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!

Suggestions of Spring

The sun is not yet above the horizon at 07:51 AKDT on the Vernal Equinox – which arrived in this area at 02:29 this morning – but it is light enough to see the surrounding space which remains cloaked in a 22.0 inch (55.9 cm) snow pack although the incessant winds across March have cleared virtually all the snow from the trees.  Our maximum snow pack was 35.5 inches (90.2 cm) back in middle February but within a week or so of that time all precipitation ceased.  This dry spell, coupled with almost Chinook style winds and the longer, sunny days definitely did a number on the slowly compacting snow pack.  Yesterday we flirted with 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies but at least the winds of March seemed to have weakened to just gentle (8-12 mph or 13-19 kph) breezes.  This morning the air is calm for the first time in over two weeks.

As I stare out my second floor office window I can just recognize some suggestions that spring is not far away even here at sixty two degrees north latitude.  The exhaust from my Toyo stove, which drifts almost directly across my office window when the air is calm, is much less dense and is occurring less frequently than a few weeks earlier.  While we are seeing a -2.2° F (-19° C) air temp I’m also expecting to see an afternoon high around 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies.  The boughs of the spruce trees are beginning to ‘perk up’ a bit after bearing heavy amounts of snow from late December through middle February.  And our direct daylight is now up to 12 hours 17 minutes and increasing daily by 6 minutes 1 second!  These longer days are beginning to slowly melt the snow pack even if the air temps remain well below freezing.  Indeed, when working towards my goal of 10,000 steps/day – I’m currently around 7,800 steps/day – I have started taking a collapsible walking staff with me as the icy hard packed snow coverage on the back roads is becoming slippery especially when just a thin layer of water appears atop it.  This lack of traction is emphasized as I watch my male German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk) perform multiple slips and slides along with a few face plants as he revels in our daily walks.  Anana, my female Alaskan Malamute, is more restrained and hence remains upright most of the time.  There is something to be said for the wisdom of age!

I finally was able to experience a ‘real’ south central Alaskan winter after three previous ‘winters that weren’t’.  I did feel the bite of -40° F (-40° C) air temps, wind chills another ten to fifteen degrees below those temps and an almost three foot snow pack that remained for at least two and a half weeks.  I was treated to intense and vibrant auroral displays across much of the late fall when clear skies coincided with the Aurora Borealis.  Having completed my fourth consecutive winter in Alaska I think I can finally claim to be a veteran of ‘The Great Land’ and its kaleidoscope of weather conditions.  But maybe most surprising to me is I’m actually ready for the seasonal change.  During the three previous Vernal Equinoxes I was lamenting the end of winter and not enthusiastic about the oncoming spring with its insects and tourists.  But now I find myself awaiting the warmer weather even if it brings mosquitoes and the inevitable tourist traffic and congestion.  Perhaps I’m finally becoming sanguine with the aforementioned as well as the knowledge that within five to six weeks there will be no dark night skies again until early September?

Before long I’ll be indulging in what has become a ritual involving preparing for spring and summer.  I’ll be swapping tools and equipment between the mud room/front porch and the shed.  The generator will be drained of fuel which will go into the Escape’s gas tank.  The battery conditioner/recharger will be stowed in the shed and I will be getting the ‘Mosquito Magnet’ ready for operation.  I’ll be smearing some ‘bat attractant’ on the entrance to the bat house which my buddy Sarge hung last October; hopefully I’ll attract some Little Brown bats and convince them to set up house and help control the mosquito hordes.  In this same vein I’ll be relocating my tree swallow houses for the third time in the hopes I can attract some nesting pairs to add to my attempts at natural mosquito control.  So many of these actions are now ‘old friends’ and form a kind of seasonal dance or celebration.  For the first time since I relocated I’ll be doing them with joy and the knowledge that regardless of what the upcoming six months may hold for me winter will again return and I will have the opportunity to experience yet another spring, summer and fall in ‘The Great Land’.

Muskeg Under Clouds

The last of the ice on muskeg a bit east of my place on East Barge Drive is disappearing in the image from spring of 2015

What’s That Up In The Sky..?!?

Just an hour back I noticed something strange; the windows were actually appearing ‘bright’ and when I peeked outside I could see shadows!  A look upward gave me the reason; the sun was actually visible!!  I was quite pleased to see it once again and for me that’s unusual as I favor cloudy, cool weather.  But this has been a very wet August to this point in semi-rural south central Alaska.  This is Monday, August 15th and it has rained every day this month accumulating 4.18” as of 07:00 this morning.  While August is our wettest month the average monthly rainfall is 4.5” which means we’re already at 92.9% of said monthly average yet we are just 48.4% of the way into the month.

 Here are some signs of a wet August and the coming fall:

Leaves Floating on 'Shrooms

Some already yellow birch leaves floating atop a couple of dying mushrooms

 

Typical 'Shroom with Non-typical Shadow

Typical ‘shroom for this area with a non-typical shadow!

Female Spruce Grouse on EBD

Female Spruce Grouse on Easy Barge Drive; when they begin to appear you know summer is winding down

Early Signs of Fall

Not sure what the plants are but when the leaves begin to turn brilliant red fall is not too far distant

Very Wet Boreal Forest

Very wet boreal forest; the shimmering effect on the plants is due to being coated with rain drops

A Soggy Summer Solstice…

On Saturday, June 21st at 02:51 AKDT we arrived at the Summer Solstice; in the following image I fought off the mosquitoes to get a picture of my place just a couple hours after that time which I figured was close enough!  The view is looking west from my driveway and includes my Alaskan Malamute (Anana) who makes a living always being in the way; I found it interesting to note the bright sections of the lower western sky seen through the boreal forest (just above the Escape) that surrounds this area.  It almost appears as though the sun had just set but in reality it was already 40 minutes past sunrise!!  For those interested Talkeetna experienced a sunrise on Friday, June 20th at 04:05 AKDT and saw the sun set at 00:00 AKDT on June 21st for a total of 19 hours 55 minutes of direct sunlight.  This will continue for the next four days before the daylight slowly starts to diminish as we advance towards the Autumnal Equinox.  With the passing of this annual event I’ve now seen all the equinoxes and solstices in my new home; a kind of milestone for my Alaskan existence.

