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!
Wednesday, August 6th marked the one year anniversary of my relocation to Alaska and because I have a definite tendency to reflect upon major events in my existence – don’t we all – I thought I’d capture some of these ‘reflections’ along with key learnings across the period. Understand this is based upon my sixty years of urban existence in the lower 48 which I gladly traded for a semi-rural lifestyle within the outskirts of Talkeetna. As such my perspectives have shifted quite a bit – in some cases I’d say ‘radically’ – and I’m still integrating many aspects of my new albeit much loved lifestyle. At this point perhaps some Q & A would be in order; some of these were highlighted in my previous posting:
- What do I most love about my rural Talkeetna lifestyle? Very tough call…I’d say it’s a tie between the immense silence that can be so deep as to actually have a presence and the ever-present wildlife. I regularly see moose on my property and all over the area; I’ve seen a few grizzlies at great distance which is how I like to view them but there are regular signs of their passing in this immediate area in the forms of digging, tree marking and scat. The close proximity of the mighty Alaska Range makes for breath-taking views of North America’s highest peak (Denali or ‘Mt McKinley’ to the uninitiated at 20,287 feet) along with Mt Hunter (around 14,400 feet) and Mt Foraker (a bit over 17,000 feet). And I also love the mindset of the local folks; it’s part of what initially drew me to Alaska. Alaskans tend to be down to earth, tolerant, friendly and self-sufficient. In the more rural areas everyone looks out for their neighbors; it’s a given. Just yesterday my neighbor to the south who has a place on Question Lake stopped by to ask me if I’d check up on her place across the next five days as she’ll be heading north around Denali to do some hunting. Of course I immediately agreed; I’m out at least once a day with the dogs anyway so just swinging by her property is no problem. I will also make a quick survey before turning in for the night. We hardly know each other yet I was honored she would ask me; I know I cut a somewhat large profile because of my almost daily walks with my two large dogs but still I was pleased she would think to ask me. This is classic Alaska and part of what I truly love about the people of ‘The Great Land’!
- What do I dislike the most about living in rural Talkeetna? Another tie: I abhor the mosquitoes and I am sick to death of the lack of real darkness across the past three months! The summer influx of tourists into Talkeetna ranks a very close second..! I am learning to deal with the mosquitoes and also have learned the necessity of completely sealing up my bedroom windows against light. Knowing what a negative the continual daylight has been for me across the past three months I’m hopeful I will be a bit better prepared come next spring. There’s little to be done regarding the tourists; like so many locals I limit my trips into the village as much as possible from middle May through middle September. After that point the village once again becomes the sleepy albeit comfortable place all us locals so love.
- What do I most miss from my lower 48 life? Actually almost nothing although since I asked once again it’s a tie, this time between personal interaction with so many friends I left behind and the absence of really severe weather up here in the form of thunderstorms and super-cell activity. We do see a few thunderstorms but they are mainly along the Alaska Range and the Talkeetna Mountains; the strongest of these storms is but a pale shadow to the vibrant storms I enjoyed in the Cincinnati area and in SE Michigan.
- What do I miss least about living in the lower 48? This is impossible to answer with even five items although two major things that immediately came to mind were the high population density which contributed to so much congestion and the noise pollution. Right behind would be 80+ F air temps, 70+ F dew points and light pollution. Thus far we’ve seen just three days with temps at or above 80 F and since May we’ve been averaging around two and a half days a week with temps in the 70’s; otherwise the highs are in the 60’s.
- What has most surprised me about my new lifestyle? So many things! Despite my previous Alaskan experiences and all my planning I’d have to say my ill-preparedness for living semi-rural in south central Alaska. And I’ve had invaluable help and advice from Holly (my good friend and realtor) along with so many other local folks. I knew I’d have a huge learning curve but even so I grossly underestimated my lack of experience and knowledge. Rural living in and of itself has been an eye-opening experience from learning the schedule of mail so I can maximize my trips to the PO (I have no local delivery) to understanding that folks just do not use lot/house numbers for describing their location. Although my place is technically ‘15158 East Barge Drive’ no one recognizes this descriptor; I found it much better to simply say I live in ‘Dan and Erica Valentine’s old place’. It seems most of the locals knew these people as the Valentine family has strong roots in the Talkeetna area and Dan Valentine is an Alaska State Trooper currently living on Kodiak Island with his family. I also still marvel at the lengths of the mornings and evenings; it often seems as though it will never get dark even in the winter and the morning light can stretch on as well. This, obviously, is a function of living in the higher latitudes and is the opposite of what is observed near the equator when mornings just seem to spring into existence and nights seem to just happen almost instantaneously.
- What challenges have been most predominant? Probably the single biggest challenge involves getting myself integrated into the community. I want to be a ‘giver’ in the sense of volunteering hence my efforts in supporting KTNA and the Upper Susitna Food Pantry. But I also want to develop more personal relationships with the local folks and perhaps put more of my experience and talents (i.e. 18 years in food manufacturing, 12 years in corporate IT field support, etc.) to use. There has been a whole range of things I’ve learned and I have many, many times that amount yet to comprehend and make part of my lifestyle. Being ‘bear aware’ is a good example; from early May through early November the bears are out and about so it’s vital to always keep one’s awareness of the immediate surroundings in mind. I have a small sunflower seed bird feeder just off the north end of my front porch. It’s not recommended one feed birds during ‘bear season’ as the feeders can become dinner plates but I decided I would try to continue feeding my feather friends as I have a large collection of Chickadees (both Black Capped and Boreal), Juncos, hairy woodpeckers, Red Breasted Nuthatches and similar. Thus far I’ve seen no issues but I always look out my front door before I open it just to make sure there’s not a bear at the feeder. There is no trash pickup and hence all garbage must be either burned or hauled to the local refuse collection point. I do try to save money by burning most flammable objects but if they involved food in any manner I must store them inside the house until I can get them out to the burn barrel and completely incinerated. During the winter I tend to get a bit sloppy and will leave trash out on the front porch but I have to remind myself that once it begins to warm up I have to resume my ‘bear awareness’.
