A number of businesses in Anchorage donated food to St. Lawrence island in time for the Christmas holiday.
Big Money Expected In Oil Tax Battle
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
Two years ago, oil companies spent over a million dollars to defeat an initiative that would have revived Alaska’s coastal management program. They’re on track to spend even more this election cycle to protect the new tax system they lobbied for. Contributions to a group committed to that goal are already rolling in.
GCI Buys 3 Southeast TV Stations, With Big Ambitions
Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka
Earlier this year, the telecom giant GCI moved into a new line of business, buying three television stations in Sitka, Juneau and Anchorage. It turns out those purchases were just the beginning. This month, GCI announced plans to buy three more TV stations in Southeast Alaska. If approved, the deal could mark a new era in Alaska media.
Bridge Could Be Viable Replacement For Flood-Prone Chester Creek Culvert
Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage
Residents who live along Chester Creek near Valley of the Moon Park in Anchorage have been requesting a fix for a flooding culvert for years. This week at the Anchorage Assembly meeting city officials said they’re working to replace the culvert with a bridge. But residents worry it won’t come quick enough.
Savoonga Get Extra Bowhead Strike To Supplement Food Stores
Anna Rose MacArthur, KNOM – Nome
The St. Lawrence Island community of Savoonga has received an additional bowhead strike from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. The allotment permits the community to go after one more whale this season. The community harvested two bowheads already this month. But with its current economic disaster and lack of walrus meat, Savoonga hopes another whale will bolster food stores this winter.
St. Lawrence Island Receives Big Food Donation
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
A number of businesses in Anchorage donated food to St. Lawrence island in time for the Christmas holiday.
Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska
Five rural Alaska schools squared off this month in a virtual engineering competition run by Lego and GCI. It was a big learning experience for everyone – but especially, for the squad from Unalaska. They were competing for the first time and brought some unique strengths to the table.
300 Villages: Chevak
Now it’s time for 300 villages. This week, we’re heading to the community of Chevak in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. James Tall lives in Chevak.
This week, we’re heading to the community of Chevak in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. James Tall lives in Chevak.
This month, five rural Alaska schools squared off in a virtual engineering competition run by Lego and GCI.
It was a big learning experience for everyone – but especially, for the squad from Unalaska.
They were competing for the first time, and they brought some unique strengths to the table.
At 8:30 on a Saturday morning, most teenage boys are still asleep. Even if they’re not, they probably aren’t playing with Legos.
But here in Unalaska, five junior high boys are gathered in the public library. They’ve got a motorized truck they built out of Legos, and a giant game board.
“Well, the theme is Nature’s Fury,” Brian Conwell, the captain of the Unalaska Raiders robotics team, said. “So all this, relates to natural disasters and stuff.”
They’re part of a national Lego league that’s meant to get kids interested in engineering.
Unalaska and other schools are going to compete today to see who designed the best robot. They’ve all got the same course to test them out on. It looks like a town hit by a big disaster.
The Unalaska Raiders practice driving their robot on it. They try to pick up two Lego pets and take them to the safe house where their owner is waiting.
“OH! Awwww. The person’s not in though,” they say, with the whirring of the robot’s engine in the background.
The truck shoves the pets into the house, but pushes so hard the human owner pops out – not good.
Johnny Khongsuk and Kennan Jordan go over to their computer to see if they can work out the kinks in the program.
Getting the robot to do the basics was harder than they thought, Kennan says.
KJ: “With ours, uh, forward is backward and backward is forward.”
LR: “How did that happen?”
KJ: “Uh, I think we reversed the motors by accident.”
Solving problems is a big part of Lego league – especially for teams in rural Alaska.
Big Lake, Holy Cross, McGrath, Valdez and Unalaska are all too far-flung to travel to a Lego meet. So GCI is hosting a videoconference for them today. And GCI employees are serving as judges.
They interview each team, to start, and they ask some pretty tough questions about establishing goals.
Judge: “I’m curious if you can tell me, did you have fun doing this?”
UR: “So much, a lot of it.”
Judge: “Did you look forward to doing it?”
Judge “You would definitely do it again?”
