Little Village, Big Decision

As a relative newbie to life in Alaska I’ve tried to keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut across the last three years with some success.  I still embrace this concept and attempt to keep it foremost in my mind as I continue to experience life in semi-rural south central Alaska.  But sometimes there are issues or situations which just beg for some analysis; recognizing such instances often leaves me wondering if I should input my ‘two cents’.  Such a situation formed the foundation for this piece.  My interest was piqued when my on-line news source summation presented me with the following story:

I was impressed to find someone from Anchorage even bothered to report on the tourist situation; normally their interests stop at Wasilla sixty plus miles to the south.  This article took, in my opinion, a fair and equitable look at the growing problems with tourism in Talkeetna.  And, for the most part, laid the blame for the situation right where I feel it belongs; upon the local population.

Anyone following this blog knows I’ve complained about the increasing numbers of tourists since I moved up here although I’ve also recognized the positive impact their dollars have on the village.  But this article brought up some impressive numbers which I feel are at the foundation of the situation.  If it is true that 300,000 tourists come through Talkeetna every year – to be accurate it’s not a full year but rather the five months from May through September – then this number is astounding especially given the number of year round residents in the Talkeetna area is 750!  That number of annual tourists is the equivalent to 40% of Alaska’s total population and figures down to 60,000 tourists a month or 15,000 per week!!  Is it any wonder the village is overwhelmed each summer by the masses of people wandering around its few blocks?

 I was particularly interested in the many potential resolutions for our tourism issues.  Incorporation will almost assuredly bring in more politics and will just as assuredly mean an increase in money we locals will have to shell out.  However, as the story highlighted, the village is getting desperate.  I’d prefer to see we work to get some very loud and prominent representation on the Mat-Su Borough’s Assembly.  Right now if you visit their website everything is about Wasilla and Palmer; I saw nothing about Talkeetna.  And that’s the real issue as noted in the article; Talkeetna has very little presence in the Borough’s collective consciousness.  There are state and federal funding’s available for a lot of the work we need done but the borough assembly often designates such monies for ‘lower valley’ projects.  This drives the thinking we should support a ‘Susitna Borough’.  This does make some sense as the Mat-Su Borough, while relatively small in area by Alaskan standards, does encompass 101,095 people which is a bit less than 14% of the state’s population.  If you figure Talkeetna has 750 year round people then we are just 0.74% of the population of the Mat-Su Borough; this highlights the fact virtually all of the population of this borough is in the Palmer-Wasilla area.  Given this it’s no surprise most of the attention and money goes to that immediate area.  But incorporation would most likely mean Talkeetna would lose even more of its ‘funky small town’ feel and without question politics would really take hold as we’d need a mayor, assembly and additional political manpower.  My question is would any benefits we’d see from incorporation over-ride the loss of our ‘unincorporated, small village feel’ and the inevitable increase in taxes and similar?  My answer at this point is a solid; “NO!”.  However, we cannot afford to just continue ‘as is’; part of the unwillingness to face these challenges in the past is what has caused us to be in this position in the first place.  And everyone living here knows darn well the tourist issues have only been growing since the mid to late 1990’s; that’s 20 years ago.

Here is another very divisive question; does everyone share in the tourist money?  I’d say without question the people living within the actual village do see some benefit; only they can tell you if those benefits outweigh the grief.  I would guess very few folks living outside the village proper feel we are getting much, if any, benefits from those tourism dollars.  There are a number of prominent business owners in this area and most do not want to see tourism decrease although many would also acknowledge something has to be done regarding the current situation.  But painting crosswalks and even adding some sidewalks will not resolve the real issues.  Talkeetna residents, and probably those in its immediate surroundings, have to decide if they favor returning to a quiet, historical village or want to go with continued expansion through increased tourism.  I, obviously, favor the former but I also know from sitting on the Upper Susitna Food Pantry (USFP) board if we went that direction our support numbers will sky-rocket as there just are not a lot of job opportunities in the Talkeetna area but there are a lot of folks too poor to even move out of this area.  Every lost job means at minimum another person on welfare and often means an entire family has to go on the dole to even survive.  All around this is not a good situation but is one we locals have to face and resolve sooner rather than later.

