.

Photo courtesy of Division of Forestry. Orange hawkweed is prolific at reproduction, making it a particularly dangerous nonnative weed.

Weeds may not seem like much to get worked up about — what’s a few dandelions or oxeye daisies? They’re flowers, after all. How bad could they be?

Chumley is as driven to yank those noxious invaders out by their pretty little roots as she is to educate people about how dangerous invasive weeds can be. The consequences of an infestation can be nothing short of environmental and economic decimation.

“We want to protect our fish habitats, and habitats for all our mammals. That stuff really relies on native vegetation and the insects that live on it and the things that feed on it. If you displace that, you’ve just displaced their food source and they have to go somewhere else for it. A lot of the plants that we introduce, some of it has toxicity to animals so that they can’t utilize it, and a lot of it they don’t recognize as a food source. They didn’t grow up eating it, so they don’t now,” she said.

Part of her crusade, shared by invasive plant coordinators across the state, is to eradicate the weeds. But it’s far too big a job to do herself, akin to stopping a Kenai River flood with a dish sponge and a sippy cup, so the other focus of her work is to enlist recruits to help the cause. She gives presentations at public venues, distributes information, partners with agencies like the Kenai Watershed Forum and takes kids on weed-pull events, all to grow awareness and a volunteer base of weed pullers.

This summer, thanks to one-year federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Alaska has another resource to employ in the fight against invasives — a four-man crew of weed warriors on loan to invasive plant coordinators throughout the state. They work eight days on, 10 hours a day, with six days off between assignments, and have been to Delta Junction, Fort Wainwright, Fairbanks, Cordova, Seward, Portage, Girdwood and Talkeetna. Last week they were sent to help Chumley with whatever projects she deemed most vital.

“They’ve been a huge help,” she said Friday, as their week was wrapping up. Not only are the crew members extra sets of hands for weed eradication, they’re extra sets of eyes trained to identify invasive species and extra mouths to help educate the public of the threats of invasives.

“This program has a lot to do with education. People see us working on the side of the road, a lot of people stop and ask us. It’s a good opportunity to tell them about it,” said Milo Wrigley, of Delta Junction, one of the crew members. “If they know people are out there trying to take care of these invasive plants, it might trigger more people to start doing it themselves. Just taking care of their own plot of land is a start. If everybody takes care of their own garden, and everybody takes care of their own lawn, that’s a lot less work somebody else has to do.”

The crew members are certified to spray weeds, with landowners’ permission and in safe circumstances away from water sources. The weather cleared enough Thursday that they sprayed an infestation of tansies in the city of Kenai. Rain the rest of the week meant they resorted to hands-on methods of weed eradication — pulling them out, digging them up and smothering them with tarps.

One of their biggest undertakings was a new infestation alongside the Kasilof River. They pulled out 367 pounds of weeds that probably came in through revegetation work, Chumley said.

“It’s directly next to the river. You don’t want it to go to seed and travel down the bank. And it’s right by the state park. That’s how infestations spread rather rapidly,” she said.

Weeds like disturbed ground — any area that has been dug up, scraped clear or burned — where weed seeds have clear access to bare ground. Many invasive weeds are prolific at reproduction and can quickly crowd out natural vegetation. Invasives can be masters at hitchhiking, being introduced to new areas through revegetation work, or even through seemingly innocuous carriers like fire equipment brought in to wildfire areas or hay brought by mushers for sled dogs. That’s why part of the focus of the weed crew is to survey invasive weed infestations in the state.

“Some areas have never really been surveyed for invasive weeds before. Places like Aniak, where you have a lot of dog mushers and straw is brought in for the dogs, you have a lot of introduced species where you wouldn’t think you’d find them. So to be able to do survey work in areas that haven’t been surveyed previously really offers a larger map of how things are moving through the state, and potentially what kind of economic damage that they can do to areas, whether it’s through fishing or forest issues. So, really, it’s a big deal,” Chumley said.

