Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Palmer summer camps

School lets out in about three weeks. At my house, the glut of sudden free time is great...for about three days. Then the wiggles move in to drive every adult within range absolutely nuts.

The solution? Camp - day or sleepaway. The Palmer Arts Council and Trailside Discovery out at Spring Creek Farms both offer a nice variety this year. The PAC's lineup is here, but below are a few highlights:

Summer Theatre Academies, hosted by the awesome Annie Williams at Sherrod. Annie's been the ringmaster of these day camp/workshops since they started several years ago. The home base remains Sherrod Elementary, where for two week intervals, students memorize, perform and block around three complete plays. At the end of the session, parents are invited to a stage production. Last year, my daughter participated in a June session with Annie and had a total blast. If your child loves to ham it up in front of a crowd, check this out. Tuition runs between $275-300 per session.

Misty Holler, art teacher at Academy Charter School, heads up these one-week sessions where students get to sculpt, paint, draw and otherwise feed their artistic souls. The group also explores the area around Academy on daily hikes, and learns from local artists who guest teach.

For the musically inclined, check out both the Summer Youth Band, directed by PJMS music teacher Matt Swalling at PHS, and the Percussion Camp. Dr. Meggie Aube hosts a five-day intensive workshop for all things drum-like, which results in a set at Vagabond Blues. The band performs at various summer venues, including the Governor's Picnic and Palmer Pride lunch. A Junior Band program is new this year for middle school students interested in keeping their skills strong.

New this year is a theater camp for high schoolers. Brian Mead and Grant Olson - Colony High and PJMS teachers respectively - have teamed up to offer older teens a chance to develop some acting skills. This summer-long program will be punctuated by two or three public performances. Enrollment is limited.

For kids ages 4-13, Trailside Discovery - hosted by the Alaska Center for the Environment -  is hosting week-long day camps that begin June 4 and conclude August 6. From a wildlife safari to Dinosaurs, Volcanoes and Quakes to a survival challenge, these camps are outdoor oriented and intensive. Kids ages 9-13 are invited on a few overnight camps, including a river float and backpack trip or a visit to the Knik River glacier. Almost all my children have participated in these day camps, which are great for learning and exploration. I'm looking forward to sending my youngest there at least a few times this summer.

So what about you? If you know of any Palmer activity for kids this summer, share them in the comments!

--Melodie Wright

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Trunk Road clearing generates ire ... and free firewood

Anyone who drives Trunk Road can see the state's progress on the second phase of a $35 million project to widen and straighten that narrow, twisting route. 

A swath of birch, spruce and cottonwood disappeared virtually overnight within the past few weeks as tree-munching machines cleared the Trunk Road right-of-way ahead of the summer road construction season.

Drivers can also see numerous homes formerly screened by forest until a few weeks ago.

"They've ruined my land. They've ruined my house," said Trunk Road resident Linus Mathis IV. "I'm all for improvements, but I'm not for them doing it at my expense."

Mathis has some serious complaints about the project that he's still pursuing and we won't get into here. But on a basic level, he's upset with the extent of the right-of-way logging. His two young children don't have a forest buffer between the yard and the road any more, he says.

Those types of issues with the extent of clearing were addressed in an earlier right-of-way acquisition phase, said John Waisanen, project engineer for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. 

Tree-clearing during the first phase of the Trunk Road realignment project also drew criticism, transportation officials say.

"Clearing is frequently a phase of a project that engenders the most negative public response," said Transportation spokesman Rick Feller. "When phase one of Trunk Road was done, there was a large hue and cry about the level of clearing. That turned out OK as well."

But the recent clearing resonates with people for positive reasons, too.

Scores of intrepid locals brought out chainsaws to load pickups with free firewood. One weekend, it was like a long, narrow tailgate party out there as woodcutters pulled over every few feet, some with dogs or children in tow ... wearing ear protection and staying at a safe distance, of course. Get it while you can -- those nice fat birch logs seemed all but gone by this week.

Karen Harris runs a bed and breakfast along the section of Trunk Road that opened last year. 

Harris said her big-picture response to the project is "I love it."

Her reaction upon seeing all the trees coming down a few years ago, though, was more like, "OH NO!"

Harris said the state didn't do anything wrong in her case, but she didn't take the time to walk her property with project managers, and ended up surprised at the extent of the clearing.

These days, she said, she's happy to have unobstructed views to the Chugach Mountains.

"It was a huge blessing in my life and for my business. There were a couple shockers and I think it's the kind of thing where bureaucrats think they're being very communicative and showing their little diagrams. For us who have never been through something like that, there are unanticipated questions."

The state will hold a construction kickoff meeting on from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. May 1 at Mat-Su College. For more information about the Trunk Road project, go to

In the interest of early warning, road work on Palmer-Fishhook Road this summer that will close the road for several days at a time during June and July. To make up for some wetland destruction as part of the Trunk Road project, the state's construction permit requires the old culverts get replaced along Carnegie Creek and Wasilla Creek - a popular local swimming hole with a rope swing over the water that was lost to tree clearing this month.

