Drowning the derelicts: Yesterday’s boats are today’s problems

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, News, Online, Print

Originally published in High Country News.

The Lumberman, a 107-foot World War II-era steel-hull tugboat, has been floating at the quiet cruise ship dock in Juneau for months, awaiting a watery grave. Abandoned for nearly a decade, the Lumberman was moored in Juneau’s Gastineau Channel in the early 2000s by its last owner, Brenden Mattson. Two years ago, the 192-ton tugboat’s anchor line broke, stranding it on state tidelands and creating a jurisdictional hot potato for city, state and Coast Guard officials as they debated how to dispose of the vessel.

Then, last winter, a high tide and forceful winds pushed the Lumberman from the tidelands. Fearing property damage, the city of Juneau took responsibility for the historic tug and towed it to the cruise ship dock. In late October, Juneau got permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to get rid of the boat: by scuttling it offshore, about 170 miles from the city. This spring, weather permitting, city officials will open a six-inch valve on the ship, allowing it to sink 8,400 feet to the ocean floor.

This is an uncommon way to deal with a common problem in coastal areas: what to do with abandoned and derelict vessels. Hundreds of such boats are strewn along Alaska’s coast, where they can become navigational hazards or dangerously alluring destinations: In 2017, two people who were trying to reach the Lumberman died when their skiff overturned. Abandoned boats can also damage habitat and leach toxic materials, such as lead paint, asbestos and household cleaners, threatening coastal environments. Each West Coast state would need over $20 million to handle the backlog, and close to $5 million annually to address the ongoing problem. On Alaska’s remote shorelines, these costs can double.

There are many reasons a boat may be abandoned: The owner can die or become unable to continue the boat’s upkeep, or the cost of either maintenance or disposal can be prohibitive. “People generally don’t walk away from the nicer boats that have value,” said Matthew Creswell, harbormaster at Juneau’s Docks and Harbors. “They walk away from the boats costing an arm and a leg to get rid of.”

The cost of removal varies by a vessel’s size and location. On Alaska’s expansive coasts, where infrastructure is sparse, prices are particularly high. The Lumberman, for example, could be discarded and hauled to a landfill, or transported by barge to Seattle, but either option would cost between $250,000 and $400,000, Creswell said. Sinking is a bargain in comparison, but it will still cost Juneau Docks and Harbors over $100,000, for towing, removing trash and stripping toxic lead paint from the vessel. “It’s not a common method,” Creswell said. “But in this case with the Lumberman, (scuttling) was the most cost-effective method.”

Juneau discards about a dozen boats annually. Most are smaller than the Lumberman and easier to remove and salvage locally. But long-abandoned boats are piling up: By 2025, Alaska’s fleet will include more than 3,000 vessels between 28 and 59 feet long that are over 45 years old — past the point of a useful life for most boats — according to the Alaska-based McKinley Research Group.

In 2017, cast-off boats caught the attention of the Pacific States/British Columbia Oil Spill Task Force, an intergovernmental group that promotes coordination in addressing oil spills. The task force labeled derelict and abandoned vessels a “critical, emerging issue” and established a work group to explore the problem. “There is a strong sense from everybody who deals with the issue that it is getting worse pretty much everywhere (on the West Coast),” said Hilary Wilkinson, an environmental consultant in Washington who helps lead the task force and chairs its abandoned vessel work group.

The work group recommends that states look to Washington, which is considered to have a model boat-disposal program — one focused on prevention, owner responsibility and generating funds for removal. Any owner who cannot pay for disposal of a derelict, but floating, vessel that’s less than 45 feet long can ask the Washington Department of Natural Resources to remove it for free. The program handles about 20 boats annually, using money collected from vessel registration fees.