Even with the extra help of the weed crew, some infestations are simply too far gone to be worth spending time on. Pineapple weed, for instance, with cone-shaped, yellowish-green flower heads and dissected leaves that smell sweet, like pineapple, when crushed, is so widespread that weed pullers could spend all their time attacking it and hardly make a dent. Continue reading


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Weeding out an invasion — Oh, the horror

By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Pineapple weed, so named because of its sweet smell when crushed, is so pervasive in Alaska it isn’t on the top of the hit list of invasive weed eradication priorities.

Up until I took a walk with Janice Chumley on Friday for a story on invasive plants, I never saw much point in weeding. I’m notoriously bad with plants, inflicting droopiness upon all to which I take a watering can. It seemed counterintuitive to yank up something that’s growing just fine when my biggest agricultural success has been a crop of mold on some forgotten cheese in the back of the fridge.

Janice is the integrated pest management technician for the local branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. These days in particular, thanks to federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, she’s the invasive weed lady for the Kenai Peninsula, and has made it her mission to bring swift and merciless death to all spreading, nonnative plants.

It’s somewhat macabre for such an affable, pleasant lady to have a vendetta against what are often pretty little flowers. That incongruity may be part of the reason why the hike, to survey invasive weeds growing at Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School, left me creeped out.

In full disclosure, I love that trails system. Next to my office, my car and occasional visits to my bed, I probably visit those trails more often in any given week than I do anywhere else. As we set out to survey the extent of invasive weed infestation, I felt myself getting defensive at what felt like a foray to catalog the trails’ faults.

Surely the weeds can’t be bad here, I thought. These trails are well cared for and heavily used all year long. I couldn’t seem to get over the connotation of “infestation” with something dirty and neglected. Like a junk heap left to rot where it accumulated. You flip over a disintegrating hunk of wood and expect to find it dripping with slugs, creepy-crawlies and — surprise — a thriving crop of white sweetclover just waiting to unfurl its tendrils, a la the plant from “Little Shop of Horrors.” In my head I see it curling its ever-expanding stalks into chokeholds around nearby fireweed, lupine and stands of healthy moose browse; possibly giving them a leafy noogie as the sweetclover strangles the defenseless natives to death.

In reality, it doesn’t work like that. Invasive weeds like light. They don’t grow in covered areas, which is why tarps and ground cloths are often employed to kill them. The weeds especially thrive in disturbed ground, like a trail system that’s regularly mowed, plowed, widened and expanded. It’s like lice; contracting them doesn’t mean you don’t shower enough — they actually prefer a clean scalp.

Still, I found myself yammering about the virtues of the trails as we started out, as if their growing popularity with mountain bikers, the kids’ learn-to-ski program and the chances of seeing a coyote might somehow keep weeds at bay.

Bad reporter. Shut up. You can’t quote yourself. Let the sources talk.

I indulged in a feeling of relief when Janice declared it a boring hike, her favorite kind, because there weren’t many weeds at which to look.

Phew, I thought.

Well, except, of course, for the pineapple weed.

The wha… ?

Pineapple weed. That springy, yellow-headed mat covering the ground there, and there, and there, and there, and … .

Wait, I said, that’s invasive? That stuff is everywhere.

Well, yeah, that’s what makes it invasive.

My world shifted a little at the realization that this innocuous-looking plant, one I see and step on every day, shouldn’t be there. It’s taking over, challenging native species for habitat, inexorably expanding, conducting its botanical jihad in plain sight, and it’s been so successful that it’s now taken as a normal part of the landscape.

Cue the creep-out factor.

Sitting in my office later, with my anemic nephthytis and incontinent philodendron that refuses to soak up any water, I found myself darting quick glances out the window to the green strip next to the building.

What’s out there, hiding in the foliage, I wondered? Usually that thought is predicated by a glimpse of movement at the perimeter of the trees. The answer is occasionally a moose, but more often a dog let out of a car to do its business, or a late-night passer-by deciding one light on in an otherwise dark building is no reason not to use the patch of woods to conduct a little business of his own.

But this time, I looked into the woods, rather than at the examples of inappropriate bladder control on the edges. What’s growing in there, I wondered, and what’s being choked out in its place?

