Alaska News

Troopers Investigate 2 Deaths in Shageluk

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-10-08 17:43

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in Bethel has deployed health care workers to the village of Shageluk where Alaska State Troopers are investigating two deaths. Dan Winkelman is the President and CEO of YKHC and a Shageluk tribal member.

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“What we did is we put together a crisis response team that is en route to Shageluk right now. And, we have two masters level behavioral health technicians that are on their way there. And we will maintain behavioral health staff there for a number of weeks as well, after the incident.”

KTUU cites a report from the principal of the Shageluk School saying that a young man killed his parents yesterday and that residents in the village had to tie the suspect to a chair at a city building until troopers arrived late this morning.

Winkelman, who is a Shageluk tribal member, says he spent a lot of today speaking with tribal leaders who were shaken up after the incident and outraged about the slow response of law enforcement.

Categories: Alaska News

Parnell, Walker Spar At Soldotna Gubernatorial Debate

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-10-08 17:42

Four gubernatorial candidates took questions at a Chamber of Commerce forum Wednesday in Soldotna. It quickly turned into a debate between the two bigger names on the ballot, Gov. Sean Parnell and Bill Walker.

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Wednesday’s forum at the Soldotna Sports Center was mostly an opportunity to lay out broad visions for the state. Especially from the race’s lesser known candidates, like J.R. Meyers, running with the Alaska Constitution party.

Meyers: “We’re hoping to gain more than 3% of the vote in this election, which will then give us political party status going into the future. We think the political marketplace in Alaska could benefit from freer exchange of diverse ideas.”

Libertarian party candidate Carolyn Clift was the other quote unquote fringe candidate.

Clift: “At this time when we are facing fiscal crises for the next few years, you need someone who is libertarian. That’s going to go in there and minimize government, look for the efficiencies and we are going to go in there and lean this government down.”

Most of the answers came in the form of similar platitudes, based on each candidate’s agenda. For Walker and Parnell, Wednesday’s agenda was mostly filled with responses to each other’s thinly veiled attacks.

Parnell: “I’m not sure it’s being under attack when I point out that Bill Walker plan for cutting the budget is about cutting 16% in one year and then asking him for the plan on how that gets allocated. I call it a fiscal plan; spending less and taxing less, which is the direction we’ve headed and we’ll continue to head.”

Walker said his plan to reduce the state’s budget would be put in place over the course of years, if at all. He hopes to improve revenues so those cuts won’t be necessary in the first place.

Walker: “Governor Parnell’s administration created the largest deficits we’ve ever had. Every year is deficit spending for the next ten years. That’s his plan. If that’s a plan that works for you at 7 million dollars a day, this is your guy right here.”

Budgets and natural gas lines got the lion’s share of attention from the two leading candidates. But less thoroughly examined was the state’s record on domestic abuse and charges of misconduct and abuse within the upper ranks of the Alaska National Guard. After the forum, Parnell said he trusted the National Guard Bureau in its findings that misconduct reporting since 2012 has greatly improved, and he sees more changes in Guard leadership in the future.

Parnell: “Certainly those (sexual assault issues) still exist, but we have to restore trust and confidence so people are willing to report. We’re interviewing people for the new adjutant general position, and that person will use their leadership role to bring about full scale change in the guard in conjunction with the National Guard Bureau.”

Parnell has been criticized for delaying action after reports of sexual assault were made known to his office and allowing top Guard officers to be re-hired in the wake of misconduct investigations.

Categories: Alaska News

It’s Cold Out, But Bethel Shelter Won’t Open Until Dec.

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-10-08 17:40

Bethel Winter House logo. Courtesy of Bethel Winter House.

The Bethel Winter House, a nonprofit homeless shelter, won’t open its doors again until December. But winter’s come early this year and that leaves the community’s homeless population, out in the cold.

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The weather is getting chillier by the day and the brown-green tundra has turned brown-yellow. A few snowflakes even fell over the weekend. Although the mercury is dropping, the Bethel Winter House, is not scheduled to open until December 1st.

Rick Robb worked with the original founders of the homeless shelter. He says there aren’t many opportunities for the homeless here, to stay warm.

“There’s very few to know, resources in Bethel for folks that are homeless. Whether it’s a temporary homeless or a chronic homeless. I mean we get a lot of people that come through here without a place to live. People tend to float from house to house sleeping on floors and couches. A lot of people stay in abandoned buildings, and that’s proved a problem with some crime and we’ve even had some deaths in the past,” said Robb

Bethel Winter House, relies completely on donations and is run by volunteers. The group formed a Lions Club and started the homeless shelter last December, after six outdoor deaths in the winter before. A January 2013 point-in-time survey of the homeless population said there were approximately 100 homeless people that were sleeping either in a shelter, such as TWC, or on someone’s couch, out in the woods or in an unheated home. Thirty-six of them were kids.

Ross Boring is the secretary for the Winter House Board. He says organizers are overwhelmed by the work involved in running the shelter and it’s been hard to find volunteers to work overnight, especially on weekdays.

“Last year we were very worn out at the end of the three months and all of this depends on us. You know if we don’ have volunteers one night we’ll have to turn guests away and won’t be able to run the shelter,” said Boring.

Boring says that is something they hope they won’t ever have to do. Organizers have applied for grants, including one with the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, that would allow them to hire someone to run the shelter, but they have not yet received a response. Last winter the shelter moved from church to church throughout the cold season. Organizers say, along with hiring a manager, they would eventually like to find a more permanent location for the shelter … but for now…

“What people have to realize is that this is a Lions Club, everyone there is volunteers. There’s nobody that’s paid for anything that we’re doing. This is strictly a volunteer organization, it is very difficult for us at times to get volunteers to do the Sunday night up to Friday morning because everyone is working,” said Boring.

This week, overnight temperatures are expected to drop down into the 20’s and 30’s. The Bethel Winter House has spoken to a few entities around the community about the possibility of hosting the winter house, but at the time this story was filed, they haven’t gotten any responses.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: October 8, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-10-08 17:39

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

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Retired Colonel Implicated In Guard Scandal

Lori Townsend and Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Anchorage

A recent federal investigation documented a whole host of abuses in the Alaska National Guard, ranging from mishandling of sexual assault to embezzlement. While the report largely focused on structural problems and took a broad look at the crisis of confidence in Guard leadership, it made a few references to some particularly egregious examples. Now, some of the alleged perpetrators of those abuses are being called out.

Troopers Investigate 2 Deaths in Shageluk

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in Bethel has deployed health care workers to the village of Shageluk where Alaska State Troopers are investigating two deaths.

KSKA DJ Shot, Killed In Home; 16-Year-Old Foster Son Charged With Murder

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

Longtime KSKA DJ Marvell Johnson was shot and killed on Tuesday. His foster son has admitted to the crime and is being charged with murder.

