Two remote Alaska lodges have been given an international nod with a listing from National Geographic as some of the most unique in the world.
Nestled in scenic Tutka Bay on the southern Kenai Peninsula, is the Tutka Bay Lodge.
“Well, Tutka Bay is a large fjord across Kachemak Bay from Homer and the lodge is very private. There’s not a lot of other buildings around.”
The lodge is owned and operated by Mandy Dixon and her mother Kirsten.
“And you get off your boat and you walk up the boardwalk onto a huge deck, which can land three helicopters at a time. It’s a very large deck and it has a hot tub in the middle of it. It’s quite beautiful and it’s surrounded by old growth forest and lots of eagles’ nests. It’s just like this private little cove that’s protected from everything else,” says Dixon.
The luxury lodge recently joined the National Geographic Society’s Unique Lodges of the World program. To be part of the program, lodges must demonstrate a commitment to authenticity, excellence and sustainability.
“Well, it was really an amazing honor for my family. We basically got the recognition through a random referral to National Geographic. We don’t know who that is or what happened there, but somebody just kind of got us on their radar. They came and inspected us and they felt like we were a great fit for their small group of unique lodges around the world.”
One thing that caught National Geographic’s attention was the lodge’s unique offerings of local cuisine. Dixon is a world-renowned chef. In 2014, she was the governor’s nominee to represent Alaska at the Great American Seafood Cookoff. She and her family pride themselves on serving local food as much as they can.
“Ninety percent of our food is local, either from here in Homer for Tutka Bay, from the farmers, obviously the seafood, and from the Matanuska Valley for the other lodge, Winterlake.”
Winterlake Lodge, also owned by the Dixon family, made National Geographic’s cut as well. It is about 60 minutes northwest of Anchorage by floatplane in the Alaska range. It serves as part of the Finger Lake checkpoint on the Iditarod trail, where they feed hungry mushers by the dozen.
“It’s log cabins. My father has built all the buildings on site. It’s kind of up an old Gold Rush trail and since we moved there, animals have flocked back there. There’s moose and bears. Every day they see them at the lodge.”
Dixon’s family has been in the luxury lodge business for about 30 years. And while neither lodge necessarily needs a boost in business, she says this designation will open up new avenues for them.
“People respect National Geographic. They respect their opinions and trust National Geographic. They actually have their own booking agency, so people can book to come to the lodge through National Geographic. So, that is a new outlet for us.”
All in all, Dixon says she’s pleased with the listing. She says being at the top of the luxury lodge business isn’t something she planned but it has made for an exciting life.
“My mother is a trained chef. I am a trained chef. We care a lot about food. My father is an incredible adventurer and just loves to give people that experience – that authentic, life-changing experience. I think with that, and having high quality service, we just kind of came into that market.”
Winterlake and Tutka Bay are two of only three lodges in the U.S. to make the list. In total, 38 properties on six continents have been given this prestigious title.
Naknek celebrated the grand opening of its new museum last Saturday. The museum showcases artifacts from the Bristol Bay fishing industry and traditional culture. The Bristol Bay Historical Society hopes the museum will give local tourism a boost and connect residents to the region’s history through objects.
The new museum is housed in an historic building across from the library in downtown Naknek.
LaRece Egli is a Naknek artist who led efforts to set up the collection. She says the building has come a long way.
“Three weeks ago the floor wasn’t yet finished, the walls were dirty, none of the artifacts had been moved in and cleaned, the cases were still sitting in crates in Anchorage… so it’s been a complete transformation.”
The items in the collection mostly came from the old Naknek museum, which was closed for years. There are model sailing schooners, cedar corks, old cannery equipment, and a hand-sewn fur parka.
With help from Anchorage Museum conservationists and local volunteers, Egli spent many hours moving, cleaning and installing these artifacts.
She says this painstaking work was all worth it to hear the stories people have about the objects in the collection.
“I mean, even that coffee can sitting right over there that we’re accepting donations in… in the last 24 hours I’ve heard 2 stories about how those cans were valued because they’re square, I guess they were coveted for berry picking because they could be mounted onto a frame of a backpack easily.. And that’s just a coffee can!”
Among the visitors on opening day was Tim Troll, who wrote a book about the sailing days of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. Troll says he was amazed by one item in particular – a gear list from an old cannery.
“It’s a board that has sailboat numbers from 1 to 37 along the vertical, and along the horizontal it has gear, like your stove, your tent, your water beaker… so that every fisherman they checked off their particular gear for the fishing boat, and then the cannery sent them out there,” says Troll.” I’d never seen anything like that. You know, it gives you a real feel for those guys out there…. That really does tell the story right there, once you understand what it is.”
The museum’s collection will continue to grow. Bristol Bay Historical Society President Fred Anderson says the Society is planning outbuildings to showcase old planes and vessels.
“We have a growing collection of wooden boats, all the way from a sailboat conversation, up to the last wooden boat made before they went to fiberglass,” says Anderson. “it’ll be very nice and interesting.
In the coming weeks, the Historical Society will hammer out the details of running the new museum. They’ll set regular hours, charge admission, and open a coffee shop next door.
