Daily Archives: August 18, 2010

Sweet defeat — Beekeepers’ honey dreams doused by rain

By Jenny Neyman

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Rosy Thompson robs one of her beehives Saturday, only to find a small fraction of the amount of honey her bees would usually have produced by this time in the summer. Persistent rain has kept bees from gathering nectar, which they need to produce honey.

Redoubt Reporter

This summer’s wet weather — one of the rainiest on record for Southcentral Alaska — has put a damper on many people’s favorite outdoor activities: hiking, biking, fishing, camping, gardening, etc. For most, the rain just means putting up with getting wet in order to engage in their chosen summer pursuits.

But for others, the consecutively rainy days have a much more dire effect on their activity of choice — no less than death, destruction, loss of investment and a lack of the sweet reward that can usually be reaped come fall.

“It’s just a wipeout year for bees. Anybody who’s keeping bees is going to be hurting, at least in our area,” said Brian Olson, of Alaska Berries farm off Kalifornsky Beach Road.

Bees don’t fly in the rain, explained Linda Albers, who keeps beehives with her husband, Steve Albers, on their farmstead near Kenai. Consistently rainy weather has kept bees high and dry in their hives.

“If they don’t fly, they don’t bring in any stores, so any stores that they have been able to bring in, they eat. And if they still can’t get out, they eat up their winter stores,” Albers said. “This was a year not to have them.”

The intermittent occurrences of dry skies — and the even more rare moments of sun — haven’t given bees enough time to gather adequate pollen and nectar to provide for their own sustenance, much less build up honey that can be harvested by beekeepers.

“They just use what energy and what stores they have to get to the next sunny day. This morning was sunny and fairly warm and they probably were out for a brief period, then if there’s two or three days of rain it’s kind of a moot point. What they stored is probably not enough to last them even a couple days,” Albers said Saturday.

Bees enter and exit the hive during a break in the rain Saturday. Nectar-producing flowers are almost bloomed out, so bees need to get busy if they are to generate any honey.

Now is about the last chance for bees to get busy, as dandelions have already come and gone, and fireweed, clover and other favorite nectar-producing flowers are about bloomed out, as well. If bees don’t gather now, there won’t be anything left to bring back for honey-making and winter storage, even if the weather does warm up and dry out.

“The nectar window is now, with the white clover and the fireweed. That’s all blooming right now and they’re not flying. And if they’re not flying, they’re not out getting anything,” Olson said.

The rain, plain and simple, is primarily to blame for the poor bee conditions, but cool temperatures don’t help. Bees can withstand cold, but it doesn’t particularly motivate them to fly and gather, said Rosy Thompson, who keeps two hives at her home in the Kenai area.

“The water bombs coming down take them out pretty easy, the big drops and stuff. But if it’s warm and just a little rainy they will fly some. But it’s not gotten above 70 degrees more than a handful of days this summer, so they’re not out in force,” Thompson said.

If bees don’t gather pollen and nectar, beekeepers will not only find themselves without honey to harvest, but they’ll have to start feeding it to the hive to keep the bees from starving. Sugar water or artificial bee feed can be used to sustain a hive, although Albers said that isn’t ideal.

“We do not like to supplement with sugar and artificial feed, because I figure that sugar does the same to them as it does to our immune system,” she said.

The bees’ own honey, if there’s any left over from a previous year, makes the best bee food, she said.

Rosy Thompson brushes bees from a frame of honeycomb in her backyard Saturday. The frame should be full of capped honey chambers, but the hive is not producing as much as usual this summer, due to the rain.

“The optimum thing to use is if you have honey stores left from the year before off of your own property. That would be the best to feed,” Albers said. “I just feel they work for it, they should have it. Any honey you bring in from the outside, if you just purchased honey for them, you’d be bringing in any diseases those bees may be carrying. You’re asking for disaster, basically.”

Keeping honeybees in Alaska can be challenging even under the best conditions. Hives can succumb to parasites, too much moisture can cause mold, the all-important queen can die and leave an otherwise healthy hive without a means to reproduce, and bears, moose and other wildlife can topple a hive in one swat of a paw or stomp of a hoof.

“They’re not natural to Alaska anyway. We’re keeping them in an artificial habitat no matter what, no matter how naturally or organically we try to keep them,” Albers said. “Unless you provide these little artificial homes for them they would never survive here, like goldfish or anything else.”

Overwintering beehives is a particularly daunting task in Southcentral. The cold isn’t even the main issue; it’s managing humidity, light, making sure there’s enough food, and timing when they start becoming active — not too early or they’ll die from eating up their stores or flying into snow, and not too late or they won’t lay eggs in time for spring.