A number of the resolutions are just nonsense; restricting traffic in the village is a non-starter as we have no ability to enforce such regulations.  In my mind it all boils down to numbers; if we truly do see 300,000 total visitors in a given year then it is no surprise such numbers are causing many problems for the village and the immediate area.  Cramming this many people through little Talkeetna cannot help but cause serious issues even if the village was prepared and laid out to handle such throngs of ‘summer people’.  The whole sewage situation has always boggled my mind; it’s been an issue since long before I moved up here and the ‘fixes’ are not brain surgery.  But somehow it takes breaking the state’s potable water regulations or running afoul the EPA’s requirements for treated water release before anyone does anything.  Both the flood dike and the sewage issues could be fixed in a year but it will require outside monies and someone to shepherd the entire process to completion.  Previously it was politics and the borough focusing on lower valley issues that stalled any action; now it’s the state’s fiscal crisis based on oil’s floundering prices.  Sadly, the latter will put a stranglehold on making any progress because there just is no state money.  Unless something dramatic happens regarding the oil prices, as in they suddenly double if not triple, we are going to have to endure this situation, and probably see worse, for the foreseeable future.  What so many locals seem not to understand is that even if oil suddenly jumped to $100/barrel the state wouldn’t feel the positive effects for years as oil is a commodity and its price is regulated by futures contracts that often extend forward in time one or more years.

 While I have my own feelings regarding this situation I’d be the first to admit I lack the perspective of life long Talkeetnans.  But I do know this is not a situation which we can continue to ignore.  In many ways it parallels the current federal immigration issue; just look at what 35 years of ‘kicking the can down the road’ has given us!  I firmly believe we Talkeetnans must decide very soon this fundamental question; in what direction do we want the future of Talkeetna headed?  Do we want a bucolic historical village or do we want increased growth based upon expanding tourism?  This is the fundamental question we, as a community, must answer before we can move forward.  I’m sure we can work out a question or questions upon which to vote regarding this decision.  But just as assuredly I know there will be a lot of very unhappy people regarding the final decision…

Tourists In Downtown Talkeetna

A rather ‘light’ day in terms of tourists on Main Street in ‘downtown’ Talkeetna

“What’s That Up In The Sky..?” Part 2

I awoke this morning to clear skies and a refreshingly cool 49.5° F air temp along with calm winds; how could I not pull on some clothes, step into my sandals, grab a couple of leads (just in case) and head out the door with ‘the kidz’ ranging ahead of me?  We took a 40 minute walk reveling in the gorgeous morning; as usual for this area it was completely silent except for some local birds including a couple of Chickadees I feed who followed us for a ways complaining because the window feeder was almost empty.  I, of course, remedied that upon our return.  After 26 consecutive days of report-able precipitation seeing both the sun and drying conditions has been wonderful.  As we walked I had my Canon PowerShot SX-260 camera with me and I recorded a bit of our fun:

The Kidz in Muskeg

The Kidz exploring some muskeg.

Gorgeous Purple Flower

Don’t know what they are but that doesn’t diminish their beauty!

Signs of Approaching Fall

When this plant’s leaves turn to this fiery red Fall is not far away…

Yet Another 'Shroom With A Leaf Floating Atop It

Yet another ‘shroom with upturned edges which has a small pool of water atop it in which a leaf is floating.

Early AM Wanderers

Early morning wanderers; Anana and Qanuk are embracing the chance to walk the back roads and take time to scent who knows what. The ‘smoke’ you see around Qanuk is actually his hot breath condensing in the cool morning air.

What’s That Up In The Sky..?!?

Just an hour back I noticed something strange; the windows were actually appearing ‘bright’ and when I peeked outside I could see shadows!  A look upward gave me the reason; the sun was actually visible!!  I was quite pleased to see it once again and for me that’s unusual as I favor cloudy, cool weather.  But this has been a very wet August to this point in semi-rural south central Alaska.  This is Monday, August 15th and it has rained every day this month accumulating 4.18” as of 07:00 this morning.  While August is our wettest month the average monthly rainfall is 4.5” which means we’re already at 92.9% of said monthly average yet we are just 48.4% of the way into the month.

 Here are some signs of a wet August and the coming fall:

Leaves Floating on 'Shrooms

Some already yellow birch leaves floating atop a couple of dying mushrooms


Typical 'Shroom with Non-typical Shadow

Typical ‘shroom for this area with a non-typical shadow!

Female Spruce Grouse on EBD

Female Spruce Grouse on Easy Barge Drive; when they begin to appear you know summer is winding down

Early Signs of Fall

Not sure what the plants are but when the leaves begin to turn brilliant red fall is not too far distant

Very Wet Boreal Forest

Very wet boreal forest; the shimmering effect on the plants is due to being coated with rain drops

Facing Freedom’s Fragility

There is some wisdom which is most easily understood when viewed through the lens of time or, put another way, experience is a wonderful teacher.  I never really grasped this concept when much younger although now that I’m into my sixth decade of existence on this plane I am beginning to truly embrace this reality.  The passage of time can heal all but it can also provide perspectives which often may not be particularly positive in nature.  Being human we can always invoke denial and fail to entertain those perspectives which might leave one feeling uncomfortable if not downright concerned.  But doing so is somewhat akin to not liking sunlight and hence living in the darkness as much as possible.

