Alaska News

Suspicious Duffel Bag at Federal Building Draws Juneau’s Bomb Squad

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-07-14 09:26

Photo: KTOO.

A suspicious duffel bag left in the post office parking lot outside Juneau’s downtown Federal Building on Monday drew out the bomb squad.

Police cordoned off the area, but the building wasn’t evacuated.

Lt. Kris Sell with the Juneau Police Department says their initial call was “that a woman who was running for some unknown reason threw down a duffel bag and left it in the parking lot.”

Sell says the woman came back about 25 minutes later and tried to reclaim the bag, but at that point police erred on the side of caution and inspected the bag as if it were a bomb. It wasn’t.

The woman isn’t in custody and hasn’t been identified, though police want to talk to her and have surveillance video.

“If the woman who jettisoned the bag and then came back for it could contact us to talk to us, that would save us a little bit of leg work in the investigation,” Sell said. “We’d sure like to have a conversation with her and know what’s going go.  Not that she’s necessarily in any trouble.”

There was nothing illegal in bag. Sell says the investigation is ongoing.

Categories: Alaska News

Shell’s Fennica Vessel Limps to Oregon For Repairs

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 19:45

A Royal Dutch Shell PLC ship carrying required blowout response equipment for Arctic offshore drilling will be sent to a West Coast shipyard for repairs.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith says the 380-foot icebreaker Fennica will transit from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, to Portland, Ore., for repairs.

Smith says the company’s 2015 drilling schedule should not be interrupted.

The hull of the Fennica was gashed July 3 by an uncharted object as it departed for the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast.

The Fennica’s primary mission for Shell is carrying a capping stack, which could be lowered onto a wellhead to stop a blowout.

Smith says Shell drill rigs can begin top-hole work and the Fennica will not be needed until August.

Categories: Alaska News

Records: Employees used leave time for charity golf tourney

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 19:00

Public records show nearly all of the employees of the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. who played in a charity golf tournament last month took personal leave time that day.

Stacy Schubert, a spokeswoman for the independent state agency, says some returned to work while others took personal leave for the day. She says one employee, who helped with the tournament and later returned to the office, was paid for the day.

Rep. Lynn Gattis used the event as an example of the need for agencies to exercise restraint in activities that go beyond their core missions as the state deals with large budget deficits.

Schubert says no state or federal money was used to put on the event, which raised about $15,000 for the Nome Boys and Girls Club.

Categories: Alaska News

Coast Guard searches for a missing cruise ship passenger near Seattle

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 18:36

The Coast Guard is searching an area in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca near Seattle for a passenger reported missing from a Holland America cruise ship.

The cruise line says the 64-year-old man was aboard the ship Statendam when it sailed from Victoria, British Columbia, Sunday night, but he didn’t check off the ship after it docked in Seattle on Monday.

Petty Officer Katelyn Shearer says Holland America reviewed surveillance video and determined the man’s location was last known off the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula. Neither the Coast Guard nor Holland America would immediately say what the video showed.

The Coast Guard says it has two cutters, two smaller boats and a helicopter searching for the man. He’s described as a U.S. citizen who had been traveling alone.

The Statendam was on a 14-day roundtrip cruise from Seattle to Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Monday, July 13, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 17:45

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at and on Twitter @aprn.

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State Says Sockeye Fire Sprung From A Burn Pile; 2 Face Charges

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Two Anchorage adults have been charged with igniting the Sockeye fire, which destroyed 55 homes near Willow in June.

Marriage Ruling Doesn’t Protect LBGT Alaskans Against Workplace Discrimination

Lakeidra Chavis, KTOO – Juneau

Alaska is one of 28 states that allow workplace discrimination against someone based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Calista Shareholders Vote to Enroll ‘Afterborns’

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Thousands of so-called afterborns will be eligible for shares of Calista Corporation after shareholders voted Saturday. The preliminary results from the annual meeting in Kasigluk dramatically reshape the ownership of the Y-K Delta’s regional Alaska Native Corporation.

Lessons for Alaska: Oregon Shellfish Hatchery Tackles Ocean Acidification

Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer

A recent NOAA study named 2040 as the date for the potential end of Alaskan shellfish hatcheries. That is, unless serious mitigation efforts are put in place to combat ocean acidification. Earlier this week, we reported on the research, done at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward. Now, we’ll take a look at what a hatchery on the Oregon coast is doing to deal with these harmful changes in ocean chemistry.

On the Nushagak, Sportfishers Struggle to Reel In the Kings

Matt Martin, KDLG – Dillingham

The Nushagak River is becoming one of Alaska’s premier destinations for king salmon sport fishermen. The king return to the Nushagak is proving stronger this year than last, and Fish and Game says they’re on track to meet the escapement goal. But sport fishing guides say the angling has been less than average.

New RX Drug Drop Gives Community a Chance to Safely Purge Meds

Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau

Starting Monday, Juneau residents will be able to walk into the police department and hand over drugs without consequence. It’s been several months since the community could safely dispose of prescription medications.



Haines Sees A Spike in Avian Rescues

Emily Files, KHNS – Haines

The American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines has seen such a dramatic increase in bird rescues that they’re asking for the public’s help. The foundation plans to form a volunteer Avian Rescue Team.

Categories: Alaska News

Sockeye Fire Charges Filed

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 17:43

Two Anchorage adults have been charged with igniting the Sockeye fire, which destroyed fifty – five homes near Willow in June.

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The point of ignition of the Sockeye fire has been traced to an unattended burn pile on Willow property owned by Anchorage resident Greg Imig, aged 59. Imig, and Amy Dewitt, age 42 have been charged for their role in starting the 7,220 acre wildfire. According to state fire information officer Tim Mowry,  Imig and DeWitt did not have a burn permit for the debris pile located on forested lands at a recreational cabin owned by Imig.

“They were burning debris without a permit, and they did leave that fire unattended, and it is a worst case scenario and that’s why it strictly says on our burn permits, and it is what we try to drive home.. never leave any fire unattended.”

According to Mowry, an investigation conducted by the state division of forestry and the state fire marshall’s office concluded that the illegal burn was left unattended on the evening of June 13. One of several of the burn piles smoldered and crept into the woods, resulting in the blaze that swept toward Willow on Sunday, June 14, causing evacuations Sunday night and Monday.

