Vernal Equinox Vexations

Although it is actually St. Patrick’s Day as I write this piece my thoughts have already drifted forward this week to Friday, March 20th which is the Vernal Equinox or at least it will be at 14:44 AKDT here in Talkeetna. For me this is a much more significant date as I have no known Irish blood and I long ago gave up the need to drink green beer all day long especially as I usually had to go to work the next day. This Vernal Equinox will be the second one I’ll experience since I relocated to ‘The Great Land’ in August of 2013. This is meaningful to me because many of you have asked when will I no longer be a ‘Newbie Alaskan’; I arbitrarily decided that after I’ve experienced two complete years in my new home it will be time to update my moniker. As such I have just the upcoming spring and summer before that time occurs. Okay, one could make a case for me not having actually experienced a real Alaskan winter, let alone two, but that is not my fault; I was here and ready but Mother Nature had other ideas.

With the approach of this equinox I find myself once again trying to prepare for what it means; the beginning of some of my least favorite seasons. Indeed, I find the spring up here to be my least favorite season followed closely by summer. There are a myriad of reasons for my feelings but the single largest centers on daylight or, more accurately, the inevitability of almost 20 hours of direct sunlight by the Summer Solstice. Already we are seeing 11 hours and 56 minutes of direct light and that will reach 12 hours and 14 minutes in just three more days before maxing out at 19 hours and 55 minutes on the Solstice which falls on June 20th. To many people it will seem strange that I find so much light to be a negative; for them I can only present this scenario – there is no night sky, no stars and no aurora from mid-May through mid-August! Initially I do not mind the ever-increasing light but by late June it is wearing thin and by mid-July I’ve had enough. I know I’m a sky watcher and that’s especially true of the night sky but somehow it escaped me that I’d be doing without for almost a quarter of every year!

Some folks find it strange I can be so negatively affected by long periods of light yet have no issues with just five hours of direct sunlight in December. Indeed, most folks I’ve spoken with think that much darkness would drive them insane but I don’t even notice it until I begin to see the days lengthening in early January. Of course other factors come into play; the darkness happens during winter and I live for cold and snow. The lengthening days promise the coming of mosquitoes and tourists; both are aspects of Alaskan living I’m still coming to grips with and not all that successfully at least to this point.  I have learned how to deal with the mosquitoes – it’s called ‘Deep Woods Off’ in copious quantities along with long-sleeved shirts and long pants – such that I am beginning to develop a somewhat sanguine outlook regarding these little bloodsuckers. Last year I learned that the best way to minimize the impact of the tourists is to completely avoid the village from May through early September just as the locals do. We basically surrender the village to the masses during that time period knowing that without those tourist dollars Talkeetna would not be half the place it has become. What I have yet to discover is a way to ignore all the noise they create. One of the joys of living here is the ‘immense silence’ that surrounds us in the off-season; sadly this disappears as the numbers of tourists increases. And along with the warmth comes the ever-present dust; this entire area sits on land that was riddled with glaciers which have since retreated.  In so doing they grind up stone and earth and create a very fine dust called ‘glacial flour’ and it is everywhere. This is a dual edged sword as the abundance of this material allows water to quickly drain away which helps make break up less muddy and wet. But said ‘flour’ is blown around by even a light wind and if there’s a way to keep it out of one’s home I have yet to learn the secret.

So all told it shouldn’t be a surprise that I so favor the winter and find some aspects of the warmer months a bit less than ideal. But life in Alaska is really all about making compromises; far more so than anywhere else I’ve ever called ‘home’. Because I so love the semi-rural lifestyle, the majestic landscape, the incredible wildlife, the wonderful albeit quirky people and that amazing winter night sky I am okay with having to deal with mosquitoes, noisy tourists and dust come the spring and summer. There were a myriad of possible retirement locations I considered before settling on Talkeetna and almost all of them in the Lower 48 would have been much cheaper in terms of the COL but I had been well and truly bitten by the ‘Alaska Bug’ in the fall of 1996 so once I realized I could retire up here there were no other options for me. And as I continue to settle into this lifestyle and learn more and more about me new home I am always reminded that just like life, Alaska living is all about making choices and living with the consequences. As such I think I can deal with some mosquitoes, noisy tourists and dust..! 

How would you like to see this kind of light at 04:07 in the 'morning'..?  This was the Summer Solstice +2 hours in 2014.

How would you like to see this kind of light at 04:07 in the ‘morning’..? This was the Summer Solstice +2 hours in 2014.

