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'I said yes to everything’: The Alaska scientist who broke through the Northwest Passage

Sat, 2019-05-18 14:56

The SS Manhattan on its 1969 journey from Pennsylvania through the Northwest Passage to Alaska and then back to New York. (Merritt Helfferich photo)

Fifty years ago, a ship as long as the Empire State Building is tall sailed toward obstacles that captains usually avoid.

The icebreaking tanker SS Manhattan was an oil company’s attempt to see if it might be profitable to move Alaska oil to the East Coast by plowing through the ice-clogged Northwest Passage.

Merritt Helfferich, longtime Geophysical Institute do-everything guy who recently passed away at the age of 83 (Alaska Geophysical Institute photo)

Begging his way aboard was Merritt Helfferich, then 34 and a do-all guy at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Helfferich, whose life of adventures also included the first hot-air balloon flight from Barrow, died in New Mexico on May 2. He was 83.

Back in the late 1960s, Helfferich heard of Humble Oil and Refining Co. executives recruiting a team of Alaska engineers to ride the ship and measure the properties of sea ice it crushed along the way. He wanted in.

When the ship’s launch was delayed and the invited professors needed to teach their fall classes, Helfferich shot up his hand. He was soon gasping in wonder at a dock in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, he saw the giant ship he was to ride all the way north to Prudhoe Bay.

The largest ship ever to fly an American flag, the SS Manhattan busted its way north in search of heavy ice. If the Manhattan could prove its worth, Stan Haas and others with Humble Oil envisioned the recently discovered North Slope oil moving away from Prudhoe Bay in superships even larger than the Manhattan.

Helfferich remembered bunking on the ship in a section right over one of the nickel-iron propellers, so large the shaft that spun them was 18 inches in diameter.

“At a certain speed there was a maddening wah-wah-wah-wah,” he said in a 2013 interview. “We’d say, ‘Go faster or go slower.’ ”

When the sea ice bashed a Doppler speed-tracking system — one of the few setbacks for the ice-strengthened tanker — Helfferich and other scientists on board helped track the velocity of the Manhattan by throwing a block of wood to the ice and counting the seconds it took for the ship to pass it. His main duties were to helicopter out to ice in the Manhattan’s path and test its thickness, saltiness and other features he vowed to keep secret from oil companies that had not pitched in for the Manhattan experiment.

After leaving Chester, Pa., on Aug. 24, 1969, and reaching Prudhoe Bay and then Barrow by Sept. 14, the Manhattan returned through the Northwest Passage to New York by Nov. 12.

Helfferich, who was aboard for most of the trip before flying back from Arctic Canada, remembered a smooth ride for the most part. The tanker-icebreaker handled most ice easily, though it sometimes needed to be nibbled out by icebreakers from Canada and the U.S. that accompanied it.

Despite a few problems, such as an iceberg puncturing part of the hull and being turned back by congested ice floes in McClure Strait (but still being able to reach Prudhoe Bay through Prince of Wales Strait), the Manhattan proved the possibility of moving oil year-round through the Northwest Passage. But Humble oil executives concluded an 800-mile pipeline was a cheaper way to go.

Helfferich flew back to Fairbanks after that 1969 adventure and got back to other endeavors, including a raft race 50 miles down the Tanana River and a rocket range in Chatanika that had his fingerprints all over it.

Helfferich, smiling as he always seemed to be, once described his reaction to unusual proposals from bosses, co-workers and friends.

“I said yes to everything.”

Biden rejects Democrats’ anger in call for national unity

Sat, 2019-05-18 14:53

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden meets with attendees during a campaign rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Matt Rourke/)

PHILADELPHIA — His party may be enraged by Donald Trump’s presidency, but Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden insisted Saturday that Democrats will not defeat the Republican president if they pick an angry nominee.

Facing thousands of voters in his native Pennsylvania for the second time as a 2020 contender, the former vice president offered a call for bipartisan unity that seemed far more aimed at a general election audience than the fiery Democratic activists most active in the presidential primary process. He acknowledged, however, that some believe Democrats should nominate a candidate who can tap into their party's anti-Trump anger.