“You know, to be clear, there was no burn suspension in place. So if these folks had have had a permit, and had followed safe burn guidelines, they would have been within the law. It’s tragic all around what happened”, Mowry says.

Imig and Dewitt are to be arraigned in Palmer District Court on July 28. Charges include three counts of reckless endangerment, criminally negligent burning, failure to obtain a burn permit, burning without clearing an area, allowing the spread of fire and leaving a fire unattended. Mowry says that Amy Dewitt did make the 911 call to fire officials.

The Sockeye wildfire moved so quickly that many evacuees had little time to gather more than a few items and rescue pets. The fire was fought with help from Hot Shot crews from the lower 48, and at one point there were 500 firefighters attacking the blaze.  Mowry says that the most recent information puts the cost of fighting the blaze at over $8 million.  That cost does not include losses of the structures.

In addition to the 55 homes lost, 44 additional structures were lost in the blaze.

Categories: Alaska News

Haines Sees A Spike in Birds Needing Rescue

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 17:37

The American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines has seen such a dramatic increase in bird rescues that they’re asking for the public’s help. The foundation plans to form a volunteer Avian Rescue Team to help respond to the unusually high number of injured birds.

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Eagle Foundation staff and visiting vet Michelle Oakley examine an injured eagle. (Courtesy American Bald Eagle Foundation)

The word that Eagle Foundation staff keep using to describe the spike in bird rescues is “intense.”

“Yeah it’s been a wave of birds, just very intense,” said raptor curator Chloe Goodson.

They say, in the past, they’ve been called to one or two bird rescues throughout the entire year. So far this year, they’ve done 16 bird rescues. That includes eagles, ravens, hummingbirds, and more.

“Recently there’s just been an explosion of birds,” Goodson said. “It’s not uncommon to see one or two a week.”

“I’ve been here seven years and this is busiest we’ve ever been with injured birds,” said Eagle Foundation Director Cheryl McRoberts.

The past week alone has been a record-breaking one, McRoberts says. They’ve rescued three eagles and one raven.

“For the past few eagles it’s been a lot of trauma,” Goodson said. “Like, probably got hit by a car, probably ran into something.”

Education and Outreach Coordinator Leia Minch went on the most recent eagle rescue. The foundation got a call from police about an injured bird near Mud Bay Road.

“So we went down there, put a net over it — you get control of the head to get a towel over it,” Minch said. “There’s kind of a theory with raptors that what they can’t see they can’t fear. So you want to cover up their visual senses. And then get them in a crate and take them here to do triage. You take good notes so that the vets down in Sitka kind of have an idea of what’s going on with the bird.”

There’s no full time veterinarian in Haines, so the foundation sends injured eagles to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka. The center said on their Facebook page that June was their busiest month ever, with 20 injured bald eagles being sent in. So far in July, they’ve admitted six eagles.

The Haines Eagle Foundation staff say they don’t know what is causing the dramatic increase in injured bird calls. They say it could partly be that people are more aware that the foundation does bird rescues.

“I would lean toward that there’s more awareness going on,” Minch said. “Another thing to think about is this a really warm, dry year. So food availability might not be as good as it has been in previous years.”

Local bird watcher and counter Pam Randles thinks food scarcity could have something to do with it. She says this summer, she’s observed more desperate behavior in birds searching for food. She’s seen birds fighting over food, eagles trying to steal fish from people, and other risky behavior. It’s speculation, but Randles says that kind of risk taking could lead to more injuries.

Whatever the cause, the staff at the eagle foundation have decided they need more manpower to deal with the influx of avian injuries.

“We do need help,” Goodson said.

She says volunteers on the Avian Rescue Team will be trained in how to handle an injured bird and bring it to the foundation. Having a few more people on call to help will take some of the burden off of the foundation’s three trained raptor handlers.

The foundation has set up a cell phone that they’ll pass around to staff and volunteers. Whoever has the phone will be the on-call raptor rescuer.

“On the last eagle that we had, it was a Sunday and everybody was off [work,]” said McRoberts. “And I got the [injured bird] phone call and I was in a panic. I was running around knocking on doors trying to find help. So if we had some volunteers that would really be helpful.”

If you’re interested in volunteering with the Avian Rescue Team in Haines, you can call the foundation at 907-766-3094 or stop by in person.

Categories: Alaska News

Calista Shareholders Vote to Enroll ‘Afterborns’

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 17:36

Thousands of so-called afterborns will be eligible for shares of Calista Corporation after shareholders voted Saturday. The preliminary results from the annual meeting in Kasigluk dramatically reshape the ownership of the Y-K Delta’s regional Alaska Native Corporation.

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The prospect of enrolling the younger generation of Y-K Delta Alaska Natives has been discussed for years. Now after the historic vote, Calista communications manager Thom Leonard says it too will take time to bring on the tens of thousands of new shareholders, That’s expected to start in the first half of 2017.

Calista is the regional Native corporation for much of Western Alaska. (Image courtesy of Calista Corp.)

“This is going to be a long term process. It’s something that can’t happen overnight. Over the next 18 to 24 months, we’ll spend a lot of time developing and implementing the enrollment process.  We’re going to be talking to other regional Alaska Native Corporations who have enrolled their descendants, finding about materials they used to process their enrollment of descendants.”

The move extends the shareholder base beyond people born before a cutoff date of December 18th 1971. Prior to passage of the binding resolution, younger people could only receive shares through inheritance or gifting.

The company estimates that the number of shareholders could quickly increase from 13,000 to between 38,000 and 43,000.  With a tripling of shares, each individual shareholder would, on average, receive one-third of the value of shareholder dividends relative to the company prior to expansion.  Last year’s dividend averaged $380 dollars.

Board Chair Willie Kasayulie of Akiachak says the company will benefit from the new voices.

“Many of these younger people are highly educated and I think in that context, I welcome the enrollment of descendants because of their ability to provide input to the operation of the company.”

In addition to descendants, people who were eligible in 1971 but did not enroll can apply for shares. Enrollment will be ongoing after it starts in 2017.  That means newborn Y-K Delta Alaska Natives will be eligible upon birth for their corporate shares.

“The parents will be able to apply to become a shareholder for them at any time, there wont’ be any open periods or anything like that.”

Original shares will not go away and can be passed through gifting. The new shares however, are life estate, meaning that they only exist as long as the shareholder is alive.

The company takes on additional administrative overhead with the growth. Implementing the enrollment may cost a million dollars.  Establishing a quorum also becomes more complicated. While more than 60 percent of shareholders live in the Y-K Delta region, that figure could drop to 55 percent with the descendant enrollment.

Calista has grown from the 16th largest Alaska-owned company by revenues in 2010 to the eighth largest last year. The company is active in several industries, like aerospace, military contracting, real estate, and construction. They own subsurface rights to the Donlin Gold prospect.

Leonard says the company’s focus remains the same.

“Calista’s day-to-day operations and strategies don’t really change. Under ANCSA, ANC’s have two objections. One e is to be successful business. The other is to improve the lives of their shareholders. Calista will continue to work to be a successful company.”

Calista joins other Alaska Native corporations like the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, Doyon, and Sealaska that have issued shares to descendants. The most recent was Ahtna in 2008.

Categories: Alaska News

New RX Drug Drop gives community a chance to safely purge meds

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 17:33

Adam Nelson says people inquire once or twice a week what to do with leftover prescription drugs. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Starting Monday, Juneau residents will be able to walk into the police department and hand over prescription drugs without consequence. It’s been several months since the community could safely dispose of their medications.

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Adam Nelson is the lead pharmacist at Juneau Drug Company. A quaint, old-fashioned pharmacy in the heart of downtown. He started working here when he was 14 and became a pharmacist about five years ago.

He says his favorite thing about the job is the people.

“Talking to them, finding out about their day and helping in any way I can,” he says.

But something that can be difficult to help customers with is what to do with leftover prescription pills. He says they inquire once or twice a week, “Can I drop this off here?”

“Because they went to the dentist, they give them 20 pain pills in case they need them, they only take three,” he says. “And they need somewhere to put them and most people in Juneau don’t want to throw them in the garbage.”

Trace amounts of medication, flushed down the toilet or thrown in a landfill, can wind up in your drinking water.

“Let’s say, you go to the dump and you throw in a handful of pills in the dump. All that rain water is going to turn it into liquid and it’s going to flow out into the streams and the creeks,” he says.

The RX Drug Drop is located in the lobby of the Juneau Police Department. Prescription medication is welcome. Needles and liquids are not. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Twice a year, the DEA, along with the Juneau Police Department, would round up surplus pharmaceuticals. But that program ended last year after funding was cut.

Lt. Chris Sell from JPD says disposal options were non-existent.

“People were justifiably frustrated when they were trying to do the right thing and there wasn’t an avenue to responsibly and legally dispose of their medications,” she says.

Now with the RX Drug Drop, people can walk in and safely get rid of their meds.

The model has worked successfully in other places, such as Ketchikan. The police department there has been doing it for about 2 ½ years. Sell says people can drop off medication anonymously.

“There’s no forms to fill out it’s just like a book at the library.”

Last year, JPD confiscated 374 prescription opioid pills which can elicit the same effect on the brain as heroin. Sell says addiction can start at home and lead to harder substances.

“When we talk to addicted people, they almost always started with someone’s prescription drugs.”

With the addition of the drop box, JPD hopes it won’t come to that.

Categories: Alaska News

Yukon River chinook salmon run weaker than expected

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 17:00

“Chinook salmon, Yukon Delta NWR.” Photo: Craig Springer, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Via Flickr Creative Commons.

State wildlife officials say the chinook salmon run on the Yukon River will be even weaker than expected.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports most of the fish are upstream already in a run that likely won’t reach between 118,000 and 140,000 chinook, an already conservative estimate.

An Alaska Department of Fish and Game news release says about 112,000 chinook salmon have been counted migrating upstream so far.

Limited subsistence fishing and other restrictions have been in place to ensure enough chinook reach Canada to satisfy goals set by the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

This summer’s chum run has been average and will likely reach 1.4 million on the Yukon.

Categories: Alaska News

State Says Sockeye Fire Sprung from A Burn Pile; 2 Face Charges

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 16:23

Troopers stop traffic on the Parks Highway Monday morning as the Sockeye Fire spreads. (Photo by John Norris – Alaska Public Media)

On Monday, the State of Alaska filed charges against two Anchorage residents for starting the debris burn that turned into the 7,200-acre Sockeye Fire. The fire destroyed fifty-five homes and damaged forty-four other structures, according to the state.

In a press release issued Monday afternoon, Division of Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry says that charges were filed against 59-year-old Greg Imig and 42-year-old Amy Dewitt. Charges include three counts of reckless endangerment, negligent burning, failure to obtain a burn permit, not clearing the burn area, and, ultimately, allowing the fire to spread unattended.

The Division of Forestry and Alaska Fire Marshal’s office say that Imig and Dewitt were burning debris on the evening of June 13th near their cabin at mile 77 of the Parks Highway. The state claims that the fires were left unattended, and one continued to smolder, igniting the nearby forest the next day.

The charges facing Imig and Dewitt are all misdemeanors, four of which carry maximum penalties of $10,000 and a year in jail, each. Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry says that individuals responsible for starting a wildfire can be held accountable for two-times the cost of fighting the fire. The state’s latest estimate on the cost of suppressing the Sockeye Fire is $8 million.

Categories: Alaska News

Lessons for Alaska: Oregon Shellfish Hatchery Tackles Ocean Acidification

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 14:54

Inside the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery – Photo courtesy of

A recent NOAA study pegged 2040 as the date for the potential end of Alaskan shellfish hatcheries. That is, unless serious mitigation efforts are put in place to combat ocean acidification. Last week we reported on the research, done at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward. Now, we’ll take a look at what a hatchery on the Oregon coast is doing to deal with these harmful changes in ocean chemistry.

The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery is located in the small town of Tillamook, Oregon.

“This hatchery was started by Lee Hanson,” says Sue Cudd, who owns the hatchery now. “It was really the first shellfish hatchery that was commercial in operation. It started in 1978.”

She studied biology in school, worked for an oyster company for a while, and then came on with Lee Hanson to learn about the hatchery world. From the 1970s until 2006, there were natural ups and downs, but overall, things ran relatively smoothly.

“Then all of a sudden, in about 2006, we started seeing some pretty major problems. Then from the end of 2007 to the end of 2008, we couldn’t produce larvae anymore,” says Cudd.

For a year and a half, they tried to produce. Even when they did manage to get some larvae, they wouldn’t survive and develop. It was a financial nightmare for the business.

“We lose money really fast because the production cost is the same without having any production. So, it was tough,” says Cudd. “We got help from some customers. The oyster growers association [helped] and one of our state senators got us some community development money, so we had time to be able to try to solve this problem. Without that, I don’t know what would have happened because we just lost money so fast.”

They weren’t sure what to do, but they figured they should start with looking at the water. They hired an oceanographer consultant and got in touch with OSU’s marine lab. They brought in specialized equipment and began evaluating the water’s pH and other levels several times a day.

Wiley Evans is a researcher at the NOAA Pacific Marine Environment Lab in Seattle. He was the project lead at Alutiiq Pride in Seward, and says what Sue Cudd is describing is now seen as a defining time in this field of research. They’ve become a model for studying and coping.

“The classic is at Whiskey Creek Hatchery on the Oregon coast,” says Evans. “The first hatchery to really start making these measurements with help from Burke Hales at Oregon State University.”

Burke Hales is the namesake of the Burkolator, an instrument now used at both sites to measure partial pressure of carbon dioxide or pCO2 in the ocean.

Cudd says the equipment brought in led them to find that the levels of carbon dioxide in the water were much higher than they’d expected. Lots of measurements seemed out of whack. But why had it taken them nearly two years of lost product to figure it out?

“We didn’t know why we couldn’t produce larvae because we really never knew why we could. We didn’t know what conditions they needed, we didn’t know what their parameters were because we never needed to. They just grew,” says Cudd. “So, then when we started having problems, we had to go back and try to figure out what was wrong with the water.”

And that’s her first piece of advice for hatcheries. If you haven’t already started taking measurements, start now. The Alutiiq Pride study is doing just that, says Evans.

“So we wanted to set a baseline because, really, the shellfish aquaculture industry in Alaska is very young. So, right now, there’s one shellfish hatchery and we’re making measurements in that hatchery,” says Evans. “We wanted to set a baseline that could be something that the industry uses for moving forward in the future.”

Cudd says based on daily and seasonally fluctuating CO2 and acidity levels, Whiskey Creek has developed a system to compensate. They buffer the water in their production tanks with injections of sodium carbonate. The carbonate helps organisms like clams and mussels develop their shells, which they can’t do in unusually acidic water. Alutiiq Pride is now considering that as an option for the future.

“It’s weird to think that 10 years ago, we were running this hatchery with no treatment and now we don’t ever run with no treatment,” says Cudd.

And that’s been the direct cost of acidification to her hatchery. The carbonate is relatively cheap, but the whole operation has changed. They’ve had to integrate lots of expensive equipment into their daily work. Staff have to constantly monitor it, maintain it, make adjustments here and there.

She asks, if such an drastic change could happen over the course of a year and a half, what could happen next?

“It’s incredible. It opens your eyes. It makes you see things very differently,” says Cudd.

And researchers and hatcheries in Alaska are now looking to places like Whiskey Creek for clues on how to deal with the serious issue that is ocean acidification.

In the next part of this series, KBBI reporter Shady Grove Oliver will take a look at the future of ocean acidification from genetic studies to water currents. Read more about the study being done at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, here:

Categories: Alaska News

Despite marriage equality ruling, LGBTQ Alaskans can still be discriminated against

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 14:05

The State of Alaska has a commission whose sole purpose is to eliminate and prevent discrimination, but it can’t do anything when it comes to gender identity or sexual orientation. Alaska is one of 28 states that allows workplace discrimination against these classes.

Rachel Pettijohn says she was discriminated against by two Juneau employers. The State of Alaska has no law protecting discrimination based on sexual identity or gender orientation. (Photo by Lakeidra Chavis/KTOO)

Rachel Pettijohn believes she was discriminated against and humiliated at two tourism companies she’s worked at since moving to Juneau two years ago.

“They didn’t fire me, they just cut down my hours to where I wasn’t getting any hours,” she said.

Since she still works in the industry, Pettijohn declined to name them.

During her first job, a supervisor implied that she was a pedophile, according to Pettijohn.

Her boss was horrified after she made an innocent comment about a coworker’s toddler.

 “I said, ‘Hey, your little girl is really cute,” Pettijohn said. “’And she went, ‘You said that? I can’t believe you said that.’ She thought I was meaning it, in that way,” she said, “and it was just because I was gay. She wouldn’t think it if I was a straight person.”

But Pettijohn didn’t make a big deal about it.

“I think I was kind of embarrassed about it, to be honest,” she said.

Even if she could prove she was discriminated against because of her identity, she wasn’t protected by the law. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage across the country, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer are not consistently protected under federal law from workplace discrimination.

Former Juneau Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Democrat, tried in 2011 and 2013 to outlaw this type of discrimination. Republican Rep. Cathy Muñoz is carrying the bill this time around.

The Alaska Human Rights Commission documents discrimination complaints each year in their annual report, but doesn’t include data on gender identity or sexual orientation discrimination.

“Very few people contact us because they’re concerned about discrimination based on lesbian, gay, transgender or queer issues because they know we don’t cover those,” according to Paula Haley, the commission’s director.

“So they don’t reach out to us, because they know we don’t have the ability to help them.”

In the past few years, Haley’s only seen a handful of cases. However, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission is beginning to accept some LGBTQ claims, according to Haley.

But this area of the law is complicated.

LGBTQ employees who work for the State of Alaska do have workplace protections, according to Department of Administration Commissioner Sheldon Fisher.

“If someone claimed they were not hired or fired due to reasons other than their ability to do the job, whatever those reasons are, that’s something we would work with,” Fisher said.

Some private sector employers may have their own policies.

Drew Phoenix is director of Identity, Inc., an Anchorage-based nonprofit that provides resources for the LGBTQ community. One of the services Identity provides is workplace cultural competency training, also referred to as sensitivity training.

“There’s no legal recourse, which is the really sad part. It’s like our hands are tied, so we can’t even report things at any point,” Phoenix said.

Requests for the training have doubled in the past year. Identity has administered more than 20 since January, according to Phoenix.

Rachel Pettijohn is now at her third company, where she says her employers are welcoming and respect her sexual orientation.

