Ptarmigan snowshoeing


Ptarmigan have some amazing winter adaptations. The most obvious one is that they change color in the winter so that they can blend in with the snow and ice. Lesser known is the fact that their feet change. In fall the scales on their feet give way to bristly projections that host foot feathers. These feathers serve as snowshoes and insulating boots at the same time!

This blog posting has two sections.

  • I report on the recent meeting concerning the Chilkat River’s nomination for Outstanding National Resource Water status and my “letter to the editor”.
  • I continue my story of my first visit to Alaska. In the last post, I had just crashed the bus and was kicked out of the training program. /2016/02/down-the-stream-of-life/

Outstanding Resource Water Nomination for the Chilkat River

The potential impact of the Constantine Mine is now in the local Haines news. While researching for my book, Where Eagles Gather, I learned about some of the meetings in Haines back in the 70’s and 80’s when the Eagle Preserve was being proposed. Those were acrimonious times and I read the story of a fistfight that broke out in front of the Harbor Bar because someone didn’t like the “greenies.” Then there was the meeting where State officials were threatened and had to leave town before they could discuss the issue at hand.

So when it was announced that there would be a meeting with Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Water Commissioner Michelle Hale to discuss the recent nomination of the Chilkat River for Tier 3, or Outstanding National Resource Water status, I had to be there. Had things changed in the last thirty years?

The meeting room was packed. At the start of the meeting, Michelle acknowledged that this is an emotion-charged issue, and requested this be an informational meeting rather than an opportunity to get on one’s soapbox to argue for or against Tier 3 status.

She showed the first slide; hit the clicker and a guy in the third row belted out angrily.

“Hey, slow down. I didn’t have a chance to read that. Come on!….”

She apologized, went back one slide, made sure everyone had a chance to read it, and moved on.

Following her Power Point presentation, Michelle hosted a question-and-answer session that went on for well over an hour. There was hostile questioning, interruptions and loud complaints but she did her best to keep control. More than once, she answered a question and the same question was asked again a few minutes later by someone else. But she kept her cool and kept the crowd under control.

She noted that there was obviously some misinformation being passed around that had led to confusion. One of the main fears expressed by members of the audience was their worry that they would not be allowed to use their 2-stroke engines in the Chilkat River. Michelle patiently explained that even though 2-stroke engines do pollute the river, their use would not be banned. Tier 3-designation primarily had to do with “point source” discharges that degrade the water quality, like discharge pipes from a large mine.

Part of the problem was that many in the group wanted to argue the merits of Tier 3 Designation for the Chilkat. Michelle had to repeat that the meeting was not about the merits of the Chilkat River, but about the process by which a river gets Tier 3 designation.

Towards the end of the meeting, Chilkat leader Jones Hotch Jr. stood up to speak. He was quiet and eloquent. “The Chilkat River has fed us for generations… This is a vehicle that will help us help the salmon.”

By the waning minutes of the meeting, Michelle was clearly exhausted. She said that she really needed to sit down.

I was glad that I had come. Michelle had made some important points:

  • A river would be more likely considered for Tier 3 Status if it was exceptional, important, unique, or sensitive ecologically…” This was good news to me, the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve clearly meets those criteria and my book provides some good arguments for Tier 3 Status.
  • A mine like the Constantine would be required to post a bond to cover potential mitigation for damage caused even after they ceased operation. However, the bond amount would not cover catastrophic damage from a tailings dam failure. Recently, the tailings dam of the Mt. Polly mine in British Columbia failed, resulting in toxins flowing downstream. The images of salmon with their skin peeling off their bodies turned my stomach when I first saw them and I still wince when I look at them.

Following the meeting, letters to the editor for and against Tier 3 designation appeared in the local newspaper, the Chilkat Valley News. My view is that I do not want Haines to return to the volatile meetings of the seventies and eighties. It is imperative that the residents of the valley treat each other with respect.  My letter below is in response to another letter published in last week’s newspaper where the writer repeatedly calls out the “greenies.”


