Recently while assisting with the cataloging of donated food stuffs I was espousing how my Alaskan relocation had taught me a myriad of lessons and was continuing to do so. I speculated that I’d be learning lessons regarding living in rural south central Alaska for the remainder of my life because the lifestyle is so different in so many ways from the urban lower 48 existence I embraced for the first 59 years of my life. At this point I was asked what was the most important lesson I’d learned to date. This immediately caused me to pause and reflect – maybe that was the reason I was asked such a question in the first place – for a minute or so as I reviewed all the key learnings to date. I wanted to give an honest and accurate answer as versed with the first thought in my head so I needed a bit of time. I finally answered it was the value of being prepared. This is a definite nod to the Boy Scouts although I never was a member but only since moving to rural Talkeetna has the value of being prepared really become clear.
There are so many levels of said preparedness; it can be as minor as hanging my small and light weight broom just outside the front door when the snow arrives so I can brush off boots, legs and dog bellies before entering the mud room. Or it can be as major – and potentially lifesaving – as insuring there are a minimum of 10 gallons of fresh gasoline in containers next to the generator on my front porch come winter. And there so many additional ‘flavors’ of being prepared when living up here. Regarding said generator; I was very lucky my buddy recommended I have a can of ether starter spray handy because one cold (-18 F) early morning when the power had been off for five hours and was still down the generator was refusing to start. Only after spraying the starter fluid into the air intake could I get it to catch and fire up. Some lessons regarding preparedness were taught by dealing with not being so; I have a storage shed maybe 15 feet from the house which contains a raft of tools and implements. The shed sits on stout and sizable logs which puts the base of the door maybe 18 inches off the ground. However, this winter I saw enough snow – and it was a very mild winter in terms of snow fall and temps – that I couldn’t get into the shed without extensive snow shoveling. This wouldn’t have been a big deal except I’d left the battery charger and the long extension cord for powering the Escape’s battery blanket within the shed. Given the grief I went through to get into the shed when there was 28 inches of snow pack you best bet I won’t make that error come this winter! I learned that one had best have a reasonable shovel of some type within one’s vehicle cause ya can never tell when you’ll get stuck in a manner that five minutes of shoveling will free you but if ya have no shovel you are outta luck; and, yes, I learned this lesson the hard way as well. I was smart enough to insure I have at least two weeks worth of food on-hand come winter; thankfully this past winter I never needed to dig into the ongoing balance but after seeing some aspects of this ‘mild’ winter I can see why two weeks is the minimum I would recommend.
It’s very common for Alaskan houses to be built atop crawl spaces to allow for moisture reduction but still give the house the ability to ‘float’ a bit in earthquakes. Because of the potential for extreme winter cold it’s also common to have small heating units included in the crawl space to warm winter air just enough to keep pipes from freezing when the air temp drops below -15 F for extended periods of time. In my place running said heater requires I manually switch it on and off at the main floor breaker box. While I was good about turning it on I was not so great at turning it off; allowing it to run across most of January when it was so unseasonably warm doubled my monthly electric bill. You bet I’m going to be wiring in a functioning temp switch this summer which will toggle the heater around an air temp of -15 F! In the depths of the winter I learned the value of having multiple candles staged around both floors along with butane lighters readily available. When the sun doesn’t rise until 09:30 and sets around 17:00 there are long periods of darkness. If one awakens to such darkness and no electricity its the wrong time to be stumbling around trying to find one’s way down stairs and to the outer wear so the generator can be started and engaged. Flashlights are an option but it always seems as though the batteries will die when most needed. A lighter and a few strategically placed candles can be toe and knee savers on such dark and cold mornings. Before this coming winter I will be rigging a few sections of LEDs that are wired right into a tape backing and can be powered by a twelve volt battery. A few of these in the stairwell and in a couple of the hallways use little energy but would provide safe lighting in the dark if the power fails.
Seasonally based preparedness is also very important. Thankfully I did not learn the hard way regarding parking one’s vehicle in such a location as to be clear of the falling built up snow and ice which is going to drop from one’s roof. When there’s two feet of snow mixed with ice breaking free in large chunks I can tell you the house shakes when one let’s go and answers gravity’s call. I would not want to see what it would do to any vehicle in its path. I learned this spring that as soon as there’s substantial sunlight – I’d say by early April – the mosquitoes will begin to appear even with a foot of snow on the ground so its important to have exterior barriers like netting for the porch ready to be mounted. In SE Michigan seeing mosquitoes when snow was on the ground was non sequitur; up here that’s the way it is… It’s important to recognize the natural rhythms of the wildlife around us and that’s especially true for the larger mammals. Bears are around from late April through early November; during that time it’s very important to remain ‘bear aware’. Trash has to be burned or immediately disposed of if it smells of food; leaving it lying around, even within a shed or similar, will attract bears. Trust me, no one up here wants to encourage any type of bruin to hang around their homes! Moose are here year ’round in large numbers; I’ve seen moose in my yard every season to this point. They were almost ubiquitous from mid-March into early April; then they largely disappeared. Only now are they starting to re-appear and many cows have spring calves in tow; this is also true of many of the bear sows with their spring cubs. I’m not sure which combination is more dangerous but rest assured as a mere human you do not want to surprise either one or even give the adults the inkling you could be a potential predator.
Something which never did occur to me until a friend mentioned it a few months back – more proof I still think like a lower 48er – is the wisdom of keeping cash in one’s dwelling. While this is rural Alaska we have the same debit card fanaticism up here and people regularly withdraw money from the only local banking service’s – Matanuska Valley Federal Credit Union – ATMs. But what would happen if a major earthquake or wild fire seriously damaged our electrical infrastructure? If our broadband connections alone were cut any kind of plastic could not be used because it could not be verified as valid; in addition the ATMs would no longer function. In the event of a fairly substantial quake we could be without such services for a week or more. If one needed to purchase gasoline or food about the only way to make such transactions is via currency. Therefore the wisdom of keeping $400 to $600 of cash available in one’s dwelling becomes not just prudent but a darn good idea. Whilst this might seem like an invite to burglars all of us have firearms of varying natures and numbers up here and most everyone is proficient in their use.
I could go on and on but this distills down not just key learnings regarding rural south central Alaskan life but also the value of being prepared. What so many lower 48er’s fail to recognize is that things are different in Alaska; this is part of the state’s draw. While we have cell service along most of the Parks Highway (AK 3 – runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks) if you get even a few miles off the main road you can be cut off from such communication. In addition once you leave one of the four or five ‘metropolitan’ areas you need to be fairly self-sufficient as state troopers often have to cover patrol areas that encompass hundreds of square miles. Local responders can be hours or even days away depending upon one’s location. And perhaps the most telling fact I can offer up as to the importance of being prepared in Alaska is to relate the number one killer of humans every year in the state is hypothermia. Reflect upon this fact as you consider wading that braided river in the back country; or better yet, reflect upon this fact long before you consider such a move…
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..!