"That's what they are saying you have to do to win the Democratic nomination. Well, I don't believe it," Biden declared. "I believe Democrats want to unify this nation. That's what the party's always been about. That's what it's always been about. Unity."

Biden's moderate message highlights his chief advantage and chief liability in the early days of the nascent presidential contest, which has so far been defined by fierce resistance to Trump on the left and equally aggressive vitriol on the right. Biden's centrist approach may help him win over independents, but it threatens to alienate liberals who favor a more aggressive approach in policy and personality to counter Trump's turbulent presidency.

"I want aggressive change. I'm not hearing that from him yet," said 45-year-old Jennifer Moyer of Blandon, Pennsylvania, who attended Biden's rally and said she's 90% sold on his candidacy. "I don't want middle of the road."

The event was the culmination of a three-week campaign rollout that began and ended in Pennsylvania, home to Biden's campaign headquarters and where he was brought up. The 76-year-old native of working-class Scranton, Pennsylvania, has climbed to the front of the crowded primary field, in part by ignoring his Democratic rivals and focusing on his ability to compete with Trump head-to-head next year.

In the fight to deny Trump reelection, no states will matter more than Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, three states the Republican president carried by razor-thin margins in 2016.

Biden is betting big that voters in the Midwest and beyond will ultimately embrace his optimistic appeal.

That's far from certain.

Biden's campaign security team estimated that the Saturday event, which closed down a Philadelphia thoroughfare and attracted a huge police presence, drew an estimated 6,000 people. Compared with events held by some of his top rivals — and certainly Trump's rallies — the crowd was large, but not overwhelming.

Some in his party's energized left wing, watching from afar, were skeptical of Biden's strength atop the field and his message of unity.

"It's hard to imagine how Joe Biden is not angry," said Adam Green, co-founder of the liberal group known as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has long supported Elizabeth Warren's presidential ambitions.

"Has he been living in the Trump era? Kids are being torn away from their mothers' arms at the border," Green continued. "It's completely legitimate to have righteous outrage at this horrible Trump moment in history, and to want a candidate who will channel that anger toward positive change."

It was easy to see signs of anger in recent days as Biden courted Democratic primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as part of his inaugural national tour. At a house party in New Hampshire earlier in the week, Biden took a question from a woman who called Trump "an illegitimate president" and said he should be impeached.

Biden jokingly asked if she'd be his running mate, before shifting the conversation to another topic. A spokeswoman later said Biden does not believe Trump is an illegitimate president.

Ahead in the polls in the early days of the 2020 contest, Biden is unlikely to embrace a more aggressive approach in the near future.

Referencing the health care fight under former President Barack Obama, he noted Saturday that he knows how to win "a bare-knuckle fight," but later added, "We need to stop fighting and start fixing."

"If the American people want a president to add to our division, to lead with a clenched fist, closed hand and a hard heart, to demonize the opponents and spew hatred — they don't need me. They've got President Donald Trump," he continued. "I am running to offer our country — Democrats, Republicans and independents — a different path."

Before he took the stage, longtime admirer Bradley Skelcher, of Smyrna, Delaware, praised the former vice president's optimistic message. But he described himself as "damn angry" about the Trump presidency.

"We need calm. You don't want anybody like me running the country," Skelcher said. "Somebody needs to calm us down a little."

Michigan GOP congressman says Trump conduct is ‘impeachable’

Sat, 2019-05-18 14:49

FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 file photo, U.S Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, speaks to the audience during a town hall meeting at the Full Blast Recreation Center in Battle Creek, Mich. Amash, a Republican congressman from Michigan says he’s concluded that President Donald Trump has “engaged in impeachable conduct.” Congressman Justin Amash tweeted Saturday, May 18, 2019 that he has read the entire redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report. (Carly Geraci//Kalamazoo Gazette via AP, File) (Carly Geraci/)

WASHINGTON — A Republican congressman from Michigan on Saturday became the first member of President Donald Trump’s party on Capitol Hill to accuse him of engaging in “impeachable conduct” stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller’s lengthy investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

But Rep. Justin Amash stopped short of calling on Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump, which many Democrats have been agitating for.