Visions of those time-lapse, speeded-up photography clips started playing in my head, where you can actually see a plant’s growth cycle.

That’s what creeps me out about weeds. I don’t have botanophobia — an irrational fear of plants — I’m just not comfortable with the thought that they’re growing before your eyes, yet you can’t “see” it.

What else are they up to, all innocent-looking in plain sight? Are they plotting to overthrow society? Sharpening tiny poisonous darts? Orchestrating the comeback of parachute pants and ponchos? Writing songs for Miley Cyrus? Drafting concepts for yet more inane reality TV shows?

It’s the same surprise element horror movies often use to scare audiences, when the innocuous turns out to be sinister. Sure, a mask-wearing, foot-dragging, chainsaw-wielding psychopath can cause a start when he jumps out from behind a gravestone. But in a larger sense, there isn’t much surprise there. He is, after all, a mask-wearing, foot-dragging, chainsaw-wielding psychopath. We may not have seen that particular “boo” moment coming, but overall, yeah, we saw it coming.

It’s when the cute kitty or sweet grandma or some other unthreatening-looking element suddenly goes for the jugular that you attain a different level of creepy.

That’s where I find myself now — a higher plane of creepy. Gee, thanks, Janice.

Instilling a paranoid distrust of my lawn is probably not the result she intended in trying to get her point across about the importance of combating invasive weeds, but the result is the same. I’m enlisted.

When I ran at the trails later that day, I stopped to pull up a few handfuls of pineapple weed on my way back to the car. I put them in the trunk until I got to a garbage can. Just in case, well, maybe it’s like when zombies run amok and some heroic yet short-lived character unloads a chest strap worth of bullets on the thing, only to have it pause briefly, then start advancing even faster, while someone inevitable utters the phrase, “Now you’ve made it mad… .”

Or maybe I need to stop watching horror movies. Instead, I could invest that time in some serious weeding.

Jenny Neyman is a reporter and editor of the Redoubt Reporter.

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Search for dog rescue funds — Former CES search, rescue K-9 hunting for support

By Jenny Neyman

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Dale Lawyer and Ares charge through the woods on a practice track. Ares is certified for 24- to 36-hour searches. After the dog’s budget was cut from CES, Lawyer is seeking support to still use Ares as an independent contractor.

Redoubt Reporter

Of all the things Dale Lawyer has been training his 2-year-old German shepherd, Ares, to do — scent tracking, avalanche rescue, obedience, interacting with kids and community members — he didn’t figure begging for funding would be on the agenda.

Not that Ares wouldn’t be good at it. With his big, brown eyes; stiff-yet-fuzzy, triangle-pointed ears; floppy tongue; shiny, black-and-chestnut coat; and good-natured disposition, he’d probably rake in some serious cash with an offering cup around his neck. But Ares is much more than a cute mug good at shaking paws and giving high fives. He’s a search and rescue dog trained to save lives, equivalent to the efforts of 20 or 30 human searchers.

Yet in order to be able to use his innate skills, honed through hundreds of hours of training, to find people lost in the woods, buried in avalanches or swept away in the water, he needs funding. Ares is an extraordinary dog and that comes with extra costs — specialty food, supplements, equipment and veterinary care, and the cost of adding and maintaining certifications to be able to perform search and rescue tasks in accordance with legal and liability dictates. After Central Emergency Services dropped Ares from its budget this fiscal year, and Lawyer’s campaign to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly failed to get the dog’s budget reinstated, those costs fall squarely on Lawyer and whatever community and local business support he can find.

“I’d hate to just let him go,” Lawyer said. “The second you let him go I know there’s going to be some lost little kid and I’d feel horrible. And it’s not just me. So many people volunteered and put effort into him, all the people who donated a lot of hours to do his training.”

Last year, Ares was an asset of Central Emergency Services, where Lawyer works as a paramedic/engineer. Lawyer and his wife purchased Ares as a puppy from a breeder in Anchorage for about $1,500. The plan was to start training him, evaluate his abilities as a search and rescue dog, then approach CES administration and the Central Emergency Service Area Board of Directors to see about taking on the dog as a departmental resource.

