The one I posted yesterday had been truncated, including
the windsurfing accident.
Subject: Alaska! (long-4700 woids)
Giles asked me via e-mail if I had any comments on moving to
Alaska. As usual in such matters, I began a short note that
quickly grew into page after page of semi-organized
verbiage--much more, no doubt, than Giles ever wanted to know.
So I thought I would post it to the Nosh in the hopes that
someone's curiosity about the 49th state might overcome their
reluctance to tackle such a tedious chore as reading all this.
Have I got comments about moving to Alaska!
First, a few superlatives about the 49th state:
Alaska has 19 mountains over 14,000 ft, including the highest
mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley (known locally as
Denali), 20,320 ft.
With 586,400 square miles, Alaska has one-fifth the land mass of
the entire continental U.S. and more area than the 26 smallest
states combined. It is more than twice the size of Texas.
Alaska has more coastline (33,000 miles) than all the lower 48
It has 29 active volcanoes, or half the world's total.
It has more than half the world's glaciers, including one that is
larger than Switzerland.
Alaska has more than 3 million lakes larger than 25 acres.
Alaska has the longest days (24 hours of daylight north of the
Arctic Circle) and the longest nights (likewise, 24 hours of
darkness north of the Arctic Circle) of any state.
Alaska is the northernmost state, the westernmost state, and,
paradoxically, the easternmost state (the Aleutian Islands extend
beyond 180 degrees longitude and therefore into the Eastern
Alaska was purchased from the Russians in 1867 for less than two
cents an acre, or around twelve dollars per square mile.
Now, the ups and downs of moving up here:
On the plus side:
1. Alaska has fewer people than some city neighborhoods down
south. Just over half a million, of whom almost half live in
Anchorage, and about half the rest live on the "Railbelt" that
runs from the Kenai Peninsula to Fairbanks.
2. Even in Anchorage, you're not too far from the wilderness. A
forty-minute flight to the west in a single-engine floatplane
will take you into remote areas that could swallow you without a
3. Alaska has wildlife. There are tens of thousands of grizzly
bears in Alaska. There are an estimated 40 grizzlies and scores
of moose right here in the Anchorage Bowl, an area bounded by the
Cook Inlet on one side and the Chugach Mountains on the other.
Hardly a year goes by without a grizzly surprising somebody (or
vice-versa) on a city ski trail. (There are black bear, too, but
they're more shy.) Moose come through our yard every winter to
browse on the branches of our trees. One spring day, my son
opened the front door and came face to face with a giant,
fully-antlered bull moose who was standing with his front legs
right up on our tiny porch. Jason slammed the door and the moose
proceeded down the flower bed, eating all the tulips.
Wolves are making a comeback (if the hunting lobby doesn't get
them killed back down again).
There are whales right out there in the Inlet, which is about
2000 yards away from where I now sit. We see belugas every year,
and once in a while, orcas. Sailing the Inside Passage down the
southeast coast you'll see lots of breaching humpbacks, if you
plan your trip during their migration. The ferry that runs from
Prince Rupert, B.C. to Skagway is cheap, if you don't take a car.
Of course, we've got more bald eagles than the rest of the U.S.
together; even get some here in town from time to time (saw a
young one fly over the TCBY just a few days ago). It's a real
thrill to see dozens of bald eagles*** around a stream
during a salmon run, waiting to pluck the dying fish from the
banks or to snatch the leavings of fishermen and bears (who
frequently work the same streams together, only a few dozen yards
apart). We've got tons of other birds, too. The ubiquitous
seagull, of course, and the giant raven are common here in
southeast Alaska in the summer and winter, respectively.
Shorebirds are among my favorites, along with loons and the
hordes of migratory cranes, geese and ducks that troop through
every spring and fall. There're hawks and owls and osprey, too.
3b. It's too cool here for***roaches to survive with any real
success. Although I've heard of them living here, I've never
actually seen one. Same goes for many other obnoxious vermin.
