December 20, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 51

2012: The Year in Review

The earth moved in 2012 and the shift wasn’t only the “slump” on the side of Mount Ripinsky that cleaved a house and split Lutak Road.

Four-term incumbent state Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, aiming to become Speaker of the House, lost his seat to Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a 23-year-old Sitkan seeking his first political office. Klukwan, Inc., once among the wealthiest Native corporations in Alaska, declared bankruptcy. And Xtratuf boots, an icon of rugged Alaska gear, started falling apart after manufacturing moved to China.

Daunting winter weather continued into summer, Haines school enrollment dropped 8 percent and the Elks Lodge closed after 30 years of local service. “Our organization just hasn’t been all that up to par,” said longtime Elk Leo Smith.

By March 1, total snowfall broke a season record when it exceeded 309 inches in town, on its way to a new record of 358.4 inches. “That was pretty much a disaster,” school superintendent Michael Byer said of cleats attached to the roof of the district’s covered playground, intended to keep it from shedding snow. Snow loads tore them all off.

May brought the wettest and second-coldest weather on record for the month. June and July weren’t much better. Bicyclist Kris Miller, describing the gear solo riders needed to complete the 148-mile Kluane to Chilkat Bike Relay at summer solstice, said, “Everything we had, we wore.”

In late June a downtown resident called 911 when he mistook an unobscured sunrise for a wildfire. The sudden jump in temperatures a few days later triggered flooding, as much of the winter’s record snowpack had survived spring’s cool temperatures.

School enrollment dropped by about 25 students in the fall, a decline that had been prematurely predicted for years. Initial district fears about a budget shortfall fed a squabble between school board members and Rep. Thomas about increasing the state’s school foundation funding.

Thomas and fellow Republicans instead channeled more money to schools for transportation, energy and voc-tech programs, but Kreiss-Tomkins used the issue as ammunition against Thomas in his campaign. Redistricting and a tireless, door-to-door strategy helped Kreiss-Tomkins beat Thomas by 32 votes.

In Haines, Thomas’ defeat raised concerns, including the financing of borough efforts to maintain or replace aging facilities. Consultants hired to assess borough buildings last month cited appropriations by the Alaska Legislature as the main source of funds for such projects.

During his eight-year tenure, Thomas helped funnel an estimated $95 million into the Chilkat Valley, money that launched public and private projects and helped expand the efforts of several non-profits. Kreiss-Tomkins, who visited Haines for four days this week, said many of the questions he fielded were about money.

In addition to facilities, leading issues for the borough included planning efforts, heli-skiing management and the borough manager position.

Manager Mark Earnest received an 18-month contract extension in January, but two months later announced he’d be leaving in mid-June. In June, Earnest changed his mind about leaving, saying he’d stay until July 2013. In October, when the assembly again began discussing his replacement, Earnest expressed interest in staying through July 2014.

In November, the assembly agreed to extend the contract to mid-2014, pending a satisfactory job review, which will be held in January.

The year started with an heli-ski operator’s attempt to establish a heliport at 25 Mile and development of borough methodology for tracking of heli-ski flights with GPS technology. Safety issues came to the fore after a March 13 avalanche killed Alaska Heliskiing guide Rob Liberman and client Nick Dodov, the local industry’s first deaths.

By year’s end, Dodov’s family had raised a host of questions and was asking the borough to deny Alaska Heliskiing a permit for the coming season, alleging negligence on the company’s part and citing Liberman’s positive drug test. Borough action on permit requests for the coming season is expected in a few weeks.

In February, the assembly increased pay and duties of a borough planning position, citing a desire to step up enforcement, and a month later approved $80,000 annually for a full-time assistant for the manager, saying the position would include economic development.

The borough also completed its updated comprehensive plan, identified immediate goals in a “strategic plan” and launched a “borough facilities master plan” aimed at directing decisions for upgrading aging infrastructure.

Headway included replacing the roof on the Chilkat Center, establishing language to protect the harbormaster from unruly customers, and installing a pellet-burning boiler in the Senior Center, aimed at reducing fuel costs.

The borough’s police department came under scrutiny in 2012. One officer resigned in the face of animal abuse charges and a former sergeant surrendered his license in response to complaints originating from his service here.

A breathalyzer inoperable for five months allowed some defendants to escape prosecution for driving under the influence. Residents and some borough and state officials raised other concerns about department procedures for gathering evidence and conducting investigations.

Engineers apparently resolved the mystery of the Ripinsky “slump,” identifying a hodgepodge of man-made drainages and mountainside land clearing as the likely culprits for channelized surface water that triggered the slide. Last week, borough planning commissioners were skeptical of an early recommendation to limit tree-cutting on the hillside.

Pedestrian signage improvements, new facades on three prominent buildings and a live music program on Main Street suggested that efforts aimed at downtown revitalization were starting to bear fruit. The fruit was literal in the case of apple trees planted in the town’s core two years ago. Organizer Joe Poor plucked a handful of tiny apples to divert growth to trunks and roots.