They expect the fundraising, and the story gathering, will be ongoing indefinitely.
“Teacher training” usually means spending time in a library with textbooks and PowerPoints. But for 13 Alaska educators last week, it meant hopping on a helicopter, donning crampons and toting an ice ax on top of the Mendenhall Glacier as part of Discovery Southeast’s Teacher Expedition. I was invited to tag along.
From the Juneau airport, less than 10 minutes fly by before the helicopter lands on the ice of the Mendenhall Glacier.
Bev Levene, who works at the glacier’s visitor center, says she look at this glacier every day, “But now I’m actually seeing it, touching it, being on it, and it’s really cool and kind of surreal in a way.”
The glacier expedition is just one of several teacher trips that Discovery Southeast offers in the summer. Teachers pay tuition to learn in an outdoor classroom for a week and can get continuing education credits from the University of Alaska Southeast.
Richard Carstensen is one of the founders of the outdoor education nonprofit and an instructor.
“This is our backyard in Juneau,” Carstensen says. “And they’re going to bring this back to their classes, even if they can’t actually the walk the kids around on the ice. It’s going to just give them a much more full body understanding of what this glacier is doing.”
Cathy Connor is a retired geology professor at University of Alaska Southeast and another expedition instructor.
“If you teach teachers, you teach the world. If you just teach kids, that’s just a flash in the pan. They’re the parade moving, but teachers are your pivot point. They’re the railway station that all the trains come through,” Connor says.
During the expedition, teachers were supposed to spend three days on the Juneau Icefield. Due to weather, ice time was limited to the day on the Mendenhall Glacier. Matt Potter says the days spent off the ice were just as rewarding. Potter is in the process of moving from Anchorage to Circle, where he’ll be the lead teacher.
“We hiked up somewhere and there was this gravel pile and we had a bunch of 5-gallon buckets and we dumped water down it just to look at what the effect of concentrated run off is, how it sorts out the rocks from the gravel from the silt,” Potter says. “It was a really good hands-on activity to show in real time the processes of erosion. That’s something that no matter how old you are, you’re going to have fun dumping water down a hill, right?”
But it’s the glacier that draws the most awe.
“There’s just nowhere else on Earth like this,” says Allie Smith, a teacher at Juneau’s Auke Bay Elementary School.
“And the one thing that I’m so amazed with today is watching all the melt streams on the surface of the glacier. I always knew there was melting but there’s just a lot more channels and dynamics to see up here than I realized,” she says.
Throughout the day, the instructors pose this question to the group of teachers:
“Do you guys have any ideas on what you might take to your classrooms about the process that’s happening out here?”
The teachers have some ideas, like using algebra to predict snow accumulation and ablation cycles, nature walks in areas where the glacier once was, experiments that model how ice carves away at cliff sides. But they have weeks before school starts, so while they’re on the glacier, they might as well goof off for a few minutes.
Palmer teacher Nicolas Owens stands over a small glacial river.
“It’s a very technical thing we’re doing here. We’re going to drop the orange in. We should probably measure something off or eyeball a measurement and then we’re going to calculate how fast the water’s flowing,” Owens says.
“On your mark, get set, go.” The orange is dropped into the flowing glacial water.
“Oh no,” Owens says, as someone laughs. “It’s in the eddy,” he says. “The orange is stuck in the eddy.”
A New York man was arrested last week for making threatening phone calls to Arizona schools that were motivated by online gaming on an Xbox, authorities say. Details of the calls sound similar to ones made to Alaska schools, though the FBI says the arrest hasn’t been connected.
The FBI arrested 29-year-old Viktor Lisnyak of New York on July 15 for making several menacing calls to schools in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“At this point, I do not have the information that it is related to the cases in Alaska,” says Staci Feger-Pellessier, spokeswoman for the FBI in Anchorage.
At least eight threatening phone calls in April and May disrupted Juneau schools. Similar phone calls were made to schools all over the state including Anchorage, Fairbanks, Talkeetna, Soldotna, Kenai and Hoonah.
The phone threats to Juneau schools alluded to school shootings and the caller had a computer-generated or robotic sounding voice. Investigators reported similar details in the Flagstaff calls.
Lisnyak told Flagstaff detectives he made threatening phone calls to schools in the United States, so many “he doesn’t remember all the specific calls,” according to the charging document. It says the calls “were in response to on-line video gaming. He would gain ‘points’ for making these calls and at times had to make these calls if he ‘lost’ a game.”
Lisnyak is suspected of making calls between March and May. He could face 25 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine.
FBI spokeswoman Feger-Pellessier says the Alaska calls are still under investigation.
Subsistence fishing is open indefinitely on the Kuskokwim River. But that hasn’t been the norm this summer, as the river underwent two management regimes —state and federal—and strict closures for two species. Lower river fishermen are adjusting to the new reality of Kuskokwim subsistence—where conservative management is now the status quo.
On a sunny Saturday after a four hour subsistence opener, Joe Green and his two kids shuttle salmon up the steep banks at the Bethel small boat harbor from the skiff to the back of their pickup.
These openers are critical for Green as he fishes for a total of four families.
