And The Learnings Fell Like Snowflakes…

After whining about the lack of any real Alaskan winter weather most of last winter and all of this one I finally have seen some true south central Alaskan snowfall and will be seeing some downright cold air temps across the next few days. Jeez but it seems like it took forever but then the mild and dry trend that has been a part of all the winter time I’ve put in up here only seemed to break late last Thursday with the unexpected snow event which finally left behind 17.5” of snow in this immediate area. This gave us a total snow/ice pack of 23.5″.  And it was classic Talkeetna snow in being very fluffy and low density; my calculated SWE (snow water equivalent) was 15.54” of snow to produce 1” of liquid water. Anyone familiar with snow densities will recognize this is indeed lightweight snow.

The event started around sunset on Thursday (01/22) and lasted through Saturday (01/24) late afternoon with the bulk of the snow falling between 00:00 Friday morning and 22:00 Friday evening. As is typical for this immediate area but still something of an unusual situation from my experience – all in the lower 48 – there was no wind and the snow fell vertically and hence piled up on any nearly horizontal surface. This gives the trees that appearance of being bathed in marshmallow cream and is truly beautiful in sunlight and especially so in moonlight. It also kills sound transmission and helps maintain the ‘immense silence’ common after such snow falls.

By the time I needed to get out and drive to KTNA for my Friday evening newscast there were 13.5” of snow on the ground. Thankfully the grader had been down East Barge Drive twice by 17:00 so it was very passable; I was to learn East Barge was in better shape than the Spur! I was able to finesse my Ford Escape through the accumulated snow and out to the cleared side road. From there it was an easy trip to KTNA. However, when I returned all Hell broke loose and the ‘learnings’ I alluded to in the title of this piece started falling on me like the snow. Of course it was pitch black and snowing heavily so I couldn’t see Roland hadn’t been around with his front end loader to clear my driveway but I could see a fair wall of snow at the junction of my driveway and East Barge pushed there by the grader. I threw caution to the wind, accelerated and managed to get the Escape maybe three feet off East Barge Drive before I was stopped. I worked for 20 minutes trying every trick I knew but finally gave up and waded the snow to the house leaving the Escape trapped.

Come Saturday morning around 09:45 when daylight returned I dressed for the conditions and headed out to work on freeing the car. I spent almost 90 minutes without success; my worst fears were realized when I saw in trying to rock the vehicle I had allowed the tires to burn through the fluffy snow down to the layer of ice that’s been on all the side roads – and driveways – since the rain/freezing rain of January 14th and 15th. Once this happened the tires just spun and created even deeper icy ruts. I tried putting wooden pieces at the tire/ice interfaces and goosing the accelerator but this only provided the briefest traction before the wood was pushed by the tires along the ice and shot out. I was hoping to be able to free the Escape by backing into East Barge Drive and then parking it and awaiting Roland. I finally gave up and decided to await Roland’s visit hoping maybe he could push or pull me free.

HAH; the best laid plans!! Roland finally showed up at 02:15 this – Sunday – morning (only in Alaska do you get you driveway plowed at 02:00!!) and cleared my driveway!! I heard him working on some of the neighbor’s driveways around 01:30. I was tired and sore and didn’t want to try to get up, get dressed, run out there and see if he could help me so I just rolled over and went back to sleep. After discussing my options this morning with my buddy Sarge I went back out at 10:00 and started working on freeing the Escape. Roland had cleared all the snow around the Escape down to the ice; I know he was trying to help me but this was not good as I couldn’t get any traction. After 30 minutes I was finally able to wedge two large pieces of particle board under the two front wheels and by leaving the driver’s door open and keeping my left foot on the ground while I goosed the accelerator with my right foot and pushed against the door jamb with my left arm I was slowly able to ‘walk’ the Escape in a lateral motion to the left. After five tries I was able to finally get enough purchase for the tires to bite and then I could get the Escape up the driveway and into the ‘garage’. That was way more fun then I wanted at 10:30 in the -8 F air!! The really frustrating thing was this whole sad affair was based on the lousy weather earlier in January; if the temp had been even close to normal we’d never have seen the rain and freezing rain and hence there wouldn’t have been the layer of granite hard ice on all the back roads and driveways. Then, I’d have just burned down through the snow, hit gravel and then found traction.