“It’s hard to winter them out,” Olson said. “But if they winter out that’s great, then I don’t have to buy them, and then they’re ready to go when you’re ready to go in spring instead of waiting for buying them at a specific date and time. The earlier you get them out there, the earlier the queen starts laying eggs, the faster you can build up a population. It’s kind of like a war. You want to have as many soldiers at your disposal as possible.”

Olson has hope for a new overwintering system he’s building and hopes to try out next year. He’ll keep the bees cool and dormant until the weather starts warming in February and March. Once they get active he’ll open trapdoors to let them out of the hive to do cleansing flights over his greenhouse, which will be clear of snow.

Once bees get active in the spring they need to relieve themselves and can’t do it in the hive. But if they fly out too early and touch snow, they die. That’s what happened in his last attempt at overwintering.

“One week was all I needed and they didn’t make it. They all died. They couldn’t hold it anymore and once they start going to the bathroom in the hive they die. The whole colony died within three days,” he said. “But if there’s snow and the bees touch the snow, they’re done. They’re not going to get up and fly again. That’s the trouble in spring. It gets warmed up, they come out and start flying around and there’s snow on the ground.”

With knowledge and ingenuity, beekeeping is possible in Alaska, even on a commercial scale. And the challenge of devising ways to be successful is part of the fun, Olson said.

“I don’t think it has to be that way. I think a person can eventually get a theory or design that will work,” he said.

Honey is the ultimate treat for all the effort and frustration that can come with beekeeping, but the activity itself can be rewarding, as well.

“Why do it? That’s a good question,” said Thompson, who has been keeping bees for about 25 years. “Of course I like the honey, but they’re fascinating critters. I guess it’s kind of addicting. I got into doing it and just haven’t been able to quit.”

Years like this one certainly give reason to consider hanging up the hives, however. The Alberses used to keep at least 25 hives, but a wet, cold summer in 2008 wiped them out. Now they’re focusing more time on building their farmstead than baby-sitting bees.

“This year we only have four hives, just because of the losses we had the year before last. It was just devastating. The weather was like this and we lost all 25 hives. So we’ve been a little more cautious starting up again,” Albers said.

If there is a bright side for beekeepers to this year’s wet summer, it’s that it isn’t quite as bad as the summer two years ago. Thompson was able to rob at least a few frames of honey out of one of her hives Saturday.

“2008 so far is still the worst year ever,” Thompson said. “There was a lot of rain like there is this year, but it was colder. It didn’t get up to 50 (degrees) a lot that year. This year we haven’t gotten around 60 a lot. The bees won’t fly if it’s below 45 or 50, they fly more if it’s 50 to 60 or above. This year I’d say is fairly poor, but 2008 — that went down in history as the worst year ever.”

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Feasting on sustainable growth — Group promotes local food production for health of community’s residents, economy

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Bobbie Jackson gives a tour of Jackson Gardens on Johns Road south of Soldotna on Saturday during a Peak of the Season festival, celebrating local food production.

Redoubt Reporter

In 30 years of gardening on the central Kenai Peninsula, Bobbie Jackson has cultivated a bounty of agricultural knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. She’s used that experience to grow Jackson’s Gardens into a several-acre spread with lush lawns, vibrant flower beds, greenhouses, vegetable plots, berry patches, freezers and a root cellar swollen with enough food to nourish her large, multigenerational family, and then some, throughout the year with homegrown vegetables, herbs, berries and even peaches, pears, grapes and kiwi fruit.

She’s happy to share her knowledge, but like an overripe tomato vine, the harvester needs to pick fast in order to not miss out on a juicy tidbit:

Yellow zucchini can be grown successfully on the peninsula if it’s started early in a greenhouse, but butternut squash isn’t worth the greenhouse space required to grow it.

Don’t believe plant salesmen or printed labels that say fruit trees only grow to 6 feet tall. Alaska’s endless summer light keeps them growing to 14 feet or taller, even if they’ve been pruned at the start of the season.

Most books are overcautious with blanching instructions. Peppers, onions and chives don’t need to be blanched before being frozen, but other veggies — including peas, no matter what else you might hear to the contrary — only need to be in hot water just until the pot comes to a boil again. Then drain, put in cold water, dry and freeze. But use an older, manual-defrost freezer, since an automatic defroster will suck moisture out of the food.

And so on. A tour around the gardens with the gray-haired, springy-stepped Jackson results in a bumper crop of tips, tricks, tried-and-true techniques and wisdom, presented in the grandmotherly, “You don’t have to listen, but you will if you know what’s good for you” vibe. The sheer volume of information was probably more than most listeners could soak up in one shot, plucked from Jackson’s vast mental stores of experience, which dwarfs in capacity even her five freezers, roomy root cellar and three, 8-foot walls of cookbooks.

