Floods, both literal and figurative, defined 2006 on the Kenai Peninsula.
In the literal category, late-summer and autumn rainfall led to extensive flooding in the Seward area, while state regulators and local user groups looked at ways to stem the flood of hydrocarbons into the Kenai River. And sockeye salmon flooded into the Kasilof River this summer, while the Kenai River run of reds slowed to a trickle.
On the figurative side, the peninsula was flooded with good will during the Arctic Winter Games. An overwhelming tide of support was shown for our soldiers deployed in harm’s way both for the National Guardsmen who returned home safely, and a Marine who did not.
Here are some of the stories that had people on the Kenai Peninsula talking during 2006:
Arctic Winter Games
Hundreds of cheering youths enter the Soldotna Sports Center to opening ceremonies of the Arctic Winter Games in March. The Kenai Peninsula hosted athletes, cultural performers and their friends and families from across the circumpolar north for the weeklong event.
Clarion File Photo
In March, the world paid the Kenai Peninsula a visit as 1,900 athletes, coaches and cultural performers from around the northern latitudes arrived for the Arctic Winter Games, a biannual circumpolar sports and cultural festival. The weeklong event was the culmination of three years of work by organizers, who at times scrambled to overcome financial shortfalls and personnel changes.
Participants came from nine regions: Nunuvut, Northwest Territories, Yukon, Alberta North, and Nunuvik Quebec in Canada; Greenland; Samiland in northern Scandinavia; and Yamal, Russia; as well as the host team from Alaska.
The Games proved to be a resounding success as nearly 3,000 peninsula residents volunteered their time. Fresh snow fell just in time for the arrival of athletes, and even Augustine Volcano held off on its eruption so that competition went off without a hitch.
“I think the peninsula did great. I’ve been involved with the Games since ’84, and I think this was one of the best,” said Gerry Thick, president of the AWG International Committee.
The Arctic Winter Games gave the Kenai Peninsula international attention for a week in March.
Clarion file photo
The Games have left a lasting impression on the Kenai Peninsula, from upgrades at several facilities to a new feeling of volunteerism in the community. Then there’s the souvenirs, the team jackets and trading pins bartered for during the Games, and the medals handed out to athletes of the 42 peninsula participants, 32 won gold, silver or bronze ulus.
Volcanoes, floods, wildfires
A Kasilof woman burning brush to create a defensible space around her home was accused of causing a wildfire in May after the brush fire got away from her and eventually burned 67 acres.
Brenda Cameron, 44, pleaded not guilty to three misdemeanor charges, and was billed $60,000 in firefighter response costs. The case has not been resolved.
Augustine Volcano, which began erupting in late 2005, continued with several explosive eruptions in 2006, the last on Jan. 11. While Homer did experience some light ashfall from the eruptions, prevailing winds kept the ash away from most of the Kenai Peninsula. Augustine’s level of concern was lowered to green in August by the Alaska Volcano Observatory, meaning seismic activity had returned to a normal, noneruptive state.
Shannon Thompson and Jess Sweatt use a pontoon boat to size up damage at Carl and Kim Hughes' house off Old Exit Glacier Road during flooding in the Seward area in October.
Clarion file photo
Recovery work in and around Seward made necessary by the October storms that swept across Southcentral Alaska in October is proceeding, but much of the job won’t be finished until spring. The storm brought high winds, rain and flooding that eroded the banks along local streams, washed out bridges and roads, uprooted trees and damaged buildings. That brought immediate responses from the borough and the state, which declared the region a disaster area and made emergency appropriations. The federal government followed up recently by declaring the event a national disaster, opening the way for federal reimbursement funds.
Agrium’s headquarters office in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, issued a news release stating the company “has successfully obtained sufficient natural gas supplies to allow for the operation of its Kenai nitrogen facility in 2007.”
Kenai plant spokesperson Lisa Parker said operations would continue through Oct. 31, 2007.