Adequate funding is a “major obstacle” for every West Coast state, according to the work group’s findings. Aaron Timian, Alaska’s abandoned and derelict vessel coordinator, said the state is still developing ways to secure funds. In response to mounting issues caused by vessels like the Lumberman, the state passed legislation in 2018 establishing the program that Timian now leads. The law, which requires boats longer than 24 feet to have a title, simplified the impoundment process and added civil penalties and enforcement authority. The paper trail should also make it easier for authorities to track down owners. While it’s too soon to tell if it will be effective, Creswell said, “It’s totally a step in the right direction.”

HCN: Today’s wildfire modeling ‘just sucks’ for flames fueled by climate change

Beyond Alaska, News, Online, Print

This story originally published in High Country News.

Over Labor Day weekend in the Pacific Northwest, high winds fanned wildfire ignitions in drought-ridden forests west of the Cascades. In a matter of hours, small fires erupted into about a dozen major blazes, destroying entire communities, displacing tens of thousands of residents and killing 10 people in Oregon and Washington.

The scale of the conflagrations, and the speed at which they grew, surprised even seasoned wildfire researchers. The scientific models used to predict and understand fires worked well in previous decades, but given current conditions across the West, trying to use them now “just sucks,” said David Saah, an environmental scientist at the University of San Francisco and a leader of the Pyregence Consortium, a team developing new wildfire models. “You know how we keep saying climate change is going to change everything? We’re there, we’re in it (and) we don’t know how to quantify it. We’re trying to figure it out.”

Fire has always been part of Western ecosystems; many animals and plants evolved to depend on periodic burns. And for thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have used fire to help keep forests healthy by reducing excess brush and encouraging new growth, a practice that continues today. But after a century of fire suppression — and with a rapidly changing climate that is drying out forests — Western wildfires are now much larger and more intense than before.

In the typically wet western Cascades, wildfires require certain conditions to grow: low humidity and powerful easterly winds. By early September, a 10-month drought had set the stage for dangerous blazes, and unusually dry and strong winds followed: Near Salem, Oregon, sensors logged the lowest combination of relative humidity and highest wind speed ever recorded at that location, said Larry O’Neill, the Oregon state climatologist. These conditions contributed to the “explosive” growth of the Santiam Fire, later renamed the Beachie Creek Fire, which has burned nearly 200,000 acres, destroyed thousands of homes and buildings in the towns of Detroit, Mill City, Gates and Santiam River, and killed five people, including Oregon environmentalist George Atiyeh. “(That) combination of conditions is essentially unheard of,” O’Neill said. But it might become more common in the future, thanks to climate change. Scientists are “very concerned” about the possibility that such rare wind events could become “more frequent or extreme,” O’Neill said.

When authorities are faced with major decisions — how to best protect homes and lives, and when to issue evacuation notices — they need to know how fast-moving, hot and severe a specific fire is likely to be, and where its perimeter might lie in the days ahead. For now, most state incident commanders and U.S. Forest Service firefighters rely on short-term wildfire models, computer-based calculations that forecast how a blaze might behave. The Rothermel surface fire spread model, developed in 1972, is the basis of many of the models used today. The basic inputs rely on knowing three main elements that drive wildfires: topography, weather and fuel flammability.

But the unusual easterly wind added an unexpected element to attempts to model the Labor Day fires, said Meg Krawchuk, a fire and landscape ecologist at Oregon State University. “Rare events are hard to model because you have so few cases to build and learn from,” she said. And wind in particular can stymie Rothermel-style models. Strong gusts can topple power lines, igniting new fires that build on the heat and vapor in the atmosphere, spawning an inferno large enough to create its own weather. When that happens, the original inputs are no longer accurate — and neither are the model’s results.

Understanding such complicated interactions requires a new kind of model. Coupled, or physics-based, models, for example, explicitly examine the interaction, or coupling, between fire behavior and the atmosphere. These models, which are expensive to run, are still being developed; right now they primarily live in “research land,” said Saah. They address the feedback cycle of what a fire consumes, how the heat released from that consumption impacts the atmosphere, how that in turn affects the weather, and how that weather then impacts the fire’s behavior. “The (Rothermel-based) models don’t capture that,” Saah said.