But the overall point of the tour Saturday, and the potluck feast which followed, took root among the participants — that local food production needs to flourish.

“You can grow a garden, freeze it and be as healthy as if you bought everything at the store,” Jackson said. “To make young children think they have to buy expensive food that they can’t afford is wrong because it bankrupts them. We have to teach them how to help themselves.”

Nectarines grow in a fruit tree greenhouse at Jackson Gardens.

Jackson and husband, Harold, hosted Saturday’s Peak of the Season Festival at Jackson’s Gardens on Johns Road south of Soldotna, put on by the Kenai Resilience organization, which formed last year to encourage a more sustainable community. Participants were encouraged to bring a locally produced dish to share, recipes to swap and to tour the gardens, listen to live music and visit with others interested in local food production.

About 60 people attended the gathering, in overcast yet dry-for-the-most-part skies. The idea for the festival came from a potluck Kenai Resilience held last winter, with the idea being to demonstrate the sometimes surprising volume and variety that can be produced locally at the height of the growing season.

“The purpose was to celebrate local foods and encourage people to be aware of and eat local foods and grow local foods and appreciate what we’re able to grow,” said Heidi Chay, a Kenai Resilience organizer. “The reasons to promote your local food system are to strengthen your local economy, create jobs, you get healthier food and you benefit the environment by not transporting your food from the other end of the country or other continents. By focusing on local food, we imagine we can get a lot more of it produced.”

Food producers come at the activity for several reasons. For some, it’s a business venture, with a wide range of definitions of business success. Jackson, for instance, said she only sells the flowers she grows to get money to pay her grandkids to help around the gardens.

Others garden for heath reasons, to know and control how their food is produced.

“I’ve always been into the natural foods,” said Molly McNally, who practices homeopathy in Soldotna. “I grew up on a farm so, for me, this is first nature. Some people say second nature, but it’s just normal to me. I feel weird when I go to the grocery store and buy groceries.”

To many, cultivation and harvesting are relaxing, rewarding experiences in self-sufficiency.

“Someone made the comment that, ‘I don’t do it because I have to do it. I don’t do it out of fear. I do it out of the joy that we can do it.’ I think that’s part of it for me, too,” said Lee Coray-Ludden, who usually is a food producer, except her goats recently ate her garden so she stopped at Alaska Berries Farm on the way to the festival in order to bring something locally grown to the potluck, even if it wasn’t from her garden. “I believe in Alaska. I believe in the fact that we can take care of ourselves.”

Coray-Ludden is a member of Kenai Resilience and works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural

Heidi Chay, with Kenai Resilience, opens dishes brought for the local foods potluck Saturday, as Ellen (older) and Juliet Ellers, of Ionia, survey the spread.

Resources Conservation Service in Kenai. She said she’s exasperated by the statistic that only 2 percent of the food Alaskans eat is produced in the state.

“We need to support our local producers and we need to eat locally. We can do it. We have tremendous potential to do it, but I don’t think we’re maximizing it as much as we could. A lot of people don’t realize how many producers there are. We don’t have to go to Safeway or Fred Meyer for all of our food. We do have other choices,” Coray-Ludden said.

For Jackson, gardening is a mixture of all of the above, plus a desire to be economically self-sufficient, both as a family and a community.

“How many of you think they’re going to ship food to Alaska if there’s a major terrorist attack, earthquake or war? Are they going to bother shipping food to 600,000 people in Alaska when there’s 30 million in New York City? You’re not going to get it, so you better take care of yourself,” Jackson said.

She produces and stores enough food each season to feed her family throughout the rest of the year without having to visit the grocery store. Some of it is economical shopping — buying bulk at frozen meat sales and stocking up and storing other foods when they’re on special. The rest is growing economically. For Jackson, fresh and healthy food isn’t enough. It has to be cost-efficient, as well.

“The whole idea is to save money. Anybody can have a greenhouse if they throw lots of money at it. People build a greenhouse and heat it and it’s $10 to heat a day to get a $1 tomato, so you need to learn how to do things cheaply,” she said.

It’s a practice she’s perfected over decades of trial and error, after experiencing the sometimes-harsh reality of the challenges inherent in gardening on the central peninsula.

“I was 27 with five babies and I needed some flowers to keep from going crazy. So we ate beans for a month to save money — my husband was a little tired of beans. I went and bought $100 worth of perennials, and everything died. I was so mad that I spent 30 years finding out what will live here,” she said.

The answer of what will grow here is sometimes surprising, especially when walking into the Jacksons’ fruit greenhouse, with peaches, plums, apricots, pears, nectarines, cherries, apples and even kiwis.

