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!

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

Family Visits ‘n Fun!

Of late you may have noticed a dearth of postings on my site; there is a reason for this and said dearth will continue into early September.  My sister and brother in law – Sal and Gene – are visiting Alaska for the first time.  They began their travels with a flight from Colorado Springs (CO) to Vancouver (BC) where they boarded a cruise which took them up the Inside Passage with stops at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Glacier Bay before reaching Seward where they disembarked and spent a day visiting the sites.  Then they took a bus to Anchorage, spent a day looking around and then boarded the Alaska Railroad and traveled up here. 

Since they arrived the weather cleared up and has been warm and dry; I told them they were welcome any time and that Alaska was smiling on them!  Since arriving they’ve done the ‘Grand Tour’ on a K2 Aviation Beaver which flew them among the peaks and valleys of The Alaska Range as well as landing on a glacier.  We visited the Palmer-Wasilla area via the Hatcher Pass road, toured the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer (neat place and well worth the time), picked up great fish and meat at Mat Valley Meats in Palmer and shopped Fred Meyer before heading back to Talkeetna via the Parks Highway.  I’ve driven them around the area and they spent Saturday morning wandering the village.  Sunday they participated in my music show on KTNA; they gave their impressions of ‘The Great Land’ in general and of Talkeetna in particular in between music.  Both were fascinated by live radio and really got a kick out of seeing their ‘little brother’ make it happen.  They have walked ‘the Kidz’ multiple times each day and Sal is still trying to get a picture of the musher who takes her team up and down East Barge Drive on her ATV.  I’ve seen a bevy of moose but sadly Sal and Gene haven’t been with me but they did see a pair of moose in Hatcher Pass.  I also caught a brief glimpse of a grizzly at Mile 2.8 of the Spur but once again they were not in the Escape.

We finished baking six apple pies Sunday afternoon and gave one to my neighbor (Cathy); the remainder will go to Holly (my dear friend and realtor), the KTNA staff, the ‘ladies of the Talkeetna PO’ and another neighbor leaving one for us.  I still want to introduce them to more folks around town and get in a Mahay’s Jet Boar ride up the Susitna River.  Wednesday we drive to Anchorage to pick up a RV; we’ll return here to load it up and then head north to the Denali Highway.  As pets are not allowed in the rental RV Mark will live here in our absence and handle ‘the Kidz’.  We’ll be in Denali NP&P from Friday through Sunday and then most likely drive into the Kenai and visit Homer and the immediate area.  Then we turn in the RV the next Wednesday and we’ll have another four days here before they depart.

All told it has been a wonderful visit to this point and it there’s no reason to assume it will not continue to be great.  I am hoping they will get to see wildlife on Saturday when we take the bus in the Park to Wonder Lake.  At least they’ve already had a chance to see The Alaska Range in general and Denali, Mt Hunter and Mt Foraker in particular from Talkeetna so even if we don’t see ‘the Mountain’ in the Park it will be okay.  I’m also hoping for more moose views around here and in the Kenai and I remain hopeful they will get to see some grizzlies in the Park as well.

It has been a fantastic visit to this point so here’s hoping for more of the same!  I will be back to blogging on a more regular schedule come early September.  Here’s wishing everyone a great remainder of summer and a colorful upcoming fall..!

Sis Sal fitting glacier boots for walking on the glacier

Sis Sal fitting glacier boots for walking on the glacier

Heading to the Beaver!

Heading to the Beaver!

Hatcher Pass mine and vista!

Hatcher Pass mine and vista!

