Alaska: State & State of Mind

The genesis of this piece involved a response to a dear friend’s lamentations concerning his move from Alaska after nineteen years and his burning desire to return to ‘The Last Frontier’ even after spending a year in the lower 48.  After he read it he saw the potential for the response to become the foundation for a blog posting.  After some brief consideration I, too, saw this potential; for his creative eye and his suggestion I cannot thank him enough!  While I’ve written on a number of different topics in the three and a half years I’ve been blogging the basis for this blog was ‘to document the learnings and experiences of one man who lived his entire previous fifty nine and a half years in the suburban lower 48 before picking up his home, saying goodbye to friends and moving to semi-rural south central Alaska.’  Given this foundation a reflection on this amazing lifestyle and why some folks ‘just do it’ seemed very apropos.

Only those whose souls have been scored by the raw majesty and awesome power of Alaska can truly understand the potent pull exerted by the amazing geography and abundance of wild animals. There are a lot of negatives to living in ‘The Great Land’ but once smitten we tend to look at them as ‘inconveniences’; kinda like the price we pay to live in such spectacular and amazing settings so alive with wildlife and so blessed with such an abundance of stunning scenery. Sadly, medical insurance is one such major ‘inconvenience’ and one which has cost me dearly since late March of 2015. I’ve even had times when I tried to imagine living someplace outside Alyeska. It was those times that reaffirmed my need to remain here in ‘The Last Frontier’ mainly because I couldn’t envision living any other place. I should’ve known this would be the case as I have no real wont to be anyplace other than Alaska and I make this statement as I go into the summer which is one of my least favorite seasons – I think I dislike break-up more – thanks to the continual light, the hordes of mosquitoes and similar hordes of tourists.

Alaska is definitely not for everyone and probably not for even a sizeable amount of people for as I’ve told so many people; “Things are just different up here”.  In a nutshell and unless one lives in Anchorage and rarely travels beyond its confines – and what a sin that would be – one must be able to handle many more potentially serious issues than a ‘typical’ person in the lower 48.  The fact that hypothermia is the number one killer in Alaska (not bears, wolves and/or moose as most tourists believe…) speaks to this concept.  A simple hike on a backwoods trail can turn deadly when the weather suddenly shifts from sunshine to cold rain and one has to make the return trek cold and wet on slippery rocks and suddenly voluminous creeks.

During my time in the lower 48 I visited almost all 48 states; rarely did I find places where it is so easy to venture just a few dozen miles outside a large population center and suddenly be ‘in the middle of nowhere’.  In my experience this is true in Maine, northern Michigan, Montana and a number of the states in the southwest.  But even in the aforementioned one can usually get a cell signal.  This is far from true in Alaska thanks to a minimal population which doesn’t support cell tower densities so common in the lower 48 and so many tall mountain chains.  This can be an annoyance to a problem in the summer; it can be deadly in the winter.  Therefore, it takes a different mind-set when traveling outside larger towns.  One must be prepared for all kinds of potential weather related issues (road closures, rapid flooding, high winds, brutal cold and immense snowfalls) as well as those involving a lack of ‘typical’ services like gas stations, towing services, mechanical expertise and similar.

By nature, Alaskans tend to be fiercely independent and more self-sufficient than most of the population in the lower 48.  The latter is almost a requirement as the low population density means goods and services are fewer and much further between.  While western style medicine is fairly good in and around Anchorage or Fairbanks it is much less so in semi-rural to rural areas.  Such locations are lucky if they have a small clinic and such clinics often have only physician’s assistants on staff.  There is a distinct lack of medications beyond the very basics.  As an example when I fell and severely fractured my left radius and ulna at the elbow the local clinic had nothing to give me for the pain, not even Tylenol III!  In addition, they had no splint large enough for my use so they improvised a splint and I drove myself to Mat-Su Regional in south Wasilla (against their wishes).  I was lucky our clinic had a small x-ray machine with which they confirmed my fractures.

I’ve offered up but a few of the differences between life in the lower 48 and that in semi-rural Alaska; there are a myriad more especially if one is living partially or completely off the grid.  Anyone doing so will confirm that such a lifestyle requires a load of energy in tandem with a broad knowledge of many areas – carpentry, plumbing, electrical, outdoor survival, food handling to mention just a few – just to survive, let alone thrive.  To someone with no interest in living in such a ‘basic’ manner those who do so seem ‘extreme’.  While I would not be comfortable in such circumstances – I really want my broadband connection, indoor plumbing and hot water – I can appreciate the lifestyle and would even be willing to try it for a time.  But then I am someone who gave up all the conveniences and ease of suburban living in the lower 48 for a somewhat more austere existence in semi-rural south central Alaska.