The greenhouse cost $20,000 in materials, with labor by Harold Jackson. That’s something you build “if you’re crazy, not to save money,” Jackson said, but it does actually pay off in the long run, depending on your overall lifestyle.

“A snowmachine is $10,000 or $15,000. Or a new car — we drive all junky cars. A trip can be $10,000. So it just depends on what you want to do with your money,” she said.

They started their gardening operation on a far less lavish scale, with one greenhouse attached to the back of the house. In spring when she’d start her plants, she’d set her alarm for about 3 a.m., get up and dry the family’s laundry, venting the hot air from the dryer into the greenhouse to keep the plants from freezing. She also uses low-cost heater coils, meant to unthaw frozen gutters, with layers of folded Visqueen on top to keep her plant starts requisitely toasty.

“For two weeks it’s heating that soil with the cost of a light bulb instead of $5, $10 a night with propane or whatever,” she said. “Start small with whatever you can afford.”

That’s the idea behind home gardening that Jackson and the Kenai Resilience group most wanted to take seed: If everybody does a little, we’ll all be a lot better off.

“In some cities in the United States, 80 percent of the people are on food stamps. That is unsustainable. We are bankrupting America,” Jackson said. “Each one of us has to take care of ourselves, take care of our children, take care of our extended family and then help those who cannot help themselves. But we shouldn’t help those who can help themselves. We need to train them and teach them to grow themselves.”

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Cool hunt — Archaeologists, Native youth look for ancient artifacts among receding snow

By Jenny Neyman

Photos courtesy of Michael Bernard, Kenaitze Indian Tribe. Members of an expedition to search for ancient Native hunting artifacts hike a slope in the Kenai Mountains up into the low cloud cover that added a challenge to the trip in early August.

Redoubt Reporter

Caribou season doesn’t open until the second week of August, but a group of hunters got a jump on it this year, heading up Devil’s Pass Trail on Aug. 3 to the late summer range of the Kenai Mountains caribou herd.

The area was chosen as a likely migratory route used by the herd in late summer and fall to escape the heat, predators and insects of the lower-elevation portion of their range.

Though caribou were what drew the expedition to the high mountain slopes, basins and valleys still streaked with snow and ice, meat wasn’t the ultimate goal. Rather, they were hunting for evidence of the hunters who had tracked caribou to those same locations hundreds if not a thousand or more years ago.

The expedition included biologists, historians and archaeologists, as well as a youth work crew from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, there to search for evidence of Dena’ina hunters, the Athabascan Native inhabitants of the Kenai Peninsula.

“We really don’t know a lot of the history. We’re trying to piece in who lived where, what resources they used and where they used them,” said Sherry Nelson, an archaeologist with the Chugach National Forest.

To accomplish that goal, the Forest Service is searching for and recording artifacts, footprints of houses, food

Members of the Kenaitze Yaghanen youth program, from left, Gabe Holley, Raven Williams and Robert Bearheart, take a rest from their horses on a trek. The youth helped in the search for artifacts.

cache pits and other evidence of the Native inhabitants of the area. Typically, those surveys happen in lower-land areas, in the forest at fish camp sites around rivers, where the Dena’ina spent much of their time. This was the Forest Service’s first trip into alpine areas to search for hunting artifacts in the Chugach.

Alpine exploration is a burgeoning trend in archaeology, as climate change creates new opportunities but also a sense of urgency in searching for artifacts. Receding snow and ice fields uncover new areas to be searched, exposing artifacts that have been locked in the ice and snow. But once uncovered, organic materials, such as wood arrow shafts, won’t last long before deteriorating.

For the August expedition, the Forest Service studied satellite imagery and GIS maps of the Kenai Mountains and considered biological information of caribou in picking a spot to surv

ey that Native hunters likely once used.

Three teenagers from the Yaghanen youth program and program organizer Michael Bernard went along to lend their eyes to the search, and to learn more about archaeology, caribou biology and the history of Dena’ina hunters.

“This is a brand-new one for us going up into these ice fields looking for artifacts,” Bernard said. “We’re usually down there looking for things in salmon fishing areas, now we’re moving up into larger game hunting areas. It’s interesting. There’s kind of a big push emerging now in the circumpolar north to go out and look at these ice patches and hopefully gain more information into the hunting ancient people did.”

Their quarry was lost arrows, micro blades and bolts from addle-addles, throwing devices used to launch spearlike weapons. Their search area was the perimeters of melting snow patches. Being above tree line, anything made of wood or stone not found in the alpine could be a hunting remnant.

Even with modern mapping technology, the search itself was low-tech — hike up to an ice patch and just look around the edges. The task is further complicated by the traditional practices of the Dena’ina, who subscribed to the “leave no trace” philosophy long before it became en vogue with modern-

day campers.