A third type of wildfire model, used for long-term planning and research, looks at general wildfire activity on a scale of decades rather than days. These statistical models look at long-term vegetation and climatological patterns and how they interact in a particular place, then project what wildfires will look like in 50 or 100 years. The inputs are based on historical data, and as climate change dries out the West and increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, wildfires will also change, making modeling them more difficult. “When you want to build large-scale systems models, you need lots and lots and lots of observations,” Saah said, something scientists don’t yet have, as climate change alters conditions in ways they haven’t seen before. “So that’s why people are freaking out.”

HCN: Why the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may not be drilled

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, News, Online, Print, Uncategorized

This story originally published in High Country News.

Every summer, the Porcupine caribou herd travels hundreds of miles to return to the northernmost edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s North Slope. There, on the coastal plain known as Area 1002, the cows give birth to calves, and the animals forage for food and huddle together against the swarms of mosquitoes.

The caribou are protected, almost, by the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which granted federal protection to more than a quarter of Alaska’s 375 million acres, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the nearly 20-million-acre refuge was designated as wilderness, but the coastal plain was set aside for oil and gas development, if and when Congress approved it. Since then, politicians have batted the issue back and forth, neither fully protecting the region or opening it up. Last month, though, the Trump administration opened the entire 1.56 million acres of the 1002 for leasing, removing the last regulatory hurdle to the prospect of well pads, roads and pipelines in the calving grounds and setting the stage for the exploitation of one of the conservation movement’s most important sites.

The fate of the area, and the caribou that depend on it, is not yet sealed, however. Before drill rigs can move in, developers must overcome other legal and political challenges, along with an increasingly uncertain petroleum economy and the possibility of a new presidential administration.

The latest obstacle was thrown up on Sept. 9, when 15 state governments in the Lower 48 and three Alaska tribal entities south of the Refuge — Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Arctic Village Council and Venetie Village Council — all took separate legal action against the federal government to try to stop the lease sale. That’s in addition to other lawsuits filed last month by the Gwich’in Steering Committee — which advocates for 15 Gwich’in communities in Alaska and Canada — with 12 other environmental organizations, and another from a coalition of conservation groups. “We used to migrate alongside (the caribou) for over 40,000 years,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Steering Committee, said in an interview. “We can’t survive without them.” The Gwich’in Steering Committee was formed in 1988 in response to proposals to drill in the herd’s calving grounds. With the help of other conservation groups, the Gwich’in managed to convince major banks — including Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase — to curtail or ban investment in fossil fuel projects in Alaska, a serious matter for an industry still reeling from low oil prices.

Even if the conservationists’ legal and political challenges fail, petroleum companies will have to decide whether developing the coastal plain is worth it. Oil prices have been relatively low for the last five years, and new drilling techniques have opened up huge, more appealing reserves in shale formations in the Lower 48.

The oil industry’s longtime “holy grail” — drilling the Arctic Refuge — is no longer quite as alluring, said Philip Wight, a professor specializing in Arctic energy history at University of Alaska Fairbanks. The industry is transforming, and arguments for drilling in ANWR to supercharge revenues for Alaska simply don’t pencil out, he said.

The Trump presidency and its Republican-led Congress gave Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the opportunity to insert a provision approving a lease sale into the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Nevertheless, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act initiated an environmental analysis of exploration and development possibilities, which wrapped up this August, when Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed the record of decision setting the first lease sale of the 1002 for late 2021. But a new president could reverse the approval: A campaign spokesman told the Associated Press last month that Joseph Biden seeks to “permanently protect ANWR and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attacks on federal lands and waters.” A new president could use the Antiquities Act to declare the coastal plain a national monument, permanently halting the lease sale. “There is just so much that changed to make this happen that can change completely with the next administration,” Siqiñiq Maupin, Arctic community organizer for Native Movement and the director of Sovereign Inupiaq for a Living Arctic, said in an interview.

