Water World: Soldotna man creates his own Garden of Eden

Posted: Sunday, July 28, 2002

Kearlee Ray Wright is not a man who does things halfway.

One look at the three-story log house he built on his property off Mackey Lake Road in Soldotna or a tour of the state-of-the-art recording studio he installed in his basement is evidence of that. If further proof is necessary, it lies right outside his door in the form of a 300-foot water garden, compete with ponds, water plants and fish, designed, constructed and maintained by Wright himself.

What started as a desire for a fancy birdbath has turned into an elaborate sustained aquatic ecosystem in Wright's front yard. Five years ago, Wright was in a pet store in Anchorage and noticed how much fun the birds seemed to have splashing and bathing in the water pools. Having a soft spot for birds, himself -- he has parakeets, an adopted African gray parrot named Boo-Boo and a rescued cockatiel, along with his dog, Midi, and what he calls "the laziest cat you've ever seen" -- he decided to build a pool in his own yard.

"I thought, 'Why don't I make a bird pond?" he said. "'Then I thought, 'Why don't I build a fish pond to go with it?'"

That simple ambition didn't stay simple for long.

Construction on the pond began that May, as soon as Wright could get a shovel through the thawing ground. He asked around about how to build a fish pond and came up with a design, which he plotted out to scale on paper first.

He followed the advice he was given and ended up with a 16-foot-by-12-foot pond that was 4-feet deep and stocked with 30 fish, including goldfish, koi and rainbow trout from a hatchery.

"I didn't have any idea what I was doing," he said. "(And) nobody really knew the system. They said 'Get a liner, dig a hole, put the liner in and fill it up with water, throw some fish in there and some plants.' And it didn't work."

For one thing, no one told Wright he should make the pond four feet deep in the center and shallower around the edges. His pond was 4-feet deep up to the edge, so there was nothing stopping the fish from swimming to the edge and flopping out.

"The fish just jumped out," he said. "If I was not standing right there when they jumped, they died."

 

Water from one of Kearlee Ray Wright's ponds cascades over rocks as it enters a stream that leads to another pond.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

The biggest problem was one Wright would battle for two years -- algae. His pond was soon overrun with it and the water become dank and murky.

"There's nothing more awful to have than a green, ugly-looking pond. You know there's pretty fish in there, but you never see them, because the water's so bad."

Wright tried different pumps and filters and pretty much anything anyone recommended, but to no avail.

"I spent thousands of dollars on stuff that

didn't work and didn't solve my problem," he said. "I decided I'd spent too much money, so I just got a plane ticket."

The plane ticket was to Los Angeles three years ago, where Wright sought out a business that installs professional water garden systems. He brought along his vision for a far more elaborate water system that he wanted to install, complete with a series of ponds, a fish ladder and levee system, and even a spawning area for the fish. He also brought detailed, to-scale, plans of what he wanted.

"They saw my paper and looked at it in amazement," he said. "They'd never put in something so big."

The contractors wanted Wright to pay them to come to Alaska and install the water garden for him, but he politely refused on financial and principled grounds. He didn't have the money for them to come do it, and he wanted to do it himself.

"The only way I could see that somebody making the kind of money I make could have something like this is if I did it myself,'" he said.

The do-it-yourself philosophy was nothing new to Wright. The 44-year-old has built himself a 3,800-square-foot log house when he had no more construction knowledge than a shop class in high school. He sold everything he had, moved in with his parents, saved his money and bought his property in 1989.

 

A flowering plant floats on the surface of one of Wright's ponds.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

The basement, roof and logs of the house were installed professionally, but he watched the builders and learned quickly enough to finish the rest on his own, including some stonework along the basement level of the home. Paying a contractor to do that job would have cost $25,000, Wright said, but he bought himself a book and a permit and did it himself for $700.

"It was an eight-year project for me. I did it, and I'm happy with myself."

The recording studio he built in his basement is another proud feature to the home.

"There's nothing you can do musically that can't be done here," he said of the audio facility. "You can shoot a 38 pistol (in the ensemble room) and you wouldn't hear it in the control room."