“With the Dena’inas, usually they would never leave any items lying around because it was disrespectful to nature. There were beliefs behind it,” Bernard said. “The way we hoped to find any of the hunting implements is maybe they got lost. When you aim for something you might miss. The idea is maybe some of these artifacts — bolts or arrows — would end up becoming lost in the ice field and as the climate changes and ice patches recede, these artifacts might be revealed.”

For the Yaghanen youth — Raven Williams, Robert Bearheart and Gabe Holley, the experience was full of firsts. It was their first extended horse-riding trip, as the Forest Service contracted with Alaska Horsemen Trail Adventures in Cooper Landing for transportation. Getting to try riding bareback was a high point all three teens mentioned.

Just being up in the mountains camping for three days seemed like an opportunity for which it was worth hiking, even if they did it in soggy sneakers and uncomfortable rubber boots.

“I thought hiking a mountain would be super fun, and it was. I always wanted to go hike up a mountain,” Bearheart said. “I’m kinda into archaeology and I thought the horseback riding and camping was going to be fun.”

The teens got to try using an addle-addle and learned about the Dena’ina hunters and their hunting practices. Mainly what they learned is an appreciation for how resourceful the hunters were.

“It must have been really tough for them,” Williams said.

“We just had three days of it, they lived out there,” Holley said.

Wet, windy weather and low cloud cover put a damper on the expedition, making it nearly impossible to conduct a thorough search as clouds obscured the high-elevation snow patches, driving the search crew back to camp empty-handed, but not without their hopes of still finding something.

“He thought he saw a stick across the other side of the ice patch,” Williams said, teasing Bernard for a false alarm.

“I did see a stick. It was just the wrong kind,” Bernard said. “I was very excited because we’d actually found a caribou migration trail that went right up into the ice patches, but the weather came in

Gabe Holley pokes along the edges of a snowpatch in the Kenai Mountains, looking for ancient hunting implements revealed by receding snow.

so we couldn’t hardly see. The weather didn’t cooperate with us so we didn’t get to look as much as we wanted. But we did what we could. We didn’t find any artifacts, but the Forest Service was very pleased and excited to go back. Hopefully the opportunity will arise again next year with that partnership and we’ll get to do some more.”

Nelson, with the Forest Service, said the youth crew did a great job and she was happy to have them along. Alpine artifact surveys are just starting in the Chugach, but Nelson said she hopes to make it a recurring effort.

“It would be really nice to get out every year and keep surveying each year as the summer melts out so we can catch the artifacts as the snow melts away. I think there’s a lot of potential up there,” she said.

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Shared history — Russian archaeologists tour historic sites on peninsula

By Joseph Robertia

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Arthur Kharinsky and Vladimur Tuckonov, two archaeologists visiting from Irkutk, Russia, listen to Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor Alan Boraas explain Dena’ina cold storage cache pits at the site of Kalifornsky Village last week during a tour of 17th- and 18th-century archaeology sites of the Kenai Peninsula.

Redoubt Reporter

In summer, many people come to the Kenai Peninsula to live in the now — taking part in fishing, wildlife watching, hiking and all the other outdoor fun the area has to offer. But last week, two Russian visitors came with an eye toward the past, touring the area to learn about what their countrymen did here more than 200 years ago.

The scene then looked much different than now. In Old Town Kenai, next to Veronica’s Coffee Shop, the view is of a lush grass field, law offices and colorful apartment complexes. The scene is tranquil today, with coffee shop customers sipping cups of coffee or tea. Not so in 1797, when a bloody battle between Russians and the Dena’ina, the Athabascan Native inhabitants of the Kenai Peninsula, was fought and the future of this area was forever changed.

Despite that the 60 or so Russians in the fort had the advantage of cannons, mortars and firearms, the Dena’ina — armed with war clubs made of stick and stone — proved to be formidable opponents. Nearly half the Russians in the fort were killed, and the next spring their company pulled out. From then on there were rarely more than a handful of Russians occupying Kenai at any given time.

“Had things gone differently, we might all be speaking Russian right now,” said Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor Alan Boraas, while telling the battle tale to the two visitors, who were hearing with keen interest the story for the first time.

“In recent years there has been a lot of interest in learning about the American side of our history,” said Vladimur Tuckonov, speaking through his translator, Stan Mishin, of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.

Tuckonov was one of two archaeologists from Russia who came to learn about the role past kinsmen living in this area played in Russian and Alaska history. For last week’s tour, led by Boraas, Kharinsky and Tuckonov were joined by members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and a handful of other state and local history professionals.

