As 2022 comes to a close, the KCAW News team has been searching for one word to describe the year – and they landed on “big.” A lot of big things happened for Sitka – politically, socially, and scientifically. And while bigger doesn’t always mean better, this year brought a lot of big numbers that were hard to ignore. KCAW’s Robert Woolsey and Katherine Rose have the year in review.
380,000 – The record-breaking number of cruise passengers who visited Sitka this summer
Sitka saw its biggest cruise season in history this year, and while we didn’t quite see the numbers that were predicted, it was nonetheless a boom, with 380,000 visitors ultimately reaching Sitka’s shores. And downtown looked different this summer: Lincoln Street was often closed, with food vendors and bathroom trailers sharing street space. And that space was tight, with thousands of visitors filling the sidewalks amid street closures and construction.
“We’ve got small streets, we have some difficult corners. And then we have people who are just completely unfamiliar and on vacation, fully on vacation, not always looking where they’re going. I know people are frustrated, and rightfully so. But I also still see people being cautious, I see people looking out. Citizens have done a lot to accommodate…these increased numbers…to try and keep people safe”- City Planning Director Amy Ainslie
The city is planning for a number of safety improvements and changes next year. That’s because next year will be even bigger, with more than 500,000 cruise passengers expected in 2023.
$8.2 million – The amount of money approved by voters to construct a marine haulout at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park
Sitka’s fishing fleet has been without a boat haulout for nearly a year. Several years ago Chris McGraw, the owner of Halibut Point Marine, announced he’d be shutting down his haulout to concentrate on developing the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal. The city took several approaches toward building a replacement, but the efforts hit dead ends, even though fishermen say that the need for one in the community is dire.
“The fishing fleet, the marine fleet, affects every single person in this town…You can’t just say, ‘Well, I don’t have a fishing boat, it doesn’t affect me.’ It affects you very much, from sales tax to payroll, to people being on payroll, and then that money just circulates throughout the town. Having a haulout is absolutely crucial to this community.” – Assembly member Kevin Mosher, on why a haulout isn’t a special interest project
So the assembly put out a ballot question: Would voters support an initiative to withdraw $8.2 million from Sitka’s Permanent Fund for the construction of a marine haulout at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park? Turns out, that both Sitkans who fish and don’t fish were pretty into the idea. Just over 80-percent voted in favor of the plan in the October Municipal Election.
23 years-old – Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins’ age when he was elected to the Alaska Legislature
2022 was an intense year for elections, especially without a president on the ballot. Between the new ranked-choice voting system, the death of Don Young, the rise of Mary Peltola, and the comeback of Lisa Murkowski, there was an astonishing amount of election news. But a big story that was very nearly buried by this was the departure of Sitka’s longtime representative Jonathan Kreiss Tomkins, who did not seek re-election.
“It’s been a decade, and I’ve watched my twenties go by the wayside, and literally every adult life birthday I have had has been in the confines of the Alaska Capitol. And I want to be sure before I get too long in tooth, that I have the opportunity to have time and space for other aspects of life as well, as difficult a decision as that is. Because I love the legislature, and I love this community in the region, and enjoy and feel effective with the work that is involved with the legislature.”– Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins
Kreiss-Tomkins’ seat will now go to former assembly member Rebecca Himschoot. Himschoot is a political independent, a long-time elementary school teacher in Sitka, who is planning to bring a collaborative approach in local government to the state.
“I think there’s just some really important issues that we need to be working on. And I think if we can take the same model our assembly uses which is a productive, collaborative process, that’s going to really help how things get done in Juneau. Our problems are too big to bicker. We need to get to work.”– Rebecca Himschoot
Himschoot’s departure for Juneau created a second vacancy on the assembly, which was filled by JJ Carlson. Sitka High teacher Tim Pike was appointed just a month earlier to replace Dave Miller, who resigned because of health issues. Both Pike and Carlson will have to run for their seats this fall, but they’ll have a head start. Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz was elected to a second term, assembly member Chris Ystad was elected to his first, and Thor Christianson was re-elected. Two school board appointees, Mitch Mork and Tristan Guevin, handily won full terms this fall, and Melonie Boord won a school board seat as a write-in.
4,500 years – The last time Mt. Edgecumbe erupted
As if life in Sitka wasn’t interesting enough, Mt. Edgecumbe is showing signs of life. Cheryl Cameron is a geologist at the Alaska Volcano Observatory. Cameron grew up in Sitka, and she says her brother first noticed the swarm of small earthquakes below Mt. Edgecumbe last spring. The AVO subsequently used satellite radar data to determine that the flanks of Mt. Edgecumbe have inflated by about 11 inches (3 inches per year since 2018) and the volcano has been reclassified from dormant to “historically active.”
