Sunday, March 30, 2008

Photos from Cama-i

Another Cama-i Dance Festival is done, and it is a good thing I was not the official photographer for it. I did a lousy job. I so wish my friend Peter Ashman had been here to take the kind of photos he took last year; he did a beautiful job documenting that festival.

Dutch and I had great seats for viewing, but not so much so for taking pictures. At least not with my camera, which has only limited telephoto. Most of what we got was either out of focus--sometimes kind of artsy, but disappointing; or way too dark. With some embarrassment I'll show you here the best of the bad. The Camai-i website has some much better ones, with more to come!

From the performance aspect, this was a great festival. The Dancers were mostly excellent and fun to watch. The guest performers provided good variety and a taste of other cultures. And the craft fair offered lots of beautiful stuff for sale.

I was particularly in search of a fur ruff, to be sewn around the hood of a parka, for one of our recurring locum tenens physicians at the hospital. She does a lot of walking when she is here, and needs a fur ruff to keep her face warmer when it is really cold. Lots of craftspeople were selling fur items of every description, but only one had ruffs, and fortunately, just what I was looking for.

There were beautiful carved ivory items of every description, using both fresh and petrified ivory. For my birthday, Dutch bought me a lovely pair of ivory ulu earrings; the traditional curved-bladed knife used for filleting salmon is a popular cultural symbol for earring-makers. And I bought myself a birthday token too; I was enchanted by a small standing owl carved in ivory. Sometimes at craft fairs, something jumps into my hand and just won't leave, and I know I have to buy it. The owl did that.

Something else that did that was a gorgeous pair of black leather gloves that had fox fur trim and intricate beadwork covering the backs of the hands. Oooohhh, did I want them. But the price deterred me; they were $170 and I just wasn't ready to commit to that much for them. I debated with myself, but in the end told the craftswoman I would think about it and come back. She just smiled. By the time I talked myself into it and went back, the gloves were gone.

There were all kinds of fur hats for sale, but one of the most beautiful was the one that Dutch got for me as my major birthday present. It is made of seal and fox and beaver, and it fits my head perfectly. I absolutely love it! It is exactly what I need for our upcoming trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge...more to come on that.

Photos by Dutch and The Tundra PA.

1. Bethel Traditional Dancers
2. in motion
3. Scammon Bay Dancers
4. Same...Maryann Sundown seated in the center chair in both photos. At 89 years old, she was honored as the oldest Dancer at the Festival, and a Living Treasure.
5. Birthday craft gifts


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Birthday Weather

OK. I’ll admit to being a shameless hussy when it comes to my birthday. Today’s snowstorm is only a pathetic excuse to announce to all and sundry that Today Is My Birthday! Since I was a small child, I have thrilled to the approach of March the 29th; it was right up there with Christmas in terms of a child’s anticipation (thanks, Mother, for making it so special!).

So anyway, since moving to Alaska I’ve experienced a significantly different kind of birthday weather than any other place I’ve lived. Even in northern Montana, the end of March was more springish. About half of my birthdays in Bethel have had weather well below zero, sometimes as much as 20 degrees below.

It is much warmer than that today; this morning dawned quite snowy and about 14 above. It must have snowed much of the night, because we now have about three inches of fresh stuff on top of the several feet of old snow. And it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. As the photos show, visibility is limited and the flakes are huge.

The rapidly lengthening hours of daylight tell the tale of spring’s approach more than anything. It is light outside now from about 8 in the morning until nearly 10 at night. The willow trees are starting to show fuzzy buds at their tips. And the cold snaps, when they hit us now, don’t have the same ability to intimidate as they do in December; -20 in March won’t last more than a week, but in December it may last for a month or more. Though it will still be another six weeks or so before all the snow melts and the river breaks up, spring is coming. There are tides in the blood that can feel it.

And I’m having a wonderful birthday! I hope each of you do the same, whenever yours may fall. It is a lovely day to honor ourselves.
Photos from our front deck by The Tundra PA. They don't really show how hard it is snowing, or how big the flakes are... And thanks to Dr. Dino for the birthday email!


Friday, March 28, 2008

Time for Cama-i

It is time once again for one of Bethel’s most cherished annual events, the Cama-i Dance Festival. For the next three days, beginning at 5 pm today, the gymnasium of the high school will reverberate with the sounds of many drums, stomping feet and audience applause as Eskimo dance groups from all over the delta and invited guests from Outside Alaska take the stage to perform. It is a celebration of Yupik culture, and the human love of dancing. It is also our landmark of spring, but at 14 below zero this morning, it doesn't feel very spring-like outside just yet.

Eskimo dancing is a unique and sometimes formalized expression of Yupik culture. It can be a way of telling stories and entertaining, as well as a form of prayer. I have written a more detailed description of Eskimo dancing here, and of Cama-i Dance Festival here. Both with lots of great photos, especially Peter Ashman’s beautiful images from last year’s Cama-i (with thanks to him, once again, for allowing me to post them).

This year’s festival includes some of my favorite performers. I am especially glad for an opportunity to hear the group Pamyua, four singers who perform “acapella harmonies blending traditional Inuit and Yup’ik songs with gospel and jazz arrangements.” (From the cover of their CD “mengluni”, which means “the beginning”) They have a website at for more info. They often come to Cama-i, but not every year. I haven’t seen them for about three years.

Also exciting to see will be the Scammon Bay Dancers with their star, octogenarian-going-on-nonagenarian Maryann Sundown, a tiny elder with a twinkle in her eye and an energy to her dance that belies her many winters and the poor condition of her stooped back. I am so hoping she will dance her famed Mosquito Dance, which I have often heard of but never seen.

For the first time in quite a few years, the dancers from the village of Pilot Station, for whom I have been the assigned health care provider for nearly nine years, will be coming. It was on a village trip to Pilot Station that I was invited to join in the dancing and taught how to do it; it was an amazing experience. I look forward to seeing the new and old dances that my teachers will perform.

