Ahhhhh yes, its something I’ve grown intimately acquainted with across these last two months and something which I will have to learn to embrace – rain. I’ve reported 11.62″ of rain to CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain Hail & Snow Network) since I activated this station with the start of my broadband service on August 22nd including the previous 24 hours of rain and it continues to rain steadily in the dim, Friday morning light. To be honest such rain fall is far in excess of what’s ‘normal’ for Talkeetna but regardless this immediate area sees far more rain spread across more of the seasons than I’m used to seeing. In this sense if I am to prosper up here I will need to learn to live ‘with’ the rain. I’m already less inclined to write off outdoor activities ‘just because its raining’; in this sense I guess I’m going to have to learn to live as those in the Pacific North West who do not allow rain to interrupt their daily routines. I’m learning this is far more of a mindset than anything else, at least assuming one has the required apparel and gear. I learned during my trip years (Sept ’96 through Sept ’05) to expect clouds two out of any three days and rain one out of those same three days. Because of this I’m well outfitted for the conditions and so I am capable of largely continuing my routines even as it rains.
The dogs are a bit of an issue because while they will gladly endure the rain to run and play on the dirt roads and in boreal forest they often return wet, grimy and stinky. Here again the Alaskan way of life has an elegant answer – the mud room. My front door leads into such a room which is small, tiled and has a second door opening into a hallway which leads to my kitchen. I can keep the dogs in the mud room until they have a chance to dry themselves; if they are particularly muddy I can assist with the cleaning process via some towels. Its handy this room also holds my stacked washer and dryer; damp and dirty towels go directly into the washer! To be honest Anana and Qanuk really don’t get all that dirty mainly because the soil up here is so very rocky. This entire area was covered in glaciers not all that long ago – at least in geological terms – and as glaciers expand and retreat they grind up stones and boulders and drop the debris. Dust can be quite an issue up here when its dry because of something called ‘glacial flour’ which is the finely ground remnants of said rocks and boulders. Its possible to see this glacial flour in the run-off from glacier fed streams and rivers; it makes drinking from such water sources most unpleasant unless one allows the silt to settle first. If its concentrated enough it will keep fish from inhabiting the waters because it effects their ability to use their gills efficiently. This area would have very poor soil for growing crops because of all the stones which range from the size of a pencil eraser to the size of cantaloupes and larger. However, the preponderance of this rocky soil means it can rain inches for days and yet have relatively dry ground within just a day of sun and no rain. In SE Michigan an inch of rain would have meant muddy, wet dogs for days afterward; up here there’s no such penalty.
My sense is that in becoming ‘Alaskan’ one has little choice but to become much more aware of, and if successful in tune with, Nature. I quickly learned on my many trips that the weather dictates so much of what transpires in ‘The Great Land’; if in doubt witness the gates just south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway (AK 1) which can close off the only road going into the Kenai Peninsula when the avalanche danger is too great along the Turnagain Pass area. Also understand that a majority of Alaska is accessed only via air or sometimes water; surprisingly the best time to travel to many of the bush villages is in the dead of winter when the streams and rivers are frozen and form natural highways. Such areas are almost impassable in the late spring, summer and early fall. As the state has become more technological man has attempted to challenge Nature in many areas with only limited success. The most obvious is the Alyeska Pipeline which opened a route from the North Slope to Valdez on Prince William Sound; this remains as one of the engineering marvels of our time. But the cost of maintaining this pipeline is rapidly growing prohibitive; indeed, when constructed in the middle 70’s it was given a 25 year life span based upon the extreme effects it faces in terms of weather and geological forces. It remains economically viable today only because of the relative scarcity of easily accessible oil. For the most part Alaskans have learned to work with Nature and have developed an understanding that some battles are just better left unfought; bush pilots know this far too well. They often will push the envelope but only in certain areas and even then many will not survive. The native Alaskans understand the need to work with Nature all too well and have developed a legendary stoicism when it comes to their climate and weather. Its some of this same stoicism I’m learning with respect to the environment; work with Nature and abide her many moods but do not challenge her directly unless you are willing to pay her price!
And so I find myself once again listening to the soft rain striking the metal roof on my dwelling; I’ve grown to truly enjoy that sound. At first when I’d awaken in the morning and hear it I would not be happy because it signaled another day trapped in the house. But now I love to lie in bed upon first awakening and really listen to the sound; there’s much I can learn from Performing this simple act. Slow, steady rain most likely means I’ll see rain for a prolonged period that while not heavy will be continual; rain that fluctuates in intensity over just minutes most likely means a heavier rain but for a shorter period and also likely breaks in the precipitation. The former also indicates little to no wind while the latter indicates a stronger and more definite breeze. Yet always it sounds so peaceful and relaxing… Once I can see the sky the clouds speak much regarding the rain as well; the undefined featureless gray sheets of nimbostratus (Ns) mean light to moderate but steady rain probably for a long period of time while the more textured and varied Ns indicate more occasional precipitation with definite variable intensities and will most likely see some changes in the near term. So much to learn and so much to be taught by just watching the sky and listening to the rain!