Mt. Edgecumbe now joins a list of about 50 volcanoes in Alaska that are either currently active, or otherwise showing signs of recent activity. Cameron and the AVO came over last summer and installed monitors on the cone that should provide a bit more insight into what’s going on over there. It may not amount to anything, or we might be resetting that 4,500-year number!
Keeping tabs on Mt. Edgecumbe isn’t the only way Sitka’s scientific community is staying out in front of natural disasters. The tsunami warning system has been around for years, and now we’ve got a landslide warning system.
“So this project got started in 2015, when we had a deadly landslide that killed our friends and family. And I can say that I’ve been here 35 years and just never thought about landslides until then. As a big worry, mostly, we worried about tsunamis. And all of a sudden people had lots of concerns and lots of questions.” – Lisa Busch, Sitka Sound Science Center director.
The project is a huge multi-agency collaboration funded by the National Science Foundation, combining geology, weather, and social science. The website provides information about landslide risk – low, medium, or high – and you make the call about what to do, depending on where you live. Check it out at sitkalandslide.org.
45,000 tons – The record-setting harvest for the Sitka Sound Sac Roe Herring Fishery
Even with the optimistic forecast from Fish and Game, seiners said from the get-go that they wouldn’t hit that quota, due to changes in the market. Still, they broke the herring harvest record, catching around 26,000 tons of fish, over 56 percent of the GHL. Next year’s target is just a little lower, and market conditions haven’t changed much.
Traditional harvester Harvey Kitka is a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s Herring Resource Committee. The record-setting forecasts don’t mean much, when cultural memory has a far different story about herring abundance. He thinks there’s a disconnect between management and harvest that’s being ignored:
Because when only when only the herring were left (and other forage fish gone) this is one of the things I was so concerned about was that the only thing that man controls is what we take. And if we don’t keep track of what’s happening in the natural cycle and try to adjust ourselves to it will be hurting ourselves in the long run. – Harvey Kitka
1,100 feet – The distance Jeff Wright fell on Mt. Verstovia, and survived
In March, Sitkan Jeff Wright fell an estimated 1,100 feet (and perhaps more) down the side of snowy Mt. Verstovia. Not only did Wright live to tell the tale – albeit with serious injuries – he says the misadventure helped sharpen his appreciation for the outdoors.
People are surprised that I’m alive. And I understand that. But you know…I’ve survived far more significant things in my life. I had a heart attack…And I rate that fall with this heart attack as far as severity. And there’s other things that have happened that I’ve overcome that were much, much greater. And that helps me — not downplay what happened to me — but it puts it into perspective.– Jeff Wright
24 Hours – The amount of time Russia expected to take to topple Ukraine
The impact of the war has been felt everywhere, even in Sitka. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, KCAW’s Tash Kimmell spoke with Sitkan Dimitry Rudas, who is originally from Ukraine.
“It’s your homeland. It’s where you were born. It’s something that you can never stop worrying about, no matter how far away you are, or how long of a time that’s passed. You still worry about it like it’s your child. People have been calling me have been texting me have been just catching me in the street, expressing their support. Saying that they’re worried for me for my family. I’ve never seen, I’ve never experienced, this level of support from local community, from my colleagues at work and from the global stage at large as as well, as I’m seeing right now.” – Dimitry Rudas
Former Sitka High Music teacher John DePalatis had good friends in Ukraine. He made the news with his one-man relief effort, taking suitcases of medical supplies from Poland into Ukraine.
“No matter what I do, no matter how much money we raise, no matter what I accomplish, it’s not enough. this war isn’t gonna stop for a long time, and people aren’t going to be saved for a long time,” he says. “I have the desire to fix it all….but I can’t, and so I have to do this. I have to. There’s not a choice.” – John DePalatis
1:04.95 – Lydia Jacoby’s gold medal time in the 100-meter breaststroke
1 minute 4 seconds and 95 hundredths. This may the most exciting number for every Alaskan who watched the summer Olympics in 2021. Olympic gold medalist and Seward High School senior Lydia Jacoby shared stories of her rise to the top with some of Sitka’s youngest swimmers in January, 2022.
And when that was done, they dived in to practice with – and race against – one of the fastest women in the water.
No one wasn’t charmed by her at the pool that day. And there were many who were flat-out awed.
KCAW – Dr. J, were you inspired today?
Tom Jacobsen – I am inspired. And yeah…(laughing) Inspired is how much faster she is than I am.