Often a lone GOP voice in Congress, Amash sent a series of tweets Saturday faulting both Trump and Attorney General William Barr over Mueller's report. Mueller wrapped the investigation and submitted his report to Barr in late March. Barr then released a summary of Mueller's "principal conclusions" and released a redacted version of the report in April.

Mueller found no criminal conspiracy between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia, but left open the question of whether Trump acted in ways that were meant to obstruct the investigation. Barr later said there was insufficient evidence to bring obstruction charges against Trump.

Trump, who has compared the investigation to a "witch hunt," claimed complete exoneration from Mueller's report.

Amash said he reached four conclusions after carefully reading the redacted version of Mueller's report, including that "President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct."

"Contrary to Barr's portrayal, Mueller's report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment," the congressman tweeted. He said the report "identifies multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice, and undoubtedly any person who is not the president of the United States would be indicted based on such evidence."

The Justice Department, which Barr leads, operates under guidelines that discourage the indictment of a sitting president.

A representative for Amash did not immediately respond to an email request to speak with the congressman.

Trump and Republican lawmakers generally view the matter as "case closed," as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recently declared on the floor of the Senate.

On the other hand, Democrats who control the House are locked in a bitter standoff with the White House as it ignores lawmakers' requests for the more complete version of Mueller's report, the underlying evidence and witness testimony. Some Democrats wants the House to open impeachment hearings, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has resisted, saying impeachment must be bipartisan.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., a freshman who opened her term by profanely calling for Trump to be impeached, applauded Amash.

"You are putting country first, and that is to be commended," Tlaib tweeted. Tlaib is seeking support for a resolution she's circulating calling on the House to start impeachment proceedings.


Closed since the November earthquake, Eagle River McDonald’s owner hopes to have store open by year’s end

Sat, 2019-05-18 14:45

A McDonalds is closed in Eagle River on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. Many businesses in Eagle River suffered damage after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake Friday. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / ADN/)

Eagle River residents grimacing about fewer local fast food options will have to McWait until the end of the year to address their earthquake-induced Mac attacks — but happier meals are ahead.

“The bottom line is the store’s going to be rebuilt,” said Mike Davidson, who owns 21 McDonald’s franchises in Southcentral Alaska, including the shuttered store along Eagle River’s main drag.

The building was boarded up after the large shake on Nov. 30, 2018 caused damage to its foundation. Davidson said the McDonald’s corporation — which actually owns the building and land alongside the Old Glenn Highway — made the decision to tear the store down and rebuild in February and has been going through the Municipality of Anchorage permitting process for the past several months.

“It’s just a really long, complicated process,” Davidson said.

Davidson said it’s been a somewhat frustrating permitting process, but he thinks it’s possible demolition work could begin by June or July.

“We’re hopeful we can get it open by the end of the year,” he said.

The restaurant is one of several public buildings and private businesses in Eagle River that were forced to close either temporarily or permanently after the quake, including two schools and the Eagle River Town Center Building. Both Gruening Middle School and Eagle River Elementary School will be closed until at least 2021 for repairs, and the Town Center building was closed indefinitely this week due to damage that was only recently uncovered.

The Eagle River McDonald’s rebuild will mirror construction that just began in Wasilla, where another restaurant was recently torn down to make way for a newer version expected to be open this fall. Both stores will feature a new design that includes a dual drive-through system, Davidson said.

Davidson said the Eagle River store manager and a handful of key employees were moved to other stores after the magnitude 7.1 earthquake, but most of the roughly 50 crew members were laid off after the closure. However, he said anyone who was working at the restaurant before the quake and wants to return will be rehired once the Eagle River store is back in business.

There’s been a flurry of interest in the restaurant over the past few months — Davidson said people have been calling almost daily to check on the status of the restaurant — and he said the response from customers eager to learn when the store will reopen has been gratifying to see.

“The people have just been great.”

The sign on the Eagle River McDonald's, which has been closed since the Nov. 30, 2018 earthquake. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)

Kotzebue man awarded Coast Guard medal 20 years after saving girl from drowning

Sat, 2019-05-18 14:10

Nome Magistrate Judge Pamela Smith gets a hug from her friend George "Radar" Lambert after Lambert was given a Silver Lifesaving Medal on Saturday, May 18, 2019 at the Atwood Building courtyard. Lambert was awarded the medal by the U.S. Coast Guard for saving Smith from drowning in Kotzebue in 1998, when he was 10 and she was 12. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)

A Kotzebue man who saved his friend from drowning in a swift current when they were children was awarded a U.S. Coast Guard medal on Saturday more than 20 years after the incident.

George “Radar” Lambert, who works as a commercial fisherman, received a silver lifesaving medal — the second-highest honor a civilian can receive from the Coast Guard, according to Lt. Commander Jonathan Dale — for saving then-12-year-old Pamela Smith.

Lambert was 10 years old on June 22, 1998, when he, Smith and a group of their friends went swimming on a sandbar outside of Kotzebue, said Rear Admiral Matthew Bell, commander of the Coast Guard’s 17th District.

Bell told Lambert’s story at a small ceremony in Anchorage attended by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who said he’s known Lambert and Smith since they were young.

Smith, Bell said, was wading in the water away from the sandbar when she slipped out past the drop off and was pulled out by the strong current. The water was about 40 degrees at the time, he said, and current pulled Smith down to the creek’s bottom, where she had to struggle her way to the surface.

Although Lambert was much smaller than Smith at the time and two years younger, he grabbed one of the life jackets the group had stored underneath an overturned boat and dove into the water, swimming about a hundred feet out to reach his friend.

He managed to grab Smith by the head and arms and towed her back to safety, fighting the current to reach the shore, Bell said.

“He pushed hard just to get to me and he pushed even harder to bring me back," Smith said. “We both could have not made it, because it was hard just going back. That’s when I couldn’t fight anymore, but he fought for both of us.”

Rear Admiral Matthew Bell, right, presents a Silver Lifesaving Medal to George "Radar" Lambert Saturday, May 18, 2019 at the Atwood Building courtyard. Lambert was awarded the medal by the U.S. Coast Guard for saving his friend Pamela Smith, left, from drowning in Kotzebue in 1998, when he was 10 and she was 12. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)

The soft-spoken Lambert didn’t address the crowd at his own ceremony, but said he didn’t give much thought to his actions at the time.

“It just happened so quickly that, you know, no time to think," Lambert said. “I just ran to the boat and grabbed a jacket, didn’t even think about it, put it on, jumped in that water, went and got my friend and made it back to shore. And we’re here to talk about it today.”

Smith, who is now a magistrate judge living in Nome, said the channel she nearly drowned in has taken the lives of several other people in her community. A few years ago, she said, she helped her father on a search and rescue on that same waterway.

“While we were in the boat, I was just praying and hoping we could find that person alive, but I couldn’t help but think if it wasn’t for Radar, that my dad would have been doing the same for me,” Smith said. “And if he let me go away with that current, that I probably never would have been found.”

The Coast Guard never formally recognized Lambert’s actions until Lt. Commander Dale learned about his story in 2016. Dale led a three-year charge to award Lambert a lifesaving medal, not only to recognize what he called “an amazing story about an amazing person,” but also to highlight the importance of life jackets.

Smith is the first documented child to be saved because of Alaska’s “Kids Don’t Float” program, which encourages life jacket use and swimming safety education for children. The life jacket Lambert used to reach his friend was taken from a loaner board supplied by the program, Bell said.

Since then, at least 30 more children have been rescued from near-drowning incidents because of the program, he said.

Alaska agencies and municipalities are hoarding cash

Sat, 2019-05-18 13:05

The Alaska State Capitol, photographed on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / ADN/)

Are we having a constitutional crisis in Alaska? The wholesale rejections of budget cuts by the Senate and House are remarkable. The Senate and House leadership have ignored Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s zero-based budgeting. Fortunately, we are a year ahead in funding our schools, given last year’s forward-funding of this year’s budget. Because the education budget was funded for $1.6 billion last year for this year’s operation in fiscal 2020, the budget is actually in surplus.

In order to look at the fiscal status of our towns who are screaming for more state money, I went online. On the website of the Division of Community and Regional Affairs, you can find the audited financial statements for each town and borough in Alaska.