Parnell, Walker Spar At Soldotna Gubernatorial Debate

Shaylon Cochran, KDLL – Dillingham

Four gubernatorial candidates took questions at a Chamber of Commerce forum Wednesday in Soldotna. It quickly turned into a debate between the two bigger names on the ballot, Governor Sean Parnell and Bill Walker.

It’s Cold Out, But Bethel Shelter Won’t Open Until December

Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel

The Bethel Winter House, a non-profit homeless shelter, won’t open its doors again until December. But winter’s come early this year and that leaves the community’s homeless population, out in the cold.

Ordinance to Add Prayer In Ketchikan Schools Passes First Vote

Leila Kheiry, KRBD – Ketchikan

An ordinance that would add a prayer to the regular Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly meeting agenda passed in first reading Monday night. The vote was split 4-3, with some on the Assembly expressing concern about inadvertently excluding some people with different beliefs.

UAF Exhibit to Feature Work from Autistic Artist

The Associated Press

University of Alaska Fairbanks officials say a new art exhibit opening next week will feature the work of an artist with autism.

New Exhibit Puts An Alaska Twist on A Familiar Building Block

Zach Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

Legos—the small, colorful plastic blocks—have grown into the most common place toy in the world, with more than 5.2 million manufactured every hour. And they are not purely for toy-stores and playroom carpets anymore. A new exhibit at the Anchorage Museum focuses on Lego fine arts, and how the building blocks fit in with Alaska’s own artistic traditions.

Categories: Alaska News

Ordinance to Add Prayer In Ketchikan Schools Passes First Vote

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-10-08 17:39

An ordinance that would add a prayer to the regular Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly meeting agenda passed in first reading Monday night. The vote was split 4-3, with some on the Assembly expressing concern about inadvertently excluding some people with different beliefs.

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Six people testified during the Borough Assembly’s public comment period about the proposed prayer ordinance. Five of them favor the proposal. Of those five, three are local pastors.

Gary Souza is with the Ketchikan Church of Christ and is president of the Ketchikan Ministerial Association. That organization is, understandably, happy to endorse the proposal. Souza adds that legislative prayer is not a new thing.

“As our forefathers were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian ethic and belief. The current Congress and Senate both have chaplains in D.C. and these invocations are something that’s been carried on in Juneau for many years. We strongly support this and encourage you to embrace this and make this law.”

Dave Spokely says the country was founded by people who believed in religion. He says the Constitution makes church free of state, but doesn’t make the state free of church, and that prayer sets a moral foundation for a community.

Pastor Bill White of the Lighthouse Church of God says he’s been praying for local government for many years already.

“But it would sure be a notch in our faith if we saw that you were receiving and asking for this,” White says.

Pastor Fred Adams also spoke in favor of the ordinance. He says he has served overseas as a missionary, and that people elsewhere are observing a moral breakdown in the United States. Adams says prayer would honor what God has done for this country.

Eric Muench provided the only public comment against the proposal. He says the Assembly meetings shouldn’t be turned into quasi-religious gatherings.

“Private prayer and reflection might be useful and helpful for some, but subjecting the entire public to a unified prayer performance is coercive and objectionable to many, including me,” Muench says.

During Assembly discussion of the proposal, which was submitted by members Glen Thompson and Agnes Moran, one Assembly member tried to expand the definition of who could offer invocations.

Bill Rotecki says he’s not opposed to the concept, but he doesn’t want anyone to feel left out.

“Many people came here, not just the Founding Fathers, for religious freedom. And to institute anything as the prior religion or invocation is I think contrary to the principles on which this country was founded and has continued to be governed.”

Rotecki suggested adding atheists to the list, which already provides for any religious group that wants to offer a prayer.

Thompson objected to that.

“Atheism means not god, and that completely guts the whole intention of this ordinance and I think it’s inappropriate,” Thomspon says. “I don’t have a problem with having an inclusive denominations, be they Hindu, Islam, Bahai faith, Christian, what have you. I will draw the line on Satanists or atheists.”

The day after the Assembly meeting, Thompson recanted that comment. He now says he would be willing to hear a prayer from anyone interested in presenting one.

Rotecki’s amendment failed with only Rotecki voting in favor.

When it came to the main motion, Assembly Members Todd Phillips and Alan Bailey spoke against establishing prayer at Assembly meetings. Phillips notes that religion is personal. Bailey says he’s worried about excluding people.

Assembly Member Mike Painter, while voting in favor of introducing the ordinance, didn’t seem convinced that it’s been fully thought out. He notes that it’s not clear who will administer the invocation list, and that there’s no time limit for prayers.

Borough Clerk Kacie Paxton says it was suggested that requests to give invocations go through the clerk’s office, and Mayor Dave Kiffer says 30 to 40 seconds should be adequate for prayers.

Borough Attorney Scott Brandt-Erichsen weighed in on the legality of the language. He says the ordinance is worded well, but the borough will have to be careful about it’s administered.

“The ordinance itself simply puts a location on the agenda for an invocation, but if, in the administration of that the clerk or the mayor or whoever is charged with scheduling those is not being even-handed, then that action could create a problem.”

The ordinance passed in first reading 4-3, with Rotecki, Bailey and Phillips voting no. A public hearing and second reading of the measure are scheduled for the Assembly’s Oct. 20 regular meeting.

Categories: Alaska News

UAF Exhibit to Feature Artist With Autism

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-10-08 17:37

University of Alaska Fairbanks officials say a new art exhibit opening next week will feature the work of an artist with autism.

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The exhibit, called “From Thomas The Tank Engine To The White Pass,” is scheduled to open Monday at the UAF art department gallery in the Fine Arts Building.

The exhibit will run through Oct. 25.

Officials say the opening will include a reception and premiere screening of “Basically Me,” a 10 minute film about artist and UAF employee Ryan Matthews.

Officials say both Matthews and the maker of the film, Leonard Kamerling, are scheduled to attend the opening and will be available for discussion after the film premiere.

Categories: Alaska News

Retired Colonel Implicated In Guard Scandal

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-10-08 17:10

A recent federal investigation documented a whole host of abuses in the Alaska National Guard, ranging from mishandling of sexual assault to embezzlement. While the report largely focused on structural problems and took a broad look at the crisis of confidence in Guard leadership, it made a few references to some particularly egregious examples. Now, some of the alleged perpetrators of those abuses are being called out.

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TOWNSEND: Since the National Guard Bureau report came out, Parnell has asked for the resignations of his Adjutant General Thomas Katkus and Deputy Commissioner McHugh Pierre. But the abuses weren’t limited to those two men. Can you tell us a bit about the new players in the Guard crisis?

