“Walking In A Winter Wonderland…”

I’m seated in front of my system but staring out my second floor office window at the slow but steady snowfall; I’m reminded just how much I adore this area during the winter.  Granted, we hadn’t seen much in the way of the ‘typical’ winter across my first three years but the winter of 2016-2017 did produce some solid snow and cold and this year’s winter has finally come on strong.  We saw pretty seasonable temps across most of the winter but couldn’t buy precipitation across December, January and the first half of February.  That all changed during the last half of February as we received 36.5” of snow which is 31.7% of Talkeetna’s average annual snowfall.  And this latest snow event has produced 4.25” to this point (14:27) with light snow continuing to fall.  Our snow pack is 55.5” and looks to build a bit more before this latest event winds down this afternoon.

This winter has seen the birth of a new tradition; when I arise and see it is snowing I get ‘the kidz’ out first thing, prep their breakfasts, pull on my walking clothes, don my watch cap and headlamp, grab a walking staff and head out with the kidz to enjoy an early AM walk in the snow.  This generally takes place between 05:30 and 07:00 and my walks of late have been between 2.4 and 2.6 miles requiring fifty to fifty five minutes based on the accumulated snow.  I’ve walked in as much as 6.3” of snow – even though it was light and fluffy it was still a lot of work – and as little as 1.0” of new snow.  In so doing I’ve had a chance to enjoy the semi-rural south central Alaskan early mornings with my canine companions.  Even with the headlamp I still trust my dogs to scent out moose before I blunder into one.  With this said they are not infallible so I constantly sweep the beam from my headlamp back and forth along the roadside looking for the tell-tale glimmer of a set of eyes reflecting its light.  As it is winter the only large animal I’m likely to see is a moose so it isn’t necessary to actually see these large mammals; just the glowing eyes alerts me to the need to change our course to avoid the creature.

With all the snow of late the moose are being driven onto the plowed back roads as they are so much easier to walk although the road side berms of snow created by the plows makes it more difficult for moose on the roads to get back into the boreal forest to hide or to forage.  During our walks I regularly see their scat and hoof prints along with the ‘creases’ in the aforementioned snow berms created when these large mammals depart the road.  The kidz are fascinated by the scent the moose leave behind and frequently will attempt to follow the spoor into the boreal forest which is often hilarious as the berms are deep and the dogs will sink into them sometimes almost disappearing in the snow.  To this point I haven’t had to dig either out but I could see this happening at some point.

This morning’s walk was fun in that there was only 1.5” of new snow at 05:25 so the striding was easy.  As we walked I noticed I could tell which dog made which set of tracks.  My ‘little’ angel – Anana – is an eight and a half year old one hundred twelve pound Alaskan malamute struggling with advancing age and arthritis.  Qanuk (Ka-nuk) is an 88 pound six and a half year old male German Shepherd Dog who is still a puppy at heart and lives to run.  When I first exit the front door in my walking garb both dogs are excited and joyful; Qanuk will do his version of a ‘happy dance’ supplemented by sharp, excited barking.  Anana is much statelier but I can tell she is also happy and looking to go.  During our walks I’ve come to observe that Qanuk’s tracks are well defined and are composed of just his paw prints.  Anana’s tracks also show her paw prints but as she is older and lacking mobility her paws do not rise as high during her stride and hence leave ‘drag marks’ in the snow between her paw imprints.  It is also funny to note that once we’re a mile and a half to two miles into our walk I begin to see those same ‘drag marks’ in Qanuk’s strides.  This is an indication he is getting a bit more tired which is important as he needs lots of exercise.  If the snow is much above three inches in depth Anana will only do the first half to three quarters of a mile before returning to the house and collapsing just off the SE corner of the front porch.  By the time we return she is often mostly covered in snow but in her element.  Qanuk always makes the full walk with me and would gladly do more if I was game.

Without question I’m enjoying this wonderful winter weather as are my canine companions.  I relocated to this area because of its history of cold, snowy winters so it is great to finally see them materialize.  Our early AM walks in falling snow is something we all cherish; I just wish my little angel could accompany us the entire distance!  But as someone already seeing the limitations age places upon one’s body I can relate to Anana’s situation and I go out of my way to ‘baby’ her.  With my boy Qanuk, the sky’s the limit regarding vigorous exercise..!

Moderate AM Snow 022218

Wonderful walking weather; my back porch as seen during a recent snow event

March Moose CU

This youngster wasn’t bothered by me and the kidz one whit!

Qanuk Busting A Berm

My boy Qanuk busting a berm!