“This year we’re shooting for anything. The feds and the government shock you. They screw up everything for you. So we get what we can,” said Green.
On top of his chums, he caught just shy of a dozen red salmon and says he’ll be freezing fish for the first time this summer. It’s a summer of flexibility on the Kuskokwim. Unprecedented king salmon restrictions were followed up by more closures to protect a weak chum run, which so far at the Bethel Test Fisheryranks among the lowest in recent history.
Alissa Joseph works on the fisheries staff for Bethel’s Tribe, ONC and is traveling the river and talking with fishermen in the Bethel area’s 150, or so fish camps.
“We don’t go to fish camps to look at their racks, we go to get their information and how they did. We don’t need to know how many fish they got. We just want to know how subsistence is going, how it’s working for them, and how we can be of assistance as advocates for them,” said Joseph.
The information goes to state and federal managers and the Kuskokwim Working Group.
Joseph was checking in on subsistence fishermen like Nicholai Evan. At his Napaskiak fish camp, his whole family is cutting and preparing caught in the opening. He normally catches 100 kings every summer. So far this year, he’s only caught 10. How he plans to make up the deficit?
“Caribou, moose, seal, geese, swans. My part of life is subsistence, I hardly go to the store, once in a great while,” said Evan.
Nearby David Nicholai reports that his family also got significantly fewer kings than normal—but it’s enough for them to get by.
“Enough, good enough for fish, there are lots of fish out there. Lots of chums, lots of reds, some king salmon,” said Nicholai.
Besides being large, rich, and historically abundant, king salmon are also prized for their immaculate timing. They’re first, when the weather is clear and dry. But this point in the season, it’s clear that things have changed.
Under the roof of Marie Andrew’s drying rack, the Napaskiak resident is busy putting chums and reds up to dry. The Kuskokwim red salmon fortunately this year came on strong, and relatively late. But this time of year, Andrew is starting to see flies.
“During that smokey time, when the wild fire smoke was around there wasn’t that much, but lately I’ve seen lots, like today when the sun was out,” said Andrew.
She says that she’s typically done by now in a normal king year. Near Bethel, Sugar Henderson is looking forward to silvers. She says her family took part in the limited community permit system at the start of the year and was allocated a dozen kings.
“I normally do strips with my kings and dryfish with my silvers. But knowing I’d only get 12 kings I did all dryfish. And then with our pressure cooker, we figured we would try strips with silvers. Kind of backwards,” said Henderson.
After several rocky years of poor king returns and the stop and go restrictions, Henderson has had to adapt.
“We’ve learned to adjust to what we get. I’m not one yelling and screaming ‘we need our kings, we need our kings’! We do need our kings, but I understand the fact they need to replenish, so we’ve just adjusted ourselves, our lifestyle, to what we could get,” said Henderson.
And as long as Kuskokwim salmon runs and regulations defy prediction, summer fishing plans will remain a moving target.
The chairman of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee says he’ll take under advisement requests to hold a hearing on Gov. Bill Walker’s proposal to accept federal funds for Medicaid expansion.
But Republican Rep. Mike Hawker says Walker has the ability to pursue his plans regardless of what the committee says.
Republican Sens. Anna MacKinnon and Cathy Giessel, who are committee members, requested Wednesday that the panel hear the matter.
State law lays out a process by which a governor can go to the committee to request to accept and spend additional federal or other program funds. Even if the committee disagrees with the plan, the governor can proceed.
Hawker said Walker has indicated his decision is final and Hawker said there’s nothing of substance for the committee to accomplish.
The city of Homer is filing a response to a request from an oil company seeking the return of thousands of dollars in previous payments to businesses.
The Homer News reports Australian company Buccaneer Oil filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May of last year. The city, Homer Electric Association and several business received letters from the company’s trustee saying preferential payments made to them in the 90 days before the bankruptcy filing had to be returned.
Moore & Moore Services owner Lloyd Moore says he’s still owed $10,000 from Buccaneer Oil that he’ll never see, and now the company wants back the money it did pay him.
Letter recipients argue payments were made to them through the ordinary course of business and are not subject to return.
Interior Dept. OKs Arctic Drilling—With Limits
John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska
The Obama administration approved Shell’s Oil’s plan for drilling in the Arctic Ocean today. But for now, Shell is restricted on how deep it can drill.
Murkowski Unveils Her National Energy Policy Bill
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski today released a national energy policy bill. It’s been one of her highest priorities as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, and she produced the bill jointly with the top Democrat on the committee, Maria Cantwell of Washington.
Southeast Village Brings Its Subsistence Designation Battle To Capitol Hill
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.
Leila Kheiry, KRBD – Ketchikan
The Southeast village of Saxman took its fight to be designated a “rural” community to Congress today.
Murkowski Balks At Proposed Funding Source for Highway Plan
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.
The deadline for renewing the nation’s highway programs is nine days away. Leaders in the Senate this week negotiated a bill that would fund highways for the next six years. But it would require selling off $9 billion of crude oil that’s stashed in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, objected to the bill on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Dozens Testify Against Megaprojects In Anchorage
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
The government body that handles transportation across Anchorage saw its largest turnout in more than a decade for public testimony against two large projects.
