Spring Has Sprung…With A Vengeance!

Since mid-winter our somewhat unusual weather in south central Alaska has continued with what was a somewhat late arrival of spring and break up followed by an ‘explosion’ of spring-like conditions.  It was almost as though spring was trying to ‘catch up’ after her somewhat slow start.  I was still seeing snow piles in shaded areas come early June which were remnants from the very heavy snows of mid-February into early March.  These same snows left a measurable snow pack well into May.  In years past by the end of April there might be snow piles remaining but an actual snow pack was generally just a memory.  Not so this year…

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to notice the slow start to spring conditions; I didn’t see my first robin until the week of May 13th.  In previous years one could always hear the robin’s arrivals in middle to later April.  And in keeping with these observations of our avian friends I didn’t see my pair of nesting Tree Swallows return until early June.  Last year I’d seen the swallow box occupied by middle May.  I was thrilled to see a second nesting pair of these gorgeous mosquito eaters take up residence in another swallow box at the front of my house.  I’m hoping to see both pairs return annually to raise broods and devour the local mosquitoes.

Speaking of which it seemed to me the mosquito season was also slow in getting started although in the last week or so it has come on…in spades!  The only mosquitoes I saw through almost all of April and May were the large, slow and noisy ‘over winter’ mosquitoes that managed to survive the ‘frigid season’.  Normally, I begin to battle the new generation of smaller, faster and much quieter bloodsuckers by the middle of May.  But this year I didn’t really see many until early June.  As of this writing it appears the late spring/early summer of 2018 is going to be a banner year for the lousy little bloodsuckers.  And this is happening despite some very dry conditions to this point in June.

One indicator of spring which wasn’t at all slow in developing was the arrival of the tourists.  When I first relocated up here in August of 2013 the tourist season was running from late May through early September.  Last year there were still huge tour buses disgorging swarms of tourists in the village right through middle to late September.  This spring I started seeing the tour buses crowding the Spur in early May and by Memorial Day the village was being inundated by apparently endless crowds.  Of the many facets of the transition from spring to summer in the Talkeetna area my least favorites are the arrival of the tourists followed closely, in terms of dislike, by the rise in the mosquito density.  Both signal the onset of summer which, for me, produces true ambivalence.  While I do enjoy the seasonal shift and with the warmer temps I can get out and do more, at least until the peak mosquito periods, I am no fan of tourists or mosquitoes.  And although I am slowly getting used to the almost continuous daylight I already miss the dark night sky.  But these are all facets of life at higher latitudes and if one is to live as such one must come to terms with these conditions.

I remain hopeful the mosquito season will peak within a week and by late July the little bloodsuckers will be present in much smaller numbers; they’re around this area until the first few hard freezes which normally occur in middle to late September.  The tourists are…well, the tourists and as long as the village is okay with encouraging ever-increasing numbers I suppose I’ll just have to deal with the situation.  I’ve already slipped into the now familiar ‘avoid the village at all costs’ mode and make just two trips a week into Talkeetna to pick up mail.  The salt on this wound comes with the inevitable road construction; after not seeing much work on the Parks Highway (AK 3) last year it sure appears as if the state is trying to make up for lost time!  Currently the Parks is under construction from Mile 99 – where the Spur intersects with the Parks (aka ‘the Y’) – all the way south to Mile 89.  Within this work zone are two portions which require the use of ‘pilot cars’.  This really slows traffic progress and has forced me to make any trips south during the early morning hours on Sundays when the construction is not operating and tourist traffic is light.  The Parks needed work so I really cannot complain but I sure hope the work doesn’t take all summer!

And so the seasonal dance continues here in semi-rural south central Alaska.  I’ll miss my dark night skies, cooler temps and ‘immense silence’ while welcoming more sunshine and better conditions for outdoor activities.  As with all things in life it’s a ‘yin yang’ situation; the best advice I can give myself is simply to accept all that it is and look for the positives!

It’s That Time Of Year…

Warm and dry weather has settled over south central Alaska promising the return of mosquitoes and tourists.  Late last week I killed the first mosquito of the season; it was one of the big, slow and noisy ‘over-winter’ variety but its appearance heralds the first batch of this season’s blood suckers which will be small, quiet and very hungry.  I’ve refilled the propane tank and will most likely setup the ‘Mosquito Magnet’ once the snow disappears.  For the time being it is providing me the fuel to grill on the front porch.  The kidz are reveling in getting out for daily walks with me; previously the roads were too icy and snow covered to safely walk.  I love being able to do at least half my daily 12k+ steps outside in the sunshine and fresh air!  Without question, we are into the winter to spring changeover.

Break up is my least favorite season up here as is true for many Alaskans mainly because water and the associated mud seems to be everywhere!  In this area our mud is composed mainly of gray/brown glacial silt which is extremely fine grained; it clings to the coats of my canine companions until it dries – normally, inside the house – and falls off.  I can tell their favorite resting areas by the accumulation of the floury, gray silt; while it cleans up easily there seems no end to the stuff during this season.  Not all that long ago this area was buried beneath glaciers which slowly retreated towards the Alaska Range to the north and the Talkeetna Mountains to the east grinding up rock as they moved; this explains the abundance of the material.  This glacial flour is also responsible for the clouds of dust lifted by vehicles driving on the unpaved roads; if it is windless this dust can hang in the air for minutes confirming its fine nature.  This also explains why auto manufacturers consider this to be an ‘extreme’ area in terms of vehicle wear and tear; coupled with the snow and cold the dust makes it really hard on mechanical objects.

As the spring intensifies so does the solar radiation; this, in turn, begins to heat the interior of the house with time.  Already it is unusual to awaken to an air temp in the master bedroom below 62.0° F (16.7° C); just a month back I would often arise to a brisk 58.0° F (14.4° C) or cooler.  The slow rise of the internal ambient air temperature is something I encourage in early spring but by late spring I’m already using fans to draw in the cooler early morning air, despite the high humidity, such that the afternoon temps on the second floor aren’t getting too warm.  Almost all my screens are back in place and I’ve even put up some light blocking shields in the master bedroom windows as it is remaining light until 22:45 and we will not see ‘Astronomical Twilight’ again until August 10th.  I would like to learn to sleep with the sun streaming in the windows but to this point I’ve not yet been able to make this happen.  Maybe with the passage of a few more summers..?

This will be the first year I’ll be added routines involving my 2017 R-pod travel trailer; I hauled it back here in September of 2017.  The winterization process was very straightforward and fairly simple; I expect the efforts required to get it ready for use this spring through fall will be equally easy.  With a bit of luck I’ll be able to load up the trailer, pack the kidz in the back seat of the Escape and do some camping in the Kenai Peninsula late April to early May.  With luck this should allow me to avoid the first of the real tourist crush but there’s still a lot of snow in portions of the Kenai so I’ll have to wait and see.  If I cannot get down into that area this spring I will do so come fall.  After all, I didn’t go through the epic journey of hauling the unit from central Montana to Talkeetna just to let it sit!

The moose which were almost ubiquitous just a few weeks back have largely disappeared.  I suspect this is a combination of a much decreased snow pack and the cows heading into the forest to birth spring calves.  This winter was hard on the local moose population as I’ve seen more reports of moose carcasses since February than during any other similar time frame since relocating up here.  There are the remains of a bull just about a half mile east of my place; a neighbor told me of the carcass last week.  It is common to share such knowledge amongst the locals as such situations can and do draw bears as they come out of hibernation.  Learning of the bull’s remains will cause me to alter my early morning walks with the kidz for the next few months; we’ll be walking primarily to the west.  Once the local scavengers have had time to degrade the remains it will again be fine to walk that area with the dogs.

And so the seasonal cycle is once again on display in ‘The Great Land’.  As with all things in life there are positive and negative aspects to this dance but in the long run I still enjoy the season’s shift and am looking forward to leaves again populating the branches of the birch trees and warm summer breezes.  Of course, there will always be the mosquitoes and tourists but that’s all part of life in magnificent south central Alaska… 

Almost Clear Back Roads

A look to the north on Riven showing mainly bare earth with the ubiquitous puddles.