The company shut down the plant for an extended period during the winter as natural gas demand increased to accommodate home heating needs.
Parker said the shutdown would not mean layoffs. The plant employs 150 people.
Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers announced plans to build a 139,000 square-foot retail store with a 32,000 square-foot garden center in Kenai.
Efforts to keep Agrium's Nikiski fertilizer plant open continued through much of the year. Concerns that the plant wouldn't have enough natural gas led to the plant's closure for the winter in October.
Clarion file photo
Initially leasing airport land from the city, Lowe’s eventually worked out a purchase agreement for the 14.784 acres in the Baron Park Subdivision along Marathon Road. The company hopes to open the store for business by Thanksgiving Day, 2007.
City of Kenai
The Kenai City Council approved an employment contract with Rick Koch, public works director for Palmer, to be Kenai’s new city manager. The contract, which took effect March 6, provides for an annual base salary of $98,440 for Koch. The job had been open since July 2005, when the council decided not to renew City Manager Linda Snow’s contract. City officials have not said why.
Work began in May on a new taxiway and the relocation and resurfacing of the runway at Kenai Municipal Airport. As part of the runway project, the airport’s float plane landing basin also will be lengthened 1,000 feet, enabling it to accommodate commercial float planes. The cost of the taxiway project is $2,204,456, and the estimated cost of the runway project is $10 million.
The state fire marshal signed a contract with the city of Kenai to take over management of the Pacific Rim Institute of Safety and Management on Marathon Road. AAI Services Inc., a subsidiary of United Industries, which had operated the fire training center since it opened eight years ago, informed the city in June it does not intend to renew its contract at the end of this year.
The PRISM center provides vocational courses in aircraft and industrial fire training, health and safety management and maritime firefighting. Between 1,600 and 2,000 people are trained there each year.
City of Soldotna
The Soldotna City Council approved a Community Development block grant application by Love INC, which wants to build a 30-unit, two-story transitional housing facility in Soldotna.
The homeless shelter would be built next to the Alaska State Troopers E Detachment post on Kalifornsky Beach Road. The shelter would accept only clients referred by a case manager from some other recognized agency.
The Soldotna Parks and Recreation Department opened the Soldotna Creek Trail walkway along the Kenai River in June.
The city now has 2,200 feet of elevated walkway, allowing people to walk along the river from Soldotna Creek Park to the Aspen Hotel without damaging the salmon spawning habitat along the riverbank.
Repeated problems some manmade and some caused by nature resulted in delaying work on the Kenai River bridge under construction in Soldotna.
Traffic slows for the construction on the Kenai River bridge in Soldotna in May. The project was plagued with delays throughout the year.
Clarion file photo
The Sterling Highway bridge was scheduled to open in October. By year’s end, motorists were still detouring onto a temporary bridge.
After a bitter contract negotiation three years ago, the school district and teacher and support staff unions worked together using Interest Based Bargaining to come up with a new contract both sides were happy with.
“We felt that all groups involved, the district and the associations, had worked out the best possible agreement that met all of our needs,” said Kenai Peninsula Education Association President Cathy Carrow after the unions voted to accept the new contracts in September.
The district continues to feel the effects of declining enrollment. The issue has affected schools in Kenai more acutely than in other communities. With charter schools and private institutions in addition to traditional neighborhood schools, parents have more educational options for their children. However, with fewer students to go around and classrooms sitting unused, the school board has directed the district administration to undertake the Kenai Conversation to engage the community in the best ways to run Kenai’s schools, which may include consolidation.
Nearly 40 central Kenai Peninsula sixth-graders who completed a student survey said they have already experimented with sniffing inhalants. That was one of the surprises revealed by the Community Action Coalition in May during its first community meeting to discuss findings of the Prevention Needs Assessment survey of sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders conducted Feb. 22.