As I’ve mentioned in many earlier blogs I moved to Alaska in August of 2013 with no winter, spring or summer experience with the land and no previous experience living rural so I knew I had tons of learnings coming my way and I’ve not been disappointed. Based on just the last 68 hours here are some ‘key’ learnings I’ll not soon forget:

1. Low density fluffy snow is a cast iron bitch to drive on if there’s ice beneath it!
2. Break up boots (‘rubber waders’ for you lower 48’ers) are just 17” tall and mainly useless in 24” of fresh snow
3. Much better to leave one’s pant legs outside the boots; if tucked in snow will work its way into the boots and then you get wet feet.
4. Poly-pro glove liners are useless when working in snow; they quickly become sodden and then they transmit cold to the point it feels like you’re working with bare hands.
5. When you really chill fingers – not to the frost bite level but close – DO NOT try warm water to speed up the warming process!!! The pain is incredibly nasty. Instead tuck them under your armpits and slowly warm them; while this took me almost a full hour the pain I experienced during that time was nothing like the pain of just warm water on those abused fingers.
6. Modern vehicles (my Escape is a 2011 model) are useless in terms of ‘rocking’ to try to escape ruts in snow; they have so many interlocks on the engine rpm and the transmission you just cannot rock the vehicle at all. I also discovered my Escape has a damn interlock that prevents on from getting the transmission out of ‘Park’ without having a human’s weight on the front seat. Pushing down on the seat using my arm and hand with all my strength couldn’t break this interlock. Perhaps if one has a manual transmission one can bypass some of these issues; I would’ve killed to have a manual tranny in my Escape (I’ve had one in virtually every other vehicle I’ve owned..!) but there was no option for such a configuration.
7. Before next winter I’m going to at minimum have a box of kitty litter in the Escape along with 50 feet of steel cable and a hand operated winch! If I’d had such a set up I could’ve easily strung the cable across the road, tied it off to a tree and winched the Escape clear of the icy ruts. I’m also going to look into a front mounted electric unit but I know they are costly as in over a grand.
8. I will NEVER again be so cavalier regarding deep snow; better to let the Escape sit on the side of the road and even have the grader push some snow against it than try to push a bad situation and end up in my predicament.

Eight hard learned lessons to add to my list; at least if I can walk away from the past 72 hours with these understandings hopefully I’ll be better prepared for the remainder of this winter and future winters as well. The following are some imagery from this event; I need to get the extension cord run from the front porch to the ‘garage’ such that I can power the battery blanket and the oil heater as tonight I will likely see -25 F air temps and similar temps tomorrow night as well. But all told I’m not complaining; I finally had a chance to experience a ‘moderate’ snow event in rural south central Alaska!

Saturday morning view of the Escape stuck at the intersection of East Barge Drive and my driveway

Saturday morning view of the Escape stuck at the intersection of East Barge Drive and my driveway

The Escape is free and back in it's garage by 11:00 Sunday morning

The Escape is free and back in it’s garage by 11:00 Sunday morning

Sunday morning sunlight on the snow covered roof of my place

Sunday morning sunlight on the snow covered roof of my place

The south side of my place and the back yard buried in snow

The south side of my place and the back yard buried in snow

Even Anana was impressed with the 17" of snow she was wading early Saturday morning!

Even Anana was impressed with the 17″ of snow she was wading early Saturday morning!  The other object is the weather station sensor platform; it is a bit more than four feet off the ground.

Anana and Qanuk playing in the snow around 10:00 Friday morning

Anana and Qanuk playing in the snow around 10:00 Friday morning

The Stealth Pandemic: It’s Already Too Late

This posting will be a definite departure from my usual genre of relating my experiences and learnings regarding living in rural south central Alaska. With this said it may well be the single most important piece I’ve written in this blog; as such I hope it can at least assist others about to experience this situation if not offer some hope to those same folks as well as any who are currently making this difficult journey.

My impetus for this piece came from talking with a dear friend late last week who is just now beginning this arduous journey and hearing of his frightening albeit limited choices. The ‘stealth pandemic’ I speak of is something that is already well entrenched in our society and is also becoming more and more prevalent throughout the world. To this point there is no cure for its ravages and it has but one outcome: a degrading death for its victims while it destroys families and friends. I’m speaking of the dementia pandemic in general and of the vicious Alzheimer’s in particular.