Water Bound EBD

Qanuk contemplates a section of East Barge Drive inundated by snow melt; he is less sure on ice than Anana (my Alaskan malamute)

 

Little Village, Big Decision

As a relative newbie to life in Alaska I’ve tried to keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut across the last three years with some success.  I still embrace this concept and attempt to keep it foremost in my mind as I continue to experience life in semi-rural south central Alaska.  But sometimes there are issues or situations which just beg for some analysis; recognizing such instances often leaves me wondering if I should input my ‘two cents’.  Such a situation formed the foundation for this piece.  My interest was piqued when my on-line news source summation presented me with the following story:

http://www.adn.com/alaska-news/mat-su/2016/08/20/beset-by-summer-crowds-talkeetna-looks-to-clear-tourist-congestion/

I was impressed to find someone from Anchorage even bothered to report on the tourist situation; normally their interests stop at Wasilla sixty plus miles to the south.  This article took, in my opinion, a fair and equitable look at the growing problems with tourism in Talkeetna.  And, for the most part, laid the blame for the situation right where I feel it belongs; upon the local population.

Anyone following this blog knows I’ve complained about the increasing numbers of tourists since I moved up here although I’ve also recognized the positive impact their dollars have on the village.  But this article brought up some impressive numbers which I feel are at the foundation of the situation.  If it is true that 300,000 tourists come through Talkeetna every year – to be accurate it’s not a full year but rather the five months from May through September – then this number is astounding especially given the number of year round residents in the Talkeetna area is 750!  That number of annual tourists is the equivalent to 40% of Alaska’s total population and figures down to 60,000 tourists a month or 15,000 per week!!  Is it any wonder the village is overwhelmed each summer by the masses of people wandering around its few blocks?

 I was particularly interested in the many potential resolutions for our tourism issues.  Incorporation will almost assuredly bring in more politics and will just as assuredly mean an increase in money we locals will have to shell out.  However, as the story highlighted, the village is getting desperate.  I’d prefer to see we work to get some very loud and prominent representation on the Mat-Su Borough’s Assembly.  Right now if you visit their website everything is about Wasilla and Palmer; I saw nothing about Talkeetna.  And that’s the real issue as noted in the article; Talkeetna has very little presence in the Borough’s collective consciousness.  There are state and federal funding’s available for a lot of the work we need done but the borough assembly often designates such monies for ‘lower valley’ projects.  This drives the thinking we should support a ‘Susitna Borough’.  This does make some sense as the Mat-Su Borough, while relatively small in area by Alaskan standards, does encompass 101,095 people which is a bit less than 14% of the state’s population.  If you figure Talkeetna has 750 year round people then we are just 0.74% of the population of the Mat-Su Borough; this highlights the fact virtually all of the population of this borough is in the Palmer-Wasilla area.  Given this it’s no surprise most of the attention and money goes to that immediate area.  But incorporation would most likely mean Talkeetna would lose even more of its ‘funky small town’ feel and without question politics would really take hold as we’d need a mayor, assembly and additional political manpower.  My question is would any benefits we’d see from incorporation over-ride the loss of our ‘unincorporated, small village feel’ and the inevitable increase in taxes and similar?  My answer at this point is a solid; “NO!”.  However, we cannot afford to just continue ‘as is’; part of the unwillingness to face these challenges in the past is what has caused us to be in this position in the first place.  And everyone living here knows darn well the tourist issues have only been growing since the mid to late 1990’s; that’s 20 years ago.

Here is another very divisive question; does everyone share in the tourist money?  I’d say without question the people living within the actual village do see some benefit; only they can tell you if those benefits outweigh the grief.  I would guess very few folks living outside the village proper feel we are getting much, if any, benefits from those tourism dollars.  There are a number of prominent business owners in this area and most do not want to see tourism decrease although many would also acknowledge something has to be done regarding the current situation.  But painting crosswalks and even adding some sidewalks will not resolve the real issues.  Talkeetna residents, and probably those in its immediate surroundings, have to decide if they favor returning to a quiet, historical village or want to go with continued expansion through increased tourism.  I, obviously, favor the former but I also know from sitting on the Upper Susitna Food Pantry (USFP) board if we went that direction our support numbers will sky-rocket as there just are not a lot of job opportunities in the Talkeetna area but there are a lot of folks too poor to even move out of this area.  Every lost job means at minimum another person on welfare and often means an entire family has to go on the dole to even survive.  All around this is not a good situation but is one we locals have to face and resolve sooner rather than later.

A number of the resolutions are just nonsense; restricting traffic in the village is a non-starter as we have no ability to enforce such regulations.  In my mind it all boils down to numbers; if we truly do see 300,000 total visitors in a given year then it is no surprise such numbers are causing many problems for the village and the immediate area.  Cramming this many people through little Talkeetna cannot help but cause serious issues even if the village was prepared and laid out to handle such throngs of ‘summer people’.  The whole sewage situation has always boggled my mind; it’s been an issue since long before I moved up here and the ‘fixes’ are not brain surgery.  But somehow it takes breaking the state’s potable water regulations or running afoul the EPA’s requirements for treated water release before anyone does anything.  Both the flood dike and the sewage issues could be fixed in a year but it will require outside monies and someone to shepherd the entire process to completion.  Previously it was politics and the borough focusing on lower valley issues that stalled any action; now it’s the state’s fiscal crisis based on oil’s floundering prices.  Sadly, the latter will put a stranglehold on making any progress because there just is no state money.  Unless something dramatic happens regarding the oil prices, as in they suddenly double if not triple, we are going to have to endure this situation, and probably see worse, for the foreseeable future.  What so many locals seem not to understand is that even if oil suddenly jumped to $100/barrel the state wouldn’t feel the positive effects for years as oil is a commodity and its price is regulated by futures contracts that often extend forward in time one or more years.

 While I have my own feelings regarding this situation I’d be the first to admit I lack the perspective of life long Talkeetnans.  But I do know this is not a situation which we can continue to ignore.  In many ways it parallels the current federal immigration issue; just look at what 35 years of ‘kicking the can down the road’ has given us!  I firmly believe we Talkeetnans must decide very soon this fundamental question; in what direction do we want the future of Talkeetna headed?  Do we want a bucolic historical village or do we want increased growth based upon expanding tourism?  This is the fundamental question we, as a community, must answer before we can move forward.  I’m sure we can work out a question or questions upon which to vote regarding this decision.  But just as assuredly I know there will be a lot of very unhappy people regarding the final decision…

Tourists In Downtown Talkeetna

A rather ‘light’ day in terms of tourists on Main Street in ‘downtown’ Talkeetna

Yet Another One…

This posting is really a follow up to the previous one and many of my friends will have seen it in an email I sent out a few days back.  Unlike many people up here I still find summer to be my least favorite season followed closely by break up.  I’ve listed some reasons for my choice of which numbers 1, 3 and 4 were commented on in the previous posting:

  1. Complete lack of a dark night sky resulting in circadian rhythm upset
  2. Warmer temps
  3. Hordes of mosquitoes
  4. Ditto regarding tourists
  5. Inevitable road construction
But to this list I add the attached image which says it all!  Poor Anana blows her coat almost every year but this year has been particularly bad.  Every morning I awaken with her fur in my mouth, nose and eyes regardless of how much I brush her and vacuum; and unlike Qanuk she doesn’t sleep in the bed with me.  Good thing I love her so dearly!  She’s gonna be one svelte girl when she finally finishes which, sadly for both of us, is still a few weeks out..  The second image shows just how fur can come out using a typical ‘rake’ type brush and brushing my ‘little’ angel for around seven minutes.
Anana Blowing Coat
Poor Anana showing the remnants of her winter coat along with that so much cooler summer coat
7 Minutes of Brushing
Qanuk, my GSD, with his back to the results of brushing Anana for just seven minutes!