Judge: “It looks like you guys did have fun doing it.”
That actually counts for a lot. Part of the challenge here is to manage a project, and still be creative.
The Unalaska Raiders think they’ve got that part covered. They have to present a research project on natural disasters – their topic was tsunamis. But to get the message across, they picked a nontraditional medium.
Jonathan Le jumps into a rap about emergency alert systems.
JL: “Waves are crashing by the shore, I can’t handle this no more. There’s this thing on its way. Better run, or else you’ll pay. That thing is a tsunami and I can’t find my mommy. Gotta send this text real fast, so this town will forever last.”
After the presentations are wrapped up, it’s finally time for the competition – Unalaska and Valdez are up first. A volunteer referee appears on-screen in a headset and striped jersey.
Referee: “Alright! Then we are ready to go in five, four, three, two, one – LEGO!”
JK: “Uh! Do it again!”
The Raiders try over and over to knock down a stack of blue pins that are supposed to be a tsunami. But the pins don’t budge. Soon enough – time is up and the referee counts up their points.
“Unfortunately, you guys had a score of zero this match,” the referee said.
The team is disappointed.
But when the next match starts, they focus on tasks they know the robot can accomplish. And after each race, their score inches up. At the end of the day, Unalaska doesn’t have the most points. That honor goes to Valdez.
But it wasn’t just about high scores. The judges recognize teams that were strong in the fundamentals, like teamwork.
“Also in problem solving and fixing problems, and that goes to Unalaska,” the judge said.
The Raiders are pretty proud, but they know they’ve got more work ahead to do – new programs to write, and bugs to fix.
But it can wait. After driving robots for four hours, it’s time to put aside childish things, and take a nap.
It’s getting so you can’t turn on a television set without seeing or hearing something about Alaska. And a lot of Alaska is getting into the movie theaters as well. Is any of it true?
HOST: Steve Heimel, Alaska Public Radio Network
- Duke Russell, artist, set builder, scene painter, “Into the Wild” and “Big Miracle”
- Ron Holmstrom, Alaska rep for Screen Actors Guild, who played Robert Hansen’s lawyer in “The Frozen Ground”
- Callers Statewide
- Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
- Send e-mail to talk [at] alaskapublic [dot] org (comments may be read on air)
- Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast
LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, December 17, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.
A Stebbins man travelling to Kotlik is safe after his snowmachine broke through the ice.
State troopers on Tuesday night received a report that 27-year-old Albert Bogeyaktuk Junior had not made it into Kotlik.
Searchers went out from both Kotlik and Stebbins but did not find him.
A family member later began searching and was able to find Bogeyaktuk. His snowmachine had broken through at the Nunavulnuk river. He returned to Stebbins with the family member and no injuries were reported.
And later this week on the same route, volunteer searchers found a 25-year-old man and his 14-year old sister stopped in a ground storm.
Their mother reported the two were overdue coming to Kotlik and contacted the Village Police officer in Stebbins.
Search parties went out and a crew out of Kotlik found the two at around 11:00 p.m. in good condition. They traveled to Kotlik with the search party.
A Hooper Bay woman has been indicted by a grand jury on a felony drug charge.
Twenty-two-year-old Louise L Bunyan was arrested following a trooper investigation. According to an affidavit, Bunyan was attempting to fly from Bethel to Hooper Bay last Friday in possession of marijuana.
An airline employee noticed a bag smelling like marijuana. The employee opened it and found a large amount of what they thought was marijuana intended for sale. They also found a bottle of liquor.
A trooper from the Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team inspected the bag and found 480 individually wrapped baggies of marijuana. There were also three quart sized bags and a bottle of R&R whiskey. Troopers measured 15.5 ounces of marijuana total and conducted a field test to confirm the presence of THC. They say that much marijuana has a street value of $26,000 dollars.
In an interview, Bunyan told the trooper she had about two ounces of marijuana and some liquor.
Bunyan was indicted on a charge of 4th degree misconduct involving a controlled substance, that’s a class C felony. She was originally charged with another 4th degree controlled substance felony and a misdemeanor
Governor Sean Parnell’s recent budget proposal does not include any Southeast Alaska hydroprojects. But he says he still believes hydro is the solution to the region’s high energy costs.