Given all the political and economic uncertainties, drilling in the Arctic may simply be too risky for companies today. For now, the fate of the Porcupine caribou lies in the invisible hand of the market, buffeted by political changes that are hard to predict. Guessing what the world is going to look like in the 2030s and beyond is a “substantial risk,” Larry Persily, the former federal coordinator for gas projects in Alaska, said. “You cannot hold on (to a lease) for 20 years in speculation. If you don’t do something, you won’t make the money back. That’s a lot of crystal ball work.”

HCN: Essential transportation in rural Alaska is up in the air

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, News, Online, Uncategorized

This story originally published in High Country News.

In July, Megan Dean, preparing to give birth to her first child, needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment. It wouldn’t be easy: Dean lives in Unalaska, on the Aleutian Archipelago, 800 miles from the nearest obstetrician. Much of the 4,800-person town sits at the base of hillsides emerging from the Bering Sea, and with no roads connecting it to other communities, boats and planes are the only ways in and out.

Last year, Dean, who works at the Museum of the Aleutians, could have taken one of several direct daily flights to Anchorage. But this April, Alaska’s largest regional airline, Ravn Air, abruptly declared bankruptcy and closed, citing coronavirus-related revenue losses. That left Dean with limited options. To get to Anchorage now, she scours a community Facebook group for charter planes offering last-minute seats. At $675, the one she booked in July cost $224 more than the Ravn Air flight she took in March. (Her insurance covers the plane ride.) “It’s a crazy time to be pregnant and have a baby, especially when you don’t live on the road system,” Dean said. “It just feels like an extra sense of disconnect.” 

With many communities lacking publicly funded roads or railways and a state ferry system facing uncertainty due to budget cuts, thousands of Alaskans rely on private airlines for everything from groceries and mail to doctor’s visits. Now, Unalaska and other roadless communities are tapping a federal program to lure airline companies and organizing groups to coordinate charter flights, while waiting to see if Ravn’s new buyers — a Los Angeles-based company — will restore critically needed transportation.

In Alaska, 82% of communities are not accessible by road. As a result, the state-funded fleet of ferries known as the Alaska Marine Highway System has been a lifeline for many coastal towns. In Unalaska, for example, the ferry visited eight to 10 times annually in recent years. But this year, due to deep budget cuts pushed by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the ferry will make only four trips. That’s left residents largely dependent on private transportation — in particular, commercial flights. Until it closed, Ravn Air operated 400 flights a day to more than 115 communities across the state.

The airline’s sudden closure has caused affected seafood industry workers who need to reach Unalaska’s Dutch Harbor, the nation’s busiest fishing port, as well as residents like Dean trying to get to Anchorage’s hospital. “The community has missed doctor appointments even when we had daily scheduled service,” said Erin Reinders, Unalaska’s city manager. Now, the only non-charter option leaves just twice a week, and it’s not direct, which increases the risk of weather delays. “(That) can really make or break a whole trip.”

Officials in Unalaska submitted a request to the federal Essential Air Service program, which was designed to provide rural communities with adequate passenger service. After the U.S. airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the program was established to subsidize companies serving remote towns that were otherwise unprofitable. This is particularly important in Alaska: About a third of the 168 communities receiving these flights are located here. “In most places, you can get in your car and in a couple hours get to a substantial airport, but in Alaska, not so much,” said Richard Sewell, an aviation policy planner with the Alaska Department of Transportation. As of April 2020, private airlines in Alaska will receive more than $26 million in subsidies.

The program would bring six flights a week to Unalaska during its busiest season. By the beginning of August, two companies had submitted proposals, which will be subject to public comment before a contract is awarded.