Southeast Pleas For Restored Ferry Service; AHMS Skeptical, Citing Dwindling Coffers
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
Southeast Alaska community leaders hope to restore or change some parts of the proposed ferry schedule for this fall, winter and spring.
Chum Salmon Flood Western Alaska Waters As Buyers Struggle to Keep Up
Emily Russell, KNOM – Nome
Salmon fishermen in the Norton Sound and Kotzebue region are having a bountiful year for both commercial and subsistence.
As Chinook Cross Into Canada, Fall Chum Begin Running on the Yukon
Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome
The kings have reached Canada—and Alaska Fish and Game biologists say they’ve now met their escapement goals all along the Yukon.
BC Withholds Key Permit from Transboundary Mine
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
British Columbia officials are delaying permits for an open-pit mine near a river that flows into the ocean south of Ketchikan. They say Pacific Booker Minerals has not proved it can keep toxic water out of nearby waterways.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski today released a national energy policy bill. It’s been one of her highest priorities as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, and she produced the bill jointly with the top Democrat on the committee, Maria Cantwell of Washington. Murkowski says it required compromise; the bill doesn’t include some of the big items on Murkowski’s energy agenda.
This bill is heavy on energy efficiency and weatherization, modernizing the electric grid and new technologies. Murkowski says she wants a bill that can actually pass.
“This has been an effort through months and months to find common ground on energy issues that not only impact Alaskans, but impact people around the country.”
It’s a pragmatist’s bill designed for a polarized Congress. It does not include controversies like the Keystone XL Pipeline and offshore revenue-sharing for states, let alone anything that would open the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling. It also does not include one of Murkowski’s biggest national priorities – ending the ban on exporting crude oil. The senator says she’ll work on that separately.
“What you will see is a base bill that is bipartisan in nature, that does not have everything that I would like, but it doesn’t have everything the other side would like. That’s the nature of legislation.”
The bill doesn’t direct federal resources to Alaska, or create Alaska-only programs. That would trigger the congressional ban on earmarking. But Murkowski and her staff say the bill has provisions Alaska is well positioned to benefit from. It authorizes federal research on geothermal energy, for instance, and promotes the development of hybrid micro-grid systems, like the wind-and-diesel combos that now power some Alaska villages. It supports state energy programs with loan guarantees, and includes training to produce workers who can build and maintain modern power systems. It doesn’t have financing for the big Alaska natural gas pipeline, but it does speed up the processing of LNG export permits.
The Senate Energy Committee will take the bill up next week, and after that it will go to the Senate floor, where, Murkowski, senators will be allowed to offer amendments.
“I’ve said before this is not a messaging bill, this is a time to update energy policy, and we’re doing it in the regular course of business.”
Murkowski says the bill would reclassify hydropower as a renewable energy.
She’s especially proud that the bill would repeal lots of old and redundant energy laws. That, she says, will cut down on the scores of reports Congress requires the Energy Department to produce that no one reads.
The Southeast village of Saxman took its fight to be designated a “rural” community to Congress today. Saxman Village President Lee Wallace told a House subcommittee he was devastated in 2007, when he watched the Federal Subsistence Board decide Saxman was “non-rural.”
“When the vote came down, it ended up being the saddest moment in my life, only to be eclipsed by the loss of my parents.”
The rural designation matters because without it, the 400 or so residents of the community near Ketchikan aren’t entitled to a subsistence priority when it comes to hunting and fishing. The ruling was put on hold, but Wallace says it still hurt in Saxman.
“There was a lot of civic apathy and there was a feeling of loss that we couldn’t maintain our way of life, gathering, hunting, fishing.”
Alaska Congressman Don Young, who chairs the subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, says the decision to remove Saxman’s rural status wasn’t right. The village pre-dates Ketchikan, the city that grew up three miles away. Young sponsored a bill to restore Saxman’s rural status, and change the process.
“It reinstates Saxman and anytime now on, if they want to redesignate another community as non-rural, it has to come through this committee.”
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has sponsored a similar bill in the U.S. Senate.
Meanwhile, the Federal Subsistence Board has proposed a rule change that would allow more flexibility when determining rural designations, and has held public hearings on that rule. Wallace told the subcommittee that while the rule change would help, Young’s bill would provide more security.
Southeast Alaska community leaders hope to restore or adjust some parts of the proposed ferry schedule for this fall, winter and spring. That’s the word from most of those testifying Wednesday morning during a teleconferenced Alaska Marine Highway System public hearing.
The draft ferry schedule reflects budget cuts by the Legislature and Gov. Bill Walker.
It proposes tying up the ferry Taku, which has been docked since July 1st, for the entire year. Its replacement will sail half as often to and from Prince Rupert, British Columbia’s northernmost port.
Assistant Ketchikan Borough Manager Deanna Garrison says that will hurt regional fisheries.
“This has resulted in a significant reduction of service in Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg. Specifically, losing the Taku is problematic for Ketchikan fish processors. It’s faster for processers to place a product on the ferry to Prince Rupert and truck seafood to the Lower 48,” Garrison says.
The schedule, released last month, also lays up the fast ferries Chenega and Fairweather, beginning in the early fall.
Five small communities will have no service for a month in the winter and larger cities will see reduced sailings overall.
Sitka teacher and coach Jeremy Strong says the cuts will hurt teams traveling to and from out-of-town games.
“If we’re cut out completely through the spring into Juneau, where we can meet up with a lot of the other mainliners …, then our season looks a lot more bleak. And we’ll get a lot less kids to be able to have those opportunities.”
Others worry about fewer tourists, especially in towns where ferries bring independent travelers.
Haines Borough Mayor Jan Hill says fewer and less reliable sailings have already hurt her community, where the mainland highway system connects to the ferries.
“Several caravans of motor homes canceled their trips to Haines this summer. And some aren’t going to make any reservations for next year. And so, that’s a huge hit to those businesses that those caravans support when they’re in our communities.”
The Legislature planned to begin deep ferry cuts this summer, which made the whole schedule uncertain.
Leftover funds from the previous year allowed most summer sailings to continue, through vessel breakdowns and the Taku tie-up cut some runs.
Wrangell Economic Development Director Carol Rushmore says the schedule has to be more reliable so travelers – and the tourism industry — can make plans.
“So if there’s some way that DOT can address that in the coming months to be prepared for next summer so our visitors know what they can and can’t do ahead of time and we’re not devastating our communities in the middle of that.”
Ferry officials say they’re taking all suggestions seriously. But there just isn’t enough money to meet most of the requests.
Deputy Commissioner Mike Neussl says the situation is unlikely to improve, since there won’t be any leftover money.
“I just want to set the stage that fiscal fear ‘17 likely will not have that same relief pot available. And there’s every indication that further cuts to the system and to the state government as a whole are likely.”
That’s unless the price of oil, which fuels the state budget, increases. Analysts say that’s unlikely to happen.
The Obama administration approved Shell’s Oil’s plan for drilling in the Arctic Ocean on Wednesday. But for now, Shell is restricted on how deep it can drill.
The Interior Department told Shell it can drill but not into any oil-bearing rocks. Even with that restriction, Shell spokeswoman Megan Baldino called the permit an important approval.
“Based on the current ice forecast, we could begin drilling as soon as next week,” Baldino says.
The Interior Department limited the drilling depths because one of Shell’s key pieces of oil-spill prevention equipment, called a capping stack, is headed away from the Arctic right now.
“That capping stack is located on the motor vessel Fennica.”
Brian Salerno heads the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The icebreaker Fennica hit a rock and tore a 3-foot gash in its hull in early July. It’s about halfway through its weeklong journey to a shipyard in Portland, Ore.
“Fennica’s going the opposite direction. Until such time as F mks repairs and is able to return to Arctic w/capping stack, restriction will remain in place.”
Megan Baldino says Shell still expects to have the Fennica return to the Arctic in time to support drilling into the deeper, oil-bearing rocks beneath the sea floor.
Environmental groups called the government approval a dangerous mistake, given the twin risks of Arctic oil spills and global climate change.
They accused the administration of bending the rules for Shell.
“We’re not bending any rules,” Salero says. “We’re actually holding Shell to a very high standard.”
The federal permission also prevents Shell from drilling both its wells at the same time in order to protect walruses in the area.
The late and hopefully-still-great run of sockeye might finally be making its way to the Kenai River.
The good news is that the bulk of the late run of Kenai River sockeye salmon might finally be making its appearance. The bad news is for the fishermen who tried to harvest them before this point in the run.
Baker: “I think I’m just gonna to head back tonight. I don’t know. If it was better I mighta stayed longer. It’s OK, but I’ll maybe try later.”
Mike Baker, of Anchorage, was sitting on the cooler he had hoped to fill at the north beach of the Kenai River on Monday evening, watching hundreds of his fellow dip-netters standing — and waiting — out in the water.
Baker: “It’s pretty slow, just kind of hit or miss. It’s just kind of waiting for people to pull fish in before I go back out.”
Fish counts underscore that assessment. The sockeye sonar counter in the Kenai River posted unimpressive numbers over the weekend — 17,500 fish Friday and 20,000 Saturday. The number jumped a bit Sunday to 49,000 fish, but that only brought the cumulative total of late-run Kenai River sockeye to just under 300,000 fish — not nearly as many as would have returned by this point in a more typical run, says Pat Shields, commercial fishery area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Shields: “It’s no secret to most people here that are dip-netters, that are in-river fishermen, that are commercial fishermen, that the Kenai sockeye run is late. We don’t know yet if they will return at forecast. We’re expecting about 3.5 million Kenai-bound sockeye to come back this year so it’s too early to say where we are with regard to how strong the run will be or how weak the run will be. But it’s most certainly going to be late.”
Managers are hopeful for the return, though. Other runs in Southcentral, including Chignik and Bristol Bay, are returning on a belated schedule but in good numbers. The same is expected for the Kenai.