Let me give you a couple items I found in my reading of communities’ financial statements. First, some accounting terms: A community’s “net position” is assets less liabilities. Similar to net worth, but for nonprofit groups and government. It’s used as a judgment of the financial health and wealth of towns.

Two boroughs in Alaska have net positions in the billions, Anchorage at $3.6 billion and the North Slope Borough at $2.5 billion. Both have their own permanent funds, the North Slope at $645 million and Anchorage at $165 million. The City of Valdez also has a permanent fund of $205 million, as well as a net position of $591 million.

Juneau has a net position of $952 million. The Mat-Su Borough has $889 million; the Fairbanks North Star Borough $531 million. Sitka is $370 million. Kenai, $239 million. Ketchikan, $171 million. The top 10 wealthiest communities have a combined net position of $9.8 billion, with another $1 billion in local permanent funds. I’d say our towns are pretty stable (perhaps a bit overweight) and have excellent reserves to manage their responsibilities. Revenue sharing? What for?

When I ran for the state Senate, I campaigned on protecting the Alaska Permanent Fund and its dividend and reorganizing state government agencies. We are blessed with abundant assets. We must manage them wisely. The Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation has a net position of $47.2 billion and an earnings reserve of $18.9 billion. So much for the notion that we don’t have the money for full dividends. Indisputably, we do.

In addition to APFC, we have far overcapitalized state agencies. Alaska Housing Finance Corporation has a current net position of $1.5 billion. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, $1.3 billion. Alaska Energy Authority, $1.5 billion. By combining the three, we save millions per year in overhead, just as we did when combining Alaska State Housing Authority with AHFC decades ago. Here’s the good part: Leaving the three with a net position of $300 million, plenty to accomplish their missions, we could transfer $4 billion to the general fund or the Alaska Permanent Fund. Or, we could balance our budget for the next three years. The people should make that choice.

Sen. Natasha von Imhof has described paying out the full dividend as “fiscal insanity, irrational and irresponsible." That description fits raising oil and gas taxes, putting on a personal income tax and taking more money out of the private sector when we have such huge surpluses. Full dividends are earned and due according to Alaska statute. They strengthen the Alaska economy.

I am not suggesting that we do not cut the budget or use the governor’s approach of zero-based budgeting. I support both initiatives as a way of building a strong economic base for Alaska. Reading the financial statements and applying what is learned proves that. Our communities are well set to take on the local challenges we face.

The recent new oil discoveries and increased oil and gas production plus the increasing price of crude brings us closer to the goal of financial stability in Alaska’s cash flow. Reorganization can allow us to focus on repositioning assets to invest in Alaska and grow our private economy. While meeting our public responsibilities, we have the funds to choose our future. Texas has a permanent fund, started in 1854, that just topped $44 billion in August 2018. Of 10 states with permanent funds, ours is by far the largest. By utilizing assets wisely, our private sector can grow instead of funding another huge expansion of the public sector. Reorganizing our public sector is fundamental to our long-term health.

There are real financial consequences of focusing only on preserving the bloated state or local governments. Alaska’s small business community is starved for capital and has been for decades. Look at the oil tax credit fiasco for proof. We need to build private-sector jobs to insure that our kids don’t move out of state for lack of opportunity.

The Alaska Permanent Fund invests $66 billion. The Public Employee Retirement System invests $18.4 billion, the Teachers’ Retirement System $8.9 billion, AHFC, AIDEA and AEA $4.3 billion and the University of Alaska $1.8 billion. That’s $99 billion, virtually all invested outside Alaska. Agency investment contractors redline Alaska investments with our own money.

Alaska’s investment contractors invest Outside, excluding Alaska’s private sector. By comparison, the Texas Education Fund (their permanent fund) by Texas statute invests half of its investable funds in Texas and half of that in Texas real estate. Texas enjoys the fourth-strongest state economy in the U.S., while Alaska is stuck in last place at #51. Using our assets and fostering sound business investment, using the proven Texas model, can grow our private sector economy, not continue to stifle it.

Jim Crawford is a third-generation Alaskan entrepreneur who resides in Anchorage. The Alaska Institute for Growth is a local think tank that studies and reports on and may sponsor projects of sustained economic growth for the Alaskan economy.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.