At Thursday’s Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Parnell was asked what his administration was doing to bring low-cost energy to the region. He pointed to past support for hydroprojects and said Southeast is blessed to have them. But with less oil money, Parnell said he was forced to give other projects a higher priority.
“Because revenues are down, we’re going to look at those projects that we’ve already got underway and try to feed them to the next phase towards conclusion before we start new projects,” he said. “That’s the nature of where we are today. But I have left room in this budget for legislators to bring forward their districts priorities.”
Parnell urged the audience to bring specific projects to their legislators and have them work with his office to include them in the capital budget.
The governor met with community leaders in Sitka in October, who asked for $18.5 million to complete the Blue Lake Hydro expansion project. He also told reporters that he met with Sitka Senator Bert Stedman about such projects.
Parnell’s $1.7 billion capital budget proposal is about a third smaller than the spending plan approved by lawmakers during this year’s legislative session.
APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez contributed to this report.
On Tuesday, Alaska State Troopers received a call just after 2:00 pm about a vehicle in the ditch at Mile 201 of the Parks Highway.
Troopers discovered that the vehicle had been stolen in Anchorage. The driver, Samuel Wade of Wasilla, was given a ride by a passing motorist.
When Troopers stopped the motorist, Wade ran. Troopers pursued Wade for more than an hour through the woods near Cantwell at 20-below-zero.
After more than two miles, a canine unit caught up with Wade, who was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.
Wade had an outstanding warrant for escape, and was charged with vehicle theft, resisting arrest, trespassing, and disorderly conduct.
He was treated by Cantwell EMS before being taken to the Fairbanks Correctional Center, where he was held without bail.
The lengthy Battle of the Tennis Courts is over. A government scientist finds a dead polar bear – and sets off a controversy lasting years. Fish wars on the Kenai Peninsula continue. Three-time sex offenders are sentenced to 99 years. The election season is coming – as is unregulated political advertising. Mayor Dan Sullivan of Anchorage goes to Washington for municipal business – and a fundraiser. Santa’s reindeer are a special species, ADFG tells us. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma says several Alaska big-ticket projects are a waste of money. A crime story – suspicious icicles.
HOST: Michael Carey
KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, December 20 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, December 21 at 6:00 p.m.
Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, December 20 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, December 21 at 4:30 PM.
GCI president and CEO Ron Duncan faced reporters at the company’s training center Thursday morning to announce its “Fiber reD” [ fiber red] plan.
“We’re always focused on what to build next, and today, that’s one gigabit service for Anchorage consumers. Well, for the geeks in the room, it’s a thousand megabits of download speed. “
In expanding GCI’s fiber footprint, as Duncan calls it, the company will provide one thousand megabits -per-second Internet service. He says that’s one hundred times faster than the current national average, and about 20 times faster than was GCI’s top speed only yesterday. Why is faster better?
“You save a lot of time, for starters. You get your HD movie downloaded in 18 seconds in stead of 30 minutes. Doesn’t even leave you time to make the popcorn. You can download a console game in 33 seconds, rather than 55 minutes. “
Fast movie and games download speeds are no doubt attractive to consumers, but the eventual uses of ultrahigh speed service could bring benefits to home health care and education services, as well as to small businesses, he said.
Duncan stood in front of a panel covered with GCI’s familiar red logo as flashbulbs popped. And he then played a video pitch for customers of GCI’s current re:d [red] premiere internet plan
Those residential and commercial customers already on GCI’s “re:D” plan got their internet service speed doubled Thursday to 100 megabits at no higher cost to themselves, while those with plans that offer slower speeds are under no obligation to sign up for the higher speed service.
Duncan said the one gigabit service will be confined to Anchorage initially, but in three or four years, it could expand to the state’s other cities. He says it is not foreseeable at this time to provide one gigabit service to rural communities.