Only things we have in abundance in and around the house are
spiders. And they're the good guys. And there are no snakes in
4. Climate. In Anchorage, the summers are glorious: lately
the temperature has been soaring up into the 70's in the
afternoons and we've been suffering in the heat! I prefer a
typical Anchorage summer day, topping out at 65 degrees (perfect
for outdoor activities) with bright sunlight till 11:30 at night,
followed by twilight until the sun comes back up again in the wee
hours. During high summer, sun rises in the northeast, circles
the horizon all day, and sets in the northwest. (June 21 in
Anchorage: 19.5 hours of daylight, 4.5 hours of semi-darkness as
the sun skims below the northern horizon. Might want to turn on
your headlights at around two AM, but within several weeks on
either side of the solstice there's no real night.)
4.b Winter climate: Typical daytime temperature here in
Anchorage stays in the 20's; may drop into the ***s at night.
This keeps the snow frozen and dry. Sunlight in the
winter--admittedly a precious commodity--brings people outdoors
for Nordic and downhill skiing, snowboarding, sledding and ice
skating on local lakes and at the hockey rink on every school
playground in the city. Everyone is bundled up in the quiet
snow; rosy-cheeked, laughing.
5. Fishing. There's a salmon-and-rainbow steam about three
blocks from my house. There are stocked lakes all over the city.
There are world-class salmon streams within a day's drive, and a
short boat trip or flight in a float plane will take you to
blue-ribbon trout and grayling streams.
6. Hunting. I don't much care for hunting, mainly because it's
hard to practice catch-and-release in that sport, but if you do,
it's here. Moose, caribou, bear, Dall sheep and musk-ox seem to
be the favorites. If you're a bona fide Eskimo subsistence
hunter, you can hunt walrus and whale, too.
7. Scenery. Mountains, lakes, rivers, streams, trees, tundra,
high meadows, muskeg, wildflowers, berries to pick in the fall
(watch out for the bears, who also love berries), tortured
terrane geology to study, estuaries, deltas, alluvial plains,
white-water, cascades and my favorite: glaciers and the landforms
they create. Two weeks ago I walked out onto the Matanuska
glacier (the signs say don't do it) and heard the shifting crunch
as the crevasses rubbed against each other and sloughed off
pieces of ancient ice that splashed into hidden under-ice
streams. A drive in any direction from Anchorage will take you
by a number of breathtaking blue-ice glaciers, some of them
*** high in sliced-off mountain valleys. You can drive
practically to the foot of some of them and walk out onto the
ice. The ferries and cruise ships in the Inside Passage and
Prince William Sound will take you by massive glaciers that run
right down to the water, and you'll get to see monstrous icebergs
calving into the bays. I'm beginning to sound like a travel
brochure, aren't I?
One more thing. The northern lights. Have to be lived and
breathed to be believed.
8. Mating. If you're a woman, please be advised that there are
significantly more young men here than young women. While the
following is a sexist statement I wouldn't dream of making, it
should be noted that it is not at all unusual for a rather
plain-looking woman to be in the company of a very good-looking
man. Not that looks matter for anything, of course. But I have
a friend who is a forty-something woman of pleasant but average
looks while her husband is twenty-five and I think he would be
considered quite buff by most young women. He's nice and
intelligent, too. So's she. Who can explain love?
9. Other cultures. Native Alaskan culture, art and folklore are
fascinating. Divided into two large categories: Indian and
Eskimo, and subdivided into smaller groups, then tribes. A trip
to a remote Native village, either Indian (in the interior or
along the southeast panhandle) or Eskimo (the northern, western
and southcentral coasts) is a journey to an *** land.