GUTIERREZ: The federal investigation really raised more questions than it answered, and one of the most attention-grabbing sections refers to a senior officer who retired with high military honors. The report says this officer, who was awarded the Legion of Merit, improperly interrogated a sexual assault victim. The report also says that he took helicopters out for personal reasons and that the Department of the Army Inspector General was able to substantiate this. While the National Guard Bureau wasn’t able to confirm that this section of the report refers to Col. Timothy DeHaas, the details are identifying enough that they single him out, and whistleblowers have corroborated that he’s the man in question.

TOWNSEND: What allegations have these whistleblowers made about DeHaas?

GUTIERREZ: It’s some pretty shocking stuff. I spoke with Sgt. Melissa Jones, who is now serving in Illinois but who says she was raped while in the National Guard, about Dehaas and she had harsh words for him. While Jones is now publicly identifying herself as a sexual assault survivor, she says she was trying to keep the matter private when it happened to her and that DeHaas violated her confidentiality.

She also says that DeHaas wanted victims to come to him instead of going to law enforcement first.

A flight chief I spoke to, who doesn’t want to be named for fear of reprisal, said that he inappropriately used aircraft on more than one occasion and gave an account of DeHaas taking a Black Hawk helicopter out on a bear hunt.

Ken Blaylock, who was a lieutenant colonel with the National Guard and one of the original whistleblowers who went to Sean Parnell, also suggested that DeHaas may have been involved in the illegal smuggling of AK47s from Iraq, and that he tipped off soldiers when investigators were going to catch them.

It the sort of stuff that would sound completely crazy if the Office of Complex Investigations Report didn’t suggest there was merit to these claims.

TOWNSEND: Today, there was a press conference that was specifically focused on DeHaas. Who was involved and what are they asking for?

GUTIERREZ: The press conference was called by three people with Guard experience, but none of them had actually interacted with DeHaas. Bruce Dougherty retired from the Guard four years ago, but he said he only learned of the abuses after his retirement because he was in the medical section and not really involved with what happened at headquarters. Kevin McGee, who also heads up the NAACP served in the Guard for eight years, but retired long before any of the current leadership came into power. And the third person, Shaina Kilcoyne, was with the National Guard in Wisconsin. Because none of them really had any personal connections with the stuff documented in the OCI report and because this issue has become so politically charged, there were a lot of questions about their motives, and if they had any connections to the Democratic Party or the Bill Walker campaign. They said they didn’t but that they do want to take the Governor to task for his response to this. They basically want him to acknowledge he was wrong to award the Legion of Merit to DeHaas. For its part, the Governor’s office is saying that’s it’s pretty routine for that award to be giving to someone of DeHaas’ rank at retirement.

TOWNSEND: And you talked to DeHaas today. What is he doing now and what is his response to these allegations?

GUTIERREZ: He’s still working for the federal government. He’s with the Forest Service in Idaho, and working with the smokejumpers program. He denies all of the allegations.

TOWNSEND: Do we know if any further investigations of him are being done?

GUTIERREZ: I didn’t get an answer from the Guard on that, and usually when investigations are happening, they won’t confirm they’re happening even if they are. And that’s actually one of the big tensions with all of this. There are so many questions that are in the public interest to address that came up with the OCI report. And usually when there are reports of wrongdoing or criminal activity, there’s a standard process for having information put out there while justice is served in a responsible and deliberate way. But in this case, it’s taken so long for allegations to be taken seriously that people are angry and want answers now.

Categories: Alaska News

50th Annual AVCP Convention Kicks Off in Bethel

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-10-08 16:09

Leaders from around the state gathered in Bethel Tuesday for the 50th Annual Association of Village Council Presidents Convention. Dignitaries and political leaders form across the state attended.

Leaders from around the state gathered in Bethel Tuesday for the 50th Annual Association of Village Council Presidents Convention. Photo by Dean Swope.

The Association of Village Council Presidents Convention opened at the cultural center in Bethel Tuesday. Julie Kitka, President of the Alaska Federation of Natives was the keynote speaker. She reported on two major wins in the courts for Alaska Natives this year, highlighting a federal judge’s order that the State of Alaska translate voting materials into Gwich’in and Yup’ik for Alaska Natives with limited English.

“When we talk about that we have major fights that are going on with the State of Alaska and that we are trying to protect our peoples’ rights on that, it’s very real. It’s sad that we have to do that but we’re very proud of these Native Individuals that testified as witnesses and that the judge listened and saw the truth of what they were saying,” said Kitka.

 Kitka also noted a U.S. Supreme Court decision to end the Katie John Subsistence Case after 19 years of litigation as another victory.

Lisa Murkowski addressed the 50th Annual AVCP Convention in Bethel Tuesday. Photo by Dean Swope

AVCP is a non-profit organization representing the 56 federally recognized tribes of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. During the Convention tribal representatives meet in Bethel to work on critical issues.

 Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski and Republican Representative Don Young also addressed the Convention. Senator Murkowski said the federal and state governments need to respect Native rights.

“There’s so much tension as we talk about things like jurisdiction as we talk about our ability, your ability to govern yourselves. And I think the tension comes because we’re missing that respect, that respect from the federal government and the state government respecting you and your tribal institutions and you as a people,” said Murkowski.

Don Young addressed the 50th Annual AVCP Convention in Bethel Tuesday. Photo by Dean Swope.

Representative Don Young also encouraged Native communities to take initiative to improve their own communities, especially when it comes to drugs. He said improving economic opportunities for young people is one important part of fighting the regions drug problems, but he also said it will take confronting people they know who are selling drugs.

“If someone’s screwing up in your village, he should be asked to leave. You don’t want to do that. It can’t just be enforcement from the outside cause very frankly, that’s a foreigner. It has to come from here. And you know who the drug dealer is in that town. You all know who it is. You say I can’t do it. Bull Shavy you can’t do something, it’s darn cold without a cabin. I’m saying there has to be a little bit of control in those villages, especially with this black tar heroin – it’s destroying our young people,” said Young.

The AVCP Convention runs through Thursday afternoon.

Categories: Alaska News

New Exhibit Puts An Alaska Twist On A Familiar Building Block

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-10-08 15:51

Legos—the small, colorful plastic blocks—have grown into the most common place toy in the world, with more than 5.2 million manufactured every hour.

And they are not purely for toy-stores and playroom carpets anymore.

A new exhibit at the Anchorage Museum focuses on Lego fine arts, and how the building blocks fit in with Alaska’s own artistic traditions.

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A new exhibit at the Anchorage Museum captures the art of Alaska using Legos. Photo by Zach Hughes/KSKA.

“The impetus for the exhibition came from seeing that architects were using Legos to create scale models of buildings,” explains Julie Decker, director of the museum and curator for the Brick-by-Brick exhibit, which was in the works for more than two years.

“The impetus for the exhibition came from seeing that architects were using Legos to create scale models of buildings,” explains Julie Decker, director of the museum and curator for the Brick-by-Brick exhibit, which was in the works for more than two years. Photo by Zach Hughes/KSKA.