Shields: “If we thought this run was on time or early there would be no more fishing for anybody. There would be no personal-use, no sport, no commercial. We would shut this thing down, we would lock it up and tell everybody to go home. We don’t believe that. We believe this run is late. So, yes, we’re watching it very closely.”
A positive sign came Monday at Fish and Game’s test fishery off Anchor Point. The test boat saw its biggest numbers yet on Monday. The catch is measured in index points representing catch per unit effort, which is later converted into an estimate of a passage rate to gauge how many sockeye have come by, and how many are likely still to arrive. Through July 19, the test nets had only logged 218 index points. By Monday afternoon, the test nets were on pace to get more than that in one day alone, with fish hitting all the sites stretched across the inlet.
Shields: “I don’t want to make too much out of one day of catch fish indices but it’s a very strong day. That’s a good sign. When you’re looking at a large index and you see it spread across all the stations, that’s a good indication that you have had fish come into the inlet.”
That’s what the dip-netters who were arriving Monday were hoping to hear, as opposed to the ones leaving after a mostly unproductive weekend.
Lynnette and Tim Blessie, of Eagle River, got to Kenai on Sunday but didn’t even bother getting their net down to the water until just about high tide Monday afternoon.
Tim Blessie: “It has been looking a little slow. We’ve heard that the run was slower getting here. We hope that doesn’t mean that there’s just not that many fish out there. We hope that it’s just because they’re late. But I haven’t seen them pulled out at the pace I have in past years.”
They shoot for fishing the Kenai around July 18 every year. But just because that’s when they schedule to come fish doesn’t mean that’s when the fish will arrive.
Blessie: “That’s why we stay a week.”
Timing, as always, is crucial in fishing. In this case, rather than having the luck of timing a fishing trip when the sockeye are flooding the river, logging time in the water seemed to be the difference between catching and just fishing at the Kenai dip-net fishery.
Patresha Burnell was celebrating her biggest day yet Monday, with nine fish hitting her net. She and her family had been at the mouth of the Kenai over the weekend.
Burnell: “Yesterday my brother had luck and my mom and my dad, now today’s my luck. I was out from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. (yesterday) and I got a rock, but today I’m glad I’m catching my share.”
The sockeye sonar estimate for Monday showed continued improvement, at 53,600 fish, breaking the 350,000 mark in the run. That’s still 77,000 less than at this point in last year’s run, but over 4,400 fish more than any one day’s total so far this year.
The chinook have reached Canada, and Alaska Fish and Game biologists say they’ve now met nearly all escapement goals along the Yukon and are confident they’ll see enough of the prized king salmon cross the border.
“Passage estimates at the sonar project near Eagle indicate that the first and second pulse of Chinook have migrated across the border and are on their way to the spawning grounds in Canada,” fisheries biologist Holly Carol said during the weekly Yukon fisheries teleconference organized by the nonprofit Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association.
Carol added that roughly 36,000 Chinook have so far passed the upper river sonar facility near Eagle. That puts the midpoint of this year’s Chinook run passing Eagle by Wednesday, July 22. The minimum escapement of roughly 42,500 kings into Canada is likely to be met by the end of this week, Carol said.
That’s enough to meet salmon sharing treaty obligations with Canada set forth in the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty.
Stephanie Schmidt, the summer season management biologist for ADF&G during the summer chum and Chinook run, extended her thanks to fishermen who worked—and sacrificed—to ensure the kings made it upriver.
“Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would like to extend our thanks and appreciation to the fishermen of the Yukon River. We’re getting the number of Chinook salmon on the spawning grounds that we need to sustain this run,” Schmidt said.
Beyond hitting those escapement numbers, Schimdt added the quality of the fish—overall larger, and made of up about 43 percent female—means a healthy population is making it upriver.
“They’re seeing king salmon larger than they’ve seen … in recent years,” she added. “We seem to be getting not only good numbers of fish, but also good quality of fish on the spawning grounds as well.”
Meeting escapement goals is good news, but subsistence fishing on the Yukon has otherwise reached a midseason lull. Summer chum have officially run their course, and many fishermen calling in to the teleconference said subsistence is more or less on hold as fishermen await fall chums.
“I don’t think there’s anybody fishing in Galena,” said a fishermen who identified himself as Fred. “Most everybody waiting for fall chum.”
“There’s just not a lot of fishing activity, I think people are kind of holding off for fall chums and stuff,” said Richard in Kaltag.
Basil in Marshall agreed. “Not much subsistence activity … everybody’s pretty much just holding up ‘till fall chum and coho get here.”
On the upper river—where summer chums rarely swim—it’s been a season of nearly complete closures that’s just now opening to limited incidental takes of Chinook. But the openings are brief—just 24 hours—leaving fishermen like Andrew in Fort Yukon asking for more time.
“We did have a 24 hour opener over the end of the weekend here, Sunday, and people kind of felt it wasn’t worth going to fish for 24 hours,” he told fishery managers. “I think if they have another opener, some folks would like, maybe, a 36 hour opener or something, to make it worth their time to go out and fish.”
On the upper river, “it takes a little longer to do much on the Yukon Flats compared to other areas of the river,” he added.
Managers on the call said additional openings for the upper river will likely stay at 24 hours—as the final pulses of Chinook pass through the upper river.