Kenai Peninsula Borough
Newly elected Borough Mayor John Williams took over the municipal reins in late 2005, and by early 2006 was banking that his answers to the tough financial problems facing the borough weren’t going to prove too hard to swallow for the assembly and populace.
Williams warned that the borough would be drowning in red ink by the end of 2006 unless steps were taken to meet expenses and raise revenues. He blamed the financial problems on the loss of state aid, rapidly rising retirement, health care and liability insurance costs, and the success of an October 2005 ballot proposition backed by a citizens group called Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers, or ACT, that reversed a 1-percent boost in the sales tax.
By October of this year, however, that tax increase was back on the ballot as Proposition 2, a referendum on a controversial package of revenue enhancements originally passed by the assembly in June 2005, including the sales tax increase. This time voters reversed their earlier stance, effectively accepting an increase in the sales tax, and other provisions of the 2005 measure. But other events, including municipal aid from the Legislature, allowed the Williams administration to forego actually boosting the sales tax until at least next year.
Major assembly actions this year included approving acquisition of Heritage Place by Central Peninsula General Hospital Inc.; approving a procedure for reimbursing Central Emergency Services for its $1 million contribution to construction of the new Emergency Response Center; approving research into a possible lawsuit over state education funding, and adopting a $58.7 million budget for fiscal year 2007 that includes $36.7 million in local funding for schools.
Tell Wohitmann of Anchorage waits on the beach for a fish to clean while dipnetting with his family at the mouth of the Kenai River in July. The summer of 2006 was a dismal time for many fishermen.
Clarion file photo
An unusually late sockeye fish run in 2006 created closures early in the season, last-minute openings late in the season and left few fishermen happy with their catch at the end of the year.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, normally 2 to 25 percent of late-run Kenai River sockeye arrive in August. This year, however, more than 50 percent of the run arrived in August.
Also in 2006, subsistence issues on the Kenai Peninsula drew sharp attention in November when the Alaska Federal Board of Subsistence granted Ninilchik residents a subsistence priority in the Kenai River watershed on federal lands and opened the first peninsula subsistence fishery that does not mirror sport fish regulations in decades. The fishery allows subsistence fishermen to fish for residential fish in Tustumena Lake under the ice using gillnets and jigging gear.
The Kenai River was the focus of two additional hot issues in 2006. In December, after several months of heated public debate, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation decided to recommend the Environmental Protection Agency list the Kenai River as Category 5 impaired under the federal Clean Water Act after hydrocarbon tests showed the river has been exceeding state water quality standards during the month of July, when fishermen crowd the river with boats.
Over the course of the year there also has been extensive debate over proposed regulations to change motorboat horsepower limits on the Kenai River from 35 to 50 and remove inefficient motors from the Kenai River Special Management Area. Since the proposals left the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board, where they originated, the Department of Natural Resources has taken them up for consideration, but no final decision had been made on the proposals by the end of the 2006.
The community in February celebrated the safe return of seven National Guardsmen after their deployment to Iraq with a gathering of hundreds at the National Guard Armory in Kenai.
The armory took on a more somber tone in November when the central peninsula lost a hometown hero. Cpl. Michael H. Lasky, 22, of Soldotna, was killed while serving in Iraq on Nov. 2.
Jessica Lasky is comforted by her mother, Jennifer Calhoun, after accepting a flag at a memorial service for her husband, Marine Cpl. Michael H. Lasky. He was killed along with another Marine while conducting combat operations in the Al Anbar province of Iraq earlier in November.
Clarion file photo
The Young Marine-turned-serviceman left behind his wife, Jessica, and daughter, Liberty Lynn Lasky. Lasky’s parents, brother and sister and their families also still live in the area.
The community came out in force to celebrate his life and service to his country at a memorial service Nov. 12 at the armory.
Many members of the Kenai Peninsula community still are serving in harm’s way, and Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey has restarted a letter-writing campaign.