In addition to Old Town Kenai, where Redoubt St. Nicholas was built in the late 1700s, the small group visited three others sites including: Kalifornsky Village, an abandoned site, but still a sacred and spiritual place to the Dena’ina people; and two sites near the mouth of the Kasilof River, one of which is where Redoubt St. George is believed to have been located. At each site, the group learned the history of the features there, from both oral and written records.

“We do have a Russian connection,” said Clare Swan, an elder of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. Several elders of the tribe can trace a portion of their family tree to Russian ancestors. “As an elder, I believe in teaching and passing on knowledge. Touring these sites and talking with our visitors, this is a great way to share information and knowledge.”

Boraas echoed similar sentiments.

“This is a way to disseminate the history of this area to a diverse group, who will each take it to their own place and contextualize it,” he said.

Since the end of the Cold War, relations between Russia and the U.S. have warmed, increasing cooperation between archaeologists on both sides of the Bering Sea.

In 2004, the International Association of Specialists on Russian America was formed to further facilitate communication and collaboration between Siberian and U.S. scholars interested in the study of Russian America.

Tuckonov, a curator from the Talzy architectural museum in Irkutsk, which primarily focuses on the preservation of historical structures, and Arthur Kharinsky, a professor of history at the Irkutsk State Technical University, are members of this international association. Their studies brought them to the central Kenai Peninsula last week.

Their trip was made possible by utilizing leftover funds from a National Science Foundation grant obtained by Dave McMahan, with the Office of History and Archaeology in Anchorage, and Ty Dilliplane, a historical archaeologist with the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Also members of the international association, McMahan and Dilliplane are studying, in part, the ties between Irkutsk and Russian America during the 18th and 19th centuries.

“The Russian American part of our history is largely forgotten about,” Dilliplane said. “But it’s such a colorful part of our history.”

The farms and factories of the Irkutsk region produced a wide range of products that worked their way into the Alaska trade. Examples are iron hardware, glass, distilled spirits, copper goods, salt and rope, to name just a few items. During the late 18th century, Irkutsk was also heavily involved with Chinese trade items, such as cotton cloth, silk, tea, porcelain and glass beads, which were procured and also redistributed to Russian America.

In addition, many people prominent in the settlement and history of Russian America are linked to the Irkutsk region, including Grigorii Shelikhov, Aleksandr Baranov, Pavel Lebedev-Lastochkin and Ioann Veniaminov.

Boraas said that, in terms of the recent Russian visitors, their experience was likely far different than if they had stayed in Russia studying this area from afar.

“It’s one thing to read about it in a book. It’s another thing entirely to be out here, seeing it firsthand, smelling the air and hearing the ravens crying overhead. This experience is priceless to really understanding history,” Boraas said. “They (Kharinsky and Tuckonov) understand this. They understand you’ve got to be at that place.”

Kharinsky concurred.

“To properly understand history, you have to study it from the beginning to now, and study people and their culture and traditions,” he said, through his translator. “Then you can relate and understand how we’re all interconnected.”

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Science of the Seasons: Pretty eye-catching — Water lilies dress up pond surfaces

By Dr. David Wartinbee, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photos courtesy of Dr. David Wartinbee. A yellow pond lily flower rests just above the water surface. The many flies on the flower are probably pollinators. The rounded flower is usually about 2 to 3 inches across.

Over the past several weeks this summer I have had the pleasure of visiting a variety of lakes on the Kenai Peninsula. What has been obvious is the diversity of aquatic plants that inhabit different lakes.

The growth forms include rushes that extend 3 feet straight out of the water, some plants that are almost entirely submerged, and some with long slender leaves that float on the surface, pointing in the direction of the prevailing wind. One of the most common aquatic plants seems to be the showy yellow pond lily.

These beautiful plants are known by a large number of names, like spatterdock, yellow water lily, yellow pond lily, cow lily or just its generic name, Nuphar. They are easily recognized by the large, floating, heart-shaped leaves and the rounded yellow flower that just sticks up out of the water.

This plant is found all over North America and at one time it was thought that all were members of the same species, with local variants. More recently, with the advent of DNA analyses, scientists believe that there are a number of different species. Those found in our area are thought to be Nuphar lutea ssp polysepala but that is certainly still being debated and will depend on who you talk to. While they share the common name, lily, these aquatic plants are not closely related to the hundreds of species of lilies found in flower gardens.

Dark spots on the leaf of a yellow pond lily are beetle larvae that feed on the leaf surface cells.

Yellow water lilies are usually found in shallow ponds or lake waters of up to 4 feet in depth. There are several lakes in the area with a complete ring of Nuphar growing all around the entire shoreline. What we see of the plants has grown up from the bottom, where extensive rhizomes serve as an overwintering root. These inch-thick rhizomes are embedded in the bottom sediments and can be more than 15 feet long.