A cow moose and two yearling calves on the Spur

A cow moose and two yearling calves on the Spur

Data screens at the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, AK

Data screens at the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, AK

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

My First Look At The Willow Area

My final OT session was yesterday (Thursday, June 25th) and so I had reason to make the 64 mile drive south down the Parks Highway to Wasilla; in so doing I drove through the Willow area. It occurred to me I’ve never actually seen an area recently burned by a wildfire and so I was basically clueless as to what I would see. Much to my surprise it was actually rather limited in scope but then this was only what  I could view from the highway as I had no intention of wandering around the area. I began to see burned areas perhaps four miles north of Willow and recognized the destruction was extremely haphazard in nature; in some areas wide swaths of forest were burned but in others just pockets of forest and grassy areas were blackened with other areas immediately adjacent untouched. I also witnessed a couple of apparently intact dwellings surrounded by blackened forest; this bore testimony to the valor and skill of the hero firefighters and possibly some die-hard locals.The air was just a bit hazy but I believe this was due to the slowly breaking down temperature inversion we’ve experienced across this week but the instantly recognizable smell of ‘wildfire’ was everywhere. Along with the smell were numerous signs thanking the firefighters; in addition there were official signs designating command centers, a heli-pad, and marshaling points. I also did see a few fire vehicles off the road in burned areas. The main town of Willow appeared to be untouched by the fire but was mostly surrounded by burned areas especially to the north and east. While driving through Willow I tried to imagine how it would have appeared with smoke and active fire all around the outskirts; it would have been very frightening!

I must admit that I had expected to see more damage given all the reports and aerial coverage but was very pleased to see a relative dearth of destroyed buildings. This is not to minimize the destruction wrought by the Sockeye Fire; it was very costly and only because of the heroic actions of the firefighters and immediate action on the part of the Mat-Su Borough in getting evacuation plans functioning were no lives lost. Even so it was a debilitating fire and something no one would want to experience if given a choice. It is up to we Alaskans to insure our sisters and brothers receive all the assistance they require to put their lives back together. While heartbreaking to lose one’s home and possessions to such an event in the end it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been especially as Mother Nature did not cooperate. In the final analysis possessions are just ‘things’ but life is special and also irreplaceable.

Concentration of firefighting vehicles just north of Willow

Concentration of firefighting vehicles just north of Willow

Burned areas on both sides of the Parks north of Willow

Burned areas on both sides of the Parks north of Willow

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

Fire truck heading north on the Parks Highway

Fire truck heading north on the Parks Highway

 

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

Lack of Writing..!

I thought it best to get something posted before my absence begins to cost me followers; hence this missive. After leading a fairly injury free life I suppose it was inevitable I was going to see the equation balance and that happened last week – in spades! 

From my 03/27/15 email titled; “Stupidity 1, Me 0”:

In a glorious display of lazy stupidity I managed to take a serious fall just outside the Talkeetna PO yesterday at noon and severely damage my left elbow. Sadly, despite there being lousy ice everywhere I managed to do this on bare asphalt! I was kinda rushing so I had slipped on my heavy boots but not tied them and just tucked in the loose laces. As I exited the door I pivoted to the left and managed to get a loose lace from my right boot caught in an eyelet on my left boot; this is akin to having a practical joker tie one’s shoe laces together. I did a great imitation of a whale smacking water after breaching and there were two people talking that caught the whole event! 

I landed very hard on my right side and have the bruises and road rash to prove it. The observers immediately came to my aid and helped me into a sitting position; at that point I agreed with them to remain seated while I assessed my condition. Initially I was concerned with my right knee as it was quite sore but within a minute I could really feel my left elbow starting to throb; I’m sure I did it no favors when the two kind people assisted me to my feet by pulling on each arm. In the four steps it took to get to my vehicle I suddenly realized I couldn’t move my left hand or any of those fingers and just trying to hold my left forearm level was a losing proposition. I was able to temporarily tuck my very painful left wrist into my vest pocket and get into the Escape using just my right arm but that was clumsy and a painful proposition; thankfully I could drive and managed to get me and the dogs back home. 

My buddy Mark showed up a bit after noon and assisted me; he also fashioned a much-needed sling. Because I’m pig-headed about personal injuries I decided to give it few hours ‘just to see’. By 14:45 my left wrist and hand were swollen to half again the size of my right wrist and hand and a nasty blue-purple color; while I could wiggle my fingers my left forearm was throbbing terribly. I decided to call Sunshine Clinic; I spoke with Amy who told me there were no openings until today at 09:40.  I told her I could wait and gave her my personal info. Silly me; somehow the realization that I wasn’t going to be able to sleep with such an injury escaped me. I spent a horrible night amassing maybe one whole hour of sleep in between yips, yelps and not few colorful expletives when I moved in the bed. 