Categories: Alaska News

As cleanup ends, Chichagof Island mine goes wild in Southeast

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 08:14

A wooded area of the “Boomer Lands.” It’s located on Chichagof Island. (Photo courtesy of the Forest Service)

Although Alaska’s Gold Rush never really paid off in the Sitka area, that didn’t stop people from trying. On neighboring Chichagof Island, thousands of prospectors are thought to have combed the valleys and mountain sides looking for gold in the late 1800s.

Mining took place for the next hundred years or so. The last working stake on West Chichagof shut down in the 1980s, and reverted to ownership by the City of Sitka.

Now, Sitka is getting out as well. As part of the Blue Lake Dam hydro expansion, the city is trading its old mining property back the U.S. Forest Service in exchange for land flooded by the Blue Lake reservoir.

Southeast Alaska was inundated with gold miners in the 19th century — and West Chichagof was a popular destination. Although mines never approached the size and wealth of Juneau’s Silverbow Basin or Douglas, there was enough paydirt to keep people interested.

In fact, at one time the West Chichagof mine and the community associated with it were bigger than Sitka.

“In the 1800s when people settled that area they probably came from all over the place, and you had a combination of small claims, people who were pan gold finders and speculators came up,” says Andrew Thoms, Executive Director of the Sitka Conservation Society.

Thoms says eventually companies came in and bought up smaller mining claims and began larger excavations. But in time, as the gold ran out, so did the people.

The City and Borough of Sitka acquired the property in 1971, when the original land owners stopped paying taxes on it.

A map of Chichagof.

The city subsequently leased the area to an outside company, which eventually prospected the land for minerals in the 80’s and left the property badly damaged.

“The Boomer property that we’re talking about up there is not the whole mine area,” Thoms says. ” That is an inholding that somebody had as a mining claim, and they did work up there, and did some pretty bad damage up there while they were working that,” he says.

Now, Sitka is handing over the Boomer Lands to the Forest Service, but it’s not a giveaway.

When the city raised the Blue Lake dam by 83 feet last year, the reservoir grew in size and flooded the surrounding U.S.-owned wilderness. In exchange, the Sitka-owned Boomer property on Chichagof is now being surrendered back into the Yakobi wilderness and into the hands of the United States.

Making the 48-acre plot wild again is no easy task. The parties in the land swap have worked out a cleanup plan, with the help of the Conservation Society.

“The person who owned it left a ton of trash up there, some of it was toxic, just stuff you can’t have out there in the forest,” Thoms says.

The project has been in the works for a while now. Crews had to remove old sheds, a camping trailer, a bulldozer and other wastes.

The Sitka Assembly authorized $79,600 for the Boomer cleanup, which includes the cost of the junk disposal.

After the area was cleared, it was just that — empty, damaged land with no vegetation.

An area of the Boomer Lands that lacks vegetation. (Photo courtesy of the Forest Service)

“By the time the SCS and forest crew got there, it was literally a case of trying to restore the hydrology of the site,” says Luke A’Bear, Conservation and Management Resident at SCS. “The water is just running down these roads, and not flowing where it should, stopping plants from regrowing on it,” he says.

The crew started by laying down mats of vegetation sourced from around the area on top of the bare rock surface. They put down woody debris and other organic materials to serve as a nursing ground for future plants and grass to grow. Channels were also dug in the area to reroute streams into their original channels.

“We spread a native Southeast Alaskan grass seed, because it will grow quickly and stabilize the soils,” A’Bear says. “We also transplanted little spruce seedlings and hemlock seedlings from the surrounding area,” he says.

The project is now in the hands of the Forest Service’s Alaska Lands Team. When the Boomer Lands are fully restored, they will be another area people can go to enjoy the Tongass.

“A lot of people from Sitka go up to West Chichagof,” Thoms says. “People really appreciate it because it’s wild country, you can go out and enjoy the wilderness and Alaska as it was before people were here.”

The next time locals go up to West Chichagof for a deer hunt, there won’t be any worry of running across a dilapidated mining tractor.

Categories: Alaska News

In historic vote, Calista shareholders choose to enroll afterborns

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2015-07-13 08:03

Thousands of so-called afterborns will be eligible for shares of Calista Corporation after shareholders voted Saturday. The preliminary results from the annual meeting in Kasigluk dramatically reshapes the ownership of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s regional Alaska Native Corporation.

Calista is the regional Native corporation for much of Western Alaska. (Image courtesy of Calista Corp.)

It extends the shareholder base beyond people born before a cutoff date of December 18th 1971. Prior to passage of the binding resolution, younger people could only receive shares through inheritance or gifting.

The company estimates that the number of shareholders could initially increase from 13,000 to between 38,000 and 43,000. With a tripling of shares, each individual shareholder would, on average, receive one-third of the value of shareholder dividends relative to the company prior to expansion. Last year’s dividend averaged $380 dollars.

The company takes on additional administrative overhead with the growth. Establishing a quorum also becomes more complicated. While more than 60% of shareholders live in the YK Delta region, that figure could drop to 55% with the descendant enrollment.

The corporation in a Saturday news release did not indicate the breakdown of votes for descendant enrollment. The certified tally will available in the next few days. Just fewer than 58% of the company’s shares voted this year, many through online proxy votes.

Calista says they will spend the next 18-24 months developing a plan for enrollment. The actual enrollment would begin between January and June of 2017. One-hundred Class C shares are issued to descendants of original shareholders, while Class D shares will be created for Alaska Natives who did not receive original shares in 1971 with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Board Chair Willie Kasayulie in a statement said the company has for years heard from shareholders about their interest in enrolling descendants.

“With this binding vote, Calista’s shareholder base will grow tremendously, and we directors and the administration will step up to meet the increased challenges,” said Kasayulie.

Calista joins other Alaska Native corporations like the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, Doyon, and Sealaska that have issued shares to descendants.

Categories: Alaska News

A $23M Military Exercise: A Last Hurrah for JBER’s 4-25th?

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-07-10 16:38

This week, U.S. Army Alaska troops based at JBER have been taking part in a massive training exercise stretching from Alaska to Australia. Training exercise Talisman Saber involves over 33,000 military personnel from three continents. The airborne unit playing lead in one of the several on­going exercises in the Pacific theater is slated for cutbacks that exemplify the Army’s changing global mission.

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About 500 troops from the 4-25th Airborne Brigade are participating in exercise Talisman Saber in the South Pacific. Photo: Zachariah Hughes/KSKA.