Duncan refers to the new plan as a “product”.. GCI will push fiber capability closer to residential customers, connecting it at the point where the fiber terminates and joins a coax cable, called a node
” And the bandwith you need in a node depends on how many homes are connected back to the fiber serving that node and how much demand each of those homes is providing. So the way that we will provide this service is by driving the size of the nodes down.. the number of homes per node.. by pushing fiber out closer to individual homes. “
Demand for the high speed service will be consumer driven, Duncan says.
“How people respond probably has an awful lot to do with how fast it goes to other communities. If there is an overwhelming response, its a very popular product, people find lots of uses for it, then we are highly motivated to get quickly into the other road system communities. “
He says the fiber plan will be paid for with private funds at an estimated cost of the one hundred million dollars it will take over the next few years to deploy it throughout Anchorage.
Duncan says the one gigabit plan fits with the FCC’s vision that a vigorous Internet backbone stimulates commerce by enabling new technologies. In 1999, GCI did not realize that fifty percent of the bits flowing through its network would eventually be used to stream movies. Now instant, on demand use has driven the expansion of high speed service.
Right now, only about a dozen cities in the US have residential one gig internet service.
In Washington D.C., the buzz around the Capitol is that the White House is going to nominate Montana Senator Max Baucus to be ambassador to China. His departure with a year left on his term would trigger a domino effect in the Senate, advancing a few Democrats to key positions, and that could have big implications for Alaska.
Republican Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s annual “Wastebook” released Tuesday purports to document cases of wasteful federal spending.
Republican Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s annual “Wastebook” released Tuesday purports to document cases of wasteful federal spending.
No. 59 in the 100-item list is a $450,000 federal grant awarded to Juneau’s Alaskan Brewing Company. The Wastebook says the grant gives the already successful company “a big profit boost courtesy of the federal government.”
The money covered a quarter of the cost of the brewing company’s first-of-its-kind boiler that generates heat from the spent grains used to make beer.
Andy Kline is the spokesman for Alaskan Brewing.
“So that was a significant risk to be the first, you know, brewery in the world to try this system, and the USDA’s grant helped us mitigate a portion of that risk.”
They’re taking the listing in stride.
“I think it gives us an opportunity to talk about a project that we’re incredibly proud of,” Kline said with a chuckle. “You know, I think this guy has his opinion, but, in fact, it’s barely negative.”
Kline says the environment and federal government also benefit.
“Part of the point of what the senator said is that we’re a successful brand and we’re enjoyed in 15 states. We’re happy with that success, and that success lets us pay about $2 million annually in federal excise taxes. So on a dollar figure alone, the federal government’s getting a pretty good return on that investment.”
Kline says no one from the senator’s office has contacted the company about the listing.
(Full disclosure: Alaskan Brewing sponsors many public radio events in Juneau and Kline often volunteers his time.)
Earlier this month, the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Department of Military and Veterans Affairs put out a “request for proposals”—or RFP—for contracts to set up an emergency food system. The plan is to stockpile food for 40,000 people at two separate locations in the state.
Tanana Chiefs Conference President Jerry Isaac and the head of the Health and Social Services Commissioner signed an agreement yesterday that will give TCC the lead role in managing foster care for tribal children.
According to the state’s Department of Revenue, Cook Inlet production increased by 13 percent last year.
Up-and-coming companies, like Hilcorp, spent $300 million this year on their investments, including drilling 10 new wells and working over more than 70 old ones.
So does the Cook Inlet Renaissance mean that Southcentral’s energy woes are over?
It depends who you ask.
Sitting in his warm office on a chilly Anchorage morning, John Simms looks at a brightly colored chart. He’s the director of business development at Enstar, the company that provides natural gas to heat the Anchorage area. The chart shows which petroleum companies have agreed to provide gas from Cook Inlet through the beginning of 2018.
“And then here you can see the large black section which represents we have demand out there and we don’t have a contract yet to meet that demand,” Simms said. “So that’s undesignated, so we’re looking to fill that void there in 2018.”
Simms says it used to be different. Large oil companies would contract to provide as much gas as Enstar needed for 20 years or more. Now, he says they’re in constant communication about the supplies. At this point, they have the next four years secured.
“Yeah, it’s four years,” Simms said. “But still when you start looking at Enstar’s options outside of Cook Inlet, it’s basically right on the verge of our comfort level.”