The multiroom show on the building’s third floor features installations by globe-trotting Lego impresario Nathan Sawaya, one of the very few “Lego master builders” recognized by the brand’s governing body.

Sawaya uses the rectangular blocks to make towering monochromatic humanoids and mesmerizing faux-fabric dresses the same way a sculptor manipulates marble or bronze.

There are also works by Mike Stimpson, a U.K. artist who recreates iconic photographs like the moon landing and V-J Day kiss from the cover of Newsweek–but using little yellow Lego figurines.

“These photographs have important stories to tell,” Decker says. “So while they seem playful I think they’re actually quite rich in content.”

The exhibit does away with distinctions between an artist and an amateur, though. A few feet from Sawaya’s self-portrait (rendered, of course, in Lego) is a hall designated for community submissions, which rotate every two weeks. These pieces run the gamut—from plans to show off works only by those age five-and-under, to a detailed replica of the museum itself by a ConcoPhillips contractor—and avid Lego collector—on display now.

And the commitment to breaking down barriers goes a step further: just one door away is a large, loud playroom filled with containers of building blocks, and half-a-dozen highly engaged patrons. Most of them supervised or in strollers.

“Museums are typically hands off, but we thought it was important with this one to be hands on,” Decker said, struggling to speak above crescendos of cries and crashes.

The playroom is hardly a gimicky diversion. Brick-by-Brick wants to erase lines between play and work, kid and grown-up, high art and utilitarian tool. Lego’s first premiered in Denmark in 1949, and fit politely under the umbrella of Scandanavian design trends, melding form and function all the way from eco-friendly urban planning to resplendent can-openers. Decker tied the exhibit to the museum’s ongoing efforts to shift its focus back to Alaska and communities of the far North.

“I think it’s safe to say we’re rethinking all of our gallery space,” she said standing near an abstract Lego rendering of birch-trees. “We know that no longer are there these distinct boundaries between disciplines—between art, science, and history. We know that our job is really to just talk about Alaska as part of the North, to talk about place and the environment. And I don’t think you can do that in boxes.”

The tendency to mix art with utility, Decker insists, has always been part of the Northern tradition. Whether it’s intricate ivory tools, baskets woven with grass and baleen, or perhaps someday a Lego-based dogsled.

Mixing art with utility is a northern tradition, museum curator Julie Decker says. Photo by Zach Hughes/KSKA.

Categories: Alaska News

Unofficial Mat-Su Borough Election Results

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-10-07 22:39

 

Matanuska -  Susitna  Borough voters elected two Borough Assembly representatives on Tuesday.  The unofficial results of the Valley elections show that only  11 percent of the  Borough’s registered voters turned out at the polls on election day. They passed both ballot propositions by an overwhelming margin. Prop. One approved a reapportionment of Borough districts, while Prop. Two increased the amount to tax exemption offered to Borough seniors and disabled veterans.

 Borough District Five’s Assembly seat was won by Big Lake’s Dan Mayfield. Reached by phone Tuesday evening, Mayfield thanked his supporters. 

“I want to thank the crew that supported me. I had an absolutely fantastic campaign committee. And all the people in the district who really took the time to talk to me and let me know what was important to them. That was an awesome experience and I really want to thank them all. “

Mayfield ran against Knik/ Goose Bay’s Bill Kendig.   Steve Colligan, running unopposed, kept the District 4 Assembly seat.

Two Borough school board seats were won by Tiffany Scott and Ole Larson, both running unopposed.

Mat Su Borough officials still need to count close to 1500 absentee ballots, and more than 300 questioned ballots.  The election results remain unofficial until certified on October 21.

Two Valley cities also held elections on Tuesday. In Wasilla, Bert Cottle took almost 75 percent of the vote to win the mayor’s race over Loren Means.

Wasilla’s Colleen Sullivan – Leonard and Stuart Graham won city council seats.

In Palmer, Linda Combs and Brad Hanson won Palmer city council seats. Wasilla and Palmer election results are unofficial until certified.

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Longtime KSKA DJ Marvell Johnson murdered

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-10-07 21:27

Long-time KSKA DJ Marvell Johnson was shot and killed on Tuesday. His 16-year-old foster son has admitted to the crime and is being charged with murder. 

According to a police department release, a student reported the shooting to a school police officer early Tuesday morning. When officers arrived at Johnson’s house, they found him dead in his bedroom from several gunshot wounds.

Johnson’s 16-year-old foster child, Peter John Henry, was asleep in another room. When questioning Henry, the police learned the boy was angry with Johnson for grounding him because he used the drug Spice and because Johnson took his vapor cigarette charger. Henry admitted to stealing the ammunition he used from a local department store. The theft was caught on tape.

The student who reported the murder told police that Henry said he was going to shoot Johnson, but the student did not believe him.

Henry told police he tried to make the shooting look like a robbery. He emptied Johnson’s wallet and left it in front of the house and stole other items. Henry also allegedly threatened to kill the student if he didn’t help him destroy evidence by washing the gun in a nearby creek and destroying the home’s surveillance cameras.

Marvell Johnson

Henry has been charged as an adult and is being held without bail.

The 64-year-old Johnson hosted Soul to Soul on KSKA-Anchorage for 35 years. On the show, Johnson seamlessly flowed between new and old soul music. Between sets he helped connect inmates in Alaska’s prisons with their loved ones by sharing dedications and requests.

“You know, back in the day, people couldn’t wait until Saturday night to call Marvell Johnson to make a request or a dedication,” recalled Reggie Ward, Johnson’s long-time friend and fellow DJ. ”It was so special for a lot of people. And it’s helped so many people, in terms of people maybe having relationship problems or just the fact that they get to hear their names mentioned on the radio. It was a huge deal.”

Ward said Soul to Soul helped start urban radio in Alaska. Johnson trained and mentored many of the DJs at KSKA, KNBA, and around Anchorage.

“He set the tone. He set the example, not so much in his words but in his actions. He was so professional and he loved what he did. We all basically just took his lead.”

When Johnson wasn’t mixing music, he was out fishing, working at UAA in the facilities department, or caring for his foster children.

Categories: Alaska News

Federal Court Strikes Down Gay Marriage Ban in Idaho, Nevada

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-10-07 17:45

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down gay marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada on Tuesday. The federal court also has jurisdiction over Alaska, where five same sex couples are suing to overturn the state’s ban on same sex marriage.

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Joshua Decker is executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Alaska. He says the arguments Alaska’s making to defend its ban are the same ones Idaho and Nevada made:

“I don’t see how anyone could read today’s opinion by the 9th circuit and see how Alaska could have any leg to stand on to try to defend it’s unconstitutional ban.”

A state spokesperson says the Department of Law is reviewing the decision and declined to make someone available for an interview.