Kings crossing the border, however, signals fall chums in the lower river. The first pulse of late-season chums passed the Mountain Village test fishery Saturday, and should be in the water near Russian Mission by Thursday.
Jeff Estensen with ADF&G said fall chums should run between 700,000 to 800,000 fish in the coming weeks. “With an outlook like that, [it’s] certainly adequate … to meet our escapement needs, provide for subsistence, and provide for a commercial harvest.”
Commercial openings are already happening in the lower river, with Y1 and Y2—roughly from Emmonak to upriver from St. Mary’s—already seeing twice weekly commercial openings. Estensen said a single 6-hour opening Monday saw fishermen harvest about 3,500 fall chum.
Representatives from four agencies arrived in Wales recently, equipped with 40 pizzas and a slideshow on polar bear deterrents. It was one of the final meetings in a years-long effort to start a community-run polar bear patrol with help from the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, the North Slope Borough, the World Wildlife Fund, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Events kicked off on June 14th with a pizza party for the Wales community and continued all week with training sessions and discussions of patrol logistics.
There isn’t a huge number of polar bears passing through Wales, but the community has had several close encounters. During one session, people shared stories of opening the front door to find a polar bear just outside and even seeing one chase a teacher into the school.
For Christine Komonaseak, school safety is a key reason for creating the patrol. She’s a cook at the Wales School and said she worries about students during the winter when they walk to class in the dark.
“The kids who have been beating me to work — I want the safety for them, because they walk from up here to down there,” she said. “The bears have been spotted by the parsonage, by the school. The one that they last killed — I spotted that one below the house eating on a walrus. That was the one they killed by the playground.”
The patrol’s mission is to minimize conflicts between people and polar bears for the safety of both. If bears do enter the community, the patrol will scare them away with noise, light, or non-lethal ammunition. Protecting the people comes first, but conserving the bear population is important too, given their status as a threatened species and their role as a subsistence resource.
When the volunteer patrol starts, as early as December, Greg Oxereok will be on the squad. He said creating a patrol in Wales just makes sense as a proactive safety measure.
“Safety should be number one, especially somewhere like this where it’s rural and it’s hard to get transportation and facilities,” he said. “It’s good to try to stop a problem before it starts. It just makes sense to protect and try to serve our community.”
For now, details are still being discussed — where the patrol will be based, when it’ll sweep the town’s perimeter, and how many patrollers will be on duty at a time. While the agencies are providing equipment like ammunition, radios, and a snow machine, the Wales community will manage the patrol itself. The IRA will take the lead, but the City Council and the Wales Native Corporation are also involved, with all three bodies recommending patrollers for the job.
Jack Omelak, executive director of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, emphasizes the patrol is a Wales initiative. The community makes the decisions and the agencies are there to help with training and supplies.
“We get our authority to work on your behalf from you,” Omelak told the community. “We don’t just take it upon ourselves to do it. So we need to be informed and people [from Wales] need to be involved.”
That includes letting traditional knowledge shape the patrol’s strategy. Craig Perham, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, encouraged patrollers to work with elders and learn how the community has dealt with polar bears for generations.
“Certainly, there are biologists like myself in Anchorage, and we can help when we can. But you’ve got that experience right here — the older guys who have been out hunting,” he said.
Oxereok, who’s 30, says he looks forward to connecting with elders through the patrol, especially since he doesn’t have much firsthand experience with hunting or warding off polar bears.
“There is a generation gap. And this might help dispel some of that distance between the older generation and my generation,” he said. “The more we can work together, the more we can grow as a whole.”
The four agencies will evaluate the Wales polar bear patrol once it’s up and running to identify what works and what doesn’t. Omelak said they’re treating it as a pilot program for a polar bear management plan that will develop over 10 years and cover the Bering Strait Region.
Western Alaska is in midst of one of the best salmon runs in decades, and that means both subsistence and commercial fishermen in waters around Norton Sound and Kotzebue are catching record numbers of chum.
“We’d forecasted a commercial harvest of 70-100,000 [of chum] and we’re going to blow right through that” said Jim Menard, the Arctic Area Manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The latest numbers point to Norton Sound passing 120,000 chums, the best harvest since 1986.
It’s the sixth season in a row of strong chum runs, but the fishery hasn’t always delivered. 2003 was an especially poor year, when the combined commercial harvest of all salmon species was the second lowest on record.
Menard said relief came when the salmon bounced back the next year.
“It was some sort of the strangest reaction… I actually got tears in my eyes and I said, ‘God I’m getting emotional here, we’ve got fish!’ It was like, whoa here we go, and that was the greatest pink salmon run in Norton Sound was 2004 and it was just crazy, the line of fishing down the Nome River and everyone catching pink salmon and you, know, we were waving, and just to really see a turnaround starting in 2004.”
Despite the salmon surge that year, Fish and Game continued to limit subsistence fishing around Nome, with permits based on a household’s historical dependence on chum. Menard recalls that many fishermen ended up sitting on the beach, but those restrictions were lifted in 2006 as escapement continued to rise.