Other villages from the Y-K Delta who will send their dancers include Chevak, Kasigluk, Hooper Bay, and several groups from Bethel. Eskimo dancing is taught in the elementary schools here in Bethel, and tomorrow afternoon will offer the kindergarten through sixth grade classes time on the stage to perform their dances. There will also be a Sioux hoop dancer, a group of Maori dancers, a Native storyteller and singer, modern dance groups, dancers from other parts of Alaska, and a performance by the Bethel Hand Bell Choir.

There will be a huge craft fair going on in the lobby of the high school while all the performances are being held in the gym. The best craftspeople and artisans from all over the delta come to Cama-i to sell their work; it is the very best time to shop for Native crafts. Everything from huge carved ivory (walrus) tusks to whimsical t-shirts with photos of Bethel’s uniquely painted garbage dumpsters on them will be available on table after table of merchandise. It is an amazing opportunity to see the variety of crafts that spring from the Yupik culture.

On Saturday evening there will be a Native Foods Dinner cooked up by the citizens of Bethel; dishes usually include moose, caribou, beaver, swan, goose, porcupine, muskrat, maybe even some black bear. And of course, many kinds of agutak, otherwise known as Eskimo ice cream, made from Crisco, sugar, many kinds of tundra-grown berries, and often boiled white fish or mashed potatoes for texture. Though it sounds…interesting…it can be surprisingly good. Blueberry agutak with white fish is my all-time favorite.

The dinner is served (free) first to Elders, then to Dancers, and only then to the general public—until the food runs out. Not qualifying for the first two groups, and not being willing to stand in line for an hour or more to be first in the last group, I’ve never gotten more than a few tailings from the dinner. Those who do better usually exit the cafeteria sucking their teeth and looking very satisfied.

There will be a Mr. and Miss Cama-i pageant held on Saturday afternoon, with the winners announced on Saturday evening. Entrants must be at least 18 years old, and neither married or have children (criteria which are exclusionary to a surprising degree). I believe they receive scholarships, but I’m not sure about that.

Traditionally there has been a fur fashion show on Saturday evening as well, but I don’t see it mentioned in this year’s program. In some years there has been a room set aside to honor a particular skinsewer, with as many as possible of her fur garments collected and displayed. One year the honoree was Lucy Beaver, a Bethel resident whose face became famous in the well-known photo by Myron Rosenberg, which I included in a post here. Lucy made my mukluks, my parka’s wolf-and-wolverine fur ruff, and my arctic fox molakai (hat with a tail), and I contributed them to the display that year. I hope the fur fashion show’s omission from the program is an oversight, and not an indicator that we won’t have one this year.

The Festival begins at 5 pm today and will run until midnight; Saturday will go from noon until midnight and Sunday will start at noon and finish at 9 pm. It promises to be an exciting few days in celebration of Yupik culture.

The posters were too big to scan, so I photographed them, which is why they are not perfect (perspective, edges). Both posters are for this year.

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 23, 2008

On the Ice Road

Yesterday was such a gorgeous day that Dutch and I couldn’t wait to get out and burn some gas in our snowmachines. There was nowhere we particularly needed to go; just getting out of town is the only goal, and the reward.

The Ice Road on the Kuskokwim River is the best I can remember in years. Though winter was late in coming, since December the weather has mostly remained consistently cold (except for that miserably warm week around K-300), which is good for the river’s surface. And we have had quite a lot of snow this winter compared to our norm.

In years with little snow, driving on the Ice Road can be quite a challenge. The bare ice can be quite bumpy, depending on how windy it was when the surface of the river froze. And without snow it can be very hard to see where the road is. There are no tire tracks to follow on bare ice. Just like with a boat in the summer, when there is very little snow on the river ice, you can drive pretty much wherever you have the guts to try.

The river is nearly a mile wide here at Bethel, and at times may have open leads of water despite otherwise thick ice. The best road is never in the same place two years running; placement all depends on the conditions. Picking the best path to follow is a skill that takes years to develop.

This year we have had tons of snow (literally), and except for that one week in January, we have not had regular warm-ups with rain to melt it all away. We have had so much snow that there are ten-foot-tall piles of it everywhere, and the city is running out of places to push it to. Dutch’s crews have actually had to resort to hauling it to get it out of the roads; which, at the cost of fuel here, is an expensive proposition.

All the snow this year means that the Ice Road would not be drivable in cars and trucks if it were not being plowed. A huge plow with giant wheels and snow blade goes out each week or so and runs downriver to Napakiak and upriver to Kwethluk or Akiak. The result is a smooth, flat trench of well-packed snow with two-foot tall berms on each side. There is no question of whether you are in the right place and actually on the Road. It is practically as well-groomed as an Interstate, and people are flying along at 50 mph as if it were one.

The Ice Road is just barely wide enough for two trucks to pass each other with each edging to the side as far as possible and both going slowly. But everybody seems to be in a hurry, and not everyone is polite. Earlier this year we actually had a head-on collision between two vehicles on the Ice Road right in front of Bethel in broad daylight. No one was killed, but both vehicles were pretty much totaled. It is best to keep in mind that this is not a concrete highway; respect the fact that you are driving on ice, and do so with caution.

Snowmachines tend to avoid traveling directly on the Ice Road, preferring to follow it off to one side. It is an easy landmark in a flat terrain that doesn’t have many natural ones. Yesterday Dutch and I traveled beside it for a few miles upriver, then turned off above the Bluffs to go up the Gweek River. The snowmachine trail on the Gweek sees a lot of traffic coming down from the village of Akiachuk and is easy to follow.

Once we turned off the main river the wind lessened considerably. It was about +5F degrees yesterday, but the wind made it significantly colder on any exposed skin. A few miles up the Gweek we pulled over to the edge right next to the tree line and turned the machines off. We were on a south-facing bend out of the wind with the sun beaming on us; there was nothing man-made that we could see except the machines we were sitting on, and no noise we could hear except the occasional gurgling sound of a happy raven flying over. The quiet stillness of the wilderness enfolded us, and the silence was beautiful.

Today was just as sunny and gorgeous as yesterday, and not wanting to miss another opportunity to get out, we fired up the machines again and took off up the river. This time we went up Church Slough, a short-cut to the village of Kwethluk. The trail is well-marked by many snowmachine tracks, but we only saw an occasional traveler. I was delighted to notice moose tracks crossing the slough at one point, and a pile of moose pellets a few bends farther up. The lower Kuskokwim’s moratorium on moose hunting (I believe this is year 3 of 5) is working; with hunting pressure removed, the moose are returning.

A few miles up the slough, a line of willow trees suddenly sprouts from the center of the ice, and the trail very clearly keeps to one side of it. These are not growing out of the slough; they have been erected there to mark a place with thin ice and/or open water. Most likely, someone who travels the route regularly took it upon himself to erect the markers as a warning to other travelers; there is no government-sponsored Department of Transportation crew out here maintaining the safety of the trails.

The top of Church Slough rejoins the Kuskokwim River about 8 miles upriver from Bethel. When we got there, we stopped to enjoy the view and have a cup of hot tea.

As the photo shows, the area is not completely treeless, though it is referred to as such. The stand of willow trees across the slough from our break spot is about 15 feet tall, but only as big around as a human wrist.

The shiny ice at the edge of the slough is overflow that has refrozen. The Kuskokwim and its sloughs and tributaries are affected by tides from the Bering Sea; when high tide moves up the river, water surges over the ice at the edges and stands on top of it until it freezes again. Overflow can be several feet deep, and depending on the temperature, can take a while to refreeze. If no snow covers it, it looks shiny and is easy to see and avoid. Once it has even a thin snow cover, however, it can be indistinguishable from thick and trustable ice. Breaking through it with a snowmachine or a dog team can mean disaster.

Dutch and I got back to Bethel about 5 pm. Coming around the last bend on a late afternoon, the town is a lovely sight, perched there on the banks of the Kuskokwim.


photos by The Tundra PA.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter Egg Hunt, Bethel Style

An Easter egg hunt in the sub-arctic would just have to be different from those in the lower 48, and Bethel’s certainly is. For one thing, we are still pretty much in the grip of winter. Despite the lovely long hours of daylight, with sunset about 9 pm right now, the thermometer is still hovering around zero and there are feet of snow on the ground. In a land with virtually no trees, and no clumps of grass yet to be seen, where can eggs be hidden?

The answer: nowhere. The eggs are not hidden, they are simply scattered across the snow. Bethel’s Easter egg hunt does not involve hunting, simply picking them up.

It is a huge event, attended by kids of all ages. They are divided into age groups with a different “egg field” for each group. Hundreds of colorful plastic eggs dot the snow as kids wait behind the starting rope dressed in snowsuits and holding everything from baskets to plastic bags in which to gather their eggs. When the rope is dropped they surge forward in a melee of snatching hands and within seconds there is not an egg to be seen.

The Egg Hunt is held at the headquarters of Bethel’s Parks and Recreation Dept., a building known as The Log Cabin. It has playgrounds, an outdoor basketball court, a baseball field and an ice skating pond adjacent to it. Inside the Log Cabin, prizes were being given away to kids who participated—a bumper crop of hula hoops was evident—and free hot dogs were available to all who wanted them.

The whole thing was over fairly quickly, and the huge parking jam it created on the street didn’t seem to bother anyone. Kids leaving looked mostly happy and the adults were just glad we had a nice sunny day for it. Some years the event happens in a snow storm. It’s all part of Life in Bethel.

photos by Dutch and The Tundra PA.


Monday, March 17, 2008

More on City Council: An Inside Perspective

Readers of this blog who do not live in southwest Alaska may have difficulty appreciating the intensity of emotion which continues to grip this community in the wake of the firing of the City Attorney. It has become a watershed event which has galvanized people in all walks of life. It has focused people's attention on the deliberations of the City Council in a way that none of their previous stunts ever managed to do. Until this happened, most people simply weren't interested.

When a previous Council member was arrested in Anchorage while on city business for beating up his girlfriend (not his wife, she was at home) in a public parking lot, it hardly caused a ripple. Apathy about the running of city government was rampant. If 20% of the voters showed up to elect their City Council members, it was considered a good turn out. Most people just wanted to get on with their lives and did not care what the Council was up to. It did not seem to affect their lives, and was only good for a little entertainment value on the radio on Tuesday nights.

In two short months, that has changed. People are not only paying attention, they are pretty riled up about it all. Suddenly the Council is suffering some scrutiny, and the public is not laughing.

After my last post, Dutch decided that he would write a comment. As a city employee, he feels the fallout of all of this far more than I do. He has a unique perspective on the events of this year, and when his comment ran to several pages, I felt it should be a post in itself. So, herewith is his perspective.

Dear Tundra PA-

Your analysis of the continuing City Council drama is right on. It's measured, accurate, and goes to the heart of the matter.

I have attended well over 90% of the Bethel City Council meetings in the almost four years I have lived in Bethel. I began going to the Council meetings prior to taking a position as a department head within the city administration because I was curious as to what local issues the community was facing. In my view, the Council was a good place to start.

My initial reaction to the Council meetings was one of bemusement. I smiled to myself when they got themselves procedurally beleaguered in amendments to amendments to motions and were clueless as to how to proceed. It was almost like having to deal with your dog who has hopelessly wrapped his chain around a tree and can’t figure out how to unwind. I would hear about people at home who said they tuned into the radio broadcasts of the Council meetings for the entertainment value. It seemed to be rollicking good fun at times. This is not to say that Council did not do good things that were of value to the community from time to time. There were even a few important issues in which I felt the Council did their homework, asked the right questions and deliberated impressively to a just outcome. In those instances Bethel actually received wise and far reaching public policy from their elected officials which benefited the entire community instead of a targeted few.

When I became a department head within the City government I had the opportunity to closely observe the City Council's relationship with the City administration, both as a body and as individuals. The Block of Four was, for my first two years, a minority Block of Three. Two of the current Block of Four were on that Council: Vice Mayor and Blustering Bloviator. Added to this duo was an individual who I would call the Know-It-All. Know-It-All was someone who talked incessantly and always had 20/20 hindsight on all issues. He always knew how things should have been done and could not for the life of him understand why everyone else was not as insightful as he. Somehow, though, his great insight was never available at the moment decisions were being made.

Even though they did not constitute a majority block, the Block of Three made up for this by being very vocal at Council meetings. The Vice Mayor and Know-It-All seemed to be especially relentless in their efforts to embarrass the Administration publicly whenever possible. They reveled in finding wedge issues or trap doors which they would spring on the City Manager. A favorite tactic was to find a citizen who had a complaint about some City administration service and ask him to come forward and state his issue publically during People To Be Heard. Know-It-All became particularly good at this. Now there is nothing wrong with citizens bringing problems they have encountered in dealing with their City government to the attention of their elected representatives. During People to be Heard, any citizen has an opportunity to talk for up to 15 minutes without interruption to the Council. What is important to remember is that there is no guarantee that anything the citizen says is remotely true, or that they have any accurate understanding of circumstances bearing on their situation. The citizen is merely exercising his or her right to speak.

But Vice Mayor and/or Know-It-All were not satisfied with the citizen just stating his point of view in front of Council. They would then start asking questions about how the City administration failed the citizen. Often a dialog would start between the Council and the citizen. It was assumed that the City administration was solely at fault, but no one from the appropriate City department was ever called upon to respond or give input on how the administration had dealt with the citizen’s problem. Council seemed intimidated by facing an unhappy constituent and felt compelled to arrive at solutions on the spot. It seemed that the goal of Vice Mayor and Know-It-All was maximum public embarrassment of administration with minimum delay.

Not all the drama took place at Council meetings. The current Vice Mayor was at this time the Mayor. At the beginning of his term we had actually met and talked about the status quo. I urged (Vice) Mayor to forge a winning political combination with the City Manager. He and the City Manager could work together to push forward a progressive agenda of civic accomplishment. Even better, I pointed out, the City Manager is not looking for credit and (Vice) Mayor could bask alone in receiving community kudos for all his actions. Bethel would surely benefit from (Vice) Mayor and City Manager working together to get the people's work done. Additionally, I pointed out, this winning arrangement could greatly improve (Vice) Mayor's dream of higher office.

However, this was not to be. Instead the relationship between (Vice) Mayor and the City Manager underwent rapid deterioration. (Vice) Mayor pointed to various small and silly incidents as proof that the City Manager felt his own position superior to the (Vice) Mayor's. One he cited included a moment when the City Manager climbed up on the City Council dais at a break in a meeting and shook his hand to congratulate him for something. (Vice) Mayor, who happened to be sitting down, took this to mean the City Manager was talking down to him. The City Manager viewed it as going the extra mile to walk up to the (Vice) Mayor and express praise. (Vice) Mayor stopped seeing the City Manager on agenda or issue discussions. All communication to the administration was thereafter done through the City Clerk. When (Vice) Mayor needed to see the City Attorney he did so carefully because her office was located next to the City Manager's. His need to avoid the City Manager became ludicrous. At one point he actually requested the City Attorney to meet him at the Cultural Center library because of his fear that the City Manager would overhear his business with her. She met (Vice) Mayor at the library on one occasion but then declined to continue doing so. She felt it was just too bizarre. I believe this refusal was the beginning of (Vice) Mayor's motivation to terminate the City Attorney.

The people spoke decisively at the next City Council election. There were four candidates for the three open Council seats, and (Vice) Mayor, as the sitting Mayor, was not re-elected. It was like a game of musical chairs whereby the music stopped and Vice Mayor could not find a seat to plunk down in. He was no longer a City Council member and he had been the incumbent Mayor! Of course, Vice Mayor rationalized his loss as being caused by his bravely taking on unpopular issues which sullied him politically. I believe the real reason for his loss was a block of angry City employee voters who were very tired of his anti-City administration behavior.

I totally agree with your characterization of the present City Council and the Block of Four. A note on Blustering Bloviator. In my opinion, he is the one Council Member I can categorically state has never contributed an idea of any value to Council or City business. Instead, for example, he made disgraceful comments about our police department and our officers, specifically to the press, while on travel away from the City. These comments made it into Alaska newpapers and were the source of profound embarrassment to the community.

When Blustering Bloviator ventured into the world of City budget issues he made the following recommendation for a budget modification:

Create the position of Oversight Coordinator that sees to getting full production from our work force, paid for by taxes. The position should have full authority to write up slack performance or total lack of motivation for expected production. - 11 May 2007

In reading those words, I cannot help but think that Blustering Bloviator does not understand that political commissars went out with the fall of the Soviet Union. What a breathtakingly inspiring motivational idea--someone paid to rat-out our employees if they take an extra five minutes on their lunch break.

The descriptor consistently used by many about the current Mayor's recent performance is disappointment. I include myself. I voted for the Mayor with great optimism. The first year he was on Council we had a very positive give and take type relationship. He made valuable suggestions to me which benefited my approach to projects. I especially worked hard to ensure that he was in the loop as far as my department went. This changed right about the time Vice Mayor was elected back onto Council (with 216 votes) last October. The Mayor seemingly got caught up in Vice Mayor's pattern of requiring an adverse relationship with the City administration. In other words, everything the administration tells Council is assumed to be suspect, self serving, inaccurate and to be counteracted. He stopped appearing at my office to discuss issues.

This was also paralleled in his relationship with the City Manager. He seems to embrace the concept of the ends justifying the means as far as furthering his agenda and that of his supporters. It suggests he lacks the character we who voted for him thought he possessed.

Two comments about Newly Appointed Council Member (NACM). The first is that the Alaska Court System found he was in violation of Bethel Municipal Code in that he was not signed up for sewer service last summer (and still is not). He has paid the fine for that one violation. He has been further cited for 180 plus days of alleged violations since his first citation (with fines now exceeding $18,000). This violation is before the Alaska Court System. However, nothing has changed. He continues to be in non-compliance and can be cited daily. To assist NACM and hopefully gain his compliance, the City acquired a sewer tank and hauled it to his home site. All that remains is for him to hook up the tank to his sewer system and subscribe to City sewer collection service. So we now have the specter of a Council Member arguing before the Court as to why he does not need to comply with basic community sanitation standards.

My second comment pertains to the fact that I serve with NACM on a city committee which advises the City Manager on Alternative Energy issues. It is a difficult issue to conceptualize. NACM, who is another know-it-all type, finds it very difficult to formulate a cogent path forward. His patented easy hind sight (what they should have done) answers are spouted off to others around the community, but do not easily pass the scrutiny of his peers on the Committee. He has no choice but to listen and be told where he is wrong.

So we are back to the Block of Four. I have come to the conclusion that these four are, for a lack of a better term, misfits. Now this may be an antiquated term but in this instance fits very well. Eric Hoffer, a longshoreman turned respected social philosopher notes: “We all have private ails. The troublemakers are those who need public cures for their private ails.” Without being psychoanalytical, I believe the Block of Four have a bumper crop of private ails they are acting through publicly. They have seemly arranged their lives so as to minimize accountability. They all work independently in their occupations, and have no one looking over their shoulders to scrutinize their products. If they have a bad day at work no one is the wiser. It is rationalized away quickly and easily. There is no boss to whom they must be accountable. I fear the same is true of their relationship on Council. As Council Members no one in the City administration will call them out for any poor decisions or actions. They count on people in the community not caring and following their actions. Until last year these people could get elected for three years with only a couple hundred votes, stand at Watson's Corner and wave to people and be in for another three years. Fortunately, terms have been reduced to two years.

When Vice Mayor unilaterally commissioned a re-write of the personnel chapter of the Bethel Municipal Code by our former law firm in Anchorage, there was only tepid comment from his colleagues about how he should have gotten full Council consent. The project cost at least $14,000 in expenses. Had anyone in administration done such a thing he would have been calling for that person’s head. Again, there are no consequences for actions. If a mistake is made by the City Council and the City is sued, the Block of Four feels reassured that it will be taken care of by our municipal underwriters. Plop, plop, sweep, sweep! It's all so very easy. The City administration cannot complain and the people are none the wiser.

However, the house of cards regarding non-accountability may be tumbling for the Block of Four. The termination of the City Attorney, also known as “The Friday Cocktail Hour Massacre”, leaves a colossal mess. The City's insurance (APEI) has already declared that their insurance will not cover damages resulting from the termination of an employee in which legal advice was not obtained beforeheand and no clear effort was made to follow the law. Plop, plop! But not so easy to sweep, sweep. I believe that when the community fully realizes the legal cost associated with this termination of the City Attorney, the Block of Four will be held accountable, finally. One of the stalwart members of the Block of Four has already been quoted in a recent Delta Discovery article that had he only known that there was a clause which required them to obtain legal advice he would not have voted for the termination. Anything to avoid accountability!

The City administration is in shambles. Everyone is waiting the second shoe to drop, which is the termination of the City Manager. There is a pall across the administration which makes it virtually impossible to think of and plan for the future with much optimism. The City Council is not looked upon as being supportive to our efforts. I believe they have no understanding about morale. There is a feeling that they are driving the bus swerving on a cliff side road going down a steep grade and the brakes are spongy.

We have the FY2009 budget approval process staring us in the face, union negotiations, difficult decisions on water and sewer projects, a hugely expensive fire house roof repair issue, funding for a new police department building and many other issues facing the city. All this would be daunting even if we had a good partnership with City Council. We have recently been treated to Council actions on Budget Modifications to the present operating budget. The Block of Four wanted to zero out the account for the City Attorney even while we are soliciting applicants for the job; that would put the city in the position of advertising for a job that has no funding! They were fortunately talked out of doing that by a voice of reason from the minority, to which—for once—they listened.

So we slog on. It will be interesting to see how the Block of Four will react to their mounting legal issues. Their track record indicates they will take a self-preservation route which is not in the best interests of the community.

Thanks for your work in documenting these events, and for allowing me to add an inside perspective.



Saturday, March 15, 2008

City Council Doesn't Get It

Tuesday night’s Regular Meeting of the Bethel City Council was lacking in the kind of big drama that has attended the meetings since the firing of the City Attorney, but was rife with subtle elements that continue to underscore the sad state this Council is in, and the continued importance to the citizens of ousting the Block of Four. They are still thugs, they are still working against the best interests of the citizens of Bethel, and they still don’t get it.

Many, though not all, of the votes of the Council are falling out in a four to three split with the Block of Four driving what they want. A listing of the players and their physical arrangement may be helpful. The arrangement matters because it has a powerful psychological effect, both on the Members themselves and on the audience watching.

Council is seated on a high dais behind a six foot tall wall of oak plywood; all that we in the gallery can see of them is their head and shoulders. They sit in a V configuration with the Mayor at the center. He and the three Members on his left constitute the Block of Four: the Newly Appointed Council Member (NACM), who is a convicted felon and is currently in violation of the Bethel Municipal Code with an $18,000 fine pending; the maker of the motion to fire the City Attorney, who is also the Vice Mayor, and who comes across as an insecure individual who likes to try to make himself feel smart by focusing on insignificant minutia of budget details while avoiding the big picture of far more important matters all together; and the Blustering Bloviator who rants on about “protecting the children” and “hugging an elder” without ever contributing anything positive or substantive to whatever discussion is occurring.