Caitlin Shortell is an attorney in Anchorage who is representing the Alaskan couples who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for Friday afternoon. But Shortell says the 9th circuit has given the Alaska court its marching orders:

“The district court in our case is bound to follow the decision of the 9th circuit striking down pretty much identical laws banning equal marriage.”

Shortell says she expects marriage equality to be a reality in Alaska soon. Alaska’s gay marriage ban has been in place since 1998.

Categories: Alaska News

Arctic Summit Tackles A Diverse Spread of Issues

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-10-07 17:44

The Institute of the North is bringing together policy makers and local shareholders to discuss short- and long-term goals for America’s presence in the far north during it’s “Week of the Arctic” in Nome, Kotzebue, and Barrow.

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Balancing larger Arctic ambitions with more local, immediate needs—like running water and affordable energy—dominated the discussion Monday. Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Institute of the North, says the conversation was wide-ranging … and admittedly ambitious.

“For as much as the long list of infrastructure and needs is, it’s not all going to get addressed, through the work that we are doing.”

Andreassen struck a realistic tone—that the scope of issues in the Arctic far outweigh the money and political will needed to accomplish them.

And those needs are many: after an early-morning meeting with Mayor Denise Michels and the heads of Kawerak, Sitnasuaq, and other regional leaders, Andreassen opened up the floor of Nome’s City Council chambers to public input.

Nome’s Chuck Wheeler was the first to the podium—lambasting recent assessments that a deep-water harbor at Port Clarence near Brevig Mission and Teller wouldn’t affect fish, wildlife, or other subsistence resources.

“We own this land. The government is just a trustee. Number one priority is to protect the land, preserve it, and enhance it. But when economic development comes, and big money, they forget about that money. Case in point, the Port Clarence facility for the deep draft port. There’s 600 plus native tribal entities that live in these three villages, and they’re going to be impacted. Where’s their consideration? That should be a priority. I’ve got a granddaughter who lives in Brevig [Mission]. She’s going to be impacted on it. My son’s a full shareholder of Teller Native. He’s going to be impacted. To say there’s no impact is asinine,” Wheeler says.

Focusing on energy security, Gwenn Holdman with the Alaska Center for Power at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks says, for all the talk of Arctic ambitions—and the very real concerns for preparedness as more ships transit Arctic waters—the central problem of affordable, sustainable energy is what will ultimately decide the fate of many Arctic communities.

“Energy is an issue that’s going to underlie any of the goals you seek to accomplish here. When you’re looking at infrastructure build-out, when you’re looking at oil spill response, all of that, I think that the role of affordable energy has been underplayed in a lot of these conversations. I’d like you to consider thinking about energy a little more broadly,” Holdman says.

Art Ivanoff with the Bering Sea Alliance spoke to needs for education and job experience for youth in rural communities. Ivanoff says kids in those communities need exposure to the jobs and careers of people working in the Arctic—citing a recent visit to Gambell by the U.S. Coast Guard as an example.

“And for me it was like germinating a seed, and it’s really important that we give those kids that insight to career opportunities that they’ve never seen before. But these types of efforts are necessary, and critical, to build our economy but to safeguard our resources that we depend on as well,” Ivanoff says.

And Washington state senator Kevin Ranker, attending as part of the Joint Oceans Commission, urged Alaska law- and policy makers to expand the conversation about the U.S. Arctic beyond Alaska—and to other Pacific states like Washington.

“There are similar economic drivers that connect the Arctic to Washington state,” Ranker says. “What’s the port route system between the Arctic and increased vessel traffic to the ports of Tacoma and Seattle? I think its very important that we not only, in Washington, D.C., elevate the importance in the Arctic, but also in the state connections. The Arctic needs a larger congressional delegation representing the Arctic. If we can get Washington congressional delegates and Washington state legislators to start thinking why the Arctic matters, for a local reason, those are really interesting drivers that start to elevate this dialogue beyond why Alaska is the only Arctic connection.”

After the open house, the Week of the Arctic moved to Nome’s Mini Convention Center for a series of presentations and panel discussions. Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation representatives gave visitors a run-down of the Community Development Quota, or CDQ program, used to manage marine resources and community investment in the region.

Larry Cotter, CEO of APICDA —the CDQ for the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands—says the success of Alaska’s CDQ groups can be translated to other Arctic nations—an issue of heightened significance as the U.S. prepares to take over the international Arctic Council in April.

“I’d say, absolutely. What you’re talking about doing is taking a portion of a common-property resource and in essence providing that resource to the communities, to determine how to use it to the best benefit to the communities. And the same thing can be done in other arctic countries around the world,” Cotter says.

Meanwhile a separate roundtable was held late in the day involving young leaders from the Bering Strait region. Andreasson and other young professionals discussed a shared vision for a health Arctic future—involving “adaptation” and “balancing” traditional knowledge with contemporary technologies and education.

During a panel discussing maritime navigation and forecasting, Amy Holman with the National Oceania and Atmospheric Administration shared a five-year plan building more accurate forecasts for ice formation and breakup in the Bering Strait.

At another panel on oil spill response, Dennis Young—representing North Star Stevedore—urged local leaders to take an active part in long-discussed Arctic port development, and to prepare for growth. He emphasized a need to communicate with state and federal organizations to hold “foreign flagged” vessels accountable as Bering Sea traffic increases.

The Week of the Arctic conference continues in Nome on Tuesday with several workshops and a federal listening session. The conference moves to Kotzebue on Wednesday and Thursday before concluding in Barrow Friday and Saturday.

Categories: Alaska News

Kuskokwim River May Meet Its Chinook Escapement Goal

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-10-07 17:43

Unprecedented closures kept fishermen this summer from targeting king salmon in an effort to bring more fish to spawning grounds after several poor runs. The drainage-wide results showing how well the management worked are now beginning arrive, and the state says the Kuskokwim may have achieved its critical Chinook escapement goal.

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Photo by Shane Iverson / KYUK.

John Linderman is Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Regional Supervisor with the Division of commercial fisheries. He says the fisherman deserve a thanks for their sacrifices this summer.

“The result this year is that we saw escapements overall compared to 2013 well, about double, or a little bit higher than that. So, much improved escapement this year compared to 2013, with many more escapement goals being achieved, however, two primary tributaries: the Kogrukluk river at the headwaters of the Holitna river and the Kwethluk in the lower river, their escapement goals were not achieved this year,” said Linderman.

A preliminary report published last week says the drainage wide escapement goal was likely met. Managers however are not committing until they’ve worked through all of the data in the coming weeks.

“There’s a chance that yes we could have achieved the goal this year. But the big wild card in that equation is the fact that two signification tributaries did not meet their escapement goals. It makes it that much more difficult. If it was a bit more black and white, if a minority of goals were reached or all goals were reached it’d be easier to try and draw conclusions at this point,” said Linderman.