From my 03/28/15 email titled; “And the Verdict Is…”:

I am back in Talkeetna and actually returned Friday evening after making the 130 mile round trip. I finally decided to drive myself although no fewer than six people offered to take me. My arm was so badly swollen I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be held overnight if surgery was required; therefore it only made sense to me I should drive myself. At this point I want to truly thank the amazing people in the village in general and ‘Mark of the Wild’, Kirstin Merkley and Holly Stinson in particular along with my wonderful sister and brother-in-law Sal and Gene! Mark and Holly stopped by in my absence and walked the dogs, played with them and fed them. ‘The Kidz’ loved the attention and I was so thankful so many wonderful people have shown such an outpouring of empathy and kindness!! 

Mat-Su Regional is a state of the art medical facility staffed with some of the most professional folks I’ve ever met; I cannot thank them enough for their empathy and care! I checked in at 15:20 and by 15:25 a nurse had me in an exam room and was prepping me for the doctor’s visit. To a person the staff was aghast I’d gone 28 hours without pain meds and had driven myself to Wasilla; as soon as Dr. Grove walked in and heard I was sans meds he immediately gave me an IM dose of a non-drowsy pain-killer. They were able to get three x-ray images which confirmed I completely broke both the radius and the ulna just below the left elbow. Dr. Grove confirmed I will need surgery and gave me a referral to an orthopedic surgeon who works on elbows; he contacted this doctor’s (Dr. Pace) assistant, explained my situation and set me up to call him first thing Monday morning to set up an appointment for surgery. Apparently the fractures are bad enough each will require a permanent pin to stabilize them. Then the staff splinted the arm and fashioned a huge cast using that oxygen activated cast material which allows a form fit. The icing on the cake came in the form of 25 Percocet tablets; if this gets tougher to read it’s because I just took my second one an hour ago and I can feel the pain is decreasing as my vision blurs a bit more. I used the first one last night and I was actually able to sleep four hours!! This might not seem like much but it sure beat Thursday night when I didn’t even get an hour of sleep. 

So the plan is for me to call Dr. Pace at 09:00 AKDT on Monday (03/30) and hopefully set up the surgery for early next week. I’m hoping by April Fool’s Day I’ll be recovering and starting what will most likely be a 3 to 4 month recovery period. At least I’ll be able to return to volunteering at KTNA and working with the Pantry within a few weeks of the surgery. Running the soundboard with one hand could prove challenging as I’m already learning just how much I use my left hand but am developing acceptable ‘workarounds’. I tried to get a selfie of the massive cast but failed to do it justice. 

Here’s the hilarious kicker; I was wearing my red vest and a long-sleeved poly pro shirt but there was no way the cast was going to fit inside the shirt sleeve. The nurse had me remove my shirt and offered me a ‘paper shirt’; given it was 52 F outdoors I declined the shirt so we removed my shirt and vest. Then the cast was fitted to my arm; once it hardened we carefully slipped my vest back on. Now imagine this big fat bald guy with a huge cast wandering around downtown Wasilla in just a red fleece vest with bare arms and hairy armpits exposed for all to see! As I waited for Walgreens to fill my prescription a rather large gentleman joined the line wearing a “Hells Angels South Bay” tee-shirt; he looked me over and gave me a ‘thumbs up’ sign. Never had this happen before but I guess he liked my sleeveless look! I’m going to be modifying a number of my older short-sleeved tee shirts by making them sleeveless on the left side; who knows, maybe I’ll create a new fashion craze..?!? 

From my 03/30/15 email titled; “Not Good News…”:

Have to keep this update short as the Percocet is finally kicking in. Visited the orthopedic surgeon at 14:00 today; he had his first good look at the films taken Friday. He was not happy with the results! He said this is ‘a very severe injury’ and when all’s said and done he would consider regaining 60% of the former range of motion to be a success. The ulna has a very jagged break running the diameter of the bone; he is less concerned about this fracture. Although he couldn’t tell for sure he thinks the radius end that normally interfaces with the elbow broke into at least two pieces and probably more; if it is three or more than I will need an artificial implant at that interface. This is the fracture(s) that most worries him. He cannot say more until he cuts me and takes a look; this will happen around 12:00 AKDT tomorrow (03/31). Surgery will last anywhere from 90 to 180 minutes assuming no more surprises.