During my almost four years of living seven miles south of the village of Talkeetna and a half mile east of ‘The Spur’ I’ve changed in many ways; most of them for the better.  I’ve come to appreciate living on ‘Talkeetna time’, to not sweat the small stuff and to completely embrace the ‘great silence’ which surrounds me most of the year.  My lifestyle has slowed considerably and stress is something which has dropped away as well.  I love drinking a cup of coffee in my wooden rocking chair on my front porch as the sun slowly climbs above the boreal forest on a crisp October morning; watching Nature unfold about my place at any time of the day or night is a treat.  I love the fact that moose, bear and foxes are visitors to my property; I try to live in harmony with them.  I am so much more in touch with Nature because it surrounds me and drives so much of what I can, and cannot, do on any given day.  Deep within my soul I completely understand that Alaska is both a state and a state of mind…

Sure, there are ‘inconveniences’ to this life but then I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a ‘perfect existence’.  As someone bitten by ‘the Alaska bug’ the country is part of my soul now and I so love her fierce independence and incredible majesty.  And I truly respect her for to fail to do so is to invite danger and even death.  Many would consider living over sixty miles from a full service grocery store, questionable electrical service, water from a well and a septic field to be far too ‘basic’; so be it.  I remember working for a large corporation, existing on the road almost ten months a year, living in crowded suburbs of large cities, being concerned about crime and spending days every year in traffic jams; compared to my current existence this seems like a form of corporate sponsored insanity.  No thank you; I love living in ‘The Great Land’ and cannot imagine life anywhere else!

Timbers Bald Eagle

A solitary Bald Eagle surveys the Halibut Cove area in Kachemak Bay State Park & Preserve. This majestic raptor truly symbolizes Alaskan independence and self-sufficiency!

Autumnal Anticipations

It’s a cool, damp and dark day yet again in south central Alaska along with being the Autumnal Equinox; I’m taking a break from working a plethora of spreadsheets to look out the window.  Uncharacteristically, there’s a fair amount of wind even down close to the ground and combined with the cool drizzle – it is 43.8° F/6.6° C – the yellow and gold birch leaves are rapidly falling to the ground denuding their homes of the last four plus months.  Said leaves are forming a yellow carpet which while pretty can be rather slippery when coated with rain.  The second floor view from my office window looks south into a portion of the boreal forest which makes up part of my yard and is often home to moose as there are a number of dwarf willows intermingled with the other ground based fauna.  Sadly, most of the color change is now just a memory as the weather is feeling more and more like fall.  We have seen a morning temperature below freezing just once to this point which probably explains why these conditions seem to be about a week to a week and a half later than I remember.


The view from my office window on the Autumnal Equinox, 2016

Even with the windows closed I can hear the dulcet tones of my wind chimes; it occurs to me I haven’t heard much from them this year but then the thick boreal forest which I live within and stretches for tens of miles in every direction does an excellent job of stopping the wind.  It is not uncommon for me to see the tops of birches and spruce – around 35 to 40 feet (10.7 to 12.2 meters) – swaying many feet off center while there is almost no air moving at ground level and even smoke from the burn barrel rises only slightly off vertical.  The sky continues its multiple day run of ragged overcast birthing drizzle along with the occasional rain shower.  Indeed, we’ve seen 0.96” (2.44 cm) of rain across the last 48 hours.  September is this area’s second wettest month of the year averaging 4.2” (10.67 cm) but this September we’ve already seen 4.78” (12.14 cm) of rain which is 113.8% of normal.  We still have eight days left in September and we’re forecast to see rain across most of them so it is very likely we could well see 150% of ‘typical’ monthly rainfall.

I, along with most of the locals, am wishing for a ‘real’ Alaskan winter across 2016 – 2017.  The previous three winters have set records for the warmest and driest on record.  I long to see 5 feet (1.52 meters) of snow pack and taste the raw cold of a -35° F (-37.2° C) morning; while these might seem extreme in a ‘typical’ winter in south central Alaska they are almost ‘normal’.  Heck, I’d even deal with a daylong electrical outage if it were caused by a snowstorm dropping 20” (50.8 cm) of fluffy Talkeetna snow.  But, as we all know, Mother Nature will do as she will and we’re just along for the ride.

With the advent of autumn I’ve begun my ‘winterization’ routines; this being the fourth such repetition I’m beginning to get the routine down.  If the snow holds off for another seven to eight weeks I hope to get a number of blown down trees cut up, sized and stacked for seasoning.  My buddy, Sarge, will be visiting for a couple of weeks in mid-October and we have a number of large projects scheduled like building a wood shed and creating my long time longed for ‘aurorium’ from which I can view the aurora borealis in comfort.  There a myriad of other smaller projects as well but by the time we’re done I hope to be at a point whereby I’m done with ‘home improvement’ efforts for a while and can instead concentrate on ‘home maintenance’ work.

There’s a comfortable rhythm in this lifestyle; one tied so closely to Nature.  My Chickadees, Red-Breasted Nuthatches and similar are now at the feeders continually and I’d guess 85% of the black oilers they select are going into cracks in tree bark and similar as stored food for the upcoming winter.  They are also much more vocal when the feeders are empty; while the Nuthatches will dive bomb me chattering away I swear if I held out my hand a few of the Chickadees would alight and scold me vociferously.  I was seeing lots of moose a few weeks back but now that hunting season is open they are nowhere to be found.  I suspect the bears will soon begin to head up to higher elevations seeking dens in which to sleep away yet another winter.  And the days are really becoming shorter now; within a week or so I will remove the last of my light barriers in the master bedroom in anticipation of clear evenings enhanced by the aurora.  This flow just seems so natural and peaceful.