Leaves and flowers grow to the water surface with long, flexible and rounded stems. That stalk flexibility gives the ability to withstand heavy wave action that can occur around them. In some cases, when the water levels recede or the water is shallow, the leaves may stand up above the water. When winter arrives, the leaves and stems die back while the rhizomes and smaller roots remain.

The dark green, glossy leaves are usually floating on the water surface. These leaves use specialized cells called aerenchyma to trap gases so they float. The aerenchyma gases usually contain a fair amount of oxygen that is produced as a byproduct of photosynthesis. The leaf surface is covered with a thick, waxy cuticle that is hydrophobic and gives it the leathery feeling to the touch.

The cuticle causes water to run off the leaf easily and it doesn’t pool on top. This is an important issue since water that gets trapped on top of the leaf would become overgrown by algae and would shade the underlying photosynthetic cells.

The green fruit of the yellow pond lily shows many seeds are forming inside. These seeds are used for food by ducks and even sometimes humans.

Flower stems rise from the rhizomes in midsummer. The pretty yellow parts are actually sepals that surround the anther and stamen of the flower. They produce an attractive odor for the first day or two and that attracts pollinating insects. Once the flower is pollinated, it begins forming a green fruit that contains a number of seeds. These green fruits can remain on the surface of the water or be drawn back underwater.

Like all emerging aquatic plants, the underside of the floating leaves and the many stems become an attachment site for numerous species of alga and a variety of aquatic invertebrates. If you touch an underwater stem it will feel slippery or slimy because of the many attached organisms. Some aquatic beetle larvae feed on the leaf surface and can be seen as dark spots on the leaves. Other insects attach to the undersurface and feed on the attached algae.

Leaves emerge from the water, gain attached organisms, get eaten by a variety of insects, discolor to an ugly

Yellow pond lily leaves are shown in various states of health and disintegration. From left is a new leaf, a leaf with insect scars, a scenescening (“growing old”) leaf, and a leaf that is about to completely disintegrate.

yellow and deteriorate in a short period of time. Next time you get to see some of these pond lilies, notice that there are some leaves that are falling apart, while others are in perfect condition. Scientists have used time-lapse photography to document that turnover from a newly emerging leaf to a disintegrated yellow mass takes only a few days.

Besides being a resting site for various aquatic organisms, like insects, birds or amphibians (in more southerly areas), yellow water lilies have been a food source for many Native peoples and a number of aquatic mammals. Beavers and muskrats are known to feed on the stems and rhizomes. Since the rhizomes are only somewhat embedded in the bottom sediments, beavers frequently use these large rhizomes for winter food under the ice cover.

Many Native populations have also used the rhizomes as a starchy food source. While I have not tried it, I understand it can be somewhat bitter. That bitterness comes from the many alkaloids contained within. These rhizomes were also used for medicinal purposes. Some Native groups brewed a rhizome-root tea to treat fevers, chills and heart troubles. Fluids from the rhizomes have been used to treat skin and mouth inflammations.

The next time you visit a local lake, look for floating yellow water lilies. Remember that, aside from providing aesthetic pleasure, these plants provide attachment sites for many aquatic organisms, food for a variety of animals, large and small, and even provide medicines for some Native groups.

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.

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Funky fungus — Wet weather brings bumper crop of poisonous mushrooms

By Joseph Robertia

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. While these young fly agaric mushrooms are easily identifiable due to their red color and white spots, some young buttons of this species can be mistaken for edible puffball mushrooms. Those seeking the latter should be sure of what they’re picking, since fly agarics are toxic.

Redoubt Reporter

Over the last two months, the amount of clear skies and sunshine is better measured in hours rather than days, but there is one benefit to all the waterworks.

“There’s lots of mushrooms right now,” said naturalist Dominique Collet, of Sterling. “You can fill a basket in no time.”

Collet, author of “Willows of Southcentral Alaska,” “Insects of Southcentral Alaska” and the soon-to-be-released “Mushrooms of Alaska,” leads instructional field forays to teach fungal first-timers which mushrooms are edible, including a few that are highly palatable, and some that are not.

“It’s like grass,” Collet said. “You can eat it, but it’s not very good, and mushrooms are the same way. There are 700 to 800 species in Alaska. Some are edible and good, some are edible but not good, and some are toxic or poisonous.”

One of the most commonly seen mushroom species in Alaska is also one of the ones to avoid: Amanita muscaria, more commonly called the fly agaric.

“You want to stay away from this one,” Collet said. “It can get you very sick.”

A fly agaric at its peak color. Red, with shades of orange, is a hallmark of this species.