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

Just When We Don’t Need Hot, Windy and Dry Conditions…

Alaska has an amazing way of demonstrating just how little real ‘control’ we humans can exert upon this awesome state and yesterday we saw another humbling example of this truism. My friend Mark stopped in around 14:30 and told me a wildfire was burning to the south around Mile 78 of the Parks Highway. We immediately turned on the television but had to wait until 17:00 to get an Anchorage newscast; from it we learned a wildfire was burning out of control along the western side of the Parks at Mile 76 and had jumped the Parks Highway and was now burning along the east side as well. The state troopers had closed the Parks at Mile 78 to any traffic south bound; they were also diverting folks trying to drive north. At that time the fire was believed to be about 30 acres in size. Around 17:20 we decided to make the 7 mile trip to Cubby’s – a small grocery store – at the intersection of the Spur and the Parks Highway. As we approached the entrance to Cubby’s from the Parks we could see a huge cloud to the south along with the upwelling of ash brown smoke. This was our first glimpse of what was to become the Sockeye Wildfire.

The parking lot of Cubby’s was filled and inside it was a mess; many locals and tourists didn’t even know there was a fire and those that did were scrambling. The RVer’s were buying anything they could grab and many tourists in cars were panicking because they needed to get south. Few people had even the scant information we possessed so we disseminated what little we knew to the crowds. Upon finishing our shopping we headed back to the Spur; in so doing we saw a trooper parked on the side of the road stopping folks southbound on the Parks. They were allowing anyone access who lived at Mile 80 or further north; all others were being diverted to Talkeetna or asked to head north. Driving north on the Spur I saw three large Princess Cruise Lines buses pulled off on the side of the road; I’m sure they were trying to figure out what to do. As tourist season is in full bloom most of the rooms in Talkeetna were occupied and I’m sure by Sunday evening there was no lodging to be had in the village or outlying areas.

Our weather was about the worst it could be with blazing sunshine, an air temp of 84 F along with 30+ mph northerly winds and a relative humidity of just 22%. Sadly today is the same but as of 13:12 AKDT the outdoor temp is already 84.2 F with just 26% RH and 25+ mph northerly winds. Given our maximum temps are now occurring around 20:00 we will most likely set a record with temps near if not exceeding 90 F. Because of the northerly winds this area is safe; in this sense we are extremely lucky. But the fire continues to burn out of control and within a bit over 12 hours it has grown from just 30 acres to more than 6,200 acres; that’s an increase in size of almost 207 times!!  The Parks is currently open but is just one lane through the Willow area and vehicles can only drive this area when led by a pilot car.  Given the usual amount of summer traffic on the Parks coupled with a very busy tourist season there are a lot of rightly worried people.  Sadly many tourists are getting a taste of what it is like to live in Alaska!

Out of control due to high winds and hot temps with low humidity the Sockeye Fire burns ever onward

Out of control due to high winds and hot temps with low humidity the Sockeye Fire burns ever onward

The tenuous hold we humans have in ‘The Great Land’ is highlighted by this fire; in just 24 hours the blaze has cut the only road from Anchorage and the Palmer/Wasilla area to the interior and is destroying homes and properties. Normally the state allows wildfires to burn uncontrolled unless lives or property are in danger; in this case they are working feverishly to contain the fire.  Six ‘hot shot’ teams were flown in from the lower 48 last night and are on the fire lines along with every available firefighting team from the state. As of this writing it has spread to the outskirts of the Nancy Lake area which is large and densely populated – at least by Alaskan terms – with expensive homes, summer cabins and lots of docks with lake access.  Just to the SE is Houston; it really lies at the northernmost reaches of the Wasilla area. These folks are being evacuated as are those in the Nancy Lake area.

Iditarod contestant Jan Steve's Willow home

Iditarod contestant Jan Steve’s Willow home

Alaskans know Mother Nature will largely do as she will and there’s little we can do about it but go with the flow. But we can support our neighbors and do all we can to help them not just survive this disaster but also rebuild. For the near term just trying to organize to assist them is a huge chore; no one knows just how much work will be required in the future to help them re-establish their lives.  Not that most of us needed the reminder but we humans exist in this majestic state at the benevolence of Mother Nature; as such we must always remember she can be a fickle landlord.  Please say a prayer for all our neighbors to the immediate south and for all the brave firefighters!

Water tanker aircraft makes a run on the Sockeye Wildfire around Willow

Water tanker aircraft makes a run on the Sockeye Wildfire around Willow