Wright is mainly a pianist, but can also play the keyboard, harmonica, guitar, clarinet, or just about any other instrument he picks up. He has had a lifelong love of music and has even filled in for absent band members for performers like the Wilborn Brothers, Hank Thompson and Olivia Newton John.

He had hoped the studio would supplement his income from his previous career -- a pilot. Wright spent 25 years flying in Southcentral Alaska, and only gave it up because the airlines he worked for out of Soldotna no longer existed.

"I don't want to fly so bad that I'd leave my corner of the world," said Wright, who has spent virtually all his life in Soldotna and graduated from Kenai Central High School in about 1975.

When it came time to apply his penchants for planning and hard work to his water garden project, Wright was ready.

He worked out an arrangement where the business would show him what to do if he bought his building materials and supplies from them. He headed back to Alaska armed with new materials and new information. After spending eight hours a day, every day, for three months that summer, Wright had his "fish pond," and then some.

"I was a quite flabbergasted, it's amazing," said Misty Perry, Wright's fiancee. "I wish that people could know that something like this exists, it's so enjoyable."

The finished water garden is comprised of three ponds and a stream that flows through them. It is in a gently sloped, lightly wooded area next to his house with a suspension bridge connecting his deck and a staircase descending into the garden. He designed the layout so the ponds would be nestled among the existing trees, and the stream would wind between them. That way he could disturb the environment as little as possible.

The garden is framed and intersected by a gravel path that crosses the stream via wooden footbridges in several locations. The first pond is 12-feet by 12-feet and 3-feet deep. The stream originates there and flows into the second pond, which is 20-feet by 25-feet and 3-feet deep. From there the stream flows down the levee system and fish ladder into the main fish pond, which is 55-feet by 20-feet and 4.5-feet deep. It is here the fish reside, although they can get up into the rest of the system if they want to.

The garden is alive with insect and aquatic life. Currently, 20 fish live in the pond, along with frogs, eels, fresh water clams and water beetles. The goldfish and koi died when they got trapped in shallow water one winter. The fish pond is deep enough that it doesn't freeze to the bottom. But the spawning area at the mouth of the fish ladder is shallower, and for some reason the goldfish and koi were hiding there one winter when the water froze and they froze along with it, Wright said.

But the other fish are there, and provide Wright with plenty of entertainment.

"I really enjoy the sounds of the water and watching the fish," he said. "I've read that fish are solitary creatures, but that just can't be so. I've seen them play, stalk, hunt. I've seen a fish that is hurt and other fish that tend to it and seem to be trying to help it."

 

Kearlee Ray Wright's fiancee Misty Perry walks past one of the couple's three ponds.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Feeding time is especially entertaining. Wright stands on his deck above the fish pond, flicks pieces of cheese, bread and fruit into the water and watches the show the trout put on as they compete for the morsels, sometimes jumping completely out of the water.

The fish's favorite food is salmon eggs, which Wright begs off salmon fishers. He runs the eggs through a caviar strainer, then freezes them in five tablespoon amounts. The fish get one bag of five tablespoons of eggs per day. Wright records exactly how much they have to eat each day. Overfeeding them would pollute the system.

There is a drain at the bottom of the fish pond that filters out waste so Wright doesn't have to wade in the pond to clean it. There's also two skimmers that suck water through a filter and pump it underground through two, 3-inch PVC pipes into the bottom of the first pond, which is called a bog, up flow or filter pond.

The bottom of the pond is lined with two feet of pea gravel, where billions of tiny organisms live. The gravel and organisms filter out and dispose of fish waste and other debris so only clean water is pumped back into the system. By the time it reaches the fish pond, it is crystal clear. So clear, that Wright can point out differences in the fish.

A key element to the smooth operation of the system is the plants Wright has interspersed throughout the garden. The plants act as filters, oxygenators and animal and insect habitat. They also compete for some of the same nutrients the algae does, so their presence deprives algae and harmful bacteria of the food they need to survive.

"It's a living ecosystem in itself," Wright said. "I have to have water movement, the plants are a type of filter system, and the fish are good to have. All these things compete with each other to keep the water clean. I controlled the environment so the beneficial bacteria will grow and snuff out the bad bacteria."