Kenai jurors concluded three murder cases in 2006, one of which addressed a killing that occurred more than 21 years ago.
Barry McCormack and Adam Israel were both found guilty of murder charges, while Betsy Hester was found not guilty of a second-degree murder charge filed against her in the shooting death of her boyfriend in their mobile home.
Hester, who was 53 when her trial was concluded in January, left the Kenai courthouse a free woman after defending attorneys argued that in 2003 Hester had shot her boyfriend, 49-year-old John E. Clark, out of self-defense.
In May, a Kenai jury found 55-year-old McCormack guilty of both first- and second-degree murder charges in the stabbing death of 65-year-old Opal Fairchild in an apparent robbery of her Soldotna home more than 21 years ago.
Finally, in December a third Kenai jury reached a guilty verdict in the murder trial of 24-year-old Israel. Israel was convicted of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of his 43-year-old mother, Dorothy Israel, in their home in Soldotna.
In another noteworthy case, a lawsuit filed against the state of Alaska and a state trooper who shot and killed Casey G. Porter more than two years ago ended with a $310,000 settlement in a closed hearing Feb. 2. The lawsuit alleged that the shooting of Porter by Trooper Arthur J. Osborn on Jan. 4, 2003, was either negligent or a use of intentional, excessive force.
Porter, 30, was sitting in his car in a pullout off the Sterling Highway the night of the shooting. Osborn and another trooper responded to a report that the car was suspicious.
Also up for trial this year was the Kenai man charged with crashing his vehicle into the Soldotna Skateboard Park, causing $3,000 to $4,000 in damage.
Brian R. McCoy, 23, pleaded no contest to second-degree failure to stop at the direction of a peace officer, driving under the influence, fourth-degree criminal mischief and one of two counts of furnishing alcohol to persons under 21. He is expected to spend two months behind bars.
Police and fire
In 2006, Kenai police, Soldotna police and E Detachment Alaska State Troopers reported no murders, but several close calls sent four to the Wildwood Pretrial Facility on attempted murder charges and victims to the hospital with knife and strangulation wounds and broken legs.
Two Soldotna women, a Nikiski man and a man from Puerto Rico were arrested on attempted murder charges in four separate incidents.
In February, troopers arrested Lloyd L. Showalter, 29, of Nikiski, after responding to a 911 call reporting that he had illegally entered a mobile home in Nikiski and had reportedly tried to strangle the man living there.
In July, troopers arrested Samir Ahmad, 19, of Puerto Rico, after troopers received a report that a cab driver bringing a client from Anchorage to the peninsula had been stabbed by the client just south of Soldotna after the cab driver requested payment for a $400 bill.
In September, troopers arrested Brenda J. Ginter, 45, of Sterling, after responding to a report that a woman had hit her boyfriend while driving a 1997 Ford Taurus in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Soldotna. The 44-year-old man was pinned between the car and a mound of dirt, seriously injuring his legs.
Finally, in December troopers arrested Annette Victorien, 44, of Soldotna, after they responded to a call reporting she was suicidal. She attempted but failed to fire a loaded pistol at one of the responding troopers.
A Nikiski man embarked on a demolition derby down Willow Street in Kenai on Oct. 7. Robert Mamaloff, 21, sped out of the parking lot of Kenai Municipal Airport in a 1994 Ford F-350 pickup and smashed into cars and light poles as he swerved down Willow toward the Kenai Spur Highway. The truck stopped when it became high centered on the cement base of a light pole Mamaloff hit in the Willow Street Mall parking lot.
ZeeCee “Curly” Crow, 80, died in a house fire on Riverview Avenue in Soldotna on Dec. 1. His friend and neighbor, 50-year-old Robin Helminski, sustained severe burns while trying to save him from the fire, and died a few days later from her injuries.
As efforts to find and develop new natural gas reserves in the Cook Inlet region continued, other energy initiatives were proceeding along courses their supporters hope will eventually result in state and federal permits.