The board and administration agreed, setting a $10,000 budget for Ares’ first year, with $2,000 to $3,000 for equipment and the rest to pay for training. He’s been certified to do 24- to 36-hour searches and started working toward avalanche rescue certification, with Lawyer also planning to certify Ares in water cadaver searches.

Along with being available to assist in search and rescue operations anywhere in the borough at a moment’s notice, Ares helped Lawyer with a Lost in the Woods program, teaching kids how to stay warm, use signals, where not to hide, where to go to be found and how not to be afraid if lost in the wilderness.

The dog was a hit in the schools and any community events with which he helped, Lawyer said, and various businesses and community organizations contributed to get Ares and Lawyer necessary equipment, like a floatation vest, winter gear and an avalanche beacon.

But this funding cycle, Ares was cut from the CES budget. The high-end estimate of his cost was estimated at $30,000, which was too high to justify for one resource, said CES Chief Chris Mokracek at the time. Part of the problem was the realization that CES would have to pay Lawyer overtime for his work with Ares, due to Fair Labor Standards Act stipulations.

Lawyer countered that the $30,000 budget was inflated and the dog’s annual cost could be whittled down to as little as a few thousand dollars with the help of community and business partnerships. He and a parade of Ares supporters pleaded their case at several borough assembly meetings this spring, but no action was taken to reinstate the dog’s budget. It was a “huge disappointment,” Lawyer said, particularly because of all the time and money that had already gone into Ares’ training and equipment — including taxpayer dollars and community donations.

Lawyer holds Ares’ ball after the end of a successful practice track. Food treats and getting to play with a ball is Ares’ reward for completing the task.

“The borough wouldn’t even see if we could partner with businesses in this area. They didn’t even make an effort,” Lawyer said. “That’s why I’m really disappointed. These people really wanted the program to go and they already paid for it. Everyone in the CES service area, through their taxes, have paid for this service. Then (CES and the borough) basically said, ‘We’re just done with it.’ After they already paid over $20,000 from the borough and what citizens put in.”

Lawyer was left with a choice. He could still offer his and Ares’ search and rescue services as an independent contractor to Alaska State Troopers, and even resurrect the Lost in the Woods program on his own. But he’d be responsible for the costs of Ares’ training, certifications and maintenance, even more so than he already was.

Or, he could retire Ares and just let him be a regular family pet.

Lawyer and his wife talked about it and decided they couldn’t let Ares go to waste.

“Working dogs, they need a job to do. They can’t just sit there, they have to have something to do,” Lawyer said. “And he’s a really talented dog. I’m really surprised at how far he’s come along,” Continue reading

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Always playing the name game — Russian teacher finds hobby, links to homeland in Alaska toponomy

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Russian teacher Gregory Weissenberg, of Soldotna, gives a presentation on Russian place names in Alaska at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on Thursday.

Redoubt Reporter

When Gregory Weissenberg moved to Alaska from Russia in 1991 to teach for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, one of the luxuries life in his new country allowed him was the ability to afford a car.

Upon obtaining his first driver’s license, at age 40, and buying his first car, a Plymouth Horizon, his friends celebrated with a party and driving-theme gifts, including an Alaska Atlas and Gazetteer. The exceedingly momentous event (“somehow it was missed by the local media and paparazzi,” Weissenberg quips) set him on the road to one of his new hobbies — exploring Alaska and its history.

“I thought the world of that vehicle. I thought it could go anyplace in Alaska. Little I knew there was only one road,” he said.

Being mobile, in turn, set him on the road to his other pastime — toponomy, the study of place names and their origins; particularly ones that made this Russian language teacher feel right at home in his new country, at times like he never left the old.

“I started thumbing through this atlas and my imagination took me to all quarters of Alaska, as if that Plymouth Horizon could fly,” Weissenberg said. “As I was thumbing through that atlas, I noticed that some sense of a deja vu visited me. The thing is, quite a few words, although spelled in English, were distinctly, conspicuously Russian. I kind of had this thought, ‘Do my American friends know what these words mean?’”

