As we are just starting the second day of a new year I find it’s no surprise I’m reflecting back upon the past year and without question the focus of my reflections have been my successful relocation to south central Alaska and subsequent efforts at settling in. I have already experienced my first Winter Solstice in ‘The Great Land’ as well as my first Christmas and New Years; I’ve tasted -24 F air temps on numerous occasions and expect to experience temps below -30 F before the winter is over. I continue to accumulate important lessons day in and day out as I learn to not just survive but to thrive in my new home. Talkeetna is perfect for me; the locals are a quirky mix of lifestyles, beliefs and economic statures but eminently tolerant of other viewpoints and share a deep belief in the importance of humor. I mean where else can you find a town of 700+ year round residents that has a cat for a mayor..? Mr Stubbs has held this position for at 16 years and does actually attend town meetings. These people are as genuine as the day (or night depending upon the season…) is long and always ready to be of assistance if needed. I’ve written much regarding the environmental conditions; I do love the cold and snow and look forward to a lot more of both before ‘the break up’ which is Alaskan for ‘spring’.
But I thought it might be some fun to look at some key learnings I’ve developed over the past four plus months; things that really reflect living in rural south central Alaska. So it’s from this perspective I look back on my first five months of living at Mile 7.1 of the Spur:
- As we’re now into winter I think some lessons learned regarding Talkeetna winters are in order. Although I did have respect for the cold up here I also had bad habits from the lower 48 which are quickly being erased sometimes rather painfully. In SE Michigan it was no big deal to run out to the store in a snowfall event wearing minimal outdoor gear and sometimes wearing only tennis shoes. Hah, such times are now history for me as to run to the store nowadays means wearing full winter gear including insulated boots and insuring I have my ‘survival kit’ in the cargo portion of the Escape as well. While sliding off the road in Michigan could be an inconvenience up here it could be a death sentence based upon your location and your level of preparedness. Even when just venturing out to start the car so it can defrost and be ready to go I wear stout outdoor clothing and especially gloves. I learned the hard way that just a minute of two of scraping windows with the ice scraper and bare hands when its -17 F leads to very painful hands!!
- When it does snow if I’m not planning to go anywhere for a few days I’ll leave the car covered with snow. This prevents the cold overnight temps from building up a thick layer of ice on the glass surfaces due to radiational cooling. Of course this means when I do plan to use the car I need a bit more time to broom off the snow but it’s much easier than fighting to clear ice when it -15 F or colder.
- Once it gets below -15 F outside and stays that way for at least a day or more any metal protruding into the house which is tied to metal on the exterior of the house will begin to form layers of frost. I keep my place in the 58 F to 61 F temperature range but this has no effect it stopping the slow but relentless build up of frost layers on exterior door hinges, door latches and window cranks. The robustness of the frost build up is proportional to the temperature but more importantly to the duration of time the temperature has been below -15 F.
- How cold it feels outdoors is of course related to the temperature but it also seems influenced by the amount of time its been cold outdoors. I’m not sure why this is but I have experienced it numerous times now; -20 F will feel quite cool when I let the dogs out first thing in the morning after we’ve seen temps around 0 F. But the third morning its -20 F and I do the same it feels much colder just as based on the aforementioned there’s much more frost on interior metal objects linked to exterior surfaces. Just spending ten minutes outside after its never risen above -12 F for 48 or more hours feels much colder than the first morning it’s dropped to -18 F.
- I can easily handle -22 F air temps when properly dressed as long as there’s no wind. However, add just a 2 to 4 mph breeze to an air temp of -17 F and I’d better have all exposed flesh covered or I’m going to have a problem within just a few minutes.
- Layering is THE way to deal with Alaskan cold! I’ve been fine at any of the low temps I’ve experienced thus far wearing only a wind proof/rain resistant synthetic rain parka as my exterior layer; underneath this I’m wearing heavy sweat pants, thick Carhartt wool/synthetic mix socks, a long sleeve tee-shirt and a fleece vest along with poly pro glove liners, gloves and insulated boots. I can always add thermal underwear when it gets really cold and if I do start to get too warm from exercise its always possible to modify clothing openings or even shed a layer.
- The one windshield ‘star’ on the passenger side – courtesy of a maintenance truck in Saskatchewan – finally grew a low-level but almost windshield length crack. It was -18 F and I was rushing to get into KTNA for a substitute newscast so I had the defroster set at 80 F and the fan to max. The Spur was not in great shape with many rough icy patches and as I navigated one I saw a crack grow from the center of the star and slowly grow across the lower quarter of the windshield towards the driver’s side. Apparently a combination of the extreme temp differences inside to outside and the uneven motion of the vehicle was too much for the already damaged glass. After speaking with Holly I learned its best to just deal with the crack until fall and then have it replaced; most windshield chips and ‘stars’ occur during the summer months with the increased traffic and construction work. Therefore it does make sense to hold off on replacing the windshield until after construction season; Holly suggested late September.