It’s hard to grasp the scale of Talisman Saber, an operation with months of planning, designed around day­long rides inside massive cargo planes shuttling troops across the globe. Major Kim Edhegard is one of about 500 airborne soldiers from the 4­25th combat brigade parachuting in to a remote training zone on the eastern edge of Australia.

“It feels like jumping off the bed of a truck with your eyes closed.”

We’re on one of seven planes taking part in just one piece the multinational exercise, which has happened every two years since 2005 to bolster relationships between the U.S. military and it’s partners in the Pacific, specifically Australia. The goal is to be able to drop an instant fighting force on the other side of the world within 24 hours.

Troops load up inside the belly of a C-17. Photo: Zachariah Hughes/KSKA.

And while it’s a drill, it feels extremely realistic watching dozens of soldiers check and re­check hundred­-pound piles of equipment in the hours before they jump off the plane.

Staff Sergant Thomas Gutierrez is a jumpmaster. It’s his job to check chutes, get jumpers prepped, and keep them as safe as circumstances allow.

“You have to be strong-­willed because, again, your confidence and your attitude reflects the confidence of the jumper. And the more direct, the louder you are, the more confidence the jumpers will have in you knowing that everything will go right.”

It’s a short ride down: jumpers exit just 1,000 feet from the ground, a distance that’s close enough to make out individual tree trunks through the open side­doors.

Today there are just five injuries—well below the 2­4 percent casualty rate that Gutierrez and others expect on this kind exercise.

A machine gunner takes his post during exercise Talisman-Saber in Australia. Photo: Zachariah Hughes/KSKA.

“This is one of the safest things you can do, if done properly. Everything is done in a repetitive motion, over and over again, to where it becomes second nature to us. But the smallest mistake could be catastrophic, like life ­threatening.”

After the first few dozen jumpers vanish out into the sun and wind, the plane makes another pass over the landing zone. Specialist Jordan Dunn is on deck, sitting under his giant rucksack with a machine ­gun fastened to his hip, and says he’s not nervous, just eager to get out of the plane after so many long hours.

“I just wanna take all this gear off. It’s probably the best feeling in the world, in the air, when you let go of everything.”

Helicopters stage during exercise Talisman Saber. Photo: Zachariah Hughes/KSKA.

Once Dunn and the last few jumpers land, they join a mock battle down below.

The long, complicated, dangerous exercise begs the question: why do any of this at all? Even on a good day there are injuries, the worst being a broken femur requiring helicopter transport. It’s also expensive, with a price ­tag of $23 million for costs like fuel, thousands of field rations, and $200 disposable parachutes for dropping over a ton of blank ammo and medical equipment into the mock landing zone. Given a shrinking military and diminishing federal budgets, why bother?

“I think a big part of it is just the capability. It’s a deterrent to our adversaries, but it’s also reassurance to our allies.”

Lieutenant Colonel Matt Hardman is in charge of the battalion taking lead on the airborne piece of Talisman Saber. We talk in the field his troops seized hours earlier, surrounded by hundreds of sleeping bags, soldiers bedded down for the night. Airborne operations have been uncommon in the decades since World War II, although there are a handful of publicly acknowledged, small-scale drops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But the capability is far from a staple in the U.S.’s contemporary arsenal. Hardman says maintaining the capacity to pull off airborne missions takes practice runs, which doubly serve to build relationships with military allies.

“Ya know, in the 21st century, everything we’re going to do is gonna be joint and is going to be multinational, that’s just the nature of where we’ve gone. All the work that goes into this exercise is exactly, kinda, what I saw in my four deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well.”

The 4-25th Airborne Brigade is one of the units slated for cutbacks as a part of a national Army drawdown. Photo: Zachariah Hughes/KSKA.

That spirit of camaraderie and cooperation is on full display by morning. In between quick bursts of rain, intermittent rainbows, and the occasional kangaroo sighting in the distance, the Australian and American troops lined up for a wing exchange ceremony, presided over by Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Crapo:

“Alright, hey men! When one nation of paratroopers jumps with another nation of paratroopers they exchange their wings. When you exit that aircraft it takes a special individual to turn and face the door and jump out of that thing. And today we share that with our Australian brethren.”

After the exercise finished and soldiers were ferried back to Amberly Airforce base an hour south towards Brisbane, troops started seeing news on their cellphones that this airborne unit stands to take one of the largest cuts of any brigade in the Army as part of a nationwide drawdown. By the time the time 4-­25th is scaled back they’ll be a third of their current size, but still have the numbers and know-­how to run the next iteration of Talisman Saber in 2017.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Friday, July 10, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-07-10 16:37

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at and on Twitter @aprn.

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A $23M Military Exercise: A Last Hurrah for JBER’s 4-25th? 

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

This week, US Army Alaska troops based at JBER have been taking part in a massive training exercise stretching from Alaska to Australia. Operation Talisman Saber involves over 33,000 military personnel from three continents.The airborne unit playing lead in one of the several on-going exercises in the Pacific theater is slated for cutbacks. The unit also exemplifies the Army’s changing global mission.

BC’s Mount Polley Mine To Re-Open After 2014 Dam Breach

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

A British Columbia mine that’s become a symbol of mineral extraction’s environmental threats will reopen next month. Provincial officials Thursday granted the Mount Polley Mine conditional approval to resume limited operations.

Metlakatla’s Tourism Industry Blossoms

Ruth Eddy, KRBD – Ketchikan

Metlakatla, the Annett Island town, has recently seen more visitors through the community’s tourism department. This year may be the first that tourism pumps some noteworthy money into the Tsimshian community.

Hoonah Vets Recount Vietnam War in New Documentary

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

A new documentary profiles the lives of Tlingit veterans from Hoonah who fought in the Vietnam War. As Lisa Phu reports, “Hunting in Wartime” premieres in the Southeast Alaska Native village Friday.

AK: Adventure-Bound Couple Moves Into $8,600 House on Wheels

Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau

A 1,200-square-foot house is considered small by today’s standards. But one Juneau couple is leaving their home for something with less than 100 square feet of livable space. They’re hitting the road, but that doesn’t come without sacrifice.

49 Voices: Michelle Spark of Princeton, New Jersey

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

This week for 49 Voices, we’re going far afield, to hear from an Alaskan living in …New Jersey! Michelle Sparck grew up in Bethel, one of a set of triplets born to Lucy Sparck, of Chevak, and the late Harold Sparck, who moved from Baltimore to Bethel in the ‘60s.

