Friday, July 16, 2010

What it's like to live in Alaska--part 1

Recently I got an email from one of my blog readers here (that's always so flattering!), asking me what it's like to live in Alaska. Her husband is considering a job here and she was trying to get a good idea of what they'd be getting into. Several readers have said that they like my Alaskana posts, and would love to read more, but I admit that I'm frequently at a loss for what else to write on the topic...however this question got me thinking, so I thought I would share here some of what I wrote back to her. ☺
I must preface this with the statement that I have never lived in one of the 'big' cities. Pelican had about 100 people in the summertime...half that in the winter. On top of being tiny, it was a bush town in that it was cut off from grocery store, no roads, ferry only once a month, seaplanes most days but only if the weather permitted... Now we live in what I consider to be a pretty perfect home, with a thriving population of about 5,000, and the nearest larger town being 90 miles away (it is a metropolis of about 30,000 people). So when I speak about what Alaska is like, I'm telling what it's like in the middle-sized places, or the little places, not in the Anchorage area. Anchorage is more like a suburb of Seattle they say. I wouldn't know. I haven't lived there; and since I love it here, I don't really plan to move.

My husband says I should tell you that living in Alaska is terrible, so that you won't come, because we like having a low population and don't need any more people. ☺
He also said "we live much closer to the wilderness, because it's everywhere, and it's such a young state [50yrs this year] that it maintains a frontiersy feel, but still has the modern amenities. It has a mild climate and is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I always wanted to live where everyone else went on vacation, and now I do." ☺

I will start off by saying that I think people either love or hate Alaska, and I think they usually know within a couple of weeks. That was my experience in any case, and my husband's, and many other people I know. I've heard so many stories of someone who decided to drive the Al-Can highway for a bit of an adventure...and when they got up here to Alaska they decided they didn't ever want to leave. I think that some people are Alaskans, regardless of where they were born, and when we get here we just feel it to our core that this is home. ☺ The people who don't like it tend to leave pretty fast. I would strongly advise visiting if you think you possibly can. I think you can get the feel from a visit of whether you would love it or hate it.

There are several parts of Alaska, and it can be vastly different depending which part you live in. Remember that this state is the size of about 5 other states!
I can't speak for the Aleutians really, nor the Fairbanks/Arctic region (although it does get extremely cold there, people have to plug their cars in to keep them warm enough to be able to start them for example...everyone in Fairbanks has a little plug hanging out their front grill). But I can speak for where I have lived.
The Southeast (Juneau, Sitka, Pelican, Ketchikan, etc) is a temperate rainforest. It rains 300" a year, Pelican usually got around 20 ft of snow (though not all at once of course). The temperatures are moderate, usually between 20-40 in winter and 50-70 in summer. It still rains in the summer though. When you've got 300 inches to get out every 365 days, you can't take too many days off.
South Central AK (Anchorage+ the Kenai Peninsula) is probably the nicest part of the state. It's not nearly as cold as the more northern parts, and not nearly as wet as the rainforest in southeast. Anchorage of course has the heaviest population density in the state, and the Kenai region is where Alaskans go on vacation.
Most people are concerned about the weather, especially the winter. Well, here in south-central we got perhaps 6ish feet of snow here last winter (spread across the months of course). We had a lot of temperatures in the 20s and 30s, during the day, and it would get colder at night of course, but not below 0 really. Honestly winter here wasn't much colder than what I remember from living in Utah. I always wore a coat and gloves when going out to the car, and usually a hat if I was going to be out for more than a minute. Winter is probably 5-6 months long, but my experience has always been that the people here are very open and hospitable, and especially in winter (because so many people have seasonal/summer work) they tend to do a lot of social things.
Spring in Alaska is extraordinary--it may take its time getting here, but when it does it is so beautiful. I grