It was Carl Sagan who, gazing at a picture of the night sky, called the earth “a mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam.” The human story plays out on that pale blue dot and as the new year begins, the KCAW news department likes to look back on what defined our last trip around the sun.
What were we talking about in 2017? What, in Sagan’s words, was the “aggregate of our joy and suffering?” Raven News looked at key moments from our year of radio reporting and brings you this story.
(Star Wars theme music)
2017 will be remembered as the year the moon cut a path between the earth and the sun and in a galaxy not so far away, Sitkans had to leave the cloudy rainforest of home in order to catch a glimpse of totality. Some, like Brant Brantman and Cindy Edwards, even took to the sky to watch the solar eclipse during a flight. “You know when you were a little kid laying in the field looking up at the stars,” Edwards said. “And you just felt so teeny-weeny?
Space travel has a funny way of putting things in perspective, reminding us of our size in the grand scheme of things. And as I look back on the 2017, I see countless stories of impossible, but important journeys.
(Sound of rain and driving wind)
Epic excursions, tracing the wildest route from Point A to Point B you can imagine.
A Year of Adventure! And a new administrator for Sitka
(Sound of the Bagheera in Nome, Alaska)
Two polar yachts then-home ported in Sitka – the Bagheera and the Snow Dragon II – attempted to reach the North Pole to shine a light on melting sea ice, the crew of the Cutter Maple cruised the Northwest passage, and a pair of adventurers, Dan Evans and Eric Speck, fulfilled a lifelong dream of walking the length of Baranof Island.
(Sound of rain on alder trees)
Evans – Sometimes bear trails end up being tunnels through the brush. We’ve crawled through them in the dark.
Speck – In the rain!
Evans – I remember sticking my hand in a pile of fresh bear crap. And I remember turning around to Eric and just saying, ‘Bear crap!’
Oprah declared it her “Year of Adventure,” posting an Instagram video at the head of the Mt. Roberts proclaiming “Here in Alaska!” in a sing-song voice. While Oprah didn’t venture into town, NPR legend Melissa Block did, telling stories about Sitka’s fishing families and lending her smooth cadence to the marine weather forecast on Raven News.
“Rain. Lows around 40. Southeast winds to 10 mph with gusts to around 25 mph,” Block recited, while our 2016 winter fellow Emily Russell hosted the evening newscast.
Summer was soggy in Southeast, but that didn’t deter former Alaskan Keith Brady from pursuing the job of municipal administrator. “The rain and the smell of the salt air and the foliage brought back a lot of memories for me,” he said.
The Utah county commissioner was hired by the Sitka Assembly after a months-long search to replace Mark Gorman. 2017 saw Gorman leave the corner office on the 3rd floor of City Hall and along with his wife Nancy, take an international development job in Myanmar.
Andrew Murphy was also hired as the new director of the Sitka Public Library.
Milestones and historical memory, as Sitka celebrates Sesquicentennial
(Sound of rotor blades from helicopter rescue)
Air Station Sitka celebrated its 40th anniversary, having saved over 2,000 lives on land and sea, and it was the 70th anniversary of Mt. Edgecumbe High School, which Gil Truitt said saved his life too.
Orphaned at 14, Truitt was part of that first class of students.”For me that was really the beginning of my life, because I saw what a boarding school could be and what it could do,” Truitt said.
(Song by Mt. Edgecumbe Yup’ik Dancers)
But the crowning milestone of this year had to be the sesquicentennial: the 150th Anniversary of the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States. That history was made in Sitka and has long been commemorated here.
(Seattle Pipe and Drum Corps performing “America the Beautiful”)
In a blue uniform beneath a blue sky this October 18th, Harvey Brandt narrated the reenactment atop Castle Hill. “It was an unusually fine day like this,” Brandt said. Noting the sky, he added, “Maybe not quite as nice as this.”
But the day does not inspire those same feelings for everyone. For the first time, the Kiks.ádi people publicly mourned Alaska Day. Beating a drum, the group sang sorrowing songs at the bottom of Castle Hill, while the formal ceremony was taking place on top.
(Sounds of song, gooch gaas, amid gun shots)
Dionne Brady-Howard led the ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary of the day their land was lost. “Anytime race relations are brought up, too often, people of color are told how they should and shouldn’t feel,” the Mt. Edgecumbe social studies teacher and Sitka School Board member said.
The sesquicentennial landed squarely amid national conversations about race and reconciling American history. Conversations percolating on the margins were suddenly out in front and conflict sometimes followed.
Political activism and protests stir local debate
(Sound of Sitka’s Women’s March)
2017 saw a women-led march bring half a million people to Washington, D.C for the inauguration of Donald Trump in January. Sitka’s Women’s March drew 700 and flare-up on the Facebook group, Sitka Chatters. Some saw the local march as divisive.
One witness, who introduced himself as John, watched skeptically as the marchers chanted down Lincoln Street. “I think [Trump] is going to try and cross over the aisles and be a little less partisan. I think he’s going to try and do that, because we have to unify as a country,” he said.
(Sound of Sitkans singing “We Shall Overcome”)
Unity was hard to come by in 2017, which also saw white nationalists clash with counter-protesters in Charlottesville in August over the fate of a confederate monument. In response, Sitkans held a candlelight vigil for a counter-protester struck by a vehicle, organized by Hannah Guggenheim. “People must learn to hate and if they learn to hate, they can be taught to love,” Guggenheim told the crowd.
But people can’t always be taught to agree. The events in Charlottesville sparked another online debate about Sitka’s own controversial statue: a pensive Alexander Baranov, cast in bronze. He’s a Russian merchant and namesake of the island.
As 2017 winter fellow Katherine Rose reported, the statue was donated to the city in the spirit of commerce. But for culture bearer Louise Brady, learning her history has distilled the statue into a symbol of something else entirely: “Of epidemics. Of assimilation. Of bad policy and destruction of a way of life,” Brady said.
Some want a statue of the Tlingit leader, K‘alyáan, mounted in Sitka, though the tit-for-tat is not quite what Brady is looking for. She wants conversation around historical trauma to continue, as it did in the months leading up to Alaska Day and has ever since.
Healthcare hurdles hit home, OB to end at Sitka Community on Jan. 5th
Even the federal healthcare debate came home to Sitka, when Senator Lisa Murkowski stepped off a plane hours after defying the Republican party and casting a critical vote against the Senate’s skinny-repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Before voting, she says McCain told her on the Senate floor, “Lisa, do what you know is right.”
“It reminded me of the old Ted Stevens phrase he would say, ‘To hell with politics. Do what’s right for Alaska,’” Murkowski said.
Murkowski spoke to local reporters after touring Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital, which the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium wants to expand. Alaska’s senior senator has been instrumental in that work, pushing a bill through the Senate this year to transfer 19 acres of federal land to SEARHC. Congressman Don Young in sponsoring a companion bill in the House.
The future of Sitka’s two hospitals was the political lightning rod of the year.
While SEARHC and Sitka Community began with talks of collaboration, an outside consultant advised merger last year. SEARHC made an offer in May. The Assembly was poised to consider it, until two shoes dropped over the summer. The first: a $35 million pension liability. That’s how much the city owes the state pension system for hospital employees. The other shoe? Interest from hotel proprietor Rob Petrie in buying the hospital himself. “You don’t have to be a doctor. You don’t have to have a special degree. You just have to have the ability and the means to make this type of business work,” Petrie told KCAW.
Petrie’s unexpected offer made the Assembly pump the breaks and reconsider the process. They’ll soon open the doors for any party to make an offer on the hospital. That could be for purchase or a lease, but the Assembly would entertain some kind of partnership or affiliation. Whichever entity does apply will have to come armed with a creative solution for that pension cost too. The Assembly’s final draft of the request for proposal will come before the public in the coming weeks.
(Hospital ambient sound throughout)
Meanwhile, both hospitals are pressing onward independently. SEARHC quietly purchased the Moore Clinic on Moller Avenue and will open it as a weekend clinic this month. And the collaboration between the hospitals that was inconceivable in the boardroom? It’s happening anyway — in the delivery room.
As a cost-saving measure, the Sitka Hospital Board voted to close their obstetrics ward in the spring. While maintaining pre-natal and post-natal care, Sitka Community Hospital physicians will deliver babies at SEARCH.
The Sitka Sentinel is reporting that the last day for labor and delivery shortages will be Friday, January 5th due to “staffing issues.”
Several mothers spoke against this plan. Camilla Pfeiffer told the board this could deteriorate the hospital’s patient base. ““If someone decides to go to SEARHC to have their baby, because they can’t have it at Sitka Community, they’re going to take their whole family there. The labs you have to get done, the X-rays you have to get done, ultrasounds, all the postpartum well-child checks, you’re not going to want to switch back and forth.”
But switch back and forth is exactly what pregnant parents are expected to do, when the times comes for their baby to be born.
Electric usage rises, Chinook crash, and recycling restricts
2017 has been so much about this: making the journey not to another galaxy, but across the bridge, across the aisle, and across the fiscal gap. Sometimes, it works.
Last year saw much agonizing at City Hall about how to pay for the Blue Lake Dam. The cost of living tipped upwards with a rate hike to 15-cents, which was forecasted in the expansion project, but painful for many in town. Utility Director Bryan Bertacchi suggested something new: a seasonal electric rate – that’s higher in the summer and lower in the winter.
Also, more commercial customers came online this year, an upward trend Bertacchi took quick note of. “Starting in March, we’ve seen almost every month, extra usage. If there’s more additional income, that lowers rates for everybody in the long haul,” Bertacchi said.
With all hope, this will stabilize the city’s electric fund. The city also created an incentive program to entice more commercial customers to fire up electric boilers in place of diesel.
Some journeys, however, did not culminate in a return. China is tightening import rules for trash, which has given some of Sitka’s recyclable plastics and paper no place to go.
Poor ocean survival saw king salmon runs at historic lows. The state issued an emergency closure of all commercial and sport fishing of chinook in August. The event was unprecedented for a fish that Alaska Trollers Association Director Daley Kelley says is worth its weight in gold. “You know, the financial cost of no king salmon for the troll fleet — we just don’t easily recover from that,” Kelley said.
Sitka will become the epicenter of the chinook debate, as well as proposals to restrict the herring catch, when the state Board of Fish meets this month (January 11 – 23rd).
Peaks and valleys and journeys home
2017 did have moments when things went according to plan, or better. There was also tragedies, some hitting close to home.
A citizen’s group will soon break ground on a community playground funded entirely by grants and donations. A floating processor is under construction at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park, gearing up for the sockeye season in Bristol Bay. A hotel opened downtown, in a tourist season with an uptick in cruise ship passengers.
The city passed its first anti-discrimination ordinance and when the legislature proposed cutting Alaska’s education budget, Sitka High students staged a walk-out.
“This will only create more problems and hurt Alaskans’ educations. Can we all agree on that?,” shouted Elias Erickson, one of the organizers, as the student body cheered.
Later that year, at the age of 18, Erickson would run for the Sitka School Board and earn a seat.
(News clip from Hurricane Harvey)
When natural disasters struck, Sitkans got involved. Air Station Sitka crew went down to Texas after Hurricane Harvey made land fall. Piloting a helicopter over Texas airspace, Lieutenant Commander Ray Jamros remembers retrieving one woman from the floodwaters.”We hoisted her up and as soon as we lifted her up, the air mattress blew away,” Jamros remembered.
(Plane noises, broadcasters speaking in Spanish inside Cadena Radio)
LaFontaine Oliver, General Manager of WMFE in Orlando, flew down to get it installed. “Public radio is kind of a big family. So I started making calls,” he said in a video posted to WMFE’s Facebook page.
Stories of global consequence can send ripple waves to our shores, as can the loss of one individual affect the lives of many.
The Sitka courthouse this year was a gathering place for family and friends of Ali Clayton. Clayton was 28-years-old, when she was allegedly murdered by her boyfriend Reuben Yerkes, now 40, who remains in jail after turning himself in.
While the trial will potentially take place outside of Sitka in September, delayed by an evidence dispute, those here will still be grappling with Clayton’s death and honoring her memory.
Spanish teacher Ariel Starbuck spoke with KCAW shortly after her death, remembering her former student as, “This skinny blonde girl with a big smile. Organized, funny, motivated, would wrinkle her nose when she didn’t like something,” Starbuck said.
Early in her teaching career, Starbuck said Clayton helped her plan a class trip to Costa Rica. They did the zip line and hiked to a volcano. Starbuck credits Clayton for showing her that international travel with students was possible. “I’ve done 11 trips with high school kids. Thanks to Ali for encouraging that,” Starbuck said.
All journeys – whether through space or back in time – must eventually come home. 2017 came to a close as the curtain fell on jellyfish in tutus and dancing crabs, when the home of Alaska inspired Sitka’s local version of the Nutcracker. This was the 10th production by the Fireweed Dance Guild and the last bow for Don Lehmann, in his role as father herring. “This has gotta be the best Nutcracker per capita anywhere,” Lehmann said.
Proving that you don’t always need to leave the rock to be taken far, far away. From all of us at Raven Radio, may your 2018 be filled with adventure and we wish you a happy new year.