Menard stressed that subsistence is the first priority when it comes to fishing in Norton Sound.
“People want fish, people need fish, and it’s definitely something we take very seriously is [that] subsistence comes first. It’s escapement and subsistence, and they need their fish and then we’ll go commercial fishing after that.”
The surge of salmon in the waters of western Alaska is also feeding Kotzebue’s fishery. Last year’s commercial chum harvest was the second highest on record—and this year’s harvest could be just as strong.
But no matter how strong the runs are, Menard said both Kotzebue and Norton Sound are limited by buyer capacity. “The buyers, you know, they get plugged, and there’s only so much they can do. In Kotzebue we’ve stopped fishing the last few days because the buyer is swamped and, you know, Bristol Bay has come on strong, Prince William Sound, and, they fly those fish out of Kotzebue.”
Fish and Game closed the Kotzebue fishery from Thursday July 16 until Monday July 20 due to buyer capacity concerns. While the fishery reopened on that Monday, Kotzebue’s sole buyer, Copper River Seafoods, placed a limit on how much they would buy from each fishermen, urging fishermen to avoid catching more than they can sell.
It’s a similar story in Norton Sound, as its lone buyer, Norton Sound Seafood Products, can only process so much. Despite limitations, Menard is optimistic that the coming months will be good fishing—and not just for chums.
“The fishing’s going very well for an odd-numbered pink year it’s going very good and the real pleasant surprise was how the sockeye salmon came in. We did not think it was going to be that strong. So now we’re waiting on the silver salmon, and we think the silver salmon run is going to be pretty decent this year.”
While the fishing has been strong so far, just how strong won’t be known until the silver run kicks into full swing.
The skeleton of the new Phillips Ayagnirvik Treatment Center, PATC, is coming up quickly and aims to be closed in for a winter of work. Kris Manke is Director of Construction for the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which is leading up the project. He says about 15 crew members are working now, including close to 70 percent local Alaska Native hires.
“We do all of our own electrical, mechanical, framing, siding, we self perform all of that,” said Manke.
The $12-million, 16,000 square foot facility is under construction for a second time following a fire in October that destroyed it when it was 90 percent framed in. YKHC doesn’t want to take chances the second time. A chain link fence surrounds the site and a 24-hour security team stand watch. Big floodlights shine at the building at night. Manke says having to start from scratch is hard on his team.
“It was hard for me because they all are my guys, but for the guys who were actually building it, we should ask them the question. It’s gotta be really hard, I mean guys were crying when they saw their work burning up that night,” said Manke.
YKHC is offering a $20,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest or conviction of those responsible for the fire that destroyed the alcohol treatment center. YKHC says it was a criminal act that started the blaze last October during construction.
An investigation from the state Fire Marshal’s office said the cause of the fire was ‘undetermined’. Though investigators ruled out all possible mechanical and electrical causes, their summary does not explicitly rule out arson.
The goal is to turn over the new facility in October 2016, but there’s a lot of work before that happens.
“Our winter goal is to be dried in October, middle of October, that’s always our winter goal. We usually get really close, I think we’re going to do it this year, that’s the plan,” said Manke.
This winter they will rough in the electric and mechanical systems. Drywall starts around first of the year, while the finishing work happens in springtime.
The state health department has hired a consultant to help recommend next steps as the administration plans to implement Medicaid expansion and looks to make further changes to the existing Medicaid program.
The contract calls for a report in January recommending alternative Medicaid expansion models and options to help contain costs within the Medicaid program. A report due next spring would address a timeline and costs for carrying out the recommendations.
The department says it plans to build on reform efforts already underway. As it stands, Alaska’s Medicaid program is widely seen as unsustainable.
Gov. Bill Walker last week announced his plans to accept federal money for Medicaid expansion after lawmakers earlier this year tabled his proposal to expand and make changes to the program.
An open house held by the Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions, or AMATS, turned out public testimony that was almost unanimously against several large capital projects in the Municipality.
As AMATS staff and local officials develop an interim plan to stay within federal compliance standards they took comments from area residents on transportation projects. Members of the public spoke about several road improvement projects and bike lanes, but focused overwhelmingly on criticisms of the proposed Knik Arm Bridge and Bragaw Extension into the U-Med District.
Advocacy groups like Citizens for Responsible Development and community council members from the neighborhoods in the areas around proposed projects mobilized in advance of the hearing, holding a short rally ahead of time outside Anchorage City Hall.
AMATS is pursuing a short-term update to it’s transportation strategy in advance of a major rewrite in the year ahead, when it drafts a new comprehensive plan with an outlook for 2040.
A federal judge has sided with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell over whether Jewell must approve exploration plans meeting certain requirements for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The state last year sued the Interior Department for refusing to consider an exploration plan for the refuge’s coastal plain, calling it a violation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
Federal officials said the exploration authorization expired in the 1980s.
In an order Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason wrote that Congress authorized the Interior secretary to approve limited-duration exploratory activity on the coastal plain and ordered a report generated from the activities by 1987.
Gleason said the law is ambiguous as to whether the secretary must approve additional exploration after that but found Jewell’s interpretation of the law was reasonable.