Since Alaska was a Russian possession for a long time, there are
lots of residual reminders. Onion-domed Russian Orthodox
churches are a *** part of the scenery in many Alaskan towns
and villages. There are entire communities, primarily on the
Kenai Peninsula, given over to the "Old Believers," where the old
holidays, customs and conventions of dress are observed. And if
you turn on your CB radio around the docks at Ninilchik and
Kasilof, you'll hear more Russian than English as the fishermen
head out into the Inlet.
10. Taxation. There is no state income tax in Alaska (not yet,
anyway). Anchorage and most other cities have no sales tax, so
the price of an item is the price of the item (remember what that
was like, way back when?) And the voters of Alaska, in a rare
fit of wisdom, elected to rat-hole a portion of the oil bonanza
money into a permanent fund, which is diversified into stocks,
bonds and other investments. Currently this fund has billions of
dollars and earns millions in interest each year--so much, in
fact, that the fund pays each Alaska resident a dividend each
fall. Lately it's been running around $950 per year per
resident; therefore, a family of four gets a check for over $3500
each year, right before Christmas, just for choosing to live
11. Politics. Because of the peculiar blend of individualistic
and independent-minded people who live in Alaska, it's political
climate is most amusing. The state and metro sections of the
paper invite more laughter than the comics. I know everybody
says that about their locality, but what other state can boast a
governor and lieutenant gov who jumped parties a few weeks before
the election--from Republican to Alaska Independence Party, the
secessionists--and stole the election not because of their
platform but because many voters thought it was a cool move?
(The legality of that move is still being contested in the
courts, but Wally "Let's Send Our Excess Water To California In
This Giant, Like, Garden Hose" Hickle leads blithely on.)
More local politics: A school board member has been censured
twice by the board and once by the ethics committee for using
school district time and stationary to complain loudly and at
length that a *** of "goddamn Jewish lawyers" is
determined to keep her husband from practicing law in Alaska.
Her husband recently failed his bar exam for the 15th time, which
is nine more times than Vinny failed his in the movie "My Cousin
Vinny" and everybody thought _that_ was funny.
Drawbacks to Alaska.
1. Mosquitoes. I'm not going to lie to you; Alaska would be
paradise if it weren't for the mosquitoes. Worse some years than
others. Millions of square miles of wetlands, and favorable
weather conditions (lots of still, cloudy days) make this a
paradise for the ***suckers. Here in southcentral Alaska,
mosquitoes are worse in the spring: the early species appears on
or about April 15th (the swallows that eat them arrive about May
15) and they die away some four to six weeks later. These
bandy-legged suckers are big and slow and stupid, so you can
usually slap them around a while and they'll go away. Second
group is smaller, faster but still not much of a problem unless
you venture into the Bush or out onto the tundra with no
protection, then they gang up on you in suffocating numbers.
Moose frequently go berserk and stampede wild-eyed through the
brush, trying to escape the hordes. Mercifully, most mosquitoes
are usually gone by the end of June or the first few weeks of
July (the swallows leave July 15 or so) but for most of the
summer you have to watch out for the third species, the
crepuscular. They're the ones that come out at sundown. They're
the fast, smart ones, and they last longer than the others
(although you can sit outside this late in the summer, in August,
even at sundown, and pick off the few lingerers that happen by).
Bug spray works well, and I have had pretty good success with
"Skin so Soft" by Avon and by controlling cleanliness and diet.
Mosquitoes like some people more than others.
You can even wear a bug hat if they get too bad--it has a net
that comes down over your face and fits securely around your
2. Winter darkness. Remember those long hours of daylight we
enjoy here in the summer? We have to pay it all back in the
winter. In Anchorage, December 21 has 4.5 hours of daylight and
19.5 hours of darkness (though it's mitigated somewhat by long
twilights). The winter sun comes up in the southeast, skims the
horizon (just barely clearing the houses at the end of the block)
then goes back down in the southwest. The long shadows at noon
are hard to get used to, as is going to work in the dark and
coming home in the dark after working only six or seven hours.
The long nights bother some people, and they combat SAD (Seasonal
Affective Disorder) with full-spectrum lighting and mid-winter
trips to Hawaii and Mexico.