Some of the plants in the garden, mostly the ones planted alongside the stream, are purchased from nurseries, but 95 percent of the plants are ones Wright has found in the wild and transplanted.

"A lot of people who build these things get plants from all over the world that won't survive, and they could be harmful," he said. "I go stomping around in the woods and bogs and streams and ponds and take note of how deep of water a plant was in, what it's close to and try to place it in the same spot here."

He's got shrubs from Seward, grasses from Soldotna Creek, devil's club, lupine, wild geraniums, ostrich ferns, water lilies, cattails and even and poison water hemlock, one of the most poisonous plants in the world to humans, from the East Fork of the Moose River.

"I didn't know what I had until it grew," he said. "I just got some bulbs floating in the water. I have difficulty identifying all of them."

 

Rainbow trout swim in one of Wright's ponds.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Some of the most interesting greenery he didn't even plant.

"I don't know what it is and I didn't plant it, but it's coming along," he said, pointing out one mystery foliage.

Wright's philosophy when it comes to plant life in his garden is if it looks good and it's not harmful, let it grow. Invasive plants that will spread on their own, like cattails, are put in planters before placed in the garden to contain their growth. Others are just planted and left alone.

Some have required replanting, due to renovations Wright has made to the system and certain unwelcome visitors to the garden. A moose and two calves decided to take a dip in a pond at one point and uprooted Wright's work.

"Moose are awful," he said. "A moose can cause you a few day's labor in five minutes. I almost gave up the whole thing, the moose were causing so many problems."

Putting up an 8-foot fence around his property last year solved the moose problem, but other wild animals still visit the garden. Bats drawn by the submerged lights in the garden will swoop the ponds at night, and seagulls typically make off with one or two of the smaller fish each year.

"It only takes one or two kills in the pond and that's it because the fish are too frightened and they hide all the time," Wright said.

Despite the challenges, maintaining his garden is a task Wright does not neglect. Springtime is the most work-intensive, he said, because that's when the system needs to be brought on line from the winter and the algae is most likely to take over.

Once the ecosystem kicks in and balances itself, Wright spends his time weeding the flowers and mowing the lawn. His other tasks are purely for his own enjoyment, not because the system requires them.

"The stream flows at 20,000 gallons per hour," he said. "It's not necessary to have that much, but the more water flowing, the better it sounds. I monkey with what I've got to make it louder because the water is nice to sleep with."

Although he's happy with the level his water garden is at now, Wright is still planning for the future. He bought the neighboring 2.5 acres of land to his property and plans to add another large pond to his system. He also may consider loaning himself out as a water garden consultant to anyone in the area wanting to "plant" one of their own.

"I kind of wish more people would want to do this themselves and ask for his advice," Perry said. "I think that's his goal, that other people can enjoy it."

When asked, Wright offered the following advice for potential water gardeners:

Follow the instructions from someone who knows what they're talking about, he said.

"You can get a lot of wrong information. It's best to get advice than spend thousands of dollars on stuff that doesn't work. I still have stuff on my shelves to remind me of my mistakes."

If someone recommends using rock, sand, gravel and pond skimmers in the system, it's a safe bet that person knows what they're talking about, he said.

You can start small and make it bigger. Wright's pond cost him between $6,000 and $8,000, but 300-feet of stream isn't necessary to have a decent system with lots of water noise. However, if a gardener is planning to upgrade the system and uses buried pipes, Wright recommends using a larger size pipe than is necessary to save having to dig them up and replace them.

Research the energy usage of water pumps and get the one that uses the least amount of energy, which will lower electricity costs.

Never release a creature or plants from a closed environment into the wild.

"I'm an environmentalist, so I would hope that any living creature that is placed in an ornamental pond would be allowed to die there or be given away to some other ornamental pond," he said. "It's good to stress not to let non-native plants and animals get into our environment and wreak havoc."

Another helpful hint for fellow gardeners to remember is that creating a water garden takes not only time and resources, but a commitment.

"I'll probably be at it the rest of my life," Wright said. "I'm out there all the time I can be."



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