Northern Dynasty Mines Inc. broadened its look at the geography at its proposed Pebble Mine site amid growing opposition from conservation groups, village and tribal governments, fishing groups and others worried that mine development could endanger fishing resources in the Bristol Bay watershed. Northern Dynasty, currently in the midst of a mine feasibility study, disputed public opinion polls that seemed to show increasing opposition to the mine.
Agrium USA, which operates a fertilizer plant in Nikiski, has been researching a project called Kenai Blue Sky that would gasify coal to supply energy and feedstock for the main plant. Homer Electric Association announced it would take a lead role in developing the power generation portion of Agrium’s project.
The 600-foot Seabulk Pride sits aground on the beach in Nikisi Feb. 2 after an ice floe knocked it free from Tesoro's dock earlier that day. Disaster was averted when the ship was floated free.
M. Scott Moon
Across Cook Inlet, interest continues around developing leases in the Beluga coal fields. Conceivably, that coal could supply the Agrium coal gasification project. Developers are eyeing overseas markets.
Michael Mungoven, 45, survived a brown bear attack May 28 while jogging near his home at about Mile 7 of North Fork Road near Homer. Mungoven said he heard a thrashing in the trees, looked up and saw an adult brown bear running at him. Mungoven played dead and the bear left after attacking for about 20 seconds.
A behemoth of a brown bear shot in defense of life and property June 3 turned out to be one of the largest bruins killed on the Kenai Peninsula in recent years. The bear was 19 years old and weighed roughly 850 pounds. It was shot when it rushed two hunters checking a remote black bear bait station off Mackey Lake Road.
Bears kept themselves in the news from early spring to late fall in 2006.
Clarion file photo
Two bears suffered gunshot wounds after the first, a brown bear sow, charged three fishermen downstream of the Russian River Ferry on June 24 and the second, a black bear, charged a family fishing downstream of Jim’s Landing on June 25.
Two brown bear cubs, thought to belong to the sow shot June 24, forced the temporary closure of a wooded area and eight tent sites near the Russian River Ferry on June 28 when they took up residence there.
On Aug. 29 a brown bear sow with cubs mauled a jogger near Kenai National Wildlife Refuge headquarters after he and his running companion accidentally spooked the sow on Centennial Trail. The 33-year-old refuge fire crew employee suffered lacerations but did not sustain life-threatening injuries. He was mauled about one mile down the trail from the headquarters parking lot.
Biologists and state agencies continued efforts in 2006 to reduce the amount of wildlife roadkills in a 21-mile stretch of the Sterling Highway, from Mile 58-79. Biologists collared moose and caribou to study when and where they cross the highway. From the data roadkill mitigation strategies will be formed, including animal overpasses and driver warning systems.
Odds and ends
· Seabulk Pride, an oil tanker leased by Tesoro, was struck by an ice floe, broke loose of its moorings and grounded on the beach one-half mile north of the Kenai Pipeline Company dock in Nikiski at 5:25 a.m. Feb. 2
The 600-foot tanker was carrying 116,225 barrels of diesel, oil and gasoline products when it broke loose.
The tanker was refloated Feb. 3 and escorted to Kachemak Bay for inspection. A U.S. Coast Guard investigative report later concluded that the tanker wasn’t tied safely to the dock, the bridge wasn’t properly manned and the engine wasn’t ready for a quick start in case of trouble.
J.D. Megchelsen is dwarfed by the pumpkin he grew to break his own state record last fall.
Clarion file photo
· J.D. Megchelsen of Nikiski again reigned supreme when the 1,019-pound pumpkin he grew set a new state record at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer in September.
Megchelsen said he is hoping to make a run at the record for the world’s largest pumpkin in 2007.
Clarion reporters Phil Hermanek, Patrice Kohl, Will Morrow, Joseph Robertia and Hal Spence, and Clarion City Editor Jenny Neyman contributed to this report.
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