I appreciate the community discussion that has started regarding the Constantine Mine. However, I do not approve of the name-calling that is being tossed around the valley. Name-calling and labeling put walls around people and makes it difficult to have constructive engagement. This creates an “us” and “them” atmosphere that is stifling and sometimes even frightening. The truth is that we all share this valley and we are here together. In addition to keeping the natural environment healthy we have to keep our social and community environment healthy. Last week’s letter to the editor blaming the “greenies” is a case in point. Let us all remember that green is the color of healthy trees and plants and a sign of spring. One should not be denigrated because they want to hold the Constantine mine to the highest possible standards and keep this area free from damaging acid-mine drainage. Another question brought up last week asked why should the Chilkat Valley be offered the highest protection? One of the qualifying criteria for Outstanding National Resource Water Designation is that the water must be “exceptional, important, unique, or sensitive ecologically…” It can be easy for some of us who live here to forget that visitors come from all over the world to experience the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and witness the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world. This phenomenon is without a doubt exceptional, important, unique and sensitive ecologically. The eagles are here because of the salmon and the salmon thrive because of clean water. This is not something we should take for granted. Joe Ordonez

Related links:

Here’s a link to KHNS, our local radio station’s coverage of the Haines meeting:

Here’s a link to Mt. Polly Disaster and Salmon with Peeling skin photos:

Back to 1983: My Story Continues

Spring comes in spurts here in the Chilkat Valley. The lake in front of our house has been frozen for months and covered with snow. But with a recent warming trend and some rain, a beautiful blue pool formed on part of the lake. Then it got cold again and the blue pool transformed into perfectly smooth ice- a natural ice skating rink. After a few cold days, I figured it was safe to go out on the lake and try to ice skate.

But it’s not a simple matter of driving up to the ice skating rink and going skating. First I had to put my ice skates in my backpack and navigate down the hill in front of our house to the lake. It’s steep and icy with patches of snow and lots of brush. There are some stairs but last time I used them I slipped on an icy step, scraped my arm and tweaked my back. Once I reached the lake, my skis were waiting for me in the snow and I had to ski across the lake to the icy patch. Along the way, there were some sections of thin ice and even some spots where there is open water. I had to tap the ice with my ski poles and listen for the sound. A hollow sound means thin ice. Once I got to the blue “skating rink” I had to take off my skis and put on my skates.

I was a bit distracted by the cracking sounds the ice was making as I skated along, but the ice seemed solid enough. I figured this was likely my last time ice skating this season, so I better enjoy it. I smiled and an old Paul Simon song popped up in my mind; ”Slip, sliding away. The nearer your destination the more you’re slip, sliding away.” Whatever I do, there is always a song in my head.

I’ve always loved music. At 9 years old, with my brothers and sisters, I danced the Mashed Potato Popcorn and the Camel Walk as we listened to James Brown. On my first visit to Guatemala I fell in love with the marimba music while visiting my “tias” and feasting on black beans and fresh, hand-made tortillas. I loved music so much that I learned to play trombone and in high school I’d eagerly leave the house each morning at 6:30am for jazz band practice.

In college, I started out as a music and art major. One of the reasons I chose Western Washington University was because it had a degree program in jazz music. I spent endless hours every day in a small and stuffy practice room playing scales and arpeggios on my trombone.

At first I loved it but after the first year I began to feel unhappy. I knew something needed to change. Music studies seemed too distant from the real world. I wanted to be outside, and I wanted to be with people.

So I changed my major to Environmental Education, and found a path that suited me. I took a marine biology class where we went out with flashlights and rubber boots in the middle of the night at low tide digging in the mud for marine worms. For my botany class final exam we had to identify on sight every plant on the Sehome Hill Arboretum above campus. I studied geomorphology, ornithology and human ecology. I was in love with learning and didn’t want college to end. But I was scheduled to graduate in June and had to transition to the “real world” and find a job.

My final semester in college, I signed up for a seminar class called “Alaska Environmental Issues.” I didn’t know much about Alaska, but the class sounded interesting. Most of the other students in the class had already been to Alaska. They shared their slides and stories from the Far North and I was intrigued.

Each of us was required to prepare a project concerning an environmental topic relating to Alaska. The professor gave us a list of suggestions. One topic caught my attention right away….Logging in the Tongass. I had no idea where or what the Tongass was, but I liked the sound of the word: Tongass. The word rolled off my tongue. It felt like a gateway to an exotic adventure.

I started to research and was surprised to learn that the Tongass is the largest National Forest in the United States, about the size of Connecticut. It is located in Southeast Alaska and stretches from Ketchikan to north of Glacier Bay. The Tongass Forest is part of the Pacific Northwest Rainforest Ecosystem. The combination of plentiful rainfall and a mild climate helps trees like western red cedar, Sitka spruce and western hemlock grow into giants. Glaciers, lakes, and saltwater inlets bisect these forests.  The area is a haven for threatened and endangered species like humpback whales, grizzly bears and bald eagles.