Categories: Alaska News

Hoonah Vets Recount Vietnam War in New Documentary

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-07-10 16:35

A new documentary profiles the lives of Tlingit veterans from Hoonah who fought in the Vietnam War. “Hunting in Wartime”premieres in the Southeast Alaska Native village Friday.

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(Image courtesy Samantha Farinella)

“When I grew up, I wanted to be a hunter and a fisherman and I could do both of them,” says Donald See in the film trailer.

“I don’t think any of us said that we’re going to be soldiers when we grew up,” says Fred Bennett.

“When I was in Vietnam, I told myself if I ever make it out of here, I’m going back home and I’m staying there until the day I die,” says Victor Bean.

See, Bennett and Bean are three of the men Brooklyn filmmaker Samantha Farinella interviewed for her documentary “Hunting in Wartime.”

“It’s about the human cost of war and survivability in a community. It’s also how you go through something and survive it and come out the other side. And thank goodness a lot of these guys did,” Farinella said.

For some of the vets, her interviews released decades of bottled up emotion. As Ron Paul says in the film, many didn’t talk about the war when they returned.

“Everything you went through, you hide it and you’re smiling on the outside but you’re cold inside.”

In some ways, the Hoonah soldiers had a lot in common with the Vietnamese people they were fighting.

“Almost every veteran I interviewed in the film says that they had a lot of respect for the Vietnamese people,” Farinella said. “They did feel close to them. It was a similar culture. One of the vets Fred Bennett said, ‘They come from a small fishing village like I did. They’re tight-knit with their families.’”

Farinella and Hoonah veteran George Lindoff. (Photo courtesy Samantha Farinella)

Farinella said the film explores Tlingit culture and their connection to the land. As hunters, the soldiers from Hoonah were used to taking life, but in war, it’s different.

“A good portion of the veterans I interviewed said that when they first had someone in their sights, they tried to think of them as a deer,” she said. “But as George Lindoff said, ‘I knew I was lying to myself.’”

When the men returned from war, many had terrible nightmares and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. Some struggled with drugs and alcohol. “Hunting in Wartime” explores how, with the help of family and community, many of the vets climbed out of despair.

Hoonah veteran Fred Bennett (Photo courtesy Samantha Farinella)

“My wife is tough,” says Warren Sheakley in the film. “She slammed me up against the wall, almost knocked my lights out and said, ‘You talk about it.’ And then I said, ‘OK.’”

Farinella started the film in 2010. She visited the village several times, traveled to Juneau and as far away as Hawaii to interview about 20 vets from Hoonah. With a local friend and other connections, she built relationships in Hoonah with the veterans, their families and the community.

“It took a village, everybody was helping and that felt good. Small things, like the Hoonah Senior Center opened up so I could interview people in a quiet space. I was invited to play softball. It took a while. It was building trust,” Farinella said.

Marlene Johnson was one of Farinella’s local connections. Johnson was born and raised in Hoonah, and her nephew Ronald Greenewald fought and died in Vietnam. Johnson thinks most people in Hoonah are happy about the film.

“And I think the veterans are, too, that somebody realizes they did something for their country. And for people that’ve never been thanked for it, this to them is their thank you,” Johnson said.

The film has already started a conversation. After a screening of last year, one vet’s nephew said to Farinella, “I never knew my uncle did that.”

Categories: Alaska News

Metlakatla’s Tourism Industry Blooms

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-07-10 15:00

Tourists take pictures aboard an Allen Marine tour. Photo by Ruth Eddy/KRBD.

Metlakatla, the Annett Island town of about 1,400 has recently seen more visitors through the community’s tourism department. This year may be the first that tourism pumps some noteworthy money into the Tsimshian community, in Alaska’s only Native reserve.

Boarding the tour boat from Thomas Basin in Ketchikan, cruise ship passengers are offered cushioned seats, each with a map and a pair of binoculars. The tour is called “Cultural Treasures of Annette Island” and in its second year, it is still developing. The binoculars were a suggestion implemented from a comment card taken seriously.

A lot goes into planning a niche tour: What tourists will see and do, what snacks to offer and what to call it.

“The name is very important,” Amanda Painter says. She’s the operations manager at Allen Marine Tours, which offers the trip. “You have to be very careful about the name you select. And the first one we had to tweak quite a bit, because the first one was ‘Tsimshian Island ‘ but people had trouble pronouncing Tsimshian and didn’t know what it meant anyway.”

Tourists take pictures aboard an Allen Marine tour approaching Metlakatla on July 1, 2015. Photo by Ruth Eddy/KRBD.

She says Holland America suggested the name change.

Metlakatla has seen cruising tourists before. Small-cruise-ship company Cruise West sent ships regularly.

But the numbers dropped off in 2010, when Cruise West went out of business.

Lacey Wilson, MIetlakatla Indian Community Director of Tourism outside Metlakatla longhouse on July 1, 2015. Photo by Ruth Eddy, KRBD.

Lacey Wilson is the Metlakatla Indian Community Director of Tourism. She began in 2009 and right away she got to work revamping and realigning the tour with MIC’s goals. The new tagline for the tourism department is ‘Culture. History. Authenticity.’

“Highlighting our culture but not exploiting it in any way. Cultural protection and integrity is something that we take very seriously.”

The first major stop of the tour is the Duncan cottage. The 124-year-old building served as the town’s clinic, pharmacy, library and school.

“And in addition to all the functions it served it was also his home,” Wilson says.

The first room on the left was William Duncan’s bedroom. The Christian missionary who brought the first residents to Annette Island in 1887 is a major historical, but not cultural, figure.

“Part of what Duncan did when he came here was start integrating us into a more Anglican lifestyle. He really honestly believed that was for our own good, so that we could prosper and live a better life, but that unfortunately meant a large amount of our culture at that time was lost.”

For example, Native language. In Duncan’s home, now a museum, everything is labeled in both the English and Tsimshian languages, something Wilson says she is proud of, and is the only curated collection she knows like it.

Wilson says a lot of her job is working against preconceived notions.

“There has always been a really unfortunate misconception, especially in Ketchikan, that you can’t come here unless you have an invitation.”

Which she says is not true and she hopes the growing tourism industry can show that the people of Metlakatla are hospitable and willing to share their lives.