- Moving ahead with more ‘generic’ learnings – Forget about addresses to indicate where you live; this place may be 15158 East Barge Drive, Talkeetna, AK but to the locals its transitioning from ‘Dan & Erica Valentine’s place’ to ‘that place owned by the big bald guy with the two big dogs’. Hey, it works for me! No one gives you a number address once you’re out of the town itself; you tell folks you live ‘just past the curve on Joan Street’ or ‘at the top of the hill on East Barge Drive’ and that’s good enough. I know from experience it does make it hell for the delivery people unless they have a long duration experience of finding residential locations in this area.
- I learned last fall I will not be able to wear shorts and short-sleeved tee shirts when the spring finally arrives; at least not once the biting insects make their appearance. I remember wondering during my first few trips up here why the locals always wore long sleeves and long pants; now I know! Wearing these coupled with your insect repellent of choice – I have four ‘natural’ formulations I’ll be trying come insect season but to this point rubbing a dryer sheet on my clothing worked best last year – at least gives you a chance to forgo losing a pint of blood every time you spend more than ten minutes outdoors.
- There’s a rhythm to rural life that one slowly discovers with the passage of time and is indelibly linked to one’s one lifestyle. At this point mine is anchored around my newscasts at KTNA and the need to replenish my grocery situation once every three to four weeks. The latter grows out of the fact Talkeetna lacks any amount or variety of goods and services; one of its biggest improvements came a few years back when Cubby’s Market opened at the ‘Y’ (Talkeetna talk for the junction of the Spur and Parks Highway) . While it’s barely larger than most convenience stores in the lower 48 it does provide important grocery items rather than just junk food. In fact, I’m told people drive all the way from Anchorage to buy their meat as it is truly delicious and handled with care. This is important because the next true grocery stores (Fred Meyer, Carrs) are 60+ miles to the south in Wasilla. As such one wouldn’t want to be making this 120+ mile round trip more than once a month if possible and that’s really true come winter when the Parks Highway can be a real mess of ice and snow.
- My newscasts anchor the times I visit the Talkeetna PO which is just up the Spur from the station’s building on Second Street; although my drive in is just a bit over seven miles its much more convenient to leave for the station a bit earlier so I can stop by the PO, check for mail and packages and then proceed on into the station.
- My two canine pals are pushing me to get into better shape through regular walking; they hunger for that daily opportunity to head out regardless of the weather and explore the area around their new home. The longer we take on these walks the more they expect; when I first started walking with them I could barely handle 30 minutes because I was a ‘flat-lander’ and nothing is flat up here. Before the real cold came on I was up to 70 to 80 minutes of continual walking and even making at least three trips up and down Bonanza Hill (aka ‘Exercise Hill’ to the locals) during any given week. I need this and more; I’ve been forced to shorten the duration of our walks when the temps are in single digits or cooler because Qanuk’s pads do not handle the real cold well at all. I’ve ordered an insulated set of dog booties for him; I see the dog teams that mush this area use them and that’s a good enough recco for me.
- Without question the extended darkness has had no observable effect upon my perspectives or outlooks; in fact I can see no issues whatsoever with the longer nights. I also suspect this will not be the case with the June through August period when it’s almost continually light; thank goodness for light blocking drapes!
- Although we are just 12 days since the Winter Solstice I can already see the beginnings of the dawn occurring a few minutes sooner than back around the solstice. Yes, one has to be looking for the shift as well as be a ‘sky watcher’ but it is indeed already evident.
These are just a few of the myriad of learnings I’ve embraced in my first five months of living in rural south central Alaska; I know I have many, many more coming my way. For whatever reason I actually enjoy the prospect of continued learning as I’m finding the whole rural lifestyle is something that at this point in my life is indeed very near and dear to my heart. I’m finally beginning to feel like an Alaskan in general and a Talkeetna ‘local’ in particular. I look back on the decades spent living in the urban lower 48 and wonder how I managed to do so as now so very much of that lifestyle seems slightly insane. Why would I live someplace with terrible noise pollution which daily intrudes into even a closed up house, why would I live someplace where traffic and congestion can make a five-mile drive require twenty minutes, why would I live someplace with dirty air and light pollution so severe one can see just a handful of stars even on a clear night, why would I live someplace where ‘wildlife’ means squirrels, sparrows and raccoons and why would I life someplace where the people are introverted and treat strangers with initial distrust??? No, I think I’ll take rural south central Alaska, thank you very much..!