It seemed like a paradise. But the more I studied the more I learned that there was trouble in paradise. Giant stands of old-growth trees were being clear-cut at an unsustainable rate. Most of the trees being cut were shipped off to the Japan or turned into pulp. To make it worse, US taxpayers were losing money on the deal. And yet the US Government continued to mandate that a huge quota of trees be cut each year.

My college major, environmental education involved teaching others about how the world fits together and how delicately the balance maintained. I didn’t have to go very far to see what happens when the threads are broken and the balance is lost. All I had to do was put my head out the window and smell the air. Phew! The downtown area of Bellingham Washington was permeated with noxious fumes from the local pulp mill.

In addition to ecology, I was learning about history and how history repeats itself. Not too long ago, huge cedar trees covered the Bellingham hillsides and the streams and rivers were choked with salmon. But the giant trees had all been cut, the salmon had largely disappeared, and now the simple act of breathing could make you sick.

Bellingham and the Pacific Northwest were once thought of as an endless frontier. That frontier had been tamed and the line had moved north. Alaska was the now considered the “last frontier” and the Tongass was now at the front line.

My assignment was to come up with a project to teach the others about what was going on in the Tongass.  Since I loved music, and I knew that music could be a powerful means of communication, I decided to write and perform a song. So I got out my guitar, my flute and a piece of paper and let the creative juices flow.

On the last day of class, each student had to present their project. I sat through a few hours of talks, paper presentations, and slide shows. One of the students in the class was named Mark. He had a friendly face, a Fu-Man-Chu style mustache and an easy-going demeanor. His project was about sustainable fisheries management. He paid for his college by working in a frozen fish plant on the Kenai Peninsula and had worked his way up to management. He finished his presentation and I was scheduled to go next.

I invited my friend and fellow musician Clive Pohl, into the class. Clive had curly red hair and a red goatee, and looked older than his years. His forehead was a highway of deeply etched lines, maybe from all the expressions he made when he played guitar solos. Clive, sporting a faded, tie-died T-shirt and blue jeans, strode in with his beat-up guitar case and sat next to me. When it was our turn, Clive opened up his beat-up case and brought out an equally beat-up guitar, and we started to play.

It was a rather simple song, filled with emotional appeal. The entire issue was laid out in black and white, similar to many of the political speeches you hear today. My fellow students broke out in applause and Clive and I gave a low bow. The professor announced then and there that I got an “A!”

I was excited to be heading to Alaska and proud that I was in the bus driver training program. Then my life changed. I crashed the bus and it was too late to line up another job. I began to think about Mark and his work up at that frozen fish plant up in Alaska. But how could I find him?

About a week later, I had two college graduation ceremonies in one day. The first one was from Western Washington University. The second one was from the Huxley College of Environmental Studies. It was a low-key outdoor affair. As I got in line to pick up my diploma, I realized that luck was on my side. Mark was right in front of me in line and smiled as I walked up!

“Mark, I liked your slide show about the fisheries. It just seems incredible up there in Alaska, so wild and pristine. I was hoping to get up there this summer. Remember I told you that I was going to drive a tour bus this summer?”

“Oh yeah, you told me you were the first guy in the training program, right? Where will you be driving?“ he asked.

I looked down for a second and tried to hide my embarrassment. “It didn’t work out. Do you know that sign that says “Fielding Street” as you leave the Bellingham Mall? Well, the sign is no longer there.”

There was an uncomfortable pause.

“But I still really want to go North. Do you think you could help me out?”

“Joe, the peak salmon run starts in mid-July. We’ll be going twenty-four hours a day 7 days a week with two twelve-hour shifts. The work is hard and the pay is not great; but the amount of overtime makes up for the low pay. If you make your way to the town of Kenai and can find Royal Pacific Fisheries, I’ll do my best to get you a job.”

We picked up our diplomas and shook the hand of the president of the College and got in line for the potluck. Mark and I were talking when my three Guatemalan aunts, Dora, Livia and Elsa, walked up. These three aunts had been there for my great life events- First Communion, my high school graduation, and now they had traveled all the way from Guatemala for my college graduation. They each gave me a warm abrazo (hug) and a kiss. I hardly noticed that Tia Dora slipped an envelope in my pocket.

I waved goodbye and after they left, I reached in my pocket and opened the envelope. There was $700 cash in it!

Mark’s eyes opened wide and he asked….”What are you going to do with the money?”

I didn’t have to think before I answered.

“I’m buying a one-way ferry ticket to Alaska!”

(To be continued)