But there have been a myriad of changes within myself which also translate to how I view my new lifestyle and those around me. I really do now exist on ‘Talkeetna Time’ and I’m more than okay with this concept. I get the important stuff handled in a timely manner but I no longer sweat the small stuff or allow extraneous exterior influences to impact my lifestyle in a major manner. My cell phone is fine for basic communication but I still prefer to talk to people at the Talkeetna Post Office, Cubby’s or the staff and volunteers at KTNA and the Pantry. I do lean heavily on email and Skype because I have some family and many good friends still living in the lower 48 but I find myself shying away from ‘technological’ forms of communication. I’ve found my awareness of all things ‘Nature’ has increased enormously; I do so enjoy charting the local weather, star gazing on cold winter nights and just watching Mother Nature’s abundance unfold around my little piece of serenity on East Barge Drive. I learned the amazing trees that make up the boreal forest do much to mitigate the effects of wind at ground level just as they drive the much higher humidity because of their transpiration. In keeping with the ‘natural side’ I’ve come to really enjoy and value my two canine companions (Anana – my female Alaskan Malamute and Qanuk – my male German Shepherd Dog); when walking with them they almost become extensions of my own senses as I watch them sample air currents for the tiniest traces of nearby wildlife. They love living in Alaska and it was a true pleasure to be able to introduce my Anana to the home of her breed.
‘Talkeetna Time’ has really helped me retreat from the rather harried and unnecessarily complex lifestyle I endured in the lower 48; in so doing its also given me a lot of time to reflect and be introspective. Living surrounded by so much Nature has definitely made me so much more aware of natural processes and has fostered a real need to be more ecologically wise. I so wish Alaska recycled but apparently the economics of doing so have made the practice prohibitively expensive. I am no fan of burning so much but trying to haul all of this to the refuse station would be extremely expensive and in some cases just isn’t possible. At least appliances and electronics are recycled although this requires hauling such items to the Best Buy which is in Anchorage and hence 110 miles south. It’s difficult to live immersed in so much undisturbed forest and not begin to resonate with the natural rhythms of the land. Although I‘ve always been a sky watcher since moving here I am even more observant of both the day and night skies. I’m slowly learning the most unusual weather patterns of my new home; most of my observationally acquired knowledge from the lower 48 is useless up here as meteorology in the higher latitudes is indeed very different. I’m slowly learning about the local fauna; to my surprise there are a myriad of herbs and plants that are edible and some that are downright healthy.
Born and raised in Michigan and living mainly in the Midwest I grew up a ‘flat lander’ with the only area I lived in which exhibited real ‘character’ in terms of ups and downs being SW Ohio. Since moving up here I’m slowly getting used to the idea that very little is flat and the land even in river valleys has no shortage of hills and dales. In addition this area is prone to clouds and precipitation in varying amounts and types. Like folks living in the NW of the lower 48 I’m learning to not allow rain to interfere with my outdoor activities; dressing for wet conditions is important but the mindset that a bit of rain isn’t going to prevent me from walking the dogs is even more vital. The same is even more important in winter; up here having proper winter clothing can be a matter of life and death. I’ve discovered I can handle -20 F air temps in comfort with the proper gear and I suspect I could weather -30 F and lower temps without much discomfort. It’s important I acknowledge that I moved to Alaska to see real cold and snow; for whatever reason I’m built for the cold and know of no one more able to endure cold temps in good cheer. The flip side of this is I abhor warm temps especially combined with high humidity. I will gladly wear shorts with a tee shirt and sandals in air temps right down to freezing but as soon as the air temp crosses the middle 70’s I’m uncomfortable. Combine such air temps with dew points in the upper 60’s and I’m just plain hot and unhappy. So it’s no surprise I enjoy Talkeetna’s winter; I did learn that as soon as the air temp drops below -15 F I need to cover bare skin if there’s even just a 5 mph breeze. My canine companions enjoy the cold as well although Qanuk suffered from paw issues when we’d spend 45 minutes outside in -12 F or colder air temps. He so loves being outdoors he wouldn’t let me know when his paws were hurting; only after coming inside would I see him begin to limp around and whine. Because of this I’ve learned I must regulate his exposure to the snow and ice once air temps drop below 10 F. Anana, on the other hand, loves the cold and is fine outdoors even at -22 F. I was surprised to see her grow long white fur from between her paw pads; it finally dawned on me this was a Mal adaptation to cold exposure and helped insulate the areas between her pads which is where Qanuk suffered his problems. Nature is indeed amazing..! I’m prepared for this winter with booties for Qanuk and even a two pair for Anana just in case.
Without question I’m living a dream with my retirement to rural south central Alaska and there is hardly a day that passes without some aspect of my new home amazing me. Knowing I have so much yet to learn isn’t daunting or a negative but rather a challenge I relish. Without question I’ve discovered a lifestyle that wouldn’t appeal to most folks but suits me just fine. I cannot imagine ever living in the lower 48 again and I surely will never live in any manner but rural. It may have taken me sixty years to finally find my place but I’m okay with this as many folks never do make such a journey. And my one predominate wish is simply that I have many more years to revel in the majesty and freedom of my beloved Alaska.