Alaska is an amazing place and one which is so closely tied to Nature; I love living up here as do my canine companions Anana and Qanuk.  I so enjoy watching Anana come back into the house after her morning ‘constitutional’ to take care of business when the temp first drops below freezing; she has a spring in her step and a glint in her eyes.  Qanuk just goes with the flow; as long as he gets outside to run once a day he’s happy.  I am blessed to have both of them with me up here and they are a huge part of my life in semi-rural Alaska.  And they continually remind me of the importance of living in the ‘now’; no need to worry about the past or the future – just enjoy ‘now’.

Sadly, I have to get back to my spreadsheeting but I also have a warm and peaceful feeling as I hear my Toyo Monitor furnace grumbling as it comes to life.  It has run just twice last week; prior to that it was late April when it last fired up.  I know I’ll be hearing a lot more of it in the coming weeks and I’ll be supplementing it with some now seasoned firewood in the wood burning stove Sarge and I installed last October.  The wind continues to blow the yellow and gold birch leaves around under a dark, ragged cloud cover.  Mmmm, this I just another wonderful Alaskan day..!


A view of the unmaintained portion of East Barge Drive perhaps 0.6 miles east of my place; I took this image a couple days back when walking ‘the kidz’


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.


Welcome to Semi-Rural Alaska

As I approach my second full year of living in semi-rural south central Alaska I’ve learned so many things but one of the biggest learnings involves the fact that one never knows what a new day will bring in ‘The Great Land’. Life is a lot more ‘real’ for me in this area and as is true in all Alaska Nature is ‘in your face’ where ever you turn so it is tough not to become very much aware of the natural world. As I learned last week wildfires can explode from almost nothing and become a dangerous threat in just hours; but for the grace of God all of us in this area might have been forced to evacuate if the winds had blown from the south instead of the north. We were extremely lucky and this feeds our need to be there for all those displaced by the Sockeye Fire; we certainly would hope to see such support from our neighbors if and when our time comes!

And I learned over this weekend that local situations involving wildlife remain an ever present potential for danger. Living rural in Alaska virtually guarantees one will observe all kinds of wildlife from small but energetic Red Squirrels through the apex predators embodied in the Polar and Brown bears. One just accepts we humans are living in their world and as such we must learn to live by their rules. Indeed, it is the presence of such large mammals like bears, moose, caribou, wolves and similar that give an excitement to our daily lives but also task us with being aware and changing our habits so as to remain safe. I had to relearn how to manage my garbage after moving up here, at least during bear season. One never, ever leaves food or packaging having contained food outside; it is either stored inside until it can be transported to the garbage collection sites or burned. It is just a good idea to rattle the front door handle before walking outside in the darker times because one never knows what might be just outside the door. I’ve seen both grizzlies and moose on my property and seen many signs of their presence both on my land and on the nearby roads. We have become accustomed to understanding we’re just sharing this land with these animals and because they are wild animals unusual and exciting things can occur.

Such was the case last Saturday when I received a phone call around 11:30 ADKT from my neighbor John Strasenburg maybe 0.4 miles east on East Barge Drive (EBD) warning me that maybe another 0.4 miles to the east there had just been an encounter between a grizzly and a cow moose with two calves. Apparently it was quite an altercation with the cow being injured and one of the calves mauled and having difficulty walking. The second calf was apparently okay. The bear did disappear but given the injuries to the cow and especially the calf it’s virtually guaranteed it remains in the area. Grizzlies are very intelligent and opportunistic hunters; if the bear knew it fatally injured either the cow or the calf it might well just hang back and allow Nature to make the kill for it. For now this remains a potentially dangerous situation as many folks in this immediate area have dogs and walk them up and down EBD and Riven Street. After receiving this call I posted a notice for the locals on the ‘Talkeetna Traders’ Facebook site and walked to all my immediate neighbor’s houses informing them of what I’d heard. ‘The Kidz’ were never allowed off my property Saturday or Sunday and when outside I was with them carrying my fully loaded rifled barrel 12 gauge pump shotgun; it has solid shot magnum loads which will take down a grizzly. Mostly I just hope we do not run into the bear or the moose. For all you ‘lower 48er’s’ out there most Alaskans fear moose more than bears as moose kill far more people in Alaska each year than polar bears, grizzlies (i.e. brown bears) and black bears combined. 

As of this Monday I’ve heard no more regarding this incident but then I expected this would be the case.  In all likelihood the bear either wandered just a ways deeper into the boreal forest and waited for Nature to make its kill – bears are very intelligent and opportunistic hunters and they would gladly forgo tangling with an adult moose – given the injuries to the one calf or it did finish off the injured calf and possibly the cow and then dragged the kills further into the forest. Regardless, this is just the rhythm of Nature and something we Alaskans accept and actually enjoy. Without question just another day in rural south central Alaska…