Of late I’ve pondered whether the world truly is as crazy as it seems or whether I’m just older and less capable of ‘going with flow’ and less willing to entertain new and different outlooks simply because doing so requires upsetting my carefully constructed ‘reality’.  I have to say at this point I’m feeling it is probably a 50/50 mix; yes, the world has become a much faster moving and less ‘controlled’ place but without question I am becoming more and more settled in my ways and tend to lean towards ‘neophobism’ despite my best efforts to fight such an attitude.  But there are some things I know are ‘right’ and others that are ‘wrong’; most usually this involves checking one’s moral compass.  And since our moral compass is not static but grows and develops with time it is a worthwhile task to routinely check just where one stands on issues and events across one’s life.

Something I’ve seen across my 62 years which does concern me is the steady erosion of American’s personal freedoms.  There are so many examples but I feel this is one of those observations best viewed through the lens of time.  When I was a teenager 45 years ago my father would sometimes read something in the local paper regarding increasing crime or similar, sigh, and tell me; “Your generation is losing more and more freedoms to the liberal philosophy”.  Of course, at that age I tended to lean more to the liberal side so this would often spark intense discussions. 

He was born and raised in downtown Detroit in the 1920’s and 1930’s; to hear him talk of life during those times was fascinating.  He would tell me that no one locked their houses when they went out and during hot summer nights it was not uncommon to see entire families sleeping outdoors on their porches or in hammocks.  To me this seemed almost unimaginable as we were living in the early to middle 1960’s when President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ had started a war on poverty through entitlements and the construction of huge housing complexes for the poor.  Along with this came more empathy with criminals based upon their upbringing and other ‘life factors’ as well as a desire to ‘drag down the bar’ when it came to schooling through the infamous busing programs.  These housing complexes tended to be in the downtown sections of major cities and had the outcome of concentrating poorer folks in and around such facilities.  Sadly, as this occurred crime rates sky-rocketed and the ‘rot’ of the inner cities was exacerbated giving rise to more crime.  In the 1960’s no one in downtown Detroit would think of leaving their homes unlocked – even if they were home – and only a fool would think of sleeping outside overnight.  In this sense Dad was spot on; because the country had chosen a particular path we had lost some of our personal freedoms and most have not returned even 55 years later.

At that time I really couldn’t argue with his observations and conclusions; city dwelling Americans had lost some personal freedoms as the federal government mandated social changes.  I’ll let you, the reader, evaluate whether or not these losses are counterbalanced by whatever ‘good’ was gleaned from their imposition.  But now I can flash forward another fifty or so years and see the continued erosion of personal freedom in America.  When I was in my teens I hitch-hiked quite a bit and often traversed hundreds of miles via my thumb and smile.  While it was becoming somewhat unsafe many folks continued to practice the art as a means of getting around.  Now forward to today; only folks with no other options would even consider hitch-hiking in the lower 48 and I’d bet when forced to do so such people are anxious and concerned.  In addition a lot of folks trying to hitch-hike may have less than morally upright agendas which cause many drivers to just keep on driving.  Yes, I realize it is different up here – welcome to Alaska! – as using one’s thumb to travel around the state is common place.  I’ve picked up many a hitch-hiker on the Spur and throughout the state.  But this is born from an understanding that most folks seeking a ride up here just need to get from point A to point B and are thankful for the lift.  And some of the best conversations I’ve had since moving up here have come after picking up someone in need of a lift.

Now I realize not being able to safely hitch-hike in the lower 48 may seem like a small thing but it is an example of another personal freedom lost.  I’ve seen many more based upon the PC driven need to make everyone part of some ‘grand accounting’.  While support for the LGBT community is something good which has largely come from this push there are so many other instances in which the outcome has not been positive.  As a culture we seemed to have reached a consensus that even one person’s needs – perceived or not – equal and often outweigh those of the many.  This ludicrous need for humans born of one sex but ‘self-identifying’ with another requiring access to traditionally ‘one gender’ restrooms is but one example.  How did we get to the point the discomfort and anxiety felt by someone entering a specific gender bathroom but seeing someone of the other gender using it has no meaning?  Sadly, I could go on and on.

Without question we Americans are slowly losing more and more personal freedom to federal and state government over-reach as well as to the advancement of extreme philosophies.  Almost as concerning to me is the apparent acceptance of this trend by ‘we the people’.  Progress is essential in any culture to prevent stagnation but ‘progress’ which requires abrogation of our personal freedom is not something we should embrace.  We all need to recognize that over time we continue to lose more of our personal freedom; at some point our progeny may see the day when the concept of personal freedom is a quaint notion belonging in a museum.  Is this something worth aspiring to..??