Qanuk Sinking In Snow

Qanuk almost disappearing into a snow berm

Snowy Office View

The snowy vista outside my office window…

Anana Loving Her Weather

My ‘little’ angel – Anana – in her element. She loves the cold and snow of her breed’s home!


As I find myself just three months short of completing my third year in ‘The Last Frontier’ I cannot help but look back and marvel at all that has transpired across those thirty three months.  Of course I knew there would be many trials and learnings when I set out from SE Michigan for Talkeetna but I also thought I’d pretty much planned for such challenges in the 18 months preceding the actual relocation.  But, as is so often the case, I was surprised by the number and often the complexity of so many of the demands; in addition more than a few were totally unexpected.

Coming from a history of suburban living in the lower 48 – mainly around large cities – I knew I’d have a lot of learning to do regarding semi-rural life in south central Alaska and I haven’t been disappointed.  Some were obvious like getting used to dealing with a well and septic field as versed with ‘city water and sewage’.  But others were not so discernible like trading lawn maintenance for lot conservation involving removing fallen trees and cutting up the wood to eventually serve as firewood.  I knew ‘the kidz’ would love the shift as they now have the immense boreal forest in which to romp and explore as well as a plethora of large mammals to irritate.  This is a far cry from life in suburbia where they had to stretch their legs while tethered to leashes and could really only run in local parks as long as there weren’t too many other people or canines around.

One of the biggest changes, although not unexpected, was the lack of local goods and services.  I knew this would be the case based on my many visits and I had some plans such as the purchase of a small freezer to add to my food storage capabilities.  But even so it has taken some adjusting in order to hold my trips to Wasilla and Palmer to just once every two to three weeks; I rarely make Anchorage more than six or seven times a year and two or more of these trips are to pick up and drop off visiting friends at Ted Stevens International Airport.  Yet I also recognize I have yet to deal with other situations such as basic vehicle maintenance.  There is a local shop which can handle general maintenance and repairs but they cannot replace visiting a dealer every few years.  But doing so will require planning well ahead to get an early morning appointment, get the vehicle in and then probably spend the day awaiting completion of the work.  If it should go beyond a day I’m unsure what I would do.  I could get a motel but the kidz would need someone to feed them and let them out.  I could also make arrangements for the Talkeetna shuttle to pick me up and transport me back home; I’d need them to get me back to the dealership once work is finalized.  This is the cost of living 60+ miles (96.5 km) distant from a dealership.

Learning to live with ever present wildlife has required a true mindset shift as well.  Although rarely seen grizzlies and black bears live in the general area and often pass through; signs of their passage (scat, dug up earth, scratched tree trunks, etc.) are often visible to the careful eye.  One must be very circumspect with household garbage during bear season; I store my filled bags in the mudroom until I can drop them off at the transfer station.  Any boxes, bags or similar which contained food are burned.  Moose are a fact of life in this area and I enjoy seeing them at a distance as I do all the native wildlife.  Being much more common than the bears I see them multiple times a week during the all seasons and often they are in my driveway or the immediate boreal forest.  I’ve learned to jiggle the door knob on dark evenings before I exit the house; this alerts any ‘critters’ to my pending presence.  Even so I’ve surprised a number of moose; thankfully they chose to run away!

So much can happen in Alaska, often in the blink of an eye, and the environment can be very unforgiving if one is not ready and respectful.  I’ve learned to always keep some basic supplies in my vehicle like extra clothing, gloves, matches, candles, rope, a knife, some energy bars and a space blanket.  I vary the load out based upon the season.  I learned the hard way one must be prepared for rough weather; after managing to strand my vehicle at the entrance to my driveway in a driving snowstorm I attempted to push it free wearing just poly-pro glove liners.  Given the air temp was -8° F (-22.2° C) combined with quickly saturating my ‘gloves’ has left me with a right index finger which aches when it gets even somewhat cold and can be horribly painful if it is exposed to really cold air.  Thanks to that experience I never leave the house in winter without being fully outfitted for the conditions!

These are but a few of the physical changes I’ve encountered but I also recognize some deep transformations within my psyche wrought by living in ‘The Great Land’.  I have no doubt some of these are age related but I remain sure all have been influenced by living up here.  While I was always something of a conservationist I’ve really become one since moving up here; Nature is just so ‘in your face’ where ever you turn in Alaska it’s tough not to be in touch with Nature.  I am much more circumspect regarding my outdoor activities and am extremely careful with all garbage and especially toxic waste materials like batteries.  I was ecstatic as were so many locals when recycling began in 2015.  Besides being so much more aware of my impact upon Nature I have developed a huge respect for her and really do try to live more in harmony with her ways.  And I’ve really seen a huge shift in my priorities!  Somehow so much that seemed so important in the lower 48 now just seems superficial.  I gladly take at least an hour each day – sometimes a bit less in the dead of winter – to sit in my rocking chair on my front porch and just watch Nature unfold before my eyes.  Previously I’d have wanted to be reading or listening to music but now I just want to see and hear Mother Nature in all her splendor.  My entire pace of living has slowed and I no longer try to cram all I can into each hour or day.  Very few things I do cannot wait until tomorrow if I feel like taking the kidz for an afternoon of exercise on local trails let alone pack up the Escape and head with Anana and Qanuk to the Denali Highway (AK 8) for a few days of car camping.

So much of this is known to the locals as living on ‘Talkeetna time’.  I’d heard the expression when visiting back in the late 90’s but I never understood what it meant until I moved up here.  Talkeetna time requires one just slow down a bit, take time to observe everything around you and let go of arbitrary goals and deadlines in favor of just enjoying the ‘now’.  I never really understood the importance of this concept although I embraced it from an intellectual perspective thanks to my fascination with studying the Enneagram.  It speaks to the importance of accepting that all we really have is the ‘now’ and we need to spend much more time embracing it as versed with worrying about the past or the future.  This has been a huge paradigm shift for me because I was always a planner and spent most of my time thinking about possible outcomes to my actions and how to deal with them.  Somehow that all seems so alien now…

Indeed, Alaska has engendered many changes across virtually all facets of my existence and I feel so much richer because of these changes.  I can only imagine what the next three years will bring in terms of changes and further growth but rather than plan for them or worry about learning as much as I can I think I’ll just take the few mile trip down the Spur to Mile 5 and contemplate Denali.  Somehow, when marveling at ‘the Tall One’ so much more comes into focus regarding my life…

Cloud Shrouded Denali with Top Just Visible

Denali shrouded in clouds but with both the north and south peaks just visible.


Family Visits ‘n Fun!

Of late you may have noticed a dearth of postings on my site; there is a reason for this and said dearth will continue into early September.  My sister and brother in law – Sal and Gene – are visiting Alaska for the first time.  They began their travels with a flight from Colorado Springs (CO) to Vancouver (BC) where they boarded a cruise which took them up the Inside Passage with stops at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Glacier Bay before reaching Seward where they disembarked and spent a day visiting the sites.  Then they took a bus to Anchorage, spent a day looking around and then boarded the Alaska Railroad and traveled up here. 

Since they arrived the weather cleared up and has been warm and dry; I told them they were welcome any time and that Alaska was smiling on them!  Since arriving they’ve done the ‘Grand Tour’ on a K2 Aviation Beaver which flew them among the peaks and valleys of The Alaska Range as well as landing on a glacier.  We visited the Palmer-Wasilla area via the Hatcher Pass road, toured the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer (neat place and well worth the time), picked up great fish and meat at Mat Valley Meats in Palmer and shopped Fred Meyer before heading back to Talkeetna via the Parks Highway.  I’ve driven them around the area and they spent Saturday morning wandering the village.  Sunday they participated in my music show on KTNA; they gave their impressions of ‘The Great Land’ in general and of Talkeetna in particular in between music.  Both were fascinated by live radio and really got a kick out of seeing their ‘little brother’ make it happen.  They have walked ‘the Kidz’ multiple times each day and Sal is still trying to get a picture of the musher who takes her team up and down East Barge Drive on her ATV.  I’ve seen a bevy of moose but sadly Sal and Gene haven’t been with me but they did see a pair of moose in Hatcher Pass.  I also caught a brief glimpse of a grizzly at Mile 2.8 of the Spur but once again they were not in the Escape.

We finished baking six apple pies Sunday afternoon and gave one to my neighbor (Cathy); the remainder will go to Holly (my dear friend and realtor), the KTNA staff, the ‘ladies of the Talkeetna PO’ and another neighbor leaving one for us.  I still want to introduce them to more folks around town and get in a Mahay’s Jet Boar ride up the Susitna River.  Wednesday we drive to Anchorage to pick up a RV; we’ll return here to load it up and then head north to the Denali Highway.  As pets are not allowed in the rental RV Mark will live here in our absence and handle ‘the Kidz’.  We’ll be in Denali NP&P from Friday through Sunday and then most likely drive into the Kenai and visit Homer and the immediate area.  Then we turn in the RV the next Wednesday and we’ll have another four days here before they depart.

All told it has been a wonderful visit to this point and it there’s no reason to assume it will not continue to be great.  I am hoping they will get to see wildlife on Saturday when we take the bus in the Park to Wonder Lake.  At least they’ve already had a chance to see The Alaska Range in general and Denali, Mt Hunter and Mt Foraker in particular from Talkeetna so even if we don’t see ‘the Mountain’ in the Park it will be okay.  I’m also hoping for more moose views around here and in the Kenai and I remain hopeful they will get to see some grizzlies in the Park as well.

It has been a fantastic visit to this point so here’s hoping for more of the same!  I will be back to blogging on a more regular schedule come early September.  Here’s wishing everyone a great remainder of summer and a colorful upcoming fall..!

Sis Sal fitting glacier boots for walking on the glacier

Sis Sal fitting glacier boots for walking on the glacier

Heading to the Beaver!

Heading to the Beaver!

Hatcher Pass mine and vista!

Hatcher Pass mine and vista!

A cow moose and two yearling calves on the Spur

A cow moose and two yearling calves on the Spur

Data screens at the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, AK

Data screens at the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, AK

Finally…I Be Alaskan!

Some of you may have noticed my ‘public name’ has changed from ‘Newbie Alaskan’ to ‘Forever Alaskan’. Given it has now been two years since I pulled into the driveway of 15158 East Barge Drive with a 26’ U-Haul van in close pursuit I decided it was time. Long time Alaskans have told me that one is not a ‘real’ Alaskan until they’ve weathered two winters. I chose to extrapolate that to living in the state for two consecutive years which will happen as of August 5, 2015. Admittedly, the two winters I’ve experienced were extremely mild and much less worse than a cold winter in SE Michigan but that is not by choice as I’d kill to see a true Alaskan winter. Sadly, with the record El Nino currently in the Pacific I’d bet this coming winter will again be very mild and dry in Alaska. Not much to be done; Mother Nature has her own plans and we are just along for the ride.

Across these two years I’ve seen a lot and learned even more particularly regarding life in semi-rural south central Alaska. So much of the aforementioned learnings deal with not just surviving but thriving in this area; these were magnified for me because this is the first time I’ve lived semi-rural. Without question many of these learnings are pertinent to this area like bear safety, seasonal preparations, dealing with tourists and understanding the local weather and its trends but there is also a lot of information which pertains to just living away from a population center. While I do have electricity and broadband my water comes from my well and my waste water goes to a septic field; both these were new experiences. I love not having to deal with a lawn but I’m also discovering that even the boreal forest on my land needs some attention from time to time. Most goods and services require a 120 mile round trip drive to the Palmer-Wasilla area and, as such, require planning ahead to maximize the time spent in this area.

I’ve developed many interests which were mainly inconsequential when living in suburbia; I love to sit in my rocker on the front porch and just soak in the ‘immense silence’ while watching Nature unfold around me. Wildlife watching is indeed much more dramatic up here because of the presence of moose and bears along with a secretive local wolverine. There are a bevy of birds most of which I’ve had to learn as they are completely different from those I watched and fed in the eastern half of the lower 48. And, yes, I must admit to feeding ‘my’ birds year ‘round which is not supposed to happen – at least during bear season – as it can attract the local bruins. However, I’ve been very careful to clean up and I only use one small feeder. As I’ve never previously lived within earshot of a lake I’m truly enjoying listening to the loons on Question Lake giving voice in the mornings. Sky watching, particularly at night, has always been something I enjoy but up here it becomes a real obsession because of the clear, dark winter nights.

Without question I’ve become much more of an extrovert simply because when one is living rural opportunities for social interaction can be rather limited. And, too, I had to give up my volunteering with memory impaired elders simply because no such facilities exist in this area; the closest are in the Anchorage bowl. But this has led to me expanding my volunteering efforts to the likes of live radio at KTNA and supporting – and finally sitting on the board – of the Upper Susitna Food Pantry. Both opportunities have given me lots to do and allowed me to make new friends and contacts. They have also allowed me to really stretch my ‘comfort zones’ which is never a bad thing! I’ve noticed that as I age it becomes harder and harder to really step outside one’s comfort zone so anything that can serve to make this happen is most welcome.

I suppose if I had to sum up my first two years in this majestic state the concept of a ‘learning adventure’ keeps coming to mind. And if I had to select an image from my rather voluminous collection that best illustrates what I so love about Alaska it would be the following:

Christmas morning 2015 with 'the Kidz'; we're south of the back of my place clearing the new snow from the sat dish

Christmas morning 2015 with ‘the Kidz’; we’re south of the back of my place clearing the new snow from the sat dish

Probability and the Angry Moose

This was bound to eventually happen although I must admit that up until an hour ago I still viewed it as an abstract event; one of those things people think about and reflect upon but somehow never actually expect to see it become reality.  I had a run in with an angry cow moose when solo backpacking in Kachemak Bay State Park in June of 2000 but she was just protecting her spring calf which was hidden in some waist deep grass in a forest clearing.  In this sense her protective reaction was entirely expected and even normal but then what just transpired maybe half a mile from my place also falls into that category.

As it looks like rain I decided to get the ‘kidz’ – as I jokingly refer to my 120 pound female Alaskan Malamute ‘Anana’ and my 86 pound male German Shepherd Dog ‘Qanuk’ – out for some exercise such that I might spare my home of the mud and gravel they track in when wet.  We started off heading east down East Barge Drive towards the Riven cut off; in the past year we’ve walked this road more times than I care to remember.  In typical fashion the dogs were ranging out in front of me by 15 to 75 feet and making many side trips into the boreal forest which surrounds this area.  I had passed John and Ruth’s driveway and was most of the way across the swampy muskeg area to the north of East Barge Drive and starting up the hill when I saw both dogs freeze.  In perfect harmony they raised their noses almost straight up into the air and then swiveled their heads to the west which is boreal forest.  Qanuk was continuing to sniff the air but Anana had dropped her nose and was scanning the forest with real intensity.  She has the best eyesight of any canine I’ve seen and she was definitely employing it at that moment.

Suddenly she shot into the forest like a rocket with Qanuk in pursuit.  I was looking but couldn’t see anything although given it was overcast and rather gray anything under the forest canopy was in deep shadow.  I started fumbling for my Canon SX-260 PowerShot ‘point and shoot’ camera which I often carry with me because it is so very portable and takes great images.  I started extracting it from my jacket pocket when I heard Anana yelp and then a loud conundrum broke out within the forest.  Anana came running from the forest onto the road with a wild look in her eyes and she was heading straight for me.  A few seconds later I saw a large brown cow moose break the cover of the forest and take to the road in hot pursuit of Anana.  Time immediately slowed to that adrenaline enhanced crawl and I can now remember distinctly what transpired over the next maybe 20 seconds which seemed like an eternity.


Qanuk on East Barge Drive

Qanuk on East Barge Drive

My first thought was; “Oh Shit, this isn’t good!” as I saw Anana closing on me with the moose in hot pursuit.  My second thought was; “Damn, I didn’t bring the pepper spray!” and my third thought was; “Time to run…NOW!”.  Thankfully there are lots of sizable spruces and birch trees right along the side of the road and I immediately tried to put one of these between me and the charging moose.  I remembered from my experience in Kachemak Bay State Park that moose are incredibly fast when they want and they appear about the size of a freight train locomotive when they are bearing down on you.  Anana ran to me and the moose followed but Anana only waited by me for a few seconds before she realized I wasn’t going to be much help and headed further into the forest.  The moose snorted as she raced by me but thankfully kept going after Anana.  At this point I saw a brown/gray blur whiz past me and into the forest after the moose; it was Qanuk.  With his appearance I breathed a sigh of relief because he obviously wasn’t injured and he was going to help his buddy Anana.

I heard the sounds of a lot of breaking branches and heavy breathing in the direction the ‘kidz’ and the moose had disappeared; within maybe a minute Anana popped out on the road perhaps 50 feet west of me and Qanuk was right with her.  I briefly saw the moose pop out of the tree line but I think she figured she made her point and she probably rethought the wisdom of messing with two large dogs so she just stopped, gave the dog’s one last look as if to say; “Take That..!” and then reversed direction and headed back into the forest.  To my surprise Anana looked like she was going to follow but I immediately intervened.  I called both of them back to me and checked them over; thankfully no cuts were in evidence and they had all four limbs, both ears and a tail to boot!  I then hustled them the final third of a mile or so to our driveway and put them in the house.

Just the previous week I’d shared a story with a college buddy via e-mail involving the kidz chasing a local moose; in doing so I said I’d confirmed Anana would run back to me if frightened and remarked this would not be good if she’d irritated a grizzly.  In addition I’d mused I should probably start carrying the pepper spray once again as I’d become lax in doing so across the summer.  I hadn’t heeded my own advice and almost ended up paying a nasty price for my negligence.  There’s no need for people just walking or biking around this area to carry pepper spray but because I have two dogs with me and I allow them largely free reign I need to be better prepared.  I knew this yet I allowed my ‘comfort’ with the area to get the better of me.  In true Alaskan fashion I was just reminded that this area is home to many large mammals and because I’m invading their home I’d best be prepared!!

Moose cow in my 'back yard' last October

Moose cow in my ‘back yard’ last October

One Year Livin’ ‘Alaska Style’..!

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.

Alaska’s Common Sense…

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…