Russia sent the first explorers to discover Alaska, so Weissenberg wasn’t surprised to see so much Russian influence over Alaska toponomy. But the meanings of the names and histories behind them aren’t always retained with the terminology.

“In Alaska, geography has a taste — a distinct Russian taste,” he said. “But they mean something. Besides being a name for a river or a village or something, words have a meaning. So I decided that I would start working on this.”

It’s been an etymological safari for over 10 years now, conducted through books, newspaper stories, trips around the state and casual conversations.

“I stumbled on many of these words actually by accident or just by reading the Anchorage Daily News or talking to my friends,” Weissenberg said.

A fellow teacher told him once about a fishing boat that capsized off Point Pogibshi on the southern Kenai Peninsula, with one brother drowning and the other barely surviving long enough to be rescued.

“I kind mentioned nonchalantly to my colleagues that should be a bad place for fishing,” Weissenberg said.

How do you know, they asked. Have you been there? Do you fish?

“Gregory the fisherman — one of the shortest jokes in Alaska. No, I don’t fish,” he said.

But he knew the word’s meaning in Russian — death or deceased. Sure enough, he met some fishermen, “I mean real fishermen, unlike Gregory Weissenberg. They actually told me the weather’s pretty rough there. That must by why it was named Pogibshi.”

Talking with a student who missed a week of school to go hunting with his dad gave Weissenberg another name to add to his list. The student said he’d been hunting in Nabesna, south of Fairbanks.

“That’s why I will never forget this moment, because it was one of those rare moments where a teacher really impressed a student,” Weissenberg said. “I said, ‘Nabesna? I bet you hunted Dall sheep.’”

Well, yes, the student replied. But how did you know? Have you been there? Do you hunt?

“That was another joke — Gregory the hunter,” he said. “No, I don’t hunt. I’ve never heard of it and I’ve never been there.”

But he knew Nabesna from a similar Russian word meaning high sky or high elevation, which would be a good spot for sheep hunting. Continue reading

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Crossover motor sport — Different draws drive motocross participants

By Joseph Robertia

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Casey Boylan, of Anchorage, powers out of a turn during the Kenai Peninsula Racing Lions motocross races held at Twin Cities Raceway on Saturday. He was the leader of the pack for the heats he rode over the weekend.

Redoubt Reporter

The assault on spectators’ senses can be overwhelming. The fluorescent green, orange, red and yellow of the dirt bikes is stunning to see. The sounds — from the mosquitolike whine of the 50cc bikes to the predator growl of the 125s and 250s — are not only heard, but the vibrations felt in the stands. And the smell of two-stroke motor oil hangs as heavy in the air as the scent of confections in a bakery, but there were only rooster tails — and no doughnuts — being spun by riders in the weekend’s motocross races.

The two-day event, held at Twin Cities Raceway in Kenai and put on by the Kenai Peninsula Racing Lions — Motocross Division, represented races seven and eight in the state motocross racing series. As riders compete locally, as well as in Anchorage, Fairbanks and other areas, they accumulate points for their performance.

Casey Boylan, 16, of Anchorage, was the points leader in the 125 expert class, as well as in the 250 expert class. He was a blur over the weekend as he throttled out of tight turns and caught big air after launching from the course’s largest moguls.

“I’ve definitely worked for it,” he said Saturday. “I ride almost every day.”

Boylan got into motocross seven years ago, after receiving a dirt bike for Christmas. He needed a place to ride his new present and was captivated by what he saw at a local track.

Billy Downey, riding in the 65cc class, picks up speed on a straightaway section of the course Saturday.

“I went to ride at the Kincaid track and there were races going on that weekend,” he said.  “I watched them and it looked fun, so I signed up for the next weekend’s race, and I’ve been at it ever since.”

Boylan said riding regularly is how he got good at being so fast. Still, he said that riding against others is the best way for him to gauge his performance.