That’s because right now, the only other option is to import liquid natural gas. Setting that up takes between three to five years.
Simms says what they need is new development in Cook Inlet, and HilCorp, the company that took over Chevron and Marathon’s old plays, says they are working on it.
Greg Lalicker is the President of HilCorp. Speaking at the Resource Development Council meeting in Anchorage in November, he said they’re moving ahead with developing the inlet’s middle-aged fields. He said they would review the gas situation every year to see if they can meet the region’s demands.
“We don’t think we’re going to run out of gas anytime soon,” Lalicker said. “How long the party can last, I don’t know.”
“Depends on how successful we are. As long as we keep spending money and finding … reserves, we’re gonna keep trying to get it sold and move on down the line.”
Most of their expanding production actually involves reworking old wells rather than doing new exploration.
Other small companies, like Bucaneer and Furie, are also developing new areas.
Pete Stokes with Petrotechnical Resources of Alaska has completed several studies on Cook Inlet production. He says the Renaissance is completely dependent on small companies like these who are partially motivated by the state’s incentive package. Cook Inlet is insubstantial for the larger companies but a significant investment for new independents.
Stokes says exploration is happening now, but before anything big happens, companies need to secure a market.
“Well typically, if a company were to discover say, gas in Cook Inlet, they would need to go and get investors to finance the development and investors would want to know where they are going to sell their gas,” Stokes said. “And we’re a fairly small gas market in Cook Inlet.”
Without a larger market to sell to, there’s no incentive to invest. That means no secure supply for Southcentral. But a solution may be on the horizon. ConocoPhillips filed an application this month with the Department of Energy to re-open the LNG export plant in Nikiski.
Not everyone thinks that’s the best solution though, especially when the resource is needed locally. Bob Shavleson is with Cook Inletkeeper. He thinks the state needs a better energy plan so supplies are more consistent and the state doesn’t lose money.
“And so now there are calls to reopen the LNG plant and to export this highly subsidized gas to Tokyo where we’d sell it probably for a lower price than we’re paying for it here,” Shavleson said. “So it really makes no sense, so it would behoove everyone in the state to have a sensible energy plan.”
Shavelson says that plan needs to include renewable energy as well.
Chugach Electric spokesperson Phil Steyer agrees. He says they primarily rely on natural gas and they are confident they can continue to depend on that resource for many years. But they would also like to diversify.
“We’re 10 percent hydro and 2 percent wind,” Steyer said. “And we have an interest in our board room towards having more renewables in our portfolio.”
Back at Enstar, a natural gas supply company, a move towards renewables won’t help anything. Simms says he’s optimistic about the development he’s seen lately in the Inlet, but, “activity doesn’t really mean much to Enstar unless they’re willing to ink it on the contract.”
The president of HilCorp said his company is planning to start talks again in April.
Video by Unalaska Community Broadcasting’s Pipa Escalante.
Alaska Ship Supply had an unwelcome customer for about three hours Wednesday night — a bald eagle, which flew in a loading door around 6 p.m. and refused to leave.
The juvenile bird flapped around the store for about three hours before state troopers and employees were able to get it out.
Toopers and local public safety officers tried to scare the eagle down with noise. They clapped their hands and fired loud bursts of air at the eagle with a small air cannon.
But the bird didn’t seem to care.
It knocked cans of spray paint off shelves, unhooked some aisle signs and startled employees and customers. The store was open for business at the time, so they were all grouped by the front entrance.
The eagle wreaked the most havoc in Ship Supply’s liquor section. At one point, it fell from the rafters and smashed up some shelves of wine, as this employee found after the bird had flown away again:
Employee: “Here! Oh … the expensive one.”
State trooper Tom Lowy says the bird did about $400 in damage in total.
By hour three of the eagle’s shopping trip, Lowy was wondering if it might not want to leave the brightly lit store for the nighttime darkness outside. So Lowy hatched a plan.
Lowy: “We darkened as much of the store as we could, and then we left an area like a runway of lights. So the theory was that the birds don’t like the darkness, so he’d stay with the lights, and the light was going toward this back door by the auto parts.”