Up until recently most folks knew of Alzheimer’s through humor; I, too, shared many of these jokes via email and word of mouth. But when my own mother began to show the signs of Alzheimer’s I quickly learned there is NOTHING funny about the disease! As the only family member proximate to my mother I experienced the grief, the frustration, the despair and the futility of this wicked disease first hand as I watched my once strong and intelligent mother devolve into a mindless stranger incapable of communicating and caring for her most basic needs. During Mom’s struggles and after she passed I volunteered at an assisted living facility which had a special section for the ‘memory impaired’; I worked within that section almost exclusively for over three years. I watched countless victims enter this facility in relatively good condition but then inevitably begin to succumb to the ravages of the disease; none of them ever left the facility alive because no one recovers from Alzheimer’s. During this time I not only witnessed the disintegration of so many wonderful people; I watched the disease’s effects tear apart families and decimate friendships. Indeed, I’ve observed many times that Alzheimer’s might well be the only disease that is at least as hard if not harder on family and friends than the victim.

Up front let me say that if you have not experienced the journey one embarks upon when dealing with a family member or close friend in the grip of this wretched disease then you cannot understand what is involved or the nature of the stress and pain that one will endure. This includes all health providers; in fact doctors are some of the absolute worst resources in this situation! They may understand Alzheimer’s from an intellectual standpoint but they do not grasp the emotional and spiritual effects; no one can until they’ve experienced it. I sincerely hope all reading this will never know this experience as it’s one that forever changes everyone who lives through it and in so doing it does scar one’s very essence.

Care-givers who deal with Alzheimer’s speak of starting a journey when dealing with a friend or family member diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. This is really quite accurate; anyone in such a situation walks a path that has many commonalities with those others have walked yet no two are exactly the same. But without question anyone experiencing this journey will not finish it the same as when they started and for many of us the journey has never ended.

As mentioned I talked with a very dear friend late last week and learned of his untenable situation; I’ve chosen to relate this as a very clear warning to everyone reading this blog. His mother in law has been showing signs of Alzheimer’s for maybe a year now; based on what he shared I’d guess she’s in stage three or possibly early stage four of the current six stages of the disease. She is a stubborn single woman living in her home and she refuses to move out although she is clearly a danger to herself and others. The family has tried for years to encourage her to move into some form of assisted living but she refuses. The family was also unable to get her to sign any legal forms detailing her DPOA (Durable Power of Attorney) or MPOA (Medical Power of Attorney) so she remains in ‘control’ of her life and assets. She has slowly albeit steadily declined over the past six months and is now regularly hallucinating, is subject to fits of extreme anger and often cannot recognize family or friends. Only recently were they able to get her to visit doctors and just recently she’s been seeing a gerontologist. She regularly calls the police to report strangers in her house; this has happened so often the police now know of her and handle her calls accordingly. In short she should not be living by herself and should be in a very controlled and quiet situation. But the family is incapable of making this happen.

Why, you ask..? Because in this situation even though the gerontologist recognizes this woman is struggling with Alzheimer’s he will not sign the lack of competency forms the family’s lawyer has carefully prepared – he has seen the woman and is in complete agreement she is no longer competent to handle her own affairs – for some unknown reason. His ‘solution’ is to have the woman move in with the family such that they can provide care!! Even as I type this I remain aghast at this recommendation; it is probably the worst answer to the situation bar allowing it to continue status quo. This family has two daughters, one of whom is a special needs child, and thus already has a very full plate. Yet this gerontologist can offer just this ‘resolution’..?!?!?!

To me this is the classic case of a doctor being totally clueless regarding what is involved in attempting to care for an Alzheimer’s victim and I find it horribly remiss especially as this health care provider’s specialty is aged people. Very few families out there are capable of providing the care such a victim requires especially when one realizes her needs are only going to increase as the wicked disease further ravages her mind and body. She requires virtually 24 x 7 care yet both these adults work full time jobs on top of providing wonderful care for their special needs daughter. Even the Alzheimer’s Association recommends against having family attempt to care for another family member showing advanced Alzheimer’s mainly because the commitment, understanding and work load is beyond what most people can provide. In addition the stress and strain of handling such care will often completely exhaust the care-giver despite good intentions. This is why Alzheimer’s can rip apart families and destroy friendships; I saw this happen repeatedly while volunteering and in such circumstances the families were not even providing the care but rather just visiting their loved one at the specialized facility.

Why the gerontologist will not sign the competency forms is a mystery that the family is trying to unravel. No doubt it is based upon fears of some legal issues down the road. But should this care-giver’s personal fears force this wonderful family into a situation which will put untenable stress upon their family unit, further wear down the loving parents, cause additional stress to the special needs daughter and possibly do unrepairable damage to the marriage? Where is the logic of condemning a family to such a horrific experience in a futile attempt to care for a victim who is already condemned to death? If the victim had millions of dollars in an estate or similar one might see some rationale but this woman is just a lower middle class American with very limited finances and no portfolio or financial reserves.