“Sometimes you’ll think you’ve got speed, but then you race and find out you don’t so you have to go back and work harder,” he said.

“Work” is a bit of a misnomer, though, since Boylan said he gets so much enjoyment from his time on the track, regardless of whether he’s practicing or racing.

“What keeps me coming back is how fun it is,” he said. “When you’re riding, you’re just zoned out and not worried about anything. You’re just in a world of your own.”

Boylan said the summer dirt-bike riding is also good for keeping his skills sharp for his winter pastime — running snowmachines in snocross races.

Appropriately named Ryder Pietro, riding in the 65cc class, catches air after launching off a mogul on the course on Saturday.

Sarah Herrin, 22, of Nikiski and a student at University of Alaska Anchorage, was riding in the women’s expert class, where she has made a name for herself as one of the fastest females in the state, as well as holding her own against the fellas in the 125 expert class. She said she also enjoys motocross for fun and cross-training.

“I play basketball for UAA, and motocross is a great way to stay in shape,” she said. “It’s not just easy riding, like a lot of people think.”

It takes body strength to maneuver a motorcycle, Herrin said, from keeping her legs limber while leaning into a turn, to keeping her abdominal muscles taught to tweak the bike while in the air and having the arm strength to hold on and steer at high speeds.

“You get a good workout,” she said. “And it’s a full-body workout.”

Motorcross is more than exercise, though. Herrin said she also enjoys being able to compete in a sport where women and men go head to head.

“It’s a male-dominated sport. There are only about 15 females out of the roughly 200 riders here,” she said. “But everyone is really friendly. I just go out there like everyone else, and have the same mentality about it.”

They’re all trying to win, but this summer Herrin has frequently claimed victory. She attributed much of her success to an upbringing surrounded by power-sports equipment and riders.

“Growing up we always had four-wheelers, motorcycles and snowmachines, and my dad, older brother and younger brother have all raced,” she said. “I guess we were just a motorhead family.”

Herrin didn’t represent the only full-throttled family at the track over the weekend. Courtney and Heidi Geerdts, along with their three children, had made the long trip from Bethel to compete in the races.

Trinity Geerdts, of Bethel, cleans mud off the bike of her sister, Justis, between races Saturday. Several members of the Geerdts family took part in the weekend event.

“It’s a real family affair,” Heidi said. “My husband, Courtney, started first, but he began bringing Justis when she was just 2 weeks old. Now she’s 11 and rides in the 65cc class. My son, Diesel, is 8, and he’s undefeated in the 50cc class. And we’re hoping to have my youngest daughter, Trinity, on a bike by the end of summer.”

Geerdts said she likes that her kids got involved in motocross at such a young age.

“I think it builds a lot of confidence in them,” she said. “It takes a lot of coordination to handle the bikes, and they have to learn how to work the clutch and the gears. It teaches them a lot.”

Geerdts said taking part in motocross together bonds them as a family.

“It’s a lot of work to get everything and everyone here,” she said. “We all have a job, but it’s something we all look forward to and it keeps us close-knit.”

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No refuge from repairs — Crews set to work sprucing up Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

By Joseph Robertia

Photos courtesy of Scott Slavik, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Student Conservation Association crew member Steph Lynn constructs a timber staircase on the Kenai River Trail this summer. SCA was one of many volunteer organizations the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge utilized to complete various field projects.

Redoubt Reporter

While the sun has largely set on another season of projects at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, there is still plenty of time to enjoy the rewards of the labor performed this summer by numerous volunteers and seasonal employees.

“The crews are out of the field and the projects done, but it was an unprecedented summer in terms of the number of crews, the volunteer hours of work, and the sophistication of the projects completed,” said Scott Slavik, a refuge backcountry ranger who coordinated much of the work done by various groups.

New this season, the refuge worked with members of the Wilderness Volunteers, an organization whose mission statement of “working with others to conserve wildlife populations” mirrors the refuge’s own.

“You never know what you’ll get with a new group, so I’m sometimes skeptical if we’ll get much bang for our buck,” Slavik said. “This group was a mixed bag of 10 people, from a financial planner to grandparents and their children, but they all had in common a passion for the wilderness, and they did great work and a lot of it.”

