New Year's Letter 2004


Happy Holidays!  I enjoyed writing a New Year?s letter last year, so thought I?d repeat the experience.  Alas, for many of my friends this is my only contact all year, so I may as well make it substantive.  Looking back over the last 12 thrilling months, I can easily say that 2004 was the best year of my adult life.  In part, I have my brush with death to thank?the patience and gratitude I gained have served me well.  To start off with work, I was promoted to Grants Administrator with the State on January 1 in order to administer several fisheries grants programs created in our office (about $27 million worth).  A week later I flew to
Seattle with my boss and met with the executives and administrators of the large seafood processing companies that received our salmon marketing grants.  While there, we serendipitously caught a Dave Matthews concert and a Sonics/Cavaliers game (my first professional sports game), and I made it to an evening of Mozart with the Seattle Symphony.  Not a bad way to start my new position with the State!

The first several months of the year were harrowingly busy at work, but Larry and I managed to slip away for a week in February.  Since the Bahamas trip was something of a failure in terms of a vacation, we headed back to Loreto, Mexico on the Sea of Cortez for a week.  In six days, I only made five dives in the frigid, murky water but spent several fabulous days in the company of whales.  You can check out the whole report on my web site at Seriously, the pictures are worth it!  I watched graceful fin whales, nearly came within touching distance of blue whales (as you know, the largest animals on earth!), touched a gray whale calf, and had eye contact with several adult grays swimming beneath our boat.

Back at work, I managed to travel around the state this summer to visit some of the recipients of our infrastructure grant program.  I drove up and down the Kenai Peninsula (Seward, Kenai, Homer), spent time in Cordova, Yakutat and Anchorage, and got as far north as Kotzebue just above the Arctic Circle.  From Cordova a friend and I flew by float plane to a remote oyster farm in the middle of Prince William Sound.

The tourism project at Snettisham proceeded nicely this summer and I accomplished nearly as much as I?d hoped.  After a few days preparing the foundation on the second cabin with my family, a work party in late June jump-started the construction season.  In four days, five generous and hard working friends came down to the homestead to donate their muscles and skill.  Thankfully, this summer saw the finest weather in anyone?s memory and our work party had sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s every day.  After a hard day at work, we all sat around the campfire on the rocky point, ate dinner, and drank beer chilled in the nearby creek.  Over the long weekend, we put up an outhouse, one cabin, and started the foundations for the last two cabins (see photo 1). Larry and I built the 3rd foundation over the 4th of July weekend, (in part to get our dog Nigel away from fireworks), and a second work party several weeks later with Larry and some friends saw the completion of the 3rd cabin.  In early September we nearly completed the foundation for the 4th and last small cabin.

All in all, I spent nearly every other weekend at the homestead this summer, alone or with help.  On top of the three complete and stained cabins and the fancy outhouse, we created trails, inventoried supplies and spruced up the property with a cooking station, bridges, etc.  My parents generously took two loads of supplies down in their boat over the summer, including materials for porches, food, cots, and kayaks. The frequency of my visits stemmed from the generosity of Larry and his trumpet student.  The student was eager to take lessons from Larry and, in order to convince him to do so, offered his services as a pilot in exchange for lessons.  He intended to purchase a plane himself, but when the sale fell through my dad agreed to let him fly his Cessna 206. Without both contributions, travel would have been far more expensive (or less frequent).

As many of you know, I broke my strict vegetarianism some time ago and embraced wild Alaska salmon.  Though I had yet to fish for myself, some of my friends around the office and I decided to try our hand at netting salmon in a ?personal use? fishery (not commercial or sport).  Hatchery reared sockeyes pack a creek a few miles from my homestead in mid-summer; because the creek is blocked by impassable waterfalls, the salmon can?t spawn naturally and locals are encouraged to catch as many as they can.   Five brave souls and I headed down July 21 and spent the night at the homestead.  A friend and I made the trip in my skiff after work, sliding around 3-4 foot seas all the way, dressed in survival suits and getting soaked from the spray.  It was my first real boat adventure in the skiff?amazingly, despite the seas, we made it in only an hour and 45 minutes.  The fishing itself turned out to be an absolute blast.  We used a five? radius casting net (like they use off the beaches in S. America), which is much harder to handle than it looks! We had a slow start, but after a few frustrating tries the group managed to procure two prime fishing spots on opposite sides of Sweetheart Creek (a very picturesque, brisk stream with lovely waterfalls).  The weather once again cooperated and I utterly spent myself casting over several hours.  Our ?pool? had fast flowing white water that didn?t appear to have any life in it at all.  Nevertheless, nearly every cast produced at least one fish (I caught as many as six at a time).  Throwing out the net and then pulling it back in against the squirming and tugging of the salmon was quite a thrill!  The five of us took turns casting, bonking, bleeding & cleaning the fish until by 3:00 pm our coolers were packed with 51 sockeyes.