But its these learnings I seek both out of necessity and based upon a fascination with weather and its part in the natural experience. Herein lies an answer to a question many people have posed to me since I first expressed my desire to live rural in Alaska; “Why would you want to pull up roots and start all over again in someplace so different and far removed from what you’ve lived with all your life?”. I can honestly state that when I ran the numbers in January of 2012 and realized I could make an Alaskan retirement a reality I was initially ecstatic; however, with time the enormity of this proposed life style shift began to really sink in. I had a wonderful situation in terms of lifestyle in SE Michigan; volunteering at Sunrise of Northville had shown me I really enjoyed volunteering and especially loved working with the elderly in general and the memory impaired in particular. I regularly put in 40 to 50 hours a month volunteering and the staff and residents of the facility became my ‘second family’ after Mom passed. I truly looked forward to my volunteering especially as I could bring first Anana and then Anana and Qanuk; how cool was it to be able to bring your dogs with you to ‘work’..?!?!? I forged many deep and tight relationships while volunteering and I knew that most of those wouldn’t survive the pending relocation. Without question this made my choice one of the most difficult I’ve ever faced; in the end I had no choice but to practice something I’d learned while caring for Mom in her final year of life – act completely from the heart. I spent many sleepless nights ruminating over the decision, carefully weighing all the pros and cons, imagining most likely scenarios and then the worst cases; I drew up lists and made diagrams of the pluses and the minuses yet I couldn’t come to a decision. Finally I picked a quiet Sunday morning when I was awake far too early to just practice a bit of yoga to help relax my muscles and then engage in a bit of TM to relax my mind. Once I resurfaced I looked as deeply into myself as I could manage and asked a simple question without any trappings and devoid of any ancillary thinking or feeling; “What do YOU want, Bill?”. Surprisingly the answer came immediately and upon a foundation built of stone and years of dreams and desires; I wanted to live my dream of retiring to Alaska!
This finalized my decision but it also required I now really consider just what such a move would mean in all areas of my life. Thankfully because of my many trips and a fascination for reading about ‘The Last Frontier’ I’d accumulated a good, basic knowledge of Alaska and what it would take to live rural in the state. Once I decided I was going to pursue this dream there was never any question; living in Anchorage or Fairbanks was not an option. I was going to live rural; with this said I also knew in Alaska there are many degrees of ‘rural’ and I also knew I wanted something roughly in the middle of that scale. There are many who live up here year round without electricity, many more have no phones and a lot of these folks shun their fellow man. This was far too extreme for me; I knew I was too social a being to cut myself off from people and I lacked the skills, the desire and the mindset to live without some creature comforts like electricity, a phone and broadband. By the same token I did not want to live in a town or even a typical residential subdivision; I wanted land around me that was mine and neighbors that were no closer than a tenth of a mile and mainly invisible. I also knew roughly where I wanted to live based upon my many previous trips; in the end it came down to Homer on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula or Talkeetna. For a few days I wrestled with the decision but finally I realized I loved the Interior of mainland Alaska and Homer was just too far removed; hence, Talkeetna was my choice. Working with these initial parameters I just happened to luck out in finding Holly from McKinley View Realty; she played a huge role in making this happen for me.
Once I had made the decision and started researching homes I also knew I was in for a huge learning curve; even then I didn’t realize just how large this would be. But understanding this helped me realize I would need to be completely open to everything I heard from Holly and the locals regarding living in this area; to this end I spoke with the owners of ‘The Susitna River Lodge’ at length while staying there in early April on my house hunting trip regarding living in Talkeetna. Thankfully they and their friends they introduced me to were all too happy to share their experiences and knowledge. At this point I couldn’t have been happier; I was in Alaska talking to Alaskans about living in the state while locating my new home!! I truly became a sponge and soaked up everything I heard because at the time I felt it more important to have such knowledge available. At a later time I could sort out what was worthwhile. I feel I’ve been as successful as I have to this point – and I have a long way to go and hence my ultimate success is not assured – because I was willing to put aside any preconceptions and just listen. I’ve incorporated so many of their suggestions and observations into my new lifestyle and often these have been things I would not have thought of on my own or more likely would’ve learned the value of ‘the hard way’.
Okay, for some I’m suspect this might have been somewhat informative but still didn’t really answer the root question I posed earlier. I’d come to a point in my life at which I recognized I’d become ‘comfortably numb’; I had a routine, comfortable existence in which I was stable but not really happy. I did feel very good about my volunteering; it is an awesome experience to know that I made a positive difference in an Alzheimer’s victim’s existence – even if for just a moment quickly to be forgotten – and gave them just a modicum of happiness! If I could find such an opportunity up here I’d drive an hour each way to continue being able to do so; sadly the only assisted living facilities are in the larger cities and most of them do not have sections for the memory impaired. But I had no other real purpose in my life and I was definitely beginning to ‘let go’ of a lot. There was a small part of me, a bit of my core, that hungered for a real change, something undeniable and huge in its scope. I felt I wanted to be challenged by something outside the ‘usual’ stuff like managing my retirement, getting through the day and raising some four legged companions. Relocating to rural Alaska fit these desires to a ‘T’; a huge lifestyle shift with a myriad of new learnings required just to safely exist and the opportunity to live just a few hours from my ‘soul home’ – Denali National Park & Preserve. Given all this how could I not jump at the chance to live this dream..???
So it is I find myself looking once again out my office window at the now bare birch and aspen dotting my 2.43 acres of boreal forest at Mile 7.1 of the Spur; the rain continues its quiet, peaceful tap, tap, tapping on the roof. The featureless overcast prophesies a rainy day and the 36.4 F air temp councils gloves and sweat pants when I take the dogs out for a walk. I suppose I’d prefer a sunny day but I can not only deal with the rain I now enjoy it; its become an old friend whispering of the incredible cycle of life that’s so predominate up here. Without it there would be no boreal forest and without that this wouldn’t be south central Alaska. And that would truly be a shame…