Slavik stationed them in the field with two refuge leaders, working on a project on the four-mile long Cottonwood Creek Trail on the south side of Skilak Lake.

“They camped there for a week and did five days of solid work,” he said. “They put a stone staircase in a steep section of trail. They performed a pretty extensive reroute to the upper section of trail where it was muddy and watery. And they put in wood stairs, all by hand, after they learned to scribe logs and do saddle and lap joints with simple tools.”

The refuge also brought back a group of high school students from Scotland this season, as a result of the success of a past project involving youth from that area.

“We worked with them in 2006 and it was a great experience,” Slavik said.

Iain Fraser, a youth volunteer from Banchory, Scotland, limbs a spruce tree along the Emma Lake Trail.

The 12 students and three adult leaders spent six days camped out on the shore of Tustumena Lake.

“Half the group did restoration work, reroofing the historic Andrew Berg cabin, while the other half did some rehab work on the three-mile Emma Lake Trail that is adjacent to the Berg cabin,” Slavik said. “It was really overgrown, but the kids did really impressive work. It amounted to about 500 to 600 hours of volunteer labor.”

The refuge again utilized a Student Conservation Association crew this season, made up of eight high school students from the Lower 48 who came up for 35-day projects. They, along with two leaders, were stationed off of Skilak Lake Road, working on the west end of Kenai River Trail.

“This crew did a major rehab to the rough, hard-to-follow trail that ran along the river,” Slavik said. “They did 1,000 feet of new trailhead, including some rerouting, and they softened some grades so it’s not so up and down, up and down. Their work really improved the hikeability of this trail.”

The Youth Conservation Corps program is also an annual way the refuge attempts to engage young people in respecting nature and considering careers in the outdoors. This year a YCC crew made up of nine local high school students was stationed on the east end of the Kenai River Trail for eight weeks.

“They basically set up a zip line, rigged to move 600- to 800-pound boulders, to create a rock staircase,” Slavik said. “This was a place on the trail that was really a scramble, not accessible to a lot of people.”

In addition to all the volunteer crews, the refuge also brought back six, paid, seasonal workers, which were dispatched to the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area, to complete a variety of tasks.

From left, trail crew member Mike O’Casey, and Youth Conservation Corps enrollees Rebecca Axtell, Jeneen Leopold (hidden) and Jacob Douthit move a rock to a staircase project site on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge this summer.

“They put in a new bridge on the Hidden Creek Trail, a new staircase on the Hideout Trail, and they did a substantial upgrade to the Engineer Lake Trail where they moved roughly 50,000 pounds of gravel by using a barge loaded with 35 5-gallon buckets at a time,” he said.

Slavik said that much of the work done this summer could not have been completed without volunteer help.

“A lot of these projects might not otherwise have happened due to staff and funding limitations,” he said. “We’re already trying to do so much in such a short time.”

Besides the benefits to the refuge, Slavik said he also enjoyed working with young volunteers. It reminds him of how he first came to learn about the job that became his career, he said.

“They work, swing tools and give back to the land. They bled, sweat and grew over the summer, and walked away with a lifetime of memories,” he said. “But, this is special for me, too, because in some ways, it’s like living vicariously through them. They remind me of what it was like when I came to Alaska, how special that was, and how jaw-dropping and eye-popping it was to see the mountains and eagles and bears for the first time.”

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Winging It: Rain can’t dampen prime birding … much

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Sean Ulman. A flock of sandpipers takes wing over the Chickaloon Flats.

Aug. 4-9 — A rainy fortnight has obscured my scope this season. I’ve become accustomed to looking through fogged binocular lenses blurred by globules and glancing down at smudged figures on crumpled write-in-the-rain data sheets.

Since we have been dashing out under leaden, temporary dry skies bearing the inevitable drizzle-to-downpour conditions, birding has felt a lot more like working.

But during every work session at some point, or several, I’m reminded that it is birding first and foremost and often first-rate.