The one lit-up aisle was enough to guide the bird near the door.
Then, automotive employee Alex Mendigorin was able to capture it.
Mendigorin: “I’m here — and then the bird, it’s on the pipe, and then it just drops here. And I grab the net — then I grab it. [laughing] That one is hard! It’s too big!”
With the eagle in the net, the troopers were able to get it outside, where it flew away.
Trooper Lowy says this is the first time they’ve dealt with an eagle in a department store in Unalaska. But the birds have flown in warehouse doors at the post office before.
He says stores should try to keep large loading doors shut when they’re not using them — or risk inviting unwelcome feathered shoppers.
Two Sitka hunters sustained serious injuries Tuesday evening, after their boat struck a cliff in Kakul Narrows, about 25 miles north of town. Both men have been hospitalized, one in Seattle.
37-year old Mitch McGraw and 34-year old Nick Galanin were returning from a hunting trip in Peril Strait at dusk when their aluminum boat ran aground while traveling at high speed.
The ground was not a beach, however. It was a sheer cliff face.
Speaking from his hospital bed Wednesday afternoon, Galanin told KCAW that he had dozed off in the passenger seat after a long day of hunting. He awoke just moments before the crash and dove toward the back of the 31-foot Almar.
Both men were knocked unconscious. When Galanin came to, he summoned help and began to steer the boat south toward Sitka. McGraw also revived, and was able to assist.
A Coast Guard helicopter was already airborne at the time of the accident, and was quickly on scene.
Sitka Mountain Rescue also responded in the harbor skiff. Rescue captain Don Kluting says the Almar’s power and steering were still operable, despite the crash.
“The damage to the boat was all in the bow — the impact area was the bow. There was glass everywhere in the cabin. It was kind of a mess on board the boat.”
Kluting says McGraw had already been packaged in a litter and hoisted into the helicopter. Galanin was also taken on board.
“We went ahead and stood by while the Coast Guard helicopter went in and conducted hoist operations, and then went in and picked up their rescue swimmer on the beach. They went ahead and landed.”
McGraw and Galanin’s boat was in Neva Strait by this time. A good Samaritan vessel operated by Jerry Matthews and Noah Mayo had assisted in getting the distressed Almar to the beach, between Whitestone Cove and High Water Island.
Both McGraw and Galanin were flown by the Coast Guard back to Sitka. Galanin was hospitalized for a broken rib, four spinal fractures, and cut on his head; he says McGraw was injured by colliding with the Almar’s steering column. McGraw was subsequently medevacked to Seattle for further care.
All that remained was to salvage the damaged boat. Good Samaritans Matthews and Mayo brought the Almar alongside their craft, but it became clear that it was taking on water.
Kluting says they made an unusual decision.
“Together we determined that the best course of action was going to be to actually drive the 31-foot boat back. The engine was still running, the prop was undamaged. To get the bow — the area that had been significantly damaged — out of the water.”
Rescuers were met by family members of the victims at the Starrigavan ramp at about 6 PM, and the damaged Almar was hauled out on a trailer. Troopers estimate the damage to McGraw’s vessel at $30,000.
An industry representative says Southeast geoduck clam divers have not been affected by China’s recent ban on West Coast shellfish import since they haven’t been fishing recently.
According to Southeast Alaska Dive Fisheries Association Director Phil Doherty, other factors have been keeping divers off the grounds since early this month.
In southeast, the state and industry test geoduck clam beds for paralytic shellfish poison on a weekly basis and if the levels are too high, then the fishery does not open. Doherty says that’s what happened the weekend before last (12/7-8).
“All of the nine beds tested too hot or the psp levels were too high to fish. So, that was the first week that this China problem was starting to rear its head and we did not fish,” says Doherty
Around 60 divers normally get to fish for just a few hours each Thursday if the weekly tests come up clean. This past weekend (12/14-15), according to Doherty, bad weather prevented divers from gathering the samples.
“Due to the storm that we had come through here on Saturday and early Sunday our boats were unable to get out. So, again we’re not going to fish this week cause we did not take any psp samples. So, for the first two weeks of the China problem, we haven’t fished. So it hasn’t really affected our fisheries at all,” he says.
And Doherty says the fleet normally takes a mid-season break around the holidays. So, the Southeast fishery is not actually slated to open again until January 9th, “So, we’re hoping that within the next two or three weeks that there are agreements reached in China and this is all behind us by the time we get back into the water. Now, Washington State’s gonna have to deal with this on a day-in, day-out basis because, you know, they want to be harvesting geoducks both on state tracts and native tracks and they also have oysters, mussels and clams that are regularly sent over to Hong Kong and China.”
KUOW radio in Seattle reported last Thursday that China said was imposing the ban because its inspectors had found high levels of arsenic and the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning in recent shipments of geoduck clams from Northwest waters.
Tucked a few miles off the highway in Sterling is one of the newest players in the burgeoning Alaskan craft spirits industry.
“Would you like a hot toddy?” was the friendly greeting I got when I walked into the tasting room at the High Mark Distillery.
It was after noon and snowing. Seemed appropriate.
Owner Felicia Keith-Jones started her venture five years ago, but she didn’t initially plan on producing her own libations. She was working with a group in the Mat-Su Valley to develop bio-fuels, but that endeavor ran out of gas.
“The big dogs did not wish for us to have biodiesel in this state. We were studying for three years, and then my husband mentioned that if you remove three steps and add wheat, what have you got? Vodka. And that truly was the family joke,” Jones said.
After her husband passed away five years ago, she took a break from teaching to see if the family joke could become the family business.
“What if? What if I did make vodka? Because I already had the education for it. What if I did pursue this?”
A chance meeting in Bethel led her and her boys to Ireland, where they know a thing or two about turning grain and water into something more interesting.
“When I got back to Alaska, I knew, absolutely knew, that this was the path I wanted to take because it was one of the few things that absolutely every day made you smile. The challenges were huge, and once I had my first batch, I smiled,” she said with a laugh.
And High Mark’s signature vodka was born. Since then, Jones has adapted old-world recipes for the popular Nickel Back Apple Jack and a corn liquor she calls Blind Cat. Since wheat, apples and corn aren’t exactly signature Alaskan crops, Jones sources them from Washington.
“The orchard that grows for us also grows for Gerber farms. So with the corn and the apples, we decided if it was good enough for babies, it was good enough for us.”
High Mark uses spring white wheat as the base grain for its vodka.
Now, you can have all the knowledge and the best ingredients in the world, but that’s still no guarantee that what you pour is going to be any good. The key to making quality, consistent spirits is doing it in small batches with a lot of attention.
“When I say that it’s a gamble every single time, the truth is, if you don’t take absolutely beautiful notes and write down everything you put in to one of these, you can’t duplicate it. So, you might end up with rot-gut and you might end up with just the recipe you were hoping for. So you’ll test it every few weeks to record how it’s maturing.”
It’s not just the whiskey that’s maturing. High Mark’s one year anniversary is this month. And Jones says there are plans for growth and new products. The Blind Cat moonshine is just one step away from becoming a bourbon. Just pour it into a barrel and wait. That new spirit will demand a new position at the distillery.
“The worst job you can have at a distillery is to be the bunghole checker,” Jones jokes.
“Once the barrels are all into the barrel house, they have to be rotated because when you fill them, you do end up with a tiny air bubble. So that top layer of bourbon would not react with the wood, so you have to rotate your barrels and check your bung,” she says, trying not to crack up again. The only thing that might be more plentiful than the spirits here is the laughs.
Over the past year, High Mark has become at least a semi-regular stop for neighbors. The nearby lodges on the Kenai River also bring in customers. When I dropped by on a recent Saturday, I met Karen von Breyman. She lives just down the road. She’d seen the signs for the new place all last winter.
“We have lots of friends who come in the summer to fish and hang out, and we discovered that it was 1,400 yards, so we could just walk up the hill. So we walked and we tasted, and it was a good thing we walked, and then we giggled all the way home,” von Breyman said. ”I don’t know why I’m so excited about it, I just think it’s a fascinating story and a business. I’m not even a big drinker, but I just think it’s wonderful.”