Lingering Light and Life’s Choices

While answering Nature’s call around 02:30 this morning I was surprised and then mesmerized by the site of stars through the bathroom window. It dawned on me that unlike any time in my past I hadn’t seen their presence in the heavens since early May based upon the lengthening daylight. Growing up I remember starry night skies in the lower 48 even when it was warm and muggy outside in late July; such occurrences will now remain memories as there is far too much daylight to observe the stars in June, July and even most of August north of latitude 62 degrees. While I intellectually knew this would happen as is so often the case I never really considered what this might foster within my being.

I’ve always been a sky watcher which explains my life-long interest in meteorology and star gazing. Early on I learned to discern the constellations seasonally native to the night skies of my location and astrophysics continues to fascinate me to this day. As with all things in this reality my choice to relocate to this area had consequences and the lack of night sky viewing opportunities from early May through late August was just one. I also knew I’d give up experiencing my beloved strong to severe thunderstorms but hoped stronger and more frequent winter storms might help ‘balance’ this loss. Given last winter’s dearth of cold and snow the jury is still out on this hope. I also knew that Talkeetna averages 134 days per year of ‘some’ sun which is just 36.7%; hardly the kind of numbers a sky watcher would fancy. This is exacerbated by the fact I’d wager even more evenings and nights are cloudy than 63.3% as I’ve noticed a definite affinity in this area for cloudy evenings and overnights despite the daytime conditions. I suspect this is tied to being surrounded by a boreal forest and being sandwiched between the Talkeetna Mountains to the south and the Alaska Range to the north. Regardless, I have come to realize I will just not see the skies clear as often as I had become accustomed. Long term it will be interesting to see if I learn to just accept this fact or continue to wish for more stars at night.

We are really accelerating towards a more typical day/night composition as we are down to 15 hours and 31 minutes of direct sunlight and losing 5 minutes and 56 seconds every day. This will peak at the Autumnal Equinox and then begin to slow as we approach the Winter Solstice before reversing the light loss and once again beginning to add daylight hours. While living in the lower 48 I was aware of the seasonal shifts in daylight but nothing like I’ve become since retiring to the higher latitudes. As with so much in Alaska these shifts are truly ‘in your face’ and it’s tough not to notice them. I know my own perceptions are exaggerated because of a lifetime spent around north latitude 43 degrees to 44 degrees; adding almost 20 degrees of latitude in a bit over nine days – the time it took to move my household from SE Michigan to Talkeetna – was indeed a large shift. And while I may miss being able to view a clear sky as often as I’d like I love seeing the pronounced ‘tug of war’ regarding daylight as the seasons unfold. This was something I once again ‘knew’ intellectually but didn’t appreciate its effect upon my psyche.

Perhaps because I can spend less time gazing skyward I’ve begun to look more around me but I also know since moving to Alaska my interest in my natural surroundings had dramatically increased. As we move to within a month of the Autumnal Equinox I’ve seen a definite shift in the insect population; the mosquitoes are much less prevalent (a very good thing!) but more gnats, bees and flies have appeared. At this point it appears there are fewer biting insects but the gnats regularly perform kamikaze dives at my eyes which are unnerving and annoying; thank goodness for sunglasses! Once again Nature’s exquisite rhythms are exposed for those willing to observe and remember. There’s been a remarkable uptick in the action at my tiny sunflower seed feeder; the Chickadees, Juncos, Red Bellied Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers are emptying it daily now whereas during the summer months from mid-May through mid-August they usually required two to three days to clear the feeder. I’m sure they ‘feel’ the oncoming fall and winter and are prepping for the seasonal shift. The flora of the boreal forest’s floor are also showing changes as the formerly bright green lichens and mosses are beginning to shift towards a dull green to light brown color and some species are turning an ashen gray. I suspect this is tied to the changes in light and to the fact we’ve seen a few recent morning lows in the upper 30’s. Again, this is Nature’s amazing rhythm being played out against the backdrop of the boreal forest and its inhabitants.

I feel so privileged to be able to immerse myself in these rhythms and to be able to observe them first hand! Previously I only experienced snippets of Mother Nature’s dramatic dance during my few brief weeks of visiting Alaska on vacation; now it surrounds me and permeates all aspects of my existence year ‘round. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. So I guess my choice to relocate remains, to this point, a wise one for though there have been some negative consequences to my decision in the final weighing I still find I’m pleased and very much contented. Maybe it’s the ‘wisdom of age’ or possibly just dumb luck or most likely a combination of both but it sure is great to see the consequences of such a major decision remain so largely positive!

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…