On Wednesday, Aug. 4, the all-day rain relented at 7 p.m., cracking a three-hour window of time to conduct a transect survey. In the hustle to hastily pack a bag and rush out of the cabin toward the blue sky bleeding above mountains spackled with sun, I forgot to bring bug spray.

No bug bugs me as bad as the mosquito. If I kept moving I could manage by slapping my neck and shaking my hands and head to prevent a mosquito helmet and mittens from fully forming. The problem is, a transect survey calls for the counter, or mosquito magnet or mascot, to stay at a point for five minutes. The rub is punching in the three-symboled GPS mark. My hands were tied up in that task for seven seconds. Screaming is a futile defense.

As I emerge from the harsh marsh a cold front fronted as a cooling salve. The mosquitos disappeared. Dallying, toggling through symbols on the GPS, I heard an acute breeze within the whooming upstart wind.

Glancing up I saw a northern harrier coolly gliding at my head. Reacting to my head jerk, the female marsh hawk flapped once, flashed its rufous-frosted breast and peeled off. I interpreted an aspect of curiosity, or perhaps respect, in the calm dip of its dark head.

Returning back to work from the heightened sighting, I jotted my favorite survey entry to date: NOHA, flyover, 18 meters from my head!

Four points later, a trumpeter swan trundled by, a bleach breach in the collage of dark clouds and deep shadowed spruce timber. Listening to its heavy wings at work conjured images of maids snapping crisp folds in laundry sheets and taut square flags whipping atop masts above balloon sails.

Before the white boat of a bird sailed out of sight, the rainstorm returned on full blast, as if it had stored up energy or been angered during its intermission.

Slogging back listening to the various pelting pitches (upon mud, water, grass, my coat) and watching the droplets dimple or welt muddy or puddly surfaces, I found further favorable distraction in revisiting the two uncommon bird visits — considering the harrier and swan had swung by as a reward for sticking it out with the mosquitoes or to warn about the weather, or apologize for it.

The next day at the end of a drizzly pond scan, 14 rollicking ravens rolled overhead, leapfrogging, rocketing up, corkscrewing down. Their swishing wings made more sound than the single caller clucking optional commands. We hear a raven call about five days a week, but haven’t seen more than three at a time this year. Of all the birds, ravens hold the top spot in the mystical scale, so it was easy to point to the playful corvids as a portent for the three black turnstones we watched forage on the shore a half hour later, as well as the downpour that resumed its reign simultaneously.

“When it’s raining, it’s birding,” has been a serviceable catchphrase at Chickaloon lately.

My theory is that birds migrating south have extended their stay to wait out the weather and continue their trip on a sunnier day with a favorable breeze.

The remodeled plat of interim ponds has created extra suitable habitat. On a full-fledged pond complex that didn’t exist on July 15 — at which time it was a map of mud — we’ve recently counted as many as 86 green-winged teal, 54 greater yellowlegs and 112 peeps. Watching the green-winged teal plow the pond with bills submerged, the yellowlegs bathing and preening and the least- and semi-palmated sandpipers foraging on the lush creeping alkali fringe or knoll isles, I remarked that the experience reminded me of arriving at some birding hotspot to which the public would flock. To kick myself for getting the rare birding opportunities afforded to me here every day, I imagined a boardwalk, pricey scopes and friendly folk, then erased the vision. Then a young merlin, testing its attack swoop, cleared the pond of all its feathered contents except some ducks. Alarmed yellowlegs escorted the rising puff of retreating peeps.

During the final minutes of Aug. 8, we heard a lone wolf barking gruffly at its hoarse echo. I imagined the wolf might be pleading for a halt to the rain, which, just after midnight, had thickened from a patter upon the cabin roof to a drumming.

The morning of Aug. 9, we were teased with sun that spotlighted the Kenai Mountains’ detailed relief below glowing arretes. Roaming chrome clouds soon slid in and sealed a tight lid. By the afternoon, the wind had built to a feeble howl. We kept waiting for the dark sky to explode, but a drop of rain didn’t fall all day.

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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