Being so busy at the homestead and traveling for work, I didn?t dive as much as I would have liked.  Larry, on the other hand, was out most weekends and often on weekdays.  Our dive shop bought a boat, so Larry divemastered on several charters as well as for classes.  In May, Larry spent four days in Seattle getting his Tri-mix certification which qualifies him to dive to 250 feet (see photo 2).  We did explore the wreck of the Princess Sophia for the first time this summer, an 87 year old wreck in 80-140 feet of water.  In the middle of a wide channel, the wreck is unusual for Juneau in that it harbors schools (in the hundreds) of rockfish and is alive with large lingcod and ragfish which swim against a backdrop of white 2-3? pure white plumose anemones.  Gorgeous.

We also managed to do a little whale watching.  Much like last year, we headed out in early August to see a pod of bubblenet lunge-feeding humpbacks.  As we followed them, they happened to take us right to a small pod of transient orcas.  We left the humpbacks and spent the next two hours traveling with the orcas up Saginaw Channel, trying to anticipate their velocity and trajectory and utterly enraptured to watch them for such an extended period of time.  I only reluctantly headed for home.  A month later, a friend called to tell me that a large pod of resident orcas was heading into local waters.  My mother was gracious enough to take me and my scuba gear out in her 22? boat.  We found the orcas in Young Bay and traveled south with them for some time.  The pod was spread out and boisterous, evidently hunting in small parties, breaching, tail lobbing, and generally cavorting.  We wound up traveling at a distance alongside an adult male and a smaller companion. Suddenly, the male surfaced quite close and I saw that it was none other than AF29, an old friend (he?s in photo 3).  I first saw AF29 seven years ago when he was but ten years old (though he already had a tall dorsal fin).  He was the first orca I ever identified and the one that I ID the most often.  It was quite a thrill to see him again.  Unfortunately, at least one tour boat was with us through most of the experience, so I was reluctant to enter the water.  The sun was setting and we were ready to head home just as the last boat turned away; it was late, but I cajoled my mother into letting me slip into the water for a few minutes.  In the middle of the widely spaced pod, I could see tall fins heading in my direction all aglow with the orange summer sunset.  I descended to 30 feet and waited for 10 minutes; not surprisingly, I never saw an orca, but I did hear them zipper vocalize three times and heard a few splashes.  If this sounds crazy to you, don?t worry--these were fish eating orcas (they never eat mammals as far as anyone can tell).  What I did could be interpreted as harassment, though, so don?t tell NOAA.

With September came the rainy weather than had held off all summer and outdoor activities were curtailed.  In October, several coworkers and I decided to put on a Halloween haunted house at work.  We took over a large area of the office (encompassing four cubicles, a conference room, two offices, the supply area and a large storage area) and utterly transformed it.  We covered the walls and created passageways with black plastic and decorated a reception area, surgery, gas chamber, roadkill revenge exhibit (this was mine), cages, a graveyard, weird hybrid animals, etc.  For weeks we worked at home on props and wound up slaving away until 1:00 am the night before it opened and most of the morning to set it up. The whole place was dark and the scary music, smoke machines,
and costumed volunteers entertained (and terrified) the 100 or so people that walked through (I got a few good screams in my werewolf outfit). We had a blast.

Last, but not least, Larry and I went on a long vacation to a tropical paradise in November with several of our dive friends from Juneau.  The island of Bonaire, part of the Netherlands Anitilles, lies off the coast of Venezuela and is surrounded by some of the most bountiful and diverse reefs in the world.  We spent a full two weeks on the island and dove every day on top of exploring the surface.  Weather and other factors diminished the visibility somewhat and the wind kicked up a bit of surf, but the diving was still fantastic.  The reefs are massed with life; on top of the bountiful coral, sponges and reef fish, the highlights
included friendly green sea turtles (10), spotted eagle rays (4), reef squid, and tarpons.  Each day we loaded tanks at 8:30 and drove down the road to one of the dozens of yellow rocks marking dive sites.  Topside, Bonaire was also a naturalist?s paradise, with lush desert vegetation home to lizards, iguanas, tropical birds, wild donkeys and flamingos (photo 4).  We explored intricate limestone caves (with bats!) and watched herons hunt in the mangroves.  Even the frequent, powerful thunder storms and the flooded streets didn?t spoil it.  The card accompanying this note is a tribute to Bonaire.  I?ll have a full trip report up soon at

Thank you for making it through my whirlwind year in review!  May your 2005 be as good as my 2004.

Best Wishes,



Debbie's Biography