Some airlines plan to boost their operations and serve Unalaska and the Aleutians even without Essential Air Service contracts. One, FLOAT Shuttle, was awarded Ravn Air’s core assets in bankruptcy court in July and is rebranding itself the “New Ravn.” The company previously operated in Southern California, flying commuters above hectic traffic, but it has now moved some of its executive team north, where many already have aviation experience. “We saw this as an opportunity to continue a service that is needed and wanted,” said Rob McKinney, FLOAT’s co-founder. At least one other company, a Southeast Alaska airline, Alaska Seaplanes, thinks it can do a better job, calling FLOAT Shuttle “woefully unproven” in a late July press release announcing that it also intends to bring air service to Unalaska.

But the future of flight in Unalaska may not be private at all. Mark Horne, a resident of Unalaska for the last 30 years, launched a travel co-op membership drive in July. The plan would guarantee reasonably priced charter flights using an online booking system: Members would pay for their portion of the contracted charter, and if the plane doesn’t reach the destination, the passengers pay nothing. The co-op, however, is a work in progress: It has nearly 500 members now, but Horne estimates he needs 10 times that number to get it off the ground. Still, Horne hopes something happens to make booking a plane ticket a little easier. “Travel has always been a pain out here,” Horne said. “(We’ve) got to do something better.”

After shutdown ends, federal workers pick up the pieces

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

The longest shutdown in U.S. history ended Friday when President Donald Trump signed a bill to reopen the government for three weeks. Nearly 700 emails and 60 voicemails awaited Amy Milburn when she returned to work after being furloughed for 35 days. Milburn is the area director for the United States Department of Agriculture and Rural Development office in Kenai. The office is home to only two employees, including Milburn. She said the impact of the partial federal government shutdown went beyond herself and her coworker.

It was hard knowing how many people were affected,” Milburn said.

Without a regular paycheck, and with the uncertainty of when back pay will come, Milburn said she had to cut costs for her family. She said she cut $600 off her food bill.

“It had an effect on our economy,” Milburn said. “Neither of us were able to go out to eat, which means a server didn’t get a tip and a restaurant didn’t have a customer. I have more heartburn over people who didn’t get their tips.”

She said the effect wasn’t just in food consumption, but with all of her partners in the community.

In Kodiak, which is a part of the office’s service area, 20 percent of the 6,000 person population was not receiving a paycheck. Several Kodiak businesses were offering discounts and IOUs. Milburn said there wasn’t as much awareness about the shutdown on the peninsula.

“It’s not as widely felt in the community when it’s just two people (in our office),” Milburn said. “I didn’t see discounts at grocery stores or in restaurants.”

When Milburn and her coworker were furloughed Dec. 21 last year, the office wasn’t completely shut down. Natural Resources Conservation Services and their employees were funded and able to stay open. Milburn said this was a great thing, as they have more employees.

The USDA-Rural Development office has several programs that help Alaskans become homeowners. According to their website, USDA-Rural Development provides federal assistance resources throughout rural Alaska and has invested $2.16 billion dollars in 236 rural communities in the last eight years. Milburn said all of these programs were brought to a halt during the shutdown. Since furloughed workers can’t discuss work during the shutdown, residents concerned with the status of their loans couldn’t reach out to the USDA office for answers.

“Most of the housing applicants understood it was out of our control,” Milburn said.

Milburn said her office is optimistically hoping there’s not another shutdown.

“We’re glad we’re back,” Milburn said. “It’s hard not being considered essential. It’s kind of degrading.”15320013_web1_shutdown.jpg

Proposed sex ed bill would emphasize abstinence, bar discussion of contraception

Beyond Alaska, News, Uncategorized

Originally published in the Peninsula Clarion

A bill filed in the Alaska State Legislatu

education in schools across the state.

House Bill 7 would encourage teaching abstinence to students and prohibit instruction about “erotic behavior” like homosexuality, gender identity, the use of contraception and sex before marriage. The legislation would also require Alaska instructors to teach that life begins at

re by Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, aims to regulate sex and human reproductive education in schools across the state.