Lisa Olson, the deputy director for State’s Subsistence Division says work is underway for next year’s planning.

“Now is the time to starting thinking what would work for 2015, what did not work well in 2014, and I hope that people in the area get involved,” said Olson.

Federal managers were in control of the Chinook fishery last summer after the federal subsistence board took action to federalize the management. No one knows yet what will be happen next year in terms of management, but Linderman says fishermen will likely see restrictions on par with this year.

“It’s an unfortunate reality of the current situation and the current poor abundance that the Kuskokwim Chinook run finds itself in, there just isn’t enough to provide for the demand that’s out there with respect to chinook salmon. That is the current expectation that we would expect the season to start with similar restrictions to what we saw in 2014,” said Linderman.

Subsistence fishing will likely be at the forefront at the Association of Village Council Presidents Convention, which hosts a subsistence panel Tuesday afternoon. The forum will include Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, AVCP Attorney Sky Starkey, and Federal Manager Gene Peltola Junior, plus Victor Joseph, the CEO of the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Categories: Alaska News

In New Ad, Begich Pledges to Work on Fixing Health Care Law

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-10-07 17:42

For those who want to unseat U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, one strategy has prevailed from the start: Bind him to President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. A new ad from Republican challenger Dan Sullivan is typical of that approach.

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“….Mark Begich votes with Obama 97 percent of the time. For ObamaCare….”

But Begich, in a new radio ad running statewide, is taking the politically risky tactic of embracing the unpopular law.

“Before the healthcare law was passed one third of Alaskans who tried to get individual policies were denied for preexisting conditions and other reasons.”

The ad says Begich is working to fix the law and make coverage more affordable. Obama is especially unpopular in Alaska. A national polling firm last month found 56 percent of Alaskans disapprove of the job the president’s doing, while a Dittman poll put the figure at 65 percent. The minute-long Begich ad never uses the words “Obama,” “ObamaCare” or the “Affordable Care Act.”

Categories: Alaska News

Southeast Ballot Issues Cover Taxes, Infrastructure and More

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-10-07 17:41

Communities across Alaska are voting in municipal elections today. They are electing city council and assembly members and weighing in on local ballot measures. Some Southeast Alaska voters will consider how to raise revenues and what to spend them on.

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At least a dozen ballot measures are going before Southeast’s voters.

The city of Ketchikan, for example, wants the OK to raise money to replace aging water and sewer lines.

That could sound boring. But it won’t be if lines up to 50 years old break and spill their contents.

“It’s not a question of if that system’s going to fail. It’s a question of it will fail.”

That’s Ketchikan City Manager Karl Amylon answering a council question during a meeting last summer.

A pair of ballot measures would raise $10 million for the projects. Officials say the state will reimburse 70 percent of the total cost.

Council member KJ Harris usually opposes bond issues, but not this time.

“To me, this is a need, not a want. We’ve got to have infrastructure.”

Critics say the city already has too much bond debt.

Petersburg voters face seven ballot issues, most addressing taxes.

Four would change different aspects of the local senior citizen sales tax exemption. Two would limit the break to locals, while one would exempt only food and heating fuel.

Another would make plans to phase out the break.

Municipal Clerk Kathy O’Rear says if that measure passes, only those 65 and older by the end of 2019 would be eligible.

“So eventually, the senior citizens’ sale tax exemption will sunset or go away,” O’Rear says.

Petersburg sales tax committee member Lee Corrao is OK with residency requirements. But he’s not fond of the overall approach, which will increase municipal revenues.

“They’ll just spend it. I don’t want to give it to them. And I don’t think most taxpayers want to just give them money unless there’s justification for it. This is not the way to do it. We have bond measures if we have projects we need to fund.”

In Skagway, voters will be asked to approve a bond measure funding a new, $12 million public safety facility.

Skagway Mayor Mark Schaefer, at an August meeting, said it’s an important need for the community’s tourism economy.

“The buildings were use now are totally inadequate for the industry we serve. They’re quite shameful, in fact,” Schaefer says.

A companion measure would increase Skagway’s seasonal sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent.

That’s expected to raise enough money to pay back the bonds, which are a type of loan.

Critics are mostly concerned about the sales tax increase, because it would raise prices for residents, not just tourists.

Juneau has one ballot proposition in this election.

It would create what’s called an empowered board that could set budgets and raise revenues for the capital city’s two swimming pools.

Supporters say a stronger board could attract more swimmers and other users, and help pay for needed repairs.

Critics say the measure would put too much emphasis on one part of the community’s recreation programs.

Categories: Alaska News

‘Blood Moon’ Forecast Strong in Alaska Tonight

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-10-07 17:40

People here in Alaska and in much of this part of the Northern Hemisphere will get a chance tonight to see a total lunar eclipse, weather permitting.  It’ll be another appearance of the so-called “Blood Moon.”

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Tonight’s total lunar eclipse is expected to peak just before 3 a.m. Wednesday.
Credit earthsky.org

Fairbanks National Weather Service meteorologist Ben Bartos says there’s a pretty good chance for skywatchers to see the eclipse here in the Interior.

“Tonight we’ll have partly cloudy skies,” Bartos said. “Looks like (it will be) pretty crisp out, so if you’re going to step outside to see it, dress warm. We’re looking at lows between 5 and 15 above overnight.”

But you’ll either have to stay up late or get up very early to see it. Fairbanks amateur astronomer Martin Gutoski says it’ll begin around 1:15 Wednesday morning, but the “totality” of the Earth’s shadow darkening the moon won’t begin until about 2:25 a.m. The moon should be darkest just before 3, and the event will be over around 4:30.

Gutoski says the moon’s position in the sky will be about the same as the lunar eclipse that occurred earlier this year.

“It’ll be low on the horizon, like it was in April,” he said.

And like that earlier eclipse, Gutoski says the moon will again be orange or reddish, which is why it’s called the Blood Moon.

It appears that way because of the Earth’s atmosphere, says Peter Delamere. He’s an associate professor of space physics with the UAF physics department and Geophysical Institute.

“Because of the Earth’s atmosphere, the green and the ultraviolet light is filtered out,” Delamere said. “And the red is the least affected as it moves through the atmosphere. So not only is it the least affected, it also bends or it’s refracted towards the Earth’s surface. So, as the light from the sun moves through the atmosphere, and it is bent, it gets bent toward the location of the moon behind Earth.”

Gutoski says the appearance of the Blood Moon has throughout history often been interpreted as an omen of bad things to come.

Planting his tongue firmly in his cheek, Gutoski offers another theory – a decidedly less-cosmic explanation…

“The one is April was right during your tax-submittal deadline for the IRS,” he said. “And Oct. 15 is the deadline for extensions of time from the April 15th IRS reporting. So maybe it’s tied to the IRS.”