3. Length of winter. First real snow is usually in early-to-mid
October; by Halloween everything is covered until April or May.
We drive for months on ice roads. It's fun. Makes U-turns easy.
Smooths out the bumps that will reappear in the spring. Helps
you learn about safe following distances and how far away to stay
from a snowplow or sand truck. Surprisingly, a surface of packed
snow mixed with a little sand is actually quite safe, and you get
used to it. It's the new snow that's a problem (you can get
stuck before the snowplows come) and the old, worn-out melting
snow causes its own problems. But of the complaints I've heard
about Alaska from people who've lived here a long time, it's the
length of the winter, not its severity, that makes them think of
moving south. (Then they go visit the Lower 48 and can't wait to
get back to Alaska.)
4. Break-up. In the spring, all the snow must melt. It turns
into ice, with a layer of water on top. Roads become treacherous
skating rinks. Walking across parking lots and down driveways
becomes very angst-producing; many people wear little
ice-crampons strapped to their shoes (I like the little ***
slip-over ones that look like golf shoes). And during break-up,
great holes open up in the ice-roads, the level of which might be
six or eight inches higher than the roadway. These bone-jarring
bumps have wrecked many an axle. Lakes become death traps for
skaters, hikers and snowmobilers, and planes that land on floats
in the summer and skis in the winter must sit idle for weeks,
until the rotting ice melts away and open water returns. (I
don't mind that part of it. There's a lake that begins about 100
yards from my house and it's ringed with houses and airplanes.
It's only during break-up [and freeze-up in the fall] that I can
be assured of a respite from noisy take-offs. They're fun to
5. Climate. Anchorage is not so bad; its climate is tempered by
the marine environment (we're close to the ocean). As I
indicated before, I enjoy the cooler weather. We have cold snaps
in the dead of winter that sometimes reach 20 below zero or even
colder (I think minus 24 is the coldest I've seen here) but for
the most part a reading of 0 or minus 5 degrees is more the
exception than the rule. I don't plug in my Chevy's block heater
unless the temperature is expected to drop below minus 10. So
actually, the climate in Anchorage is sort of steady and almost
Not so the interior of Alaska. The continental climate allows
for extremes: Fairbanks routinely hits minus 40 or even minus 60,
while summer temperatures may climb up to 100 degrees!
Auuuugggghhhh! Spent a week one November working at various
schools in the Copper Center district, some 180 miles northeast
of here, and it was 30 below during the day and I don't know how
cold at night. Of course, we'd plug in our truck's block heater
any time we parked, but at those schools without convenient
outside plug-ins we'd simply leave the engine running all day.
One midnight I went outside wearing only a parka, street shoes
and light dress pants to watch the aurora; everything covered by
the parka was comfortable, everything else (including my lungs)
suffered unbelievably after about three minutes. But the
northern lights were so brilliant and colorful and active that
night, I stayed out and watched the show for ten more minutes
before coming back in to rub my feet and legs. Ah, how we suffer
5b. Rain. Southeast Alaska--Juneau and Ketchikan and the
like--are known, like Seattle and environs further south, as
having lots of rain. It rains a lot here in Anchorage, but
mostly in August and September. Hasn't rained much this month so
far, though, and the sun has been out and bright lately.
5c. Cold water. While many lakes here in Alaska warm up enough
for kids and other hardy swimmers, sal***er is deadly in this
regard. To fall into Cook Inlet, for instance, means death from
hypothermia if you're not rescued within fif*** minutes or
so--unless you're wearing a wet suit or the more bulky marine
boater's variety, the survival suit, which is bright orange and
will keep you afloat and dry until you die more slowly of
Still, sailboarders, skindivers and jet-skiers abound, though all
wear wetsuits in marine waters and some in fresh water, too.