From my 04/01/15 email titled; “You May Now Call Me The $46,000 Man..!”:

I know I’m feeling better because my first thought was to send out some horrific message about losing my arm to a surgical mistake or similar given today’s date but I just couldn’t risk giving my dear friends potential MI’s or such in an attempt to be funny. I’m back home – actually was as of 19:00 yesterday – and surprisingly not doing too badly especially given the situation. My good friend Holly picked me up right at 09:30 yesterday morning and we had an easy trip to Wasilla. She is my realtor and a classic ‘Talkeetnan’; warm, friendly, down to earth and willing to assist in any and all ways to help out a friend or neighbor. Prior to making this run with me she’d walked Anana and Qanuk for me and left enough great tasting food for two solid dinners. She dropped me off at the clinic around 10:50 and spend the rest of her day, shopping reading and doing some trip planning but was right there when I was ‘cut loose’ and the nurses gave her all my release info. Poor Holly also had to get me to a pharmacy for another load of Percocet.

I was admitted and in the surgery waiting area by 11:50 but due to ‘situation’ with a credit card of mine this required an extra ten minutes. I’ll share what happened in the hopes none of you will be blindsided in the same fashion. I’ve had an AmEx Gold Card since ’81 which I used strictly in times of emergency. Its last use was during my relocation up here (August 2013) when I discovered many places in central and western Canada did not accept Visa; in this case it saved me as I racked up charges in the $4k range for food, lodging and fuel. I had used it to cover the roughly $3,900 in charges from Friday’s visit and was planning to fund the surgery and all associated charges on it as well. However, the card was refused for additional $19k Tuesday afternoon at the hospital. After borrowing the hospital phone and having one of the wonderful desk folks write out the AmEx security phone number for me – as I pointed out they told me to bring nothing but the clothes I was wearing so I’d left my reading glasses and cell in Holly’s car – I waded through seemingly endless menus and finally contacted a warm body wherein I explained my situation; my card did indeed have a ‘stop’ on it. Here’s what I didn’t know; such cards are not  open-ended and have permissible charge limits based on credit scores and the use of the card the previous 6 to 12 months!! Based on how I used the card there was no activity the previous 19 months so this caused some limits to kick in.  Because my credit score is 802 AmEx was able to authorize an additional $17.5k; this allowed me to cover almost all with the now maxed out Gold Card and pick up the remainder with my ‘regular use’ Visa. 

Anyway, I spent maybe 10 minutes in the surgery admitting room and then was brought in and prepped for the work. By 12:55 I was wheeled into the operating room and things became a bit ‘fuzzy’ as they had to double the initial dose of painkillers to get me under enough to insert the tube and start the general. I know the anesthesiologist was a bit concerned because this was my first experience with a general so he had nothing to work from regarding my reactions.  I’d had just one surgery previous to this one; it was to remove my tonsils and adenoids when I was 6 years old and ether was the anesthetic. Apparently I did okay and really enjoyed coming out of the general although I had to finally see the bright red ‘socks’ on my feet which were hanging off the end of the gurney to recognize I wasn’t dreaming and I had just undergone surgery. 

Sadly I really did manage to do the number on my poor elbow; the radius had four fragments broken from its surface which interfaces with the elbow. This was two too many to repair so the fractured end of the radius was cleaned and resurfaced and then an artificial surface was molded into the elbow and the terminus of the radius which was further reinforced with a small plate and screws. The estimated 90 minute procedure ballooned to almost 200 minutes but the real ‘pain’ – pun intended – will be final billing. I did have everything covered yesterday by noon but was based upon no implants and around 90 minutes of surgery. 

Not much I can do at this point except know I’ll get a huge write off on my 2015 federal taxes. I’m working hard to cultivate that ‘it’s only money’ perspective but I also know I’ll be forced into some major revisions in my financial planning thanks to this ‘experience’. And, of course, I’m trying very hard not to dwell on the fact this entire sad affair was initiated by being in a hurry and not following Mom’s teachings regarding tying one’s shoelaces!!  So it goes…

By this point you should have a pretty good idea of what happened to me and why my blogging will be minimal for the next month or so. In keeping with always seeking that ‘silver lining’ at least I’ll have lots of material for my blogs once I can again type with two hands..!!!