If so, Gutoski suggests the Blood Moon may mean a fate worse than the fire, floods and plagues of biblical times.

“If you postpone your income tax, like I did in April, ’til Oct. 15th, this should be a harbinger to get your taxes done,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re going to draw blood out of you.”

Categories: Alaska News

At UAA, New Trees Sprout Alongside New Buildings

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-10-07 17:39

Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities and Maintenance at UAA, Chris Turletes, helps load up wheelbarrows for volunteers to plant. Photo by Ashley Snyder/APRN.

More than a dozen people gathered at the Alaska Airlines Center on Friday with shovels, wheelbarrows and small potted trees in tow. All were on a mission and none were afraid to get their hands dirty. Their goal? To plant 300 trees to take the place of some that were cut down during the many construction projects on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus.

Download Audio: The University of Alaska Anchorage has just completed two major projects, the Alaska Airlines Center and the Engineering Building, and recently started another, a new parking garage.  thousands of trees were cleared to make room for these buildings. But the University has implemented a “no net tree loss” system so that for every tree lost, a new one is planted. So on Friday, a group of students, faculty and staff at UAA spent the morning planting new seedlings.

Trees were planted to make up for the trees that were cleared for the construction of UAA’s new Alaska Airlines Center. Photo by Ashley Snyder/APRN.

One of the leads for the event, Ryan Buchholdt, business manager for facilities and campus services, says the math for the program is pretty simple.

“We did a study several years back that there is about 445 trees per acre when we clear land for a construction project, and then that determines what our quote “tree debt” is. So our goal is to, not necessarily right away, but over the next few years to make sure that we replace all of those trees lost due to construction.” In the summer alone the university has planted over 6,000 trees on University land in the Kenai Peninsula and Palmer. On the Anchorage campus, with winter fast approaching, there was little time to spare to plant the remainder of the small birch and pine trees. Horticulturalist Kara Monroe used her expertise to help the cause. She was happy to see the turnout of volunteers. “I was really surprised. We called on the community, mainly students to come in and help us out and there’s way more that I thought out here. So that’s really cool. We are going through these trees awfully fast.” That was student horticulturalist Omar Vilafuerte, working to further his education and help the environment at the same time. It didn’t take long for volunteers to get the hang of digging, unpotting, planting, covering and then repeating it for the next tree. But it was difficult work. Volunteer, Kelly Donnelly found it took a little extra elbow power at times to get the job done. “There are more roots than you anticipate. The ground looks soft and you dig in and then you realize oh there’s a root there and you gotta find another place, or dig through it! It’s great!” Once all 300 trees were planted the volunteers, eating pizza, got to sit back and admire the trees. Future students will likely appreciate them too.
Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: October 7, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-10-07 17:36

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

Download Audio:

Federal Court Striks Down Gay Marriage Ban in Idaho, Nevada

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The 9th circuit court of appeals struck down gay marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada today. The federal court also has jurisdiction over Alaska, where five same sex couples are suing to overturn the state’s ban on same sex marriage.

Arctic Summit Tackles A Diverse Spread of Issues

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

The Institute of the North is in Nome this week for the fourth-annual Week of the Arctic—bringing together policy makers and local shareholders to discuss short- and long-term goals for America’s presence in the far north.

Kuskokwim River May Meet Chinook Escapement Goal

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Unprecedented closures kept fishermen this summer from targeting king salmon in an effort to bring more fish to spawning grounds after several poor runs. The drainage-wide results showing how well the management worked are now beginning arrive, and the state says the Kuskokwim may have achieved its critical Chinook escapement goal.

In New Ad, Begich Embraces His Vote on Obamacare

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

For those who want to unseat U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, one strategy has prevailed from the start: Bind him to President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. A new ad from Republican challenger Dan Sullivan is typical of that approach.

Southeast Ballot Issues Cover Taxes, Infrastructure and More

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Communities across Alaska are voting in municipal elections today. They are electing city council and assembly members and weighing in on local ballot measures.

‘Blood Moon’ Forecast Strong in Alaska Tonight

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

People here in Alaska and in much of this part of the Northern Hemisphere will get a chance tonight to see a total lunar eclipse, weather permitting.

At UAA, New Trees Sprout Alongside New Construction

Ashley Snyder, APRN – Anchorage

Over a dozen people gathered at the Alaska Airlines Center on Friday with shovels, wheelbarrows and small potted trees in tow. All were on a mission and none were afraid to get their hands dirty. Their goal? To plant 300 trees to take the place of some that were cut down during the many construction projects on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus.

National Geographic Photographer Paul Nicklen Talks On Arctic Environments

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen has traveled to some of the most remote regions of the globe to document the effects of climate change. He has plunged into icy water and floated on sea ice to photograph sea mammals that rarely encounter humans. This week he travels to Anchorage to share stories of documenting the Arctic.

Categories: Alaska News

National Geographic Live – Paul Nicklen

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-10-07 12:19

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen takes audiences to the vast polar regions of our planet. Paul Nicklen and leopard seal, Antarctica. (Image credit: Ehlme Goran)

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen has traveled to some of the most remote regions of the globe to document the effects of climate change. He has plunged into icy water and floated on sea ice to photograph sea mammals that rarely encounter humans.

Nicklen worked as a biologist in Alaska before becoming a professional photographer. He says his love of the Arctic developed as a kid, growing up in a tiny Arctic village on Baffin Island in Canada.

Download Audio

Photographer Paul Nicklen will talk about his work and show slides tonight at Atwood Concert Hall in Anchorage. The talk is presented by the Anchorage Museum.

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen takes audiences to the vast polar regions of our planet. Emperor Penguins, Ross Sea, Antarctica. (Image credit: Paul Nicklen)

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen takes audiences to the vast polar regions of our planet. Walrus, Svalbard, Norway. (Image credit: Paul Nicklen)

TOWNSEND: How did you first get started as a polar regions photographer?

NICKLEN: Funny you would even start there — that’s the start of my talk. How do you become who you are? For me, it was when my family moved from southern Canada to Baffin Island, where we lived in a tiny Inuit community of 190 people.

You know back in the 70s we never had radio. We didn’t have television. We didn’t even have a telephone in this community. We got our groceries once a year by ship, so a lot of these Alaskan communities can relate.

You become so immersed in that environment, you become so immersed in that culture and for myself all my entertainment, all my pleasure, came from being outside.

The Inuit were my teachers. They taught me survival skills, they taught me how to hunt, they taught me how to survive on the land. I never really realized how deeply engrained that was into my, sort of spirit, until I left and went to university and every second I missed the north.

I came back as a biologist and became frustrated with the whole scientific process. Working for the Canadian government is extremely slow and can be very ineffective. We were collecting great data but we weren’t doing anything with it. I thought if I could just bridge the gap between this good scientific work and the public — then now, I have a chance to reach 100 million people with a story in National Geographic magazine for example.”