Image

Talkeetna just loves the Summer Solstice and there were many small celebrations of the event; a number of locals indulged in playing softball without any lights – they weren’t needed – well past midnight.  Most of the local facilities had some kind of celebration with live music being a favorite.  I’m sure more than a few drank to excess but then given how light it was it would’ve been easy to walk home or even hitch-hike on the Spur as folks were still driving around at that time.  Up here hitchhiking is a safe means of travel and I regularly pick up locals on the Spur as well as the occasional tourist or visitor.  I didn’t hear of any issues which was good but not unexpected.  During my Friday evening newscast I did read a warning regarding a grizzly which had just killed a moose calf at the northern tip of Christiansen Lake between the water and Christiansen Lake Road.  This lake is just to the east of the Talkeetna Airport which is located in ‘downtown’ Talkeetna.  The grizzly was expected to remain in the area for a while so locals were being warned to give the area a wide berth; I also used the announcement to remind folks that its once again time to be ‘bear aware’.  Across the next five months I’m sure KTNA will broadcast some similar warnings as well as information on specific verified sightings of local grizzlies.  At the ‘KTNA Volunteer Appreciation Picnic’ on Thursday, June 12th I spoke to a volunteer who was riding her recumbent into town for her music show when a young grizzly boar popped out of the weeds right at the railroad crossing on the south edge of town; she said it thankfully just looked at her and strolled off south on the tracks.  Large wildlife is a way of life in this area and so no one gets too excited about such situations unless there’s aggressive activity tied to the sightings.

Anyway, because I was up early I did get the dogs out for a 35 minute walk; thankfully I applied my ‘Deep Woods Off’ before heading out as even with this repellant there was a cloud of mosquitoes buzzing around me and they followed me the entire time.  While I do find the hoards of tourists a bit irritating they cannot hold a candle to the hoards of blood thirsty mosquitoes; even the dogs get fed up with being buzzed by them and will snap at them when they fly close enough.  In general they are immune to the flying ‘vampires’ thanks to their thick coats although the insides of their ears and their bellies do get bitten infrequently.  I was pleased we did get in the early walk as the overcast thickened and by 08:00 it began to rain; just drizzle at first but it soon strengthened into a steady albeit light shower which lasted all day.  We need the moisture so I was happy when I could report a 24 hour rain total of 0.49″ to CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow reporting network) in my 07:00 daily report this morning.  With the rain and a temp hovering in the upper 40’s this was a bit cool for a Summer Solstice but not too bad.  Interestingly it was a far cry from Friday afternoon’s weather which was blazing sunshine with a peak air temps of 73.1 F which is easily five degrees above normal.

I’m slowly learning to exist up here in the warmer months but without question I prefer the winter to what I’ve seen thus far during this fledgling summer.  I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the continual light; it never even gets ‘dark’ from early May through early August; the best we see in terms of ‘darkness’ is what’s termed ‘civil twilight’.  Since late-May its been possible to read a book outdoors at 02:00 without any additional light.  When I’ve had some trouble sleeping I’ve taken the dogs for walks around this time without issue although since the bears have become more common I’m no longer doing this because they are more active during times we humans tend to be absent and 02:00 is definitely such a time.  Thus far my single small sunflower seed feeder has remained untouched by anything larger than a Red Squirrel along with the Chickadees, Nuthatches, Juncos and woodpeckers its set up to feed.  Even so I always look out the front door window before I exit onto the porch as its possible it could attract a bear.  Alaska Fish & Game recommends not putting out bird feeders and water sources during bear season so I am flying in the face of that wisdom but I also want to encourage the birds to hang around so I’m just going to give it a go for now.  If I get any sense it’s attracting bears let alone see any evidence of bruin activity it will be immediately taken down.  I have to be very circumspect regarding my burning; anything with a possible food odor has to be stored inside the house until I can immediately get it to the burn barrel and thoroughly incinerated.  I’ve been told every year someone loses sight of this necessity and ends up with a frightening bear encounter.  I think we all get a bit lax from November through early May when the bears are hibernating.  I did get my front porch netted in but I’m not satisfied with the fragile nature of the netting especially with two large dogs so come fall I’m going to purchase rolls of actual screening which is much more robust and redo the job.  I was hoping to get by with the cheaper and lighter weight stuff but that just isn’t cutting it.  Getting the dogs inside without bringing in mosquitoes is something I still haven’t mastered.  I do force them to remain briefly in the mud room; often any ‘tag-alongs’ will fly off their fur and I can then swat them or use the concentrated pyrethrin spray to knock them out.  Leaving just one lousy mosquito alive in the house will make for a bad time at night; I’ve learned its much wiser to take them out ASAP.

Without question I learn something new almost every day regarding living in rural south central Alaska; providing I live for another few decades I might actually get to the point where I’m fairly well experienced in such a lifestyle.  I do know for sure this majestic land will never stop surprising or amazing me; Alaska truly is ‘The Great Land’ just as the Athabascan people named her…’Alyeska’!