Last summer, a very experienced sailboarder went down in the
Turnagain Arm as the tide was flowing out. The Turnagain Arm of
the Cook Inlet has the second highest tides in the world--up to
33 feet (second only to the Bay of Fundy). Currents are fast and
chaotic. The sailboarder's buddies saw him try unsuccessfully to
right his craft, then watched as he tried to paddle it across the
tide toward the point on the other side of the Arm. Was still
trying as he drifted out of sight. They found the guy's
sailboard the next day; his body some time later.
Speaking of marine dangers, there's the mudflats around Cook
Inlet. They look substantial enough, and even though warnings
are publicized you still see people go out onto them during low
tide. But there's something about this mud--if your foot goes
down into it, and you try to pull it out, it hardens like rock.
I guess it has to do with forcing the water out from between the
fine, glacier-flour silt grains. Anyway, the mud grabs you and
you can't get out. You can't dig the stuff and all your frantic
pulling only makes it worse. Then the tide comes back in and
drowns you. (Remind me to tell you a very tragic story
sometime.) The preferred method of extraction is via fire hose
connected to the rescue pumper truck designed for the purpose.
The full force of the blast is directed at the mud around the
captured leg, and eventually a hole is opened and the foot comes
Likewise, rivers are cold--many are fed by glaciers. And there
are no outdoor swimming pools here. And those of us with
sensitive teeth cannot drink water straight out of the cold side
of the tap.
6. Isolation. There's only one real road out of Alaska--the
Alcan, or Alaska Highway (the road from Chicken, AK to Dawson,
B.C. doesn't count). The Alcan is very, very long (it can take a
week or more to drive from Anchorage to the Lower 48. It's 700
miles--two days--from Anchorage to Whitehorse, Yukon, and after
all that you're no further south than when you started!)
Otherwise, you leave by boat (ferry) or plane. There are few
roads within Alaska, especially when you consider the relative
size of the state, and it can get tedious driving the same ones
over and over. There are three roads out of Anchorage: (1)
south to the Kenai, (2) north to Glennallen and Tok and the Alcan
and (3) north to Denali and Fairbanks. Even so, I feel much less
isolated here than when I lived on Oahu.
8. Mating. If you're a man, please be advised that there are
significantly more young men here than young women. At the risk
of sounding sexist, I'll say this: men come here for the
legendary (and often mythical) high pay and adventure and, while
many women come for the same reasons, our society promotes
adventure and "following one's dream wherever it may lead" more
for men than women. Therefore, while there are roughly equal
numbers of each gender born here, more men than women have made
the decision to pull up stakes and move to Alaska. Also, there
are many more boy soldiers than girl soldiers stationed here, and
many of those decide to stay when they retire. Hence, our
male-dominated demographics. It's a sad, sad state of affairs,
on almost all fronts.
9. Different cultures. Many white people are puzzled by the
Natives of Alaska. Traditional old Eskimo and Indian values are
at odds with Western-Industrialized ideologies, causing conflicts
in some areas. A few Native villages are openly hostile to
outsiders, and they especially despise those white people who fly
in and announce they are going to "save" the people and bring
them into the 20th Century. Lots of people who don't perceive
themselves as drowning resent being pulled from the water.
Native ideas of time (i.e., keeping appointments and schedules),
education ("The law says you must go to school, son, so try to
get over there before noon, okay?"), verbal expression ("Most of
the time, talking is a nuisance") and game conservation ("If it
moves, kill it; we don't know when we'll get the chance again")
are at loggerheads with modern white American thinking.
Whites who don't realize that ***ism is a disease tend to
blame Natives for their lack of morals and self-control in the
use of this drug. The rate of ***ism is as high as 90% in
some villages, and the downtown sections of the cities have
significantly more Native drunks than white ones. Old-world
cultures with long histories of drinking have had thousands of
years to cull out the ***-***ive gene; societies that have
had *** thrust upon them relatively recently have no such
natural defense. In this respect, *** is like the smallpox
virus, yet no one blames the victims of white-introduced smallpox
for succumbing to the disease.