TOWNSEND: Paul, tell me about some of your most memorable photography expeditions in the arctic. What stands out?

NICKLEN: I have had so many incredible journeys. When I look at my images, people say what’s your favorite photo? Well I don’t really ever have a favorite photo; I have favorite moments that will stay with me forever. On my death bed it’s going to be not surrounded by covers of National Geographic, but it’s going to be memories and hopefully friends and family.

You know for myself, swimming with narwhals to find out they really are these unicorns of the sea and very few people have seen them. It took me ten years to get in a position that I could actually photograph them. It involved me buying an ultra light float airplane that I could fly off the sea ice. We flew 100 miles of shore, landed on a floating pan of ice; we were surrounded by 1,000 narwhales. They were scenes that nobody else could ever dream of or imagine; scenes that very few people besides the Inuit would ever get the chance to see — to reach out and be able to touch their tusks as they are blowing for air and photograph.

Also spending time with grizzly bears in Denali National Park alone, hiking with them. I was sitting in Denali one day and I was young, I was 19 years old, and right in front of me were a bunch of Dall sheep and I heard a noise behind me and it was a big grizzly bear walking behind me and I looked over to the left there and there was a wolverine running up the hill. I had to pinch myself that all of these things were going on at the same time.

TOWNSEND: You have also photographed in Antarctica. Tell us about your encounter with a big leopard seal there.

NICKLEN: I’m always trying to dispel myths with my photography. It drives me crazy when I go into a bookstore in Alaska and it’s like ‘death by bear’ and ‘Alaska tales of death’ and every picture’s got a bear on the cover that’s snarling. Bears don’t even growl like that, you know? Maybe it’s yawning or maybe a trainer is making it yawn in the picture. You know that stuff just really irks me — these animals need a fair shake, these animals are just trying to survive.

So, to have leopard seals be the villain in “8 below 0” and “Happy Feet” as this vicious monster? I don’t think any animal is vicious and we have to change how we perceive and how we connect with these species and ecosystems.

If I want people to care about ice, I can’t afford to have people thinking “Oh Antarctica? Ice? That’s where those terrible monsters live!” So I pitched a story to National Geographic to go down to Antarctica and get in the water with as many leopard seals as I could over a six week period, just to see if they were vicious or misunderstood.

I was nervous jumping in the water this first day with this 1,000 pound female leopard seal that had just killed a penguin and there was blood and guts everywhere. She was ramming the dead penguin under the hull of our little Zodiac, and we were trying not to fall in the water — and that’s when I had to get in.

So I put on my snorkel in my mouth, and my mask, and my dry suit, and weight belt and jumped in the water. And right away this 1,000 pound seal, that’s a head bigger than Grizzly bear, came shooting over to me. She kept doing these threat display lunges at me but it never really looked aggressive. If you look at a leopard seal they have no scars on their body, so I think they are always communicating with these displays.

She calmed downed after five minutes and then she went off and got a penguin and tried to feed me the penguin; a live one. And then she realized I couldn’t catch that and so she brought me tired penguins, nearly dead penguins, and she brought me dead penguins. At one point I had five dead penguins floating around my head. She started to flip penguins onto my head. She defended me from other leopard seals when they came by. And she would come and sleep by my sailboat at night and then in the morning when I’d go back out on the Zodiaq she’d be there waiting for us like a big excited puppy dog.

We’d drive over to wherever we wanted to photograph her next to ice bergs. She’d go off and get a penguin and we’d do this song and dance and this went on for four days before she finally realized that I wasn’t going to eat a penguin. I went from being terrified to laughing so hard and crying in my mask; it was tears of joy and water flooding in my mask. I was constantly clearing my mask trying to just see this amazing thing going on in front of me. It is something that I definitely will never forget.”

TOWNSEND: You were adopted by a leopard seal?

NICKLEN: I think you can be anthropomorphic or anthropocentric on these types of encounters. But I really think that in her eyes she was just trying to figure out what I was doing there. She probably has never seen a human being before. You are either breeding or you are feeding, so I think she thought if she could just get me to accept a penguin, she would understand why I was there. And then I think it became this urgent need to make sure I wasn’t going to starve. All of a sudden I think she went from figuring out what I was, to trying to help me. Again you don’t want to be anthropomorphic about this stuff but I don’t know how else to think about it.

TOWNSEND: Give us some context about the change in the Arctic that you’ve seen in the time that you’ve been a professional photographer.

NICKLEN: That’s a great question. 20 years ago, you think of a place like Svalbard, Norway that’s only 700 miles from the North Pole. It’s historically been completely surrounded by ice all summer long. You have these shelves of ice, massive glaciers and you’ve got the sea ice and pack ice and it’s all swirling around.

On that ice supports a huge population of polar bears for example; 3000 bears live on these ice floes and they are able to feed on seals all summer long. Just think, now 10 years forward to 2006/2007 we were trying to photograph a story there, we had to keep putting the story on hold for three years because there was no ice to be found anywhere and the bears were stranded on land. Not only was there not ice in the summertime, there wasn’t ice there in the winter. These bears are finding little strips of ice. You think of seals where they give birth to their pups on the ice; it’s affecting them. It’s affecting copepods and amphipods and polar cod. It’s affecting the whole food chain; it’s not just bears that are being affected.

Just this summer I decided to go back. We started a non-profit called “Sea Legacy” which is trying to bring attention to these global issues like climate change and global fisheries, and so this donor paid for this trip for us to go there and photograph. The entire Nordaustlandet ice cap was melting; usually you see a trickle of waterfall here and there. We saw hundreds of waterfalls just gushing water off this ice cap. And that’s fine, how do you quantify that?

But, in places traditionally where there is ice, the last little pockets of ice that remain there all summer long were complete gone. We started walking across the land and were finding dead bears that had starved to death. We were finding bears that were two, three years old that had died.

So it was an amazing opportunity as a storyteller to be able to actually document these dead bears and just contrast that in conjunction with the melting ice and not having any ice anywhere around Svalbard for the bears.

TOWNSEND: What do you really hope to accomplish with the pictures that you take?

NICKLEN: Everybody has a role to play. The scientists; without science my pictures don’t mean a lot. They are more of my own emotional interpretation. But, I think since the beginning of time, since the time of drawing painting on cave walls, we are visual storytellers. You think of the Inuit culture, it’s very visual, very creative, very artistic.

I think we’ve been beating people over the head with facts of climate change in the newspapers, you read about it every day. I think we’ve become inundated with it; I think we’ve become numb to it. So I’m just using my photographs as constant reminders. And we are seeing a shift in people’s perceptions about the change. Not only am I trying to inspire change, I am also trying to drive change with decision makers and influential people.

Categories: Alaska News
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