House Bill 7 would encourage teaching abstinence to students and prohibit instruction about “erotic behavior” like homosexuality, gender identity, the use of contraception and sex before marriage. The legislation would also require Alaska instructors to teach that life begins at conception.

In his bill, Rauscher said people who stay abstinent prevent the emotional trauma associated with adolescent sexual activity.

“… [A]bstinence from sexual activity (is) the preferred choice for unmarried students because it is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases,” the bill said.

The bill states that sexual activity out of wedlock is likely to have harmful psychological or physical effects, and that there may be social, or health benefits to abstaining from sexual activity.

Rauscher also asserts in the bill that adolescent sexual activity increases the likelihood that a student will drop out of school because of sexually transmitted disease or unplanned pregnancy. The legislation would prevent instructors from teaching students about contraceptive methods and devices that may prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies.

The bill also emphasizes the idea that bearing a child out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents and society.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District uses several lesson plans and materials that teach both abstinence, contraceptive use and consent. Curriculum materials come from several resources, including the Homer Peer Education Team at Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic and Planned Parenthood.

At the Education Board’s Aug. 6 work session, the board reviewed resources and materials used by district health educators.The school board approves all the materials used in the district, which are all research-based and meet state requirements.

Rauscher, who has been serving as a state representative since 2017, has introduced several bills this session, including one prohibiting state-funded gender reclassification medical procedures and an act relocating the state Legislature to Anchorage.

For First We Feast: The best hot dog from every state

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, Online, Uncategorized

Originally published on First we Feast

I helped First We Feast finish their quest to find the best hot dogs in every state. I chose International House of Hot Dogs to represent Alaska.

Alaska-International House of Hot Dogs

Address and phone: 440 E Northern Lights Blvd, Anchorage (907-227-3081)
Website: N/A

Reindeer dogs have been a tradition in Anchorage for at least 20 years, most often found at downtown street carts during the summer. But International House Of Hot Dogs, a trailer serving a variety of specialty dogs, is one of the few places to eat them year round. “The McKinley dog is just one of many reindeer sausage dogs at IHOH and includes a special spicy sauce and caramelized onions,” says our Alaska correspondent Victoria Petersen, who previously covered Anchorage’s reindeer dog scene for The Northern Light. “Spicy and hearty, reindeer sausage is versatile enough to go well with many different flavors and ingredients, but also simple and tasty enough to stand on its own.”—HK

For ADN: Singer Rhonda Ross visits Anchorage to spread message of empowerment

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, Print, Uncategorized

Originally published in Alaska Dispatch News

Rhonda Ross is the daughter of Motown star Diana Ross and record producer Berry Gordy, but there’s no mistaking the fact the musician has a voice that’s all her own.

“My mother raised me and my four siblings to never live in her shadow. She made us know that we are individuals and we are unique. We are not lesser human beings,” Ross said.

“I never had issues with worrying that someone only liked me because of my relationship to my mother and that’s a testament to how she raised us. Because of that I was always reaching for my own sound and reaching for what I want to say in my music.”


Ross is a singer, songwriter, motivational speaker, writer and actress. She appeared in “Another World” from 1997-1999, and was nominated for a Daytime Grammy Award in 1998. In 2004, Ross created a live album with her husband, jazz musician Rodney Kendrick, called “Rhonda Ross Live Featuring Rodney Kendrick.” Her latest album, “In Case You Didn’t Know” was released in July 2016.

“I always knew I was going to be an artist and a storyteller. I was on stage with my mother since I was 6 months old. When you’re around it, that’s what you know and it’s easy to go that way,” Ross said.

Ross describes her music as a new take on the fusion between jazz, funk and neo-soul.

“It’s basically jazz, but it has those other elements musically. But my lyric is important to me,” Ross said. “My songs have lyrical content that I think pop music hasn’t really allowed for. I like to tell real stories that are really encouraging.”