Because this family is dear to me and because I know some of what their path will entail I truly fear for their futures. But sadly I know they are not alone in their peril; indeed, as the world’s population ages this ‘stealth pandemic’ will not be stealthy much longer. But until there is a cure for this most wicked of afflictions I fear there is little we can do. More and more people will be faced with situations just like the one I’ve related, if not worse, and probably will be given as few real options. There are no good answers to this pandemic; we can only attempt to manage it via a triage approach. But before long I fear we, as a society, will be forced to make some very tough decisions regarding how we handle a burgeoning number of elderly – and some not so elderly – victims of dementia.

So, what good can come of this piece? I can only offer the following recommendations based upon my experience and my observations:

1. When family members reach the age of fifty it is imperative to sit down, review their current health and have that tough discussion regarding how to handle their affairs.
2. At that same time decide upon a DPOA and MPOA, as well as secondaries, and have this drawn up in a legally binding document.
3. While doing this have any DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) wishes and similar clearly delineated and made legally binding.
4. Discuss any inheritance wishes and have them clearly defined in great detail and put into a legal document (i.e. will, trust, etc.).
5. Before your loved ones reach 65 years of age discuss with them their desires in retirement; if they wish to consider some form of assisted living DO NOT WAIT to get this process underway!!! Assist them in every way possible to review options, visit facilities and if at all possible put down a deposit. Try very hard to make it happen sooner rather than later. I say this based on experience; my parents did most of this in their early seventies but never actually put down the deposit. Then, as is so common, with age their outlooks changed and they became determined to remain in their home even after it was no longer safe for them to do so.
6. Once you begin this journey please, please, please avail yourself of the myriad of support mechanisms that exist; do not be too proud or too macho to ask for help. I can virtually guarantee you will face long, sleepless nights and feel utter despair such as you’ve never known while watching your loved one slip away. In worst case situations they can become angry and say and do things that will be extraordinarily hurtful. Never forget that in such situations it is not your loved one talking or acting; it is the disease!

And finally, when dealing with these situations, always ‘act from the heart’. You will almost assuredly be faced with making incredibly difficult choices for which there are no ‘good’ answers. Be prepared to experience overwhelming pain, utter desperation and gut-wrenching guilt; these are all entirely normal for those walking this path. While there are no good outcomes regarding this journey I can assure you that if you follow your loved one’s wishes and always act from the heart you will eventually be able to look back and know you did the very best you could do…

Condensation, Cold and Mold

With the beginning of the New Year Talkeetna and its immediate environs have seen a switch from above normal temps to those which even the locals would find a bit on the ‘cool’ side. Yesterday (01/03) we never reached 4.0 F (-15.6 C) and just at sunrise this morning – which occurred at 10:24 AKST or 19:24 UTC – we bottomed out at -8.3 F (-22.4 C). As a broad generalization Talkeetna ‘expects’ to see high temps around 19.2 F (-7.1 C) and lows around 0.9 F (-17.3 C). Based on this you can see we’re a bit on the cool side although for me it just feels great! Anana and Qanuk cannot get enough of these temps although I have to time Qanuk’s exposure as when it’s 0 F (-17.8 C) to -10 F (-12.2 C) he should have no more than 40 minutes of exposure as even his tough GSD pads will begin to crack and bleed. One of the local mushers gave me a tip on some cream and thus far it seems to be really helping the poor boy but I still must be wary when the air temp is below zero.

One of the less pleasant issues with which I’ve had to grapple involves the build-up of condensation on the interior of the windows when the temps do drop below 25 F (-3.9 C). Understand my place has double pane glass in all the windows and this does a reasonable job of insulation; without question I really need triple pane glass and I’m looking into options to make this happen. But once I see outdoor temps drop much below 25 F (-3.9 C) the condensation really does begin to accumulate. As I have wooden window frames having water pool on the frames for any period of time is not good! I have played around with numerous methods in an attempt to decrease this condensation with very little luck. I have an inquiry into UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks) which has a world renown department on building insulation regarding any suggestions. For now I’m reduced to using a sponge on a daily basis to try to manage the moisture. I’ve also tried laying out strip of highly absorbent material along the glass/window frame interface; this works but requires the material be wrung out every day. In addition when it is below zero the material gets trapped on the windows frame by ice and cannot be removed.

