Northwest Digest

Posted: Monday, April 18, 2005

Village of Diomede hosts ski race

ANCHORAGE - Villagers on a tiny island in the Bering Sea hosted a race for young Western Alaska skiers over the weekend as armed guards watched for polar bears.

It was the first home athletic event in a generation for Diomede, the only village on Little Diomede Island, which is walking distance from the International Dateline just east of Russia's Chukotsk Peninsula. In fact, the 50 or so first- through fifth-graders from Wales, Teller and other tiny villages in the Bering Strait School District bundled up against the subzero cold and walked over the dateline into tomorrow.

But first came the ski races, Eskimo dancing and a scavenger hunt for polar bear fur and king crab legs.

"All in all, a successful meet," said Diomede teacher, ski coach and event organizer Ben Seymour.

Putting on any type of event is a challenge on the remote island, where the wind rarely quits and winter lasts half the year. Diomede has no airstrip until the sea ice freezes into a runway. Helicopters deliver mail once a week, and villagers still use skin-covered boats to get groceries from Wales, 28 miles to the east.

Diomede hasn't been the host team for an athletic event since at least the 1970s. Mayor Pat Omiak Sr. remembers a wrestling tournament back then, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran the school.

So there was a measure of faith involved when planning began for the elementary school cross-country ski meets several months ago. Diomede was selected, but Brevig Mission was the fallback site.

The town leapt at the opportunity, Omiak said. "I told them we're going to need all the help we can get," with youngsters from six villages doubling Diomede's elementary school population for two days.

Arson blamed in Eagle River school fire

ANCHORAGE - Someone burned shredded rubber playground material at an Eagle River elementary school over the weekend, leaving a note threatening to set fire to more playgrounds if the Anchorage School District doesn't stop using the multicolored mulch, fire officials said.

It's the second time the rubber material has been torched at Alpenglow Elementary School in less than a year.

The blaze was the latest in a string of fires that have plagued Anchorage schools in recent years, including the one last August at Alpenglow's playground. A 12-year-old boy eventually was charged with using matches to ignite the mulch, which then burned playground equipment. His trial, in juvenile court, is scheduled soon, said school Superintendent Carol Comeau.

Around midnight Friday, a neighbor noticed smoke rising from the playground and called for help, according to Tom Kempton of the Anchorage Fire Department.

A quick response limited the damage to an area of mulch roughly 15 feet by 30 feet. None of the playground equipment caught fire, and the shredded material burned only a few inches deep, Kempton said.

The mulch, which is made of recycled rubber, consists of floppy strips 3 to 4 inches long and half an inch wide, he said. Piled a foot or more deep, it makes a soft landing for children jumping off monkey bars, yet wheelchairs can travel over it.

Salcha residents offered federal buyout

FAIRBANKS - Salcha residents whose homes are threatened by recurrent flooding of the Tanana River can apply for a federal buyout, officials with the Fairbanks North Star Borough said.

The borough has been working with a federal agency to buy some easements in the area and to help residents relocate. Applications will be accepted between May 15 and June 15.

The municipality has $850,000 in federal funds to spend. That's far less than the estimated $15 million needed to buy out every home the Tanana River is encroaching on. But it's a start, officials said.

"If we get 100 applications, then we can take them to Congress and say, 'We're going to need more money,"' said Rodney Everett, a realty specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the federal agency providing the money and assistance.

Salcha, southeast of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway, has been besieged by flooding for years. In 2002, President Bush declared the area a disaster area.

Woman with husband in Iraq dies in fire

MILL CREEK, Wash. - A woman whose husband is serving in Iraq died in a fire at her apartment Sunday morning in this suburban city.

The woman, whose name and age have not been released, died in the Laurel Apartments on 164th Street Southeast, said Bill Wirtz, battalion chief at Snohomish County Fire District 7.

She was the wife of a man serving with the National Guard in Iraq, said Coni Conner, disaster services manager for the Everett branch of the Red Cross.

The Red Cross reached her husband's National Guard unit Sunday to try to notify him of his wife's death but did not reach him immediately.

The cause of her death has not been confirmed by the medical examiner, but Wirtz said officials believe smoke inhalation was responsible.

The woman was believed to be the only person living in the apartment when the fire broke out, police and fire officials said.

Fire officials say the fire was contained in one apartment. Three other units had water damage.

Cause of the fire was not known. Estimates of damage were not immediately available.

Shy, lovelorn gorilla may have found mate

TACOMA, Wash. - Ivan the gorilla is nearly 41 - middle-aged now, and a little heavier than he was during the years he spent in a cage at a suburban store.

But he also appears to have found romance with a young female at Zoo Atlanta, a development his keepers - and fans at both ends of the country - have long hoped for, The News Tribune reported Sunday.

The former South Sound resident has been socially awkward since his highly publicized transfer to Zoo Atlanta in 1994. But it's really not his fault, after 27 years in a concrete-and-steel cage at the B&I store in Lakewood.

He hasn't lacked opportunity. Ivan has shared a habitat with four females - Shamba, Kinyani, Kashata and Kudzoo - since 1998.

"You feel sorry for him," said Mary-Catherine Turton, a volunteer guide at Zoo Atlanta for the past decade. "You want him to live the rich life."

Hoping privacy could be the key, zoo officials have taken Ivan to a more private habitat to introduce him to a new female gorilla named Olympia.

"I can tell you, he seems very happy and very social with the other gorillas," said Jodi Kissinger, one of Ivan's keepers at Zoo Atlanta.

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