Lingering Light and Life’s Choices

While answering Nature’s call around 02:30 this morning I was surprised and then mesmerized by the site of stars through the bathroom window. It dawned on me that unlike any time in my past I hadn’t seen their presence in the heavens since early May based upon the lengthening daylight. Growing up I remember starry night skies in the lower 48 even when it was warm and muggy outside in late July; such occurrences will now remain memories as there is far too much daylight to observe the stars in June, July and even most of August north of latitude 62 degrees. While I intellectually knew this would happen as is so often the case I never really considered what this might foster within my being.

I’ve always been a sky watcher which explains my life-long interest in meteorology and star gazing. Early on I learned to discern the constellations seasonally native to the night skies of my location and astrophysics continues to fascinate me to this day. As with all things in this reality my choice to relocate to this area had consequences and the lack of night sky viewing opportunities from early May through late August was just one. I also knew I’d give up experiencing my beloved strong to severe thunderstorms but hoped stronger and more frequent winter storms might help ‘balance’ this loss. Given last winter’s dearth of cold and snow the jury is still out on this hope. I also knew that Talkeetna averages 134 days per year of ‘some’ sun which is just 36.7%; hardly the kind of numbers a sky watcher would fancy. This is exacerbated by the fact I’d wager even more evenings and nights are cloudy than 63.3% as I’ve noticed a definite affinity in this area for cloudy evenings and overnights despite the daytime conditions. I suspect this is tied to being surrounded by a boreal forest and being sandwiched between the Talkeetna Mountains to the south and the Alaska Range to the north. Regardless, I have come to realize I will just not see the skies clear as often as I had become accustomed. Long term it will be interesting to see if I learn to just accept this fact or continue to wish for more stars at night.

We are really accelerating towards a more typical day/night composition as we are down to 15 hours and 31 minutes of direct sunlight and losing 5 minutes and 56 seconds every day. This will peak at the Autumnal Equinox and then begin to slow as we approach the Winter Solstice before reversing the light loss and once again beginning to add daylight hours. While living in the lower 48 I was aware of the seasonal shifts in daylight but nothing like I’ve become since retiring to the higher latitudes. As with so much in Alaska these shifts are truly ‘in your face’ and it’s tough not to notice them. I know my own perceptions are exaggerated because of a lifetime spent around north latitude 43 degrees to 44 degrees; adding almost 20 degrees of latitude in a bit over nine days – the time it took to move my household from SE Michigan to Talkeetna – was indeed a large shift. And while I may miss being able to view a clear sky as often as I’d like I love seeing the pronounced ‘tug of war’ regarding daylight as the seasons unfold. This was something I once again ‘knew’ intellectually but didn’t appreciate its effect upon my psyche.

Perhaps because I can spend less time gazing skyward I’ve begun to look more around me but I also know since moving to Alaska my interest in my natural surroundings had dramatically increased. As we move to within a month of the Autumnal Equinox I’ve seen a definite shift in the insect population; the mosquitoes are much less prevalent (a very good thing!) but more gnats, bees and flies have appeared. At this point it appears there are fewer biting insects but the gnats regularly perform kamikaze dives at my eyes which are unnerving and annoying; thank goodness for sunglasses! Once again Nature’s exquisite rhythms are exposed for those willing to observe and remember. There’s been a remarkable uptick in the action at my tiny sunflower seed feeder; the Chickadees, Juncos, Red Bellied Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers are emptying it daily now whereas during the summer months from mid-May through mid-August they usually required two to three days to clear the feeder. I’m sure they ‘feel’ the oncoming fall and winter and are prepping for the seasonal shift. The flora of the boreal forest’s floor are also showing changes as the formerly bright green lichens and mosses are beginning to shift towards a dull green to light brown color and some species are turning an ashen gray. I suspect this is tied to the changes in light and to the fact we’ve seen a few recent morning lows in the upper 30’s. Again, this is Nature’s amazing rhythm being played out against the backdrop of the boreal forest and its inhabitants.

I feel so privileged to be able to immerse myself in these rhythms and to be able to observe them first hand! Previously I only experienced snippets of Mother Nature’s dramatic dance during my few brief weeks of visiting Alaska on vacation; now it surrounds me and permeates all aspects of my existence year ‘round. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. So I guess my choice to relocate remains, to this point, a wise one for though there have been some negative consequences to my decision in the final weighing I still find I’m pleased and very much contented. Maybe it’s the ‘wisdom of age’ or possibly just dumb luck or most likely a combination of both but it sure is great to see the consequences of such a major decision remain so largely positive!