Ross is inspired by powerful women musicians, she said. In addition to her mother, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Tina Turner and Abbey Lincoln are some of her musical role models.

“You get these strong, bold, badass women, and that, you know, just takes me out. That’s who I’m really influenced by. Those kinds of women, I just dig them, they move me,” Ross said.

In 2005 Ross took a hiatus from art to focus on starting a family. It was becoming a parent that inspired Ross’ new album and her return to the music industry.

“I had grown and matured, I had become a mother, I had a different perspective on life. I wanted to make a different kind of music than I had been making. I started exploring this new voice inside of me — this new take on life. I’m bringing more to the table now than I was 20 years ago,” Ross said. “I went back to my art because I heard my call. That was why I was put on this planet, to write, to sing, to speak.”

This will be Ross’ second visit to Anchorage. She first came in 2002 to perform in a production of “The Vagina Monologues.” This time, Ross will be performing alongside her husband, which she has not done in about five years.

“This performance in Anchorage is one of the first ones of us bringing ourselves back together and finding this new music, this new conversation that he and I get to have. We are collaborating as parents now,” Ross said.

Also featured in the show will be local musicians Dirk Westfall, Rick Zelinsky and John Damberg. In the last few years Ross has made a point to work with local musicians wherever she tours.

“I’ve found that there’s so much talent, spirit, passion and energy here,” Ross said. “What I found is that the music I write is simple and that when I allow people to bring their perspective and their personalities and gifts and talents to give to the music, the music expands — explodes really. It advances in such an exciting way.”

In addition to her performance at Williwaw, Ross will also be speaking to teens at the AK Hopes and Dreams Summit. The AK Hopes and Dreams Project was founded in 2015 as a way to energize and inspire young Alaskans.

“My message to those teens and to the world, both through music and public speaking, is to spend some time getting to know that call and voice and learning to trust it because it’s right and it’s powerful,” Ross said.

Ross hopes the people of Anchorage won’t seek a second coming of Diana Ross, but that people will come and see what she has to offer.

“Yes, I know that I’m Diana Ross’ daughter … But I am not that. I am me. I’m the first coming of Rhonda Ross, how about that?” Ross said.

“I don’t have the career she has, I don’t have the money she has, but I am very proud of the music I make. I can stand on it. My pride doesn’t come from the size of the career or the paycheck.”

For ADN: Puddles the clown is in Anchorage to sing pop music covers

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, Print, Uncategorized

Originally published in Alaska Dispatch News

As the clown behind Puddles Pity Party, Mike Geier has chosen not to speak. If Puddles has something to say, it will be sung.

Photo courtesy of Puddles Pity Party for Alaska Dispatch News

Photo courtesy of Puddles Pity Party for Alaska Dispatch News

“I don’t like to talk too much because I always seem to put my big foot in my big mouth. That being said, I find it exhilarating to communicate in ways that don’t involve speaking. (It) forces us to get creative and also keeps us focused on the heart of the matter,” Geier wrote in an email.

Mike Geier is the man behind Puddles Pity Party.

Standing 6 feet 8 inches tall, Geier’s signature look consists of a white clown costume with three big, fluffy black buttons — reminiscent of Pagliacci, the most famous of sad clowns — a crooked gold crown with the letter “P” written on it atop his head, whiteface makeup and a perpetual frown.

In a rich, baritone voice, Puddles sings pop anthems and ballads alike, from “Royals” by Lorde to “My Heart Will Go On,” in a melancholy, cabaret style.

“Even though a lot of the songs I sing are sad, there are also moments of celebration and joy throughout the show. I think sadness and joy go together. Tears and laughter. Laughter and tears. It’s all so cathartic,” Geier said. His repertoire includes covers of Billy Idol, The Beatles, Metallica and ABBA, among others.