Luckily, though, this mushroom is also one of the easiest to identify, due to its distinctive appearance and frequent depictions in media and commerce, such as in the “Super Mario Brothers” video games; children’s books and films, such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Fantasia;” and even in lawn ornaments and stools for ceramic garden gnomes.

“There’s nothing like it,” Collet said. “It has a large, conspicuous red top with white spots. Underneath the cap it has creamy, white gills and a little gill skirt on the stalk.”

This is what the mushroom looks like at its peak, but novices can occasionally mistake fly agaric buttons for the puffball mushroom, which is similarly round and white but safe to eat.

“When they’re very small, they look like eggs,” Collet said of the young fly agaric, which at this stage is still covered in a protective tissue called the universal veil. “As it grows and tears out of the veil, the red color will develop.”

The white spots remain but change their location on the cap as it grows. Prolonged rain can fade the color of the adult mushroom and diminish the appearance of the spots. So this summer, in particular, mushroom hunters should use caution to not confuse it for any similar-appearing, edible fungus.

Mature fly agarics may fade in color and their spots become more difficult to see.

As for the mushroom’s name, Collet said that it is believed to be traced back several hundred years to when the fly agaric was used as an insecticide in Europe.

“It would be sprinkled into milk to kill flies,” he said.

In humans, the fly agaric can be equally dangerous. Poisonings have been reported in children and adults who ingested it hoping for a hallucinogenic experience.

With any mushrooms, pickers should be absolutely sure what they’re harvesting. Either consult a reliable mushroom guide or a mushroom expert to make sure it’s safe.

“There’s no quick shortcut to identifying all the edible or all the toxic mushrooms,” Collet said. “You just have to learn a lot of mushrooms, know which ones to eat, and never eat what you don’t know.”

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Winging It: Bird migration starts to reverse direction at Chickaloon Flats

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Sean Ulman. A short-billed dowitcher s surveyed on the Chickaloon Flats.

Aug. 11-Aug. 15 — Half a click to our trapping site, a yellowlegs swings around us and boomerangs back to the compound of ponds that has been packed lately with the greater (bigger tringa) species.

This sentinel sounds like a lesser. Its pitch is pinched to a higher part. Streaking by, it also appears to measure shorter — stunted beak to straight-out legs. Anticipating arriving to a pond loaded with lessers, I decide that no bird symbolizes birding at Chickaloon for me better than either yellowlegs. We soon learn that all 11 foraging miniature ostriches are greaters with olive-based bills, which means the messenger was likely a juvenile greater yellowlegs.

The fall migration is protracted. Birds move south in less urgent pulses than the race north to the breeding grounds. Yet, in all likelihood, we are past the major movement of the adult lesser yellowlegs and adult short-billed dowitchers. We haven’t seen a lesser since Aug. 8 and we went four days without a dowitcher. We’re still catching adult greaters.

Juvenile shorebirds leave the breeding grounds after adults. We’re expecting those young visitors as well as adult pectoral sandpipers any day now.

We saw a young arctic tern with a partially filled gray head patch and a charcoal juvenile mew gull on Aug. 14. This was our first tern since presumed Chickaloon parents and young left us July 28. The mew gull departure caught me off guard when I totaled up my daily count on July 16.

For five days, 30-foot-plus flood tides spilled over, morphing the marsh and mud into a temporary water world. Familiar with the comprehensive sheet flow action on Plot 1, a liquid quilt tucks in near the runway. We set out two hours shy of high tide to survey the water works on Plot 2. Our daily virtual Frogger video game routine — leaping gut ruts, hopping hummock to hummock — took on an accelerated degree of difficulty. Sloughs became blown-out aquifers. The submerged board was boobied with sinkhole traps. It was like a futuristic bonus stage. It was fun. The trick was to aim for areas flagged with seaside arrow grass stalks.

We remained relatively dry and confirmed that Plot 2 isn’t as susceptible to sheet flow. Sloughs turned spates funneled the water in. Six hours after the high tide, most of the water has swept back to sea and the large and creeping alkali grasses, which had displayed straw and rosy tints, are burnished a dusty sage.

Visiting the last of our random GPS points to classify vegetation, we found another secret Frogger level. Wading through shoulder-high bluejoint and beach rye grass, I was chopped down several times by hitting twisted-in driftwood tripwires. Game over.

On Aug. 13 at 11:37 p.m., we saw our first hooter of the fall, perched on the tallest spruce snag in the timberline across from the cabin. Aided by brightening binoculars, I watched a great horned owl lift its tail as it hooted and then set sail. Cadenced-stiff wing whips propelled the bowling ball bird toward the candled pins and blinking bulbs of Anchorage.

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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