Nine Months

As I stare out my office window at the rapidly disappearing snow piles and listen to the songs of numerous birds I cannot help but be reminded that spring is well underway here in Talkeetna.  Of course the fact that’s its once again sunny (it has been so for almost three continuous weeks, now..!) and 58.9 F at 10:54 AKDT reinforces this realization as did yesterday’s far too warm high of 69.5 F.  With the advent of spring I realize I’ve now experienced the tail end of an Alaskan summer, fall, winter and a piece of spring as of this writing.  Indeed, it was August 6, 2013 when I pulled my Escape into my new home’s driveway followed soon thereafter by my buddy Sarge driving the 26′ U-Haul van.  So much has happened since that time and I am coming up on having spent a full year in my new albeit amazing Alaskan home.  I’ve started the process of truly putting down roots for the first time since college; that in itself says something as I will be 61 years of age come October.  It also speaks to the rather harried life I made for myself by a number of basic choices; many of these did not seem to carry their ultimate import when i was considering them and a few just seemed more like ‘normal’ decisions.  However, they all played a large part in molding and refining the current ‘me’ for better or for worse.

Without question the single biggest decision I made with respect to having sweeping effects upon my life was to pursue a traditional form of employment within the business structure of America.  This was a direct extension of having ‘played by the rules’ I was raised within which said one graduates high school, goes on to college, gets a degree and then goes to work most probably within the area of one’s major.  In this sense, after a rocky start thanks to the dysfunctional economy of the final Carter years, I followed this plan without really questioning its validity or even imagining there was something different.  In my mind I always saw myself as working until I was 62, then retiring and living ‘the good life’.  Although the world’s economy in general and the US economy in particular had other ideas regarding the length of my employment I did work until I was 53.  At that point the job market began to contract, the bottom fell out of the IT job market thanks to outsourcing and after seeking work for almost 2 years I was finally forced to take an early retirement.  Because I’d listened to many much wiser than me and because in the course of pursuing ever more lofty employment goals I never found the time to foster either a long-lasting relationship let alone a family I was able to effect this early retirement and live off a SEPP (Substantially Equalized Periodic Payment) until 59 1/2 years of age when I shut this down and worked on some fund reallocation with my dear friend and awesome financial adviser (Kev).  Thanks to his wisdom and expertise along with earlier lifestyle choices I was able to retire and live comfortably.  In this sense I did receive the expected reward for almost 30 years of continuous employment: I was able to retire comfortably albeit earlier than expected and I did have options regarding where I could retire.  From 2007 through the end of 2011 I had all but given up on my dream to retire to Alaska but thanks again to Kev’s wizardry I was finally able to make it happen.  And I turned my 16 year dream into my reality when I pulled out of the driveway of the rental dump I’d inhabited in Northville (MI) and started the 4,224 mile drive to Talkeetna.

And so it might seem that I did live the American dream born in the 50’s and early 60’s; I graduated college, worked most of my life, saved money, retired and was able to fulfill a late in life dream as to the location and lifestyle.  To most this would seem kinda the end of the story but I’ve always had a deeply reflective side – sometimes to my detriment – and hence of late I’ve been looking back over the amazing and sometimes tortuous path that brought me to my current situation.  It’s of interest to me that I only realized once I started volunteering with elderly dementia victims  in 2010 I experienced real job satisfaction; it was almost intoxicating to recognize that even if I could just make a few seconds of some senior’s dementia ridden existence a bit brighter – even though I often knew it would be forgotten within a few seconds – I’d made a positive difference in another human being’s life!  The feeling of fulfillment and joy was unlike anything I experienced while initially working in food manufacturing (QC, QA and R&D) and later in IT Field Support.  In reflection this is sad as it tells me of the lack of real reward in the human sense inherent to all the positions I held for almost three decades.  I also noticed that within three months of ‘retiring’ in 2006 my sleep habits went from being lucky to get six and a half hours of shut-eye to regularly getting eight to nine hours a night.  With this came much better health and a much more optimistic outlook on my life and my future.  In hindsight this is a reflection of the stress and angst I felt while working; regardless of whether it was ‘real’ or I induced it myself it did have a very tangible and negative effect.  Yet I was totally unaware of this negative throughout my employment career.  This offers up a glimpse of some of the ‘bargains’ I made with myself regarding what I would endure to live that ‘American Dream’.