Unresolved questions downtown include the fate of vacant lots on the site of demolished school buildings and what to do about the boarded-up Coliseum Theater building at the center of town. In June, members of the downtown revitalization committee voted to bring their organization under the borough’s wing.

Commercial fishing and industrial mining helped support the local economy in 2012, a year in which the real estate market languished and the tour season started as cold as the weather. The largest sockeye catch in 20 years combined with a booming hatchery chum fishery made Lynn Canal gillnetting as lucrative as it’s been in decades.

A news story found as many as 29 residents working at Kensington and Greens Creek mines, bringing home estimated combined pay of $2.9 million. Constantine Metal Resources made a pact with a Japanese financier and plans to resume exploration work at the Palmer deposit near 40 Mile Haines Highway. The company is expecting to spend $3 million.

The borough pursued bridge and dock improvements to accommodate transshipment of ore from Canadian mines and signed cooperation statements with two Yukon projects, after removing confidentiality language and binding provisions.

Record numbers of visitors signed up for the Kluane bike relay and Haines brewfest, a development that contrasted with the closure of the Thunderbird Motel, which eliminated 20 year-round rooms. “It’s a bite all around,” said Chamber of Commerce president Ned Rozbicki. “It reduces our overall capacity for hosting visitors and compromises our ability to do any kind of convention here.”

Mayor Stephanie Scott voiced a call for more weekend events to draw regional visitors and a “Coho Days” celebration was organized in October to welcome Canadian anglers.

Bears around downtown and along the Chilkoot River again dominated wildlife news. Seven or more were shot or orphaned after run-ins at homes and businesses, and some wildlife advocates said the absence of a bear monitor was leading to an unprecedented level of hazard at Chilkoot.

“People have fed the bears. People have baited the bears. People have left their small children in the campground with food on the picnic table while they went into town,” said Pam Randles, president of the Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation.

The Alaska Division of Parks downplayed the situation, saying numbers of encounters were down from some recent years, and moved ahead with a plan to build bear-viewing platforms along the river.

The bear foundation dispatched teams of volunteers in early September to distribute literature and document encounters there. State park ranger Preston Kroes, who prohibited tent camping at the state park there, closed the campground early, citing numerous run-ins, including four tents destroyed this year.

A foundling moose taken in by a Small Tracts Road family in May was adopted by Steve Kroschel’s wildlife park and a baby seal born prematurely and discovered along Chilkat Inlet in May was raised at Seward’s sea life center and released at a north Douglas beach in August.

Runners dominated sports headlines in 2012. Led by senior hurdler and sprinter Devin Braaten, the Haines High School boys’ track team placed third among 3A teams at state. “It was exemplary. The kids did a tremendous job all season long,” said first-year coach Ray Chapin. In September, the boys’ cross country team qualified for the state championship for the first time in five years.

College runner Chandler Kemp, who led the Glacier Bears to their previous trip to the state cross country meet, chopped a whopping 44 seconds off the record time he’d set three years before in the annual Fourth of July Mount Ripinsky Run. “When he took off, he was flying,” said longtime front-runner Chip Lende. J.J. Lende set a women’s record in the same race. More than 30 local residents ran in the annual Klondike Road Relay between Skagway and Whitehorse, Y.T., an apparent high mark in local participation.

Other sports highlights included the first Southeast Alaska Little League championship to be held here in decades, played under sunny skies at a sparkling Fair Field, and a fourth-place finish at the state wrestling championship by high school senior Jimmy Thomsen.

The Haines school district won a statewide award for improved test scores, launched a new discipline program and set up a an “independent learning center,” to help expand offerings.

The school lunch program fed Lynn Canal salmon to students, Scouts dedicated a new camp near Mount Riley, and residents Erwin Hertz, Kyle Ponsford, Bob Adkins and Joe Parnell published books.

On a warm, June evening, fishermen, old-timers and Portage Cove neighbors gathered to witness the cremation of “Good Partner II,” the last of a fleet of derelict wooden boats once hove up on the beach at Portage Cove.

Deaths of residents and former residents reported in 2012 included: Norm Smith Sr., 86; Francis Smalley, 53; Jane Utiger, 56; Helen Fenn, 98; Barbara Woods, 66; Russ Murray, 76; Donald Peterson, 95; Dave Ward, 78; Tim Walsh, 45; Dixie Young, 87; Harriet Brakken, 94; Carolyn Kirk; Jim Mock, 54; Bob McBride, 76; Richard Boyce, 63; Hilma White, 98; Harriett Jurgeleit, 89; Eric McDowell, 69; Andre Leduc, 65; Jeff Gorman, 62; Esther Hotch, 96; Ed Lapeyri, 73; Michelle Paul, 48; Jeremy Hanes, 20; Pat Murphy, 67; Jan Harrington, 62; Lola Boan, 82; Dick Aukerman, 91; Ted Lynch, 61; Bill Coleman, 68; Ann Burkhardt, 78; Kurt Ramseyer, 68; Vi Buel, 96; Evelyn Badgley, 95; and Teresa Stelting, 88.