Tsimshian dancers in the Metlakatla longhouse on July 1, 2015. Photo by Ruth Eddy/KRBD.

The tour offers a genuine slice of life, and at times enters working environments. The largest collection of local Native art on the island including cedar weaving and wooden fish is on display at the Annette Island Service Unit, a health clinic.

“It’s not a hospital because we don’t bed anybody down or do overnight care, but everyday general health care is what we provide here. It’s like if you were going to take a tour of Ketchikan General Hospital. You have to kind of stay out of the way as much as you can.”

A group of 12 older white people with khaki nylon fishing hats traveling by motor coach definitely stick out, but for the most part are welcomed.

One of those tourists, Tim Scobie from North Carolina says the tour was enjoyable and educational.

“I thought they were maybe Aborigines, but they weren’t. They came from British Columbia, which I didn’t know. The highlight of the trip for most is the dance performance.

Many of the dancers step away from day jobs for an hour to dance and sing for visitors. The dance groups are paid and can earn between $10,000 to $15,000 in a year. The money helps support travel.

The dancers aren’t the only residents benefiting financially from tourism in Metlakatla.

“While we are not a non-profit, all of the money we make from this directly supports our community and community members.”

The profits feed into a general fund, which is redistributed to programs, such as social services and preschools. Fishing has long been the biggest industry, but the community has been trying to diversify\ its economy, including building a gaming hall in 2001.

Wilson hopes that tourism can be a real player in the financial support of her community. This year may be the first in a long time where tourism brings in solid profit. She says besides money, tourism offers opportunity.

“Like Raquel here she is only 16 years old, but working with our program and part of her training she is going to be gaining some real-life skills that can be very valuable to her in the future. Like public speaking, working with members of the community, working with guests.”

Wilson got her start the same way. Leading tours right out of high school, and while she says she accidently fell into the career, it’s one that suits her. She wants to support her community, and she believes a growing tourism industry can do that.

Categories: Alaska News

AK: Adventure-bound Juneau couple moves into $8,600 tiny house on wheels

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-07-10 14:03

A 1,200-square-foot house is considered small by today’s standards. But one Juneau couple is leaving their home for something with less than 100 square feet of livable space. They’re hitting the road, but that doesn’t come without sacrifice.

Curtiss O’Rorke Stedman and Kelly Tousley’s new tiny home. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins)

On the curb in front of a brown house sits a bookshelf, a suitcase and empty picture frames. Passersby might think the tenants are moving out or spring cleaning.

“We don’t really have enough time to do a true yard sale so this is our, like, piecemeal please-everybody-come-take-our-stuff-so-we-can-move-into-98-square-feet,” Kelly Tousley says with a laugh.

There’s also a sign: “Knock on the door for more items for sale in the house.”

Kelly and her boyfriend are getting rid of nearly everything they own to fit into a tiny house on wheels parked outside their rental. From the outside, it looks like a glossy white travel trailer.

“I mean, picture opening up the back of a U-Haul and that’s what we started with,” she says.

But the inside is more like a home with vinyl hardwood floors and lime green walls. They’ll pull the trailer with a truck for a yearlong trip through the Alaska road system and down to the Lower 48.

A curtain separates the small bathroom from the kitchen. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

For such a small space, it’s remarkably plush. A bench folds out into a queen-sized bed.

“We had the conversation of, if we’re living in this and this is our house, we don’t want to be sitting on milk crates with cushions on top of them and feeling like we’re going to get slivers in our fingers when we touch the walls,” she says.

Electricity runs off solar panels. There’s a small bathroom separated by a curtain and a kitchenette but no running water.

It’s their version of the tiny house movement, downsizing and taking a do-it-yourself approach to home ownership. Many tiny houses are palaces compared to their trailer. But the couple needed something smaller and road worthy. It only cost $8,600.

“The coolest thing that I built to date was a birdhouse in sixth grade,” says Kelly’s boyfriend, Curtiss O’Rorke Stedman. “And to look at a box and say we can turn this into a house, that was daunting. And that fact that it actually worked so far is great.”

Curtiss is a high school English teacher and musician. Last summer, he toured the interior for his solo music project, Cousin Curtiss.

“So when I got back, I said, ‘You know, this is it. I’m hitting the road. I want to do this full time,’ and Kelly was 110 percent behind me all the way,” he says.

Curtiss O’Rorke Stedman and Kelly Tousley’s “living room” bench doubles as a bed. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Kelly remembers it differently. She thought he was talking about taking a vacation.

“Whereas, I think when the conversation happened, Curtiss more so took it as I’m hitting the road with him full time,” she says. “And I think it took a couple of months of that conversation to happen. Is it realistic for both of us to hit the road, for both of us to quit our jobs?”

Together, they decided it was. Kelly would quit her job working with autistic kids. They would sell everything and go on tour indefinitely. Traveling from Tok to Chicken, then down south through Montana and Michigan.

Friends and family had mixed reactions. But no one said it was a terrible idea, don’t do it.

Window installation wasn’t easy in the 98-square-foot trailer. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

“I don’t think anybody said that,” he says. “I think a few people may have said, ‘Why would you do that?’ They didn’t understand it.”

One of those people was Kelly’s grandfather, a professional builder. Kelly recounts telling him about their first big project.

“‘Grandpa, we’re going to cut in windows. We’re going to install our own windows.’ And he said, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t install windows in a trailer. That doesn’t make any sense.’ And I sent a picture of us installing the first window and he said, ‘Huh, they did it!’”

They completed the tiny house in eight months. Then came the time to purge all their stuff. For Curtiss, the most difficult thing to give away was his plants, grown from his great-great-grandmother’s clippings.

Kelly says it was her clothes.

“You know, I’ll look at a shirt and be like, ‘I love that sweatshirt! I wore that every home track meet in high school.’ But the reality is I have those memories of track and I don’t need that sweatshirt to hold onto,” she says.

Kelly is giving the tiny lifestyle a year. After that, she says she’ll reassess.

Curtiss wrote the song “Here and Now” about missing Kelly on tour. But now he won’t have to. The couple is setting off for miles of open road, pulling behind them what they’ll call home.

“I think it’s a blessing to be able to ditch everything you own and be able to take off in true nomad style like human’s used to be and go hunter-gatherer across the country looking for adventure,” he says.

To see where Kelly and Curtiss are on their journey, visit

Categories: Alaska News