But the buildup of condensation has another negative consequence which can be even more destructive in the short term; mold quickly grows on the spots where the condensation pools. Because of the extremely low angle of the sun this time of year the naturally anti-microbial properties of sunlight cannot hit the corners of the windows where the mold loves to grow. And this stuff must be ‘Alaskan mold’ as it thrives at temps right down to 32 F (0 C) and can withstand being frozen in water for weeks yet still emerge viable once the ice melts. The stuff is the classic ‘green/black’ mold which I immediately associate with Rhizopus nigrificans; however, this stuff is definitely a psychrotroph and R. nigrificans is not so my next guess is some form of Aspergillius. If I had access to my old micro lab from 30 years back I could ID the beggar within a week. I am planning to see if API test strips can be purchased for ID’ing molds; if so I’ll be getting some. Anyway, whatever the stuff is it has no issue growing stoutly at freezing temps and hence it spreads out even in the cold. I’m trying a 20% chlorine to 80% water solution in spray form but thus far this hasn’t been effective; next step is to increase it to a 50% solution.

Having come from the lower 48 I was much more aware of trying to keep moisture in the air during the winters; this was caused by the prevalence of forced air heating. As the standard in Alaska is fuel oil via a Toyo stove or wood stove the air doesn’t get a chance to dry out like that run through a gas furnace and hence retains a much higher relative humidity. I remain impressed to this day as to the amazing differences I’ve encountered in such seemingly simple things like interior humidification and condensation formation when comparing the lower 48 to Alaska. Without question things are ‘different up here’ and I continue to learn just how different they can be! The following are some images pertinent to this posting:

Icy window glass with mold in the corner; outside air temp -7.7 F

Icy window glass with mold in the corner; outside air temp -7.7 F

The yellow is a highly absorbent felt like material which has become frozen to the window; outside air temp -7.7 F

The yellow is a highly absorbent felt-like material which has become frozen to the window; outside air temp -7.7 F

Just rising sun illuminates a south facing window and highlights the amount of condensation followed by ice at the edges; outside air temp -7.7 F

Just rising sun illuminates a south facing window and highlights the amount of condensation followed by ice at the edges; outside air temp -7.7 F

The result of closing off the NE bedroom on the second floor and an outside temp that never reach 0 F for two days and dropped to -23 F at night.  The ice in the corner was 0.6 inches (15.24 mm) thick!

The result of closing off the NE bedroom on the second floor and an outside temp that never reach 0 F for two days and dropped to -23 F at night. The ice in the corner was 0.6 inches (15.24 mm) thick!

Waiting For the Fall…

Although it is New Year’s Day, at least in most of the world, this will not be a ‘typical’ offering looking back across 2014 or creating lists based on last year or even a bucket list of things to do across the upcoming year. No, this is once again based upon the weather and some surprising results of the continued warmth. Nothing has changed since my last piece decrying the lack of normal temps and especially the extremely dry conditions; well…except for yesterday’s run of above freezing temps – 22 hours in all – and 24 hours of very light drizzle randomly mixing with sleet. This shrunk our already pitifully small 14” snow pack to just 9.5” as of 07:00 AKST this morning. In addition I recorded 0.24” of water virtually all of which came from the aforementioned drizzle and sleet.

But here is the gist of this posting:

January 1, 2015 snow overhang as  seen from second floor window

January 1, 2015 snow overhang as seen from second floor window

This image was taken out a second story window just an hour ago and shows a large section of saturated snow getting ready to fall from the roof. This process has been ongoing starting yesterday afternoon and continuing overnight much to the chagrin of Qanuk, my ever-alert GSD (his partner Anana, my Alaskan Malamute, sleeps right through such events or if one is big enough she may open an eye briefly). This is a typical Alaskan situation although what makes it so unusual is it usually happens in April, not January which is one of the two coldest months in Alaska. Normally in January it is far too cold to see rain and the daylight is far too short for any sunlight to even think about starting to melt the former 14” of snow on the roof.

Last year I saw this happen in late February and into March which was early but nowhere near as early as what’s been happening. Just another sad reminder of the almost total dearth of winter weather for the second consecutive winter season. These pieces which fall from the roof are of varying sizes but most have been fairly large across the past couple of days. I know this because when they have cut loose and embraced gravity they create a loud ‘BOOM!’ upon striking the ground; often the house will shake as a result. The first couple of such impacts yesterday afternoon had me believing an earthquake was underway but there was no follow through from that initial vibration so I knew this wasn’t the case. A quick trip out to the front porch and a careful look around the corner and along the south side of the house showed a couple of recent impact piles.

Such events are part of living in Alaska and have forced these homes to be built with steeply angled roofs and overhangs of at least a foot and a half to insure when this does happen the detritus is distributed away from the side of the building. What is not at all typical is to be wary of and ready to dodge such events in early January…