“I tend to sing songs that hit ya right in the ticker. Songs that conjure the feels. It’s all about the feels,” Geier said. “And I like a good sing-along, too. I always encourage folks to sing along.”

Puddles the character started in 1998, Geier said, when he was performing karaoke in a flea market. In ’99, he continued the character for his Atlanta band Greasepaint (he also performs as Big Mike Geier in the band Kingsized, also in Atlanta).

In 2013, Puddles’ distinctive voice and unusual act got a bigger audience when he was featured on Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox video series, covering the song “Royals” by Lorde. Today the video has reached nearly 18 million views. Geier did several more collaborations with the Postmodern Jukebox, then branched out on his own international tour.

“I feel very fortunate to be able to travel and sing and make new friends. What a world,” Geier said.

What can Anchorage expect from this unusual performer? “Togetherness, fellowship and free cuddles for anybody that wants ’em.”

For ADN: WindSync wants to change the way you think about wind quintets

Alaska, Beyond Alaska, Print, Uncategorized

Originally published in Alaska Dispatch News

Radiohead and Billy Joel might not come to mind when you think of a wind quintet performance, but WindSync is on a mission to expand and modernize the repertoire with new arrangements that span genres.

Each musician, from the flutist to the bassoon player, helps modify the source music — which might have been originally written for a full orchestra, singers, piano or even a rock band.

“We put it all together and we end up with something that sometimes is poppy, sometimes has jazz influence, often draws heavily on the classical tradition, but it’s sort of a different spin on that tradition. It takes extra work, but it’s well worth it,” said Kara LaMoure, WindSync bassoonist.

WindSync has gotten a lot of their recognition from videos of their performances of popular music, especially covers of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” In addition to new and popular music, WindSync also dips into jazz, folk and musical theater.

“For us, if we program top-40 music or anything that’s considered a more popular genre of music it’s because it’s really a key component of our programming. So for us they’re few and far between, but they are important because we do want to celebrate all genres,” LaMoure said.

“We don’t say, ‘Oh, we’re classical musicians so we’ll never play pop music.’ We think of it as just part of our programming.”

LaMoure said WindSync is influenced by American composers like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, who incorporated different musical traditions in their work.

“We’re really inspired by any music that tells a story or that can relate to a very wide demographic,” LaMoure said. “We’re exploring music that does that with a wide variety of influences: Melodies that can connect across wide audiences.”

The original ensemble was born out of the Rice University music program. Two of the original members — Garrett Hudson on the flute and Anni Hochhalter on the horn — still perform with the group today. Based out of Houston, the current ensemble also includes Emily Tsai on the oboe, Julian Hernandez on the clarinet and Kara LaMoure on the bassoon. Eight years after getting their start, WindSync spends about 100 days out of the year touring across the U.S. and internationally.

“We are dedicated to expanding the quintet repertoire and making a difference in the communities we perform in,” LaMoure said.

WindySync will be performing for students in the Anchorage School District. LaMoure said they want to engage the students through participation in their performance.

“We do ‘Peter and the Wolf’ in elementary schools all the time. When we do it we act out the story, we’re running around the stage. We are even playing our instruments while we’re running around the stage, so that gets crazy and intense,” LaMoure said.

“We also introduce them to how sound is produced on our instruments. We want them to have the beginnings to the idea of how music works.”

WindSync often strays from classical music performance decorum, something LaMoure said is intentional.

“In classical music there’s a lot of issues of ‘don’t clap between the movements,’ wear this specific kind of dress, or, you know, there’s a certain etiquette that’s expected,” LaMoure said. “But for us we kind of want that connection with the music to be more immediate and personal. So if the response is organic then we’re really happy.”

Overall, the ensemble hopes to create a visual experience as well as a listening one.

“Even the most seasoned wind quintet fans will see something new and interesting to them,” LaMoure said.


When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Discovery Theatre

Tickets: $40.25-$54.75 at alaskapac.centertix.net