The closures are scheduled to take place June 18-20 at Carnegie Creek and June 25-July 1 at Wasilla Creek. A lengthy detour will route drivers down Seldon Road to Wasilla-Fishhook.

-- Zaz Hollander

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

City mourns loss of its go-to guy, Rep. Carl Gatto

Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer

State flags across Alaska flew at half-mast Wednesday in honor of Palmer-based Rep. Carl Gatto, a Republican who represented Palmer in the Alaska Legislature since 2002.

Gatto, 74, died April 10 in Washington state, where he was being treated for a kidney condition. Gatto had for several years battled prostate cancer. He recently took a break from the legislative session to receive radiation treatment for tumors and, after heading back to Juneau, was flown to a Seattle-area hospital for treatment for dehydration and a kidney condition. His chief of staff told Associated Press reporters last week that it appeared unlikely Gatto would return to Alaska before the end of session.

Gatto chaired the House Judiciary Committee and pushed this year for a bill to ban texting while driving, a measure that stirred a little controversy. But locally, he was known more for the hard work he put in on several sizable projects. 

Last fall, Gatto was one of several dignitaries who spoke at the grand opening of Mat-Su Senior Services Center, the new and spacious senior center in Palmer. Seniors in Palmer had been working on getting a new building for nearly 20 years but Gatto put the project on his top priority list for the state budget for five years running. He did so after visiting the center and literally cringing at the cramped space and piles of paper files that occupied nearly every corner of the building. A former Anchorage Fire Department chief, he said the building was one giant fire hazard, in addition to being too outdated to meet the various and many demands of Palmer’s growing senior population.

Another project Gatto championed was the new, broad thoroughfare that is Trunk Road. The project to widen and straighten the narrow old road had languished on state Transportation project lists for years. Gatto, who lived on the road, was familiar with its failings. An avid runner, he had a cadre of horror stories to tell about being forced off his path by drivers zooming around its twists and turns.

Gatto championed many projects but Palmer Mayor DeLena Johnson said she would remember him for his unfailing support for the city fire department. When a new piece of equipment – and none of them are cheap – was needed, Gatto was the city’s go-to guy. In fact, Johnson said she’s a little worried the city’s top capital project, a new fire tanker and roof replacement for the city fire station, might get lost in the legislative shuffle without Gatto there to shepherd it through. It’s a big-ticket request, $780,000, and Johnson said she hopes it won’t be forgotten. She and city manager Doug Griffin were headed to Juneau for a session-end lobbying trip this week to make sure that and other city requests are on legislators’ minds.

Johnson said she felt Gatto did a great job keeping in touch with community needs and representing the city at the state level.

“He was always visible in the community, we were always able to talk to him,” she said. The news of his passing, she said, was not unexpected given his recent health battles, but it was a tragedy nonetheless.

Palmer City Council members passed a resolution Tuesday night honoring Gatto for his service. City leaders meant to give it to him in celebration of his retirement – he had announced he would not seek another term in the House earlier this year. But with his passing, the council felt it important to mark his “unwavering support” to the community.

Here's the proclamation the city passed:

-- Rindi White

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Managing breakup worries

Snow-heavy roof near Hatcher Pass
We’re all resigned to the joys of a typical Alaska breakup – the road spray that makes your car look like you’ve visited Jim Creek a month early, the endless sand your family embeds in the carpet, the huge potholes swimming up from below to gnaw at your axles.
As if that weren’t enough, this year we got a near-record amount of snow.  The pile in many front yards has topped 10 feet. The layers on roofs near Hatcher Pass look like quilt batting. We’re worried about ice dams, flooded basements, backed-up septics.
Many of us are so worried, we’re asking our government for guidance. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is holding a roundtable called “When the Waters Rise” from 10-11 a.m. Thursday in room 107, Gorsuch Commons at UAA. You can find the webcast here.
On the bright side, forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the heavy snowfall has insulated the ground. Forecaster Jim Coe told the Alaska Dispatch that the frost depth is only 13 inches, compared to 40 on an average year.
That means ground thaw may not take as long as it usually does, which is good news for runoff worries.  A thawed yard means less standing water searching for another outlet, such as your basement or septic tank.
Angela Champ, who co-owns both Full Moon and Polar Pumper Septic services, said that keeping your drain field shoveled off is a great way to avoid septic back-up.
“Hopefully your drain field isn’t in the lowest part of your yard,” Champ said. “If it is, you might consider raising it by spreading some soil over it in the summer. You really don’t want water sitting on your drain field.”
That, and ensuring your water usage is spread out during spring thaw, are both good preventative back-up measures.  Space out  and shorten your showers. Time laundry loads several days apart.  Turn off the faucet while brushing teeth.
“You should do that in normal times, but during a break-up like this one with so much runoff, those things are really important,” Champ said, adding that calling in a company for a preventative, break-up tank pump might not work.  Long-term maintenance really determines the health of a septic field.
 “Maintaining your septic system is like changing the oil in your car,” she said. “If you don’t maintain it, it won’t last as long for you.”

--Melodie Wright