As I progressed through my working life I aspired to continue to take positions with more responsibility – mainly for the increased pay – and this often required relocation.  Initially it didn’t seem so bad but as I aged a feeling of a definite loss began to manifest itself.  I finally came to recognize in my late forties that I had made yet another ‘unconscious’ deal with myself; I’d forgo having any real roots as well as no family so I could continue to pursue more money.  It pains me to re-read that last line as it’s the personification of a shallow, materialistic outlook on life.  I never consciously recall making this decision; I suspect on a deeper level I did so but then shoved it into the realm of denial and ‘the past’ and continued forward.  In so doing I never really considered the potential effects of such a choice nor their far-reaching ramifications.  During my employment with four companies and the state of Ohio which spanned almost three decades I moved eleven times which figures down to a move every 2 years and 8.7 months.  In calculating this number it’s no surprise I was unable to establish any roots as I was never in one place long enough to do so!  This was exacerbated by the fact that the last ten years of my almost 19 year ‘service’ with The Clorox Company I was traveling anywhere from 30% to 80% of the time.  When I now look back on that time in my life I see it as a kind of societal blessed ‘madness’ which while paying well exhausted me emotionally and spiritually.  However I was so hooked on ‘the dream’ that I remember being concerned how I could survive without making $80k to $100 every year!  Of course this was utter nonsense; I live on a tiny fraction of that now and do so very comfortably so I suspect it was just another coping mechanism.

An almost as major choice was included in the aforementioned; without any roots and rarely spending more than two and a half years in a physical location I had no real social life and hence the odds were stacked against me in terms of finding a truly compatible partner and establishing a relationship and a family.  To be honest my luck with the opposite sex was pretty lousy and I now understand this was almost entirely based upon a series of very poor choices on my part.  Relationships came and went, rarely longer than a year and always ending badly.  By my middle fifties I could feel the emotional exhaustion wrought by almost forty years of failed relationships.  I finally accepted the concept that I wasn’t ‘meant’ to have such a relationship; this helped me reach an understanding of my existence as a single person although I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit I suspect this was another coping mechanism of my own creation.  In my middle forties I must admit to starting to look at those around me who were married often with families and being just a bit envious.  As I age I’ve come to recognize more and more what I lost by not working to establish and nurture such a situation.

While it may seem that I’m lamenting my earlier choices in reality this is not the case; as I stated earlier I’m given to moments of reflection and that’s what has driven this exercise.  But I also was raised to understand and accept that life is all about making choices and with any choice comes consequences.  Unlike so many in the recent generation I fully accept responsibilities for my choices regardless of their consequences.  In addition I recognize that my current idyllic existence would most likely have been impossible without having elected to live a solo existence and chase higher paying jobs across my life.  I grant the premise that anything is possible and ultimately I’ll never know for sure but I suspect the concept of me retiring to Alaska would not have even been a consideration if I had a family.  I only discovered Alaska on a three-week backpacking trip with two college buddies in September of 1996; prior to that I had no experience with the state and not a lot of interest in visiting.  If married with a family its unlikely I could’ve made such a trip let alone visited at least annually the following nine years.  Then there’s the entire concept of retiring to Alaska; by far most folks considering retirement to warmer places like the SE or the Sun Belt.  Retirement to Alaska obviously flies in direct contradiction to this concept.  In addition if I had a family my monetary situation would be much less likely to support such a dream; in fact it would probably preclude even considering such a move.  So while I may have given up a lot I also inadvertently allowed myself to not only discover my dream of becoming an Alaskan but make it a reality.

And so I’ve come full circle in my reflections; no real surprise here as such free form ruminations often have a way of returning to their genesis.  I’ve come to realize that I missed a lot during my employment years but in so doing I also paved the way for me to learn of a dream and then make it happen.  I truly love my rural Alaskan lifestyle and I can no longer imagine living in the lower 48; the concept of living urban is completely non sequitur.  I know I’ve made the best choice for myself as I’m very comfortable in my current lifestyle yet I’m also truly stretching myself in terms of efforts and activities.  While there is no option for volunteering with seniors with dementia in this area I am volunteering time at the local radio station (KTNA) as a newscaster and the host of a music show and I’m also donating time to the Upper Susitna Food Pantry – it’s a volunteer organization that distributes food to local needy families and people – in the form of driving to Palmer and Anchorage to pick up donated food stuffs and providing PC support.  And my lessons on rural Alaskan living continue unabated; I have so much yet to learn.  Yes, life is all about making choices and then dealing with the consequences; at this point in my existence I can honestly say I have no major regrets regarding my decisions and feel I’m in the best place I can be given my situation.  And I suppose that says ultimately the Universe has seen fit to take care of me; I needed only to recognize I needed to let go, go with the flow and always keep my mind open to any and all possibilities..!