On the Mayor’s right are the three who have worked to counteract the actions of the Block of Four: the Recent Former Mayor (not to be confused by the fact that two of the Block of Four are also former mayors but will not be referred to here as such) who has his own baggage of political difficulties from his time in the central seat, but who has made reasoned and rational arguments (often ignored) about the current issues and who has an obscure sense of humor which can occasionally work foot into mouth; and the two women Council Members, the Voice of Youth who is newly elected, bright, well spoken, and has good insight and sterling intentions; and the Good Hearted Restauranteur, who is sometimes giggling but earnest, also well-intentioned, and often needs clarification.

At the Tuesday night meeting, Dutch again rose as a Person To Be Heard (the first portion of every meeting) and spoke eloquently about the fact that even the wording in the Council’s own agenda reflects the divisive attitude of the Council towards the city administration. The City of Bethel and the Bethel City Council are on two separate paths, with the Council in a “gotcha!” mode trying to destroy the administration. (Members of the Block of Four have privately stated in poker-game conversations which get reported around town that they fully intend to follow the City Attorney’s termination with that of the City Manager; many people expect that the Public Works Director, the Port Director and the City Planner will be the next ones in line. Make it a full sweep of the city administration.)

Dutch also noted in his comments that the Voice of Youth is the only Council member who understands the importance of restructuring the chain of command which has the City Attorney reporting to the City Council. Voice of Youth stated at the previous meeting (and it was ignored) that the ordinance defining the City Attorney’s position needs to be changed to have the City Attorney, as head of the Department of Legal Services, reporting to the City Manager as all other Department heads do. And she is right.

Dutch pointed out that the first question every lawyer is trained to ask is “Who is my client?” In the City Attorney’s position, the answer is “The City of Bethel.” Not the City Council. By reporting to the Council, the City Attorney has seven bosses, not one, which is a situation ripe for disaster, especially when—as now—one of the Council members has a legal conflict with the city. The NACM actually thought firing the City Attorney would make his case, and his $18,000 fine, disappear, since there would be no staff attorney to prosecute it. Let’s see, does that mean he had a conflict of interest in voting for her termination? As Dutch said to the Council a few weeks ago, yeah; even our dog Bear gets that one.

The NACM’s somewhat whiney response to Dutch’s comment was that if the City Attorney reported to the City Manager, where would the Council members get their free legal advice without the City Manager knowing about it? Hmmm, let me think about that. Would that be advice on how to violate the Bethel Municipal Code without getting caught or fined?

Dutch told the Council that until they do the restructuring of the City Attorney’s position, they are not going to find another lawyer willing to take the job. Any lawyer considering it would naturally ask “What happened to the last person in this position?” Oh, she was fired AT WHIM for non-existent reasons without warning or due process? Thanks, but no thanks. Of course, the City Council ignored his comments, as they did the Voice of Youth’s on this matter. Perhaps when six or eight months go by and the position remains unfilled, they will start to get it. Or not.

Another indicator that the City Council just doesn’t get it concerned the injunction that was brought against the Council by a citizen of Bethel for the illegal manner in which the NACM was appointed. In a statement that surprised many, the City Manager revealed that the injunction was withdrawn. Most of us assumed that the reason involved some sort of rewriting and that it would be resubmitted. The Recent Former Mayor addressed his colleagues on the Council and said that regardless of the presence of an injunction, the Council had acted wrongly and needed to correct that action. They should move ahead to do so.

The Mayor immediately responded (with his head buried firmly in the sand), “No! Absolutely not! The issue is off the table, we don’t have to do anything.” He was practically doing a happy dance over what he chose to interpret as a stroke of good fortune. The issue of doing something because it is the right thing to do was completely outside his thinking. The man lacks integrity, and this is the primary reason for the recall petition which is circulating to remove him from the Council.

The city has retained a temporary legal advisor in Anchorage to deal with pressing issues until the vacant City Attorney position is filled. When he was consulted about the injunction, rumor has it that he advised that the best course of action was for the NACM to simply step down voluntarily. Of course, the felon will never do that; he is walking around town so puffed up with his self-importance as a Council member that if you stuck a pin in him he’d shoot into the air like a balloon.

And that is precisely the problem with the entire Block of Four. They are all sitting on that dais purely to serve their own egos, their own sense of power and their own pride. They are not there out of a commitment to make Bethel a better place, to bring wisdom and guidance to the city’s path to the future, to make hard decisions about what is best for all the citizens of our quirky little town. Three of the Council members do seem to be there for those reasons, and for that I applaud them. They need to be joined by four new faces who are there for those reasons as well.

As expected, the injunction was re-filed a few days after the Council meeting. It had been rewritten to include the state statute known as OMA, or Open Meetings Act. This statute prohibits three or more Council members from privately meeting and/or discussing Council business. The lawyer for the citizen bringing the injunction stated that he purposely waited to refile until after the Council meeting to give the Council the opportunity to do the right thing on their own. Of course they didn’t, even though Recent Former Mayor tried to lead them to it. Integrity aside, if the Mayor had even the slightest bit of political savvy, he would have seen this coming, known the injunction would be refiled, and done the right thing whether he wanted to or not. He would have asked NACM to step down and led the Council in appointing a new member according to the rules. This man has no business occupying Bethel’s legislative seat in Juneau; he has no integrity and no political skill.

A few days ago, an anonymous commenter on this blog made a very interesting recommendation. He is clearly knowledgeable about legal issues and well informed on the situation here in Bethel. His comment was attached to the first post I did about this deep pool of muck, and so is now buried where it is unlikely to be seen by many. I want to bring it forward for current readers to ponder.