Russian Old Believer villages had been running their public
school systems in accordance with Russian Orthodox principles for
years. Why not, if everybody in the village is an Old Believer,
celebrate the O.B. holidays in school and teach the local
religion? But not everybody in one particular village was of
that religion. At least one couple was forced to drive their
kids to another school in another town in order to avoid O.B.
proselytizing. Lawsuits were filed, church-state separation
issues were rightly upheld, and everybody went home mad. Ah,
10. Cost of living. Alaska can be a rather spendy place to
live. Some examples from the supermarket: Gallon of 1% milk:
$3.59; loaf wheat bread: $2.39; Post cereal: $4.79; bananas:
$3.30 per pound; package of four GE light bulbs: $2.99. Prices
at McDonald's and Burger King and the like are nearly always
higher than that advertised for the Lower 48. Car dealers add an
infuriating sticker to new-vehicle windows that lists, among
other charges, "Additional dealer mark-up:" and the total figure
may add up to 30% of the original sticker price of the car. Does
that happen down there?
Real estate prices fluctuate, but rents tend to stay fairly high.
Utilities are pretty cheap, since we produce so much natural gas
in Alaska and buildings are well insulated.
11. Politics. Alaska is a Republican state. Our two U.S.
senators and our one lousy U.S. representative are all
conservative Republicans. Our governor is a Republican in
disguise. The state government is Republican controlled, as are
many districts here in Anchorage. Much of the flavor of
Anchorage Republican politics is controlled by one megalomaniac
fundamentalist Baptist preacher, Jerry Prevo. The most popular
local bumpersticker reads, "Annoy Prevo--Think for Yourself." A
new version reads, "Annoy Yourself--Think of Prevo."
Our state capital can only be reached by plane or boat. There
are no roads to Juneau.
If you're still interested in moving to Alaska, make sure you
have a job first (unless, of course, you're independently
wealthy). First and foremost, of course, are oil company jobs,
but the industry is suffering right now and more workers in
oil-related businesses are leaving the state than coming here.
Beware of the ads you see promising high-paying jobs in the
fishing industry. Recently there was an expose of the commercial
fishing practices on "60 Minutes" or one of those shows; it was
only partly accurate in its portrayal of the pay and working
conditions. Because of shorter and shorter commercial fishing
seasons in Alaskan marine waters, those who catch and process the
fish must work long hours in order to maximize profit. Six***
and twenty-hour days are not uncommon. Earnings-to-hours-worked
ratios can drop down toward minimum wage, but many of the young
workers are more interested in the total earned than in figuring
wages per hour. And not all boat captains and processing plants
are the same. (I know a bit more about this business now, since
I have a house guest--the son of an old friend in Denver--who
spent the summer in the "champagne holds" and "slime lines" down
on the Kenai Peninsula.) So if you do have an iron-clad promise
of a fishing job next summer, come prepared to work really hard
at some disagreeable tasks.
Teacher's salaries are pretty high, with excellent retirement and
benefit packages, but competition is fierce, especially in
Anchorage and the more desirable areas. In Anchorage one recent
summer, for example, there were 900 applicants for the 50 or so
jobs due to open up in the fall. If you're certified in special
ed or in several different areas, you can easily find work in the
Bush, but you'll have to put up with isolation and cultural shock
if you get too far off into the wilderness. And you'll more than
likely have to teach outside your content area. The pay is
really high out there, but so is the turnover. Only certain
types of people can stand it.
Booming right now are jobs in low-end retail sales. Yeeeuck.
Anchorage has/is getting brand-new K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Eagle,
Costco and Pace stores.
Even with its parks, greenbelts, mountain backdrop and bike trail
system, Anchorage is, for the most part, a pretty ugly city
(how's that for oxymoronic juxtapositioning of words?) But it's
only twenty minutes from Alaska.
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