The citizens of Bethel need to bring another court injunction, this time against the council as a whole. The injunction should be written to show that the city council violated the Open Meetings Act and behaved in a capricious and arbitrary manner in dismissing the City Attorney, likely violating the City of Bethel's own bylaws. The injunction should allege and could make a case for conspiracy of some council members to defraud and act against the interests of the citizens of Bethel. The legal motion would be a preliminary injunction against the council and against some individual members of the council. This preliminary injunction would prevent the council from taking any further capricious and arbitrary actions against city employees and require council to comply with the Open Meeting Act and city bylaws and practices. This would be followed within a few weeks with a permanent injunction bringing about permanent restraint, unless the defendants (council) could show reasonable cause as to why their behavior should not be restrained. A restraining order would be issued by a judge and then the court could become involved in reversing any further ill adventures of the felon and friends. This would be faster than a class action suit against council, which should follow in due course to recoup the costs that all citizens will bear for the lawsuit that the council has brought upon the city. Meanwhile the preliminary injunction and the permanent injunction that follows would limit future damages. A reasonable person has to act in a way to limit damages, and the citizens of Bethel are reasonable enough to know that their city council has run amok and is dragging them down with it.

He is absolutely right. Reasonable people must act in a way to limit damages. I discussed his comment with the former City Attorney, and she agreed with him, but said the problem was in proving the violation of the OMA. We all know they violated it; the breathtaking speed with which the NACM seconded the Vice Mayor’s motion for immediate termination was a loud signal that this was all pre-arranged. The problem is in proving it. Without proof the suit would be considered frivolous and would open the bringers of the suit to damages.

At this point, reasonable people are lining up to sign the recall petitions for the Mayor and the Vice Mayor. The NACM and Blustering Bloviator cannot be recalled at this time because of the timing of their terms. Both must stand for re-election in October. Only 285 signatures are required (25% of the vote in the last election) for the recall petitions to bring about an opportunity for the citizens of Bethel to vote on removing them from their Council seats or allowing them to remain. Signing the petition is step 1; showing up to vote is step 2. And voting in the regular election in October is step 3. In a town of 6,000, less than 1,200 voted in the last election. The Vice Mayor was elected to his Council seat by 216 votes. That is pretty pathetic. Dutch got more votes than that when he ran for Student Council in high school. The Voice of Youth, on the other hand, received over 800 votes, and she has shown herself worthy of the people’s trust in voting for her.

There are 12 people in Bethel circulating the recall petitions. One woman had a table set up at the main grocery store last weekend and probably will again. Another planned to have copies available at today’s Saturday market. There is some discussion of holding a door-to-door campaign through all of Bethel’s neighborhoods to give as many people as possible the chance to sign.

The Block of Four apparently thought that Bethel is so mired in political apathy that they could do what ever outlandish thing they wanted and no one would notice, or care. Clearly, they were wrong.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Lance Mackey Does It Again

This post is too late to be news (no time for writing in the last few days) and anyone who wants to know already does, but I just had to say it here. Lance Mackey won this year's Iditarod Trail International Sled Dog Race on Wednesday morning just before 3 A.M., with an elapsed time of 9 days, 11 hours, 46 minutes and 48 seconds. In doing so, he has done the impossible for the second year in a row. He has won the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year, with the same dog team. And now he has done it twice, in consecutive years. He has made mushing history, and accomplished something which may very well never be equaled.

Only four mushers have ever won both races: Joe Runyan, Quest ’85, Iditarod ’89. Jeff King, Quest ’89, Iditarod ’93, ‘96, ‘98, ’06. Rick Mackey, Quest ’97, Iditarod ’83. And Lance Mackey, Quest ‘05, ‘06, ‘07, ‘08; and Iditarod ’07, ‘08. No other musher has ever won four Yukon Quests, much less in four consecutive years. That alone is pretty remarkable.

Lance now has his sights set on the All Alaska Sweepstakes, a 400 mile sled dog race in Nome at the end of March. It has a $100,000 winner-take-all purse.

At this point, almost half of the dog teams still competing in this year’s Iditarod have reached the finish line. The first 39 are in Nome, and 42 are still on the trail. Four rookies are bringing up the rear, and all have reached the Bering Sea at Unalakleet. Baring unforeseen problems, they should finish the race in the next two days.

Congratulations to all the mushers, and good luck to the ones with miles still to travel.

photo by Jon Little from Iditarod website,


Sunday, March 09, 2008

It's the Iditarod!

For those of us who love the sport of dog mushing, early March is a nearly endless feast of fun and excitement. That is when the best dog mushers in the world are joined by a large pool of dedicated amateur mushers to pit themselves and their dogs against the best and the worst that the huge wilderness of Alaska can throw at them. It is the 1,049-mile-long Iditarod Trail International Sled Dog Race.

Known simply as “the ‘Rod” in mushing circles, this is the event that bills itself as The Last Great Race on Earth. In Alaska, where dog mushing is the state sport, everyone knows about this race, and most people follow its progress to some degree. The top mushers are household names: Jeff King, Martin Buser, Mitch Seavey, Lance Mackey, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Rick Swenson, Paul Gebhardt, Aliy Zirkle. In the 36 years of its existence (first run in 1973), the Iditarod has been almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the sport of dog mushing back from extinction. The ‘Rod is so well publicized that many people in the lower 48 who would not otherwise know much—or care—about dog mushing love to follow it.

The best and, really, the only way to do so is through the website: If you want to truly get the feel of the race, spend the $20 to become an “Iditarod Insider”. This gives you access to the dozens of daily short video clips taken along the trail. You see dogs in action, sleds crashing, blizzards roaring—the whole giant event. This is the first year I’ve forked up the cash, and I’m really glad I did; it is well worth it, and as my dad said, “Hey, that’s less than one ticket to a football game!” And it is good for an entire year. You can watch archived video clips from the last few years if you want to.

The Iditarod begins in Anchorage each year on the first weekend in March. There is a Ceremonial Start to the race which has all the feel of a parade, and is nothing like the race itself. Crowds line the streets of Anchorage three deep and cheer the mushers as they leave the start line one-by-one wearing bibs with their starting number and lead dogs dressed in coats with commercial messages. The sleds are empty of gear and hold only an Iditarider, a person who pays big bucks for the thrill of riding with a musher the twenty or so miles out of town to the Campbell Airstrip, the untimed end of the Ceremonial Start. The only things missing from this parade-like event are a brass band and confetti.

The mushers endure this event somewhat grudgingly; they have no choice, as it is required. They generally understand how important it is to publicizing the sport. The crowds love it. Anchorage television stations carry the event live with three to four hours of coverage.

Dutch and I have a friend who lives in Anchorage, a judge who is an incredible amateur photographer. I have suggested to him that when he retires from the bench, he should turn pro with his camera; he thinks that might take the fun out of it. Earlier in the week he emailed me the following link (and permission to share it here) for his photo set on Flickr of the shots he took at the Ceremonial Start: There are nearly a hundred photos in the set, which can be viewed as a slide show. Click on it and enjoy! He did a fabulous job of capturing the excitement on what was a gorgeous day in Anchorage. Thanks Peter!

The actual race begins the following day at the Restart, this year held in the small town of Willow, north of Anchorage. Dogs are trucked there from Anchorage, sleds are loaded with gear for the trail, and Iditariders are things of the past. Television coverage of the Restart is broadcast live and good-sized crowds show up to watch real start of the race.

This year has the largest field of mushers ever to leave the start line. Ninety-six teams left Anchorage in the Ceremonial Start; one musher, GB Jones, announced ahead of time that he would scratch at Campbell Airstrip. He is retiring and this was his farewell to mushing. So 95 dog teams were lined up in Willow to run the 2008 Iditarod. With sixteen dogs per team, that is 1,520 dogs. Yowza.

As in the Ceremonial Start, teams leave the start line one-by-one in two minute intervals. With so many teams, it takes several hours to get the race launched. That time difference is made up later on, at the mandatory rest. There is strategy involved in where in the line-up a musher wants to start; most agree that starting early is better. The trail is not chewed up by lots of teams going through, and the early starters have to take a longer rest later on in the race when the dogs need it.

No matter how you look at it, a thousand miles is a long, long way to travel by dog team. The course of the race goes over a huge mountain range, down a precipitously steep gorge, through long frozen but usually snowless stretches of land in the central part of the state, along the mighty Yukon River, which is often a tunnel of wind, and up the stark, frozen coastline of the Bering Sea to the town of Nome. There can be intense blizzards, bitter cold, and frightening wind. Dogs and mushers are battling elements, distance, and exhaustion in their quest to make it to the finish line.

These days the race is generally won in about nine days. In the early races it took nearly three weeks. This will not be a record-setting year, as the temperatures have been warm, +30s and 40s, which is not good for the dogs, and the trail has been soft and punchy, which does not allow the dogs to go their fastest. At this moment, the leaders of the race, Lance Mackey and Jeff King, are approaching Unalakleet, the first checkpoint on the Bering Sea and the beginning of the last leg of the race. From Unalakleet it is 219 miles to the finish line. There are currently 87 teams still actively mushing towards Nome, with nine having scratched for various reasons, and they are spread out over hundreds of miles. The Red Lantern (last place) is currently headed towards the Yukon River with over 500 miles to go.

As the dog teams approach the final leg, there is still a lot of racing to do, and anything can happen. Weather may intervene, dogs may run out gas, mushers in their exhausted state may make mistakes. For the last few days, the leadership of the race has been a duel between two outstanding mushers, Lance and Jeff. The next three or four teams are within a few hours of them, and with this much distance left to travel, could move up. The next two days will see it out.

One of the things many people are holding their breaths to see is whether Lance Mackey can repeat the incredible accomplishment he pulled off last year, something many people said could not be done. Lance has won the last four Yukon Quest sled dog races, in 2005, ’06, ’07, and ‘08. The Quest and the Iditarod are the only two 1,000+ mile sled dog races held in North America. The Quest is not as famous as the Iditarod and is a different type of race; it has fewer checkpoints, more mountains, and deeper snow. It also has a much smaller field; generally between ten and twenty mushers compete for the Quest title.

The Quest is held the first two weeks in February; the Iditarod, the first two weeks in March. Mushers have occasionally competed in both races, though usually not with the same dogs. Until last year, no one had ever won both races in the same year, and common wisdom was that it couldn’t be done. And then Lance Mackey did it. And he ran the same dogs in both races. That’s about like winning the Boston Marathon and the New York Marathon two weeks apart. Mackey was instantly dubbed the one and only “IditaQuest” champion.

Today he is only 200 miles away from possibly repeating that impossible feat, and, again, with the same dog team in both races. He has set a completely new standard in long-distance dog mushing. He is an incredible guy. Whip-thin. Focused. Driven. Seemingly tireless. A survivor of throat cancer that left him with no salivary glands, requiring him to drink water constantly to replace the saliva he can not produce.

As much as I would love to see Lance repeat his amazing feat, I would also love to see Jeff King win his fifth Iditarod. He is one of only four mushers who have won this race four times (1993, ’96, ’98, and ’06); the other three are Susan Butcher, Martin Buser, and Doug Swingley. Only one musher has won it five times, Rick Swenson—who, by the way, is having one of his best Iditarods in many years, and is currently in twelvth place.

At this year’s Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race here in Bethel, Dutch and I were handlers for Jeff and were able to get to know him a little, which was very nice. He is a good dog man; you can see and feel the energy between him and his dogs. I would love to see him move into the five-time Iditarod winner’s circle.

At this point the race will probably be won sometime on Tuesday. Will Jeff overtake Lance to win? Will Paul Gebhardt hold on to third? Will Martin Buser’s son Rohn take Rookie of the Year? Will Dee Dee Jonrowe beat Jessie Royer for first woman to finish? Will Aliy Zirkle make it back into the top twenty? Will Mother Nature play nice along the Bering Sea coast?

Stay tuned, mushing fans, there’s lots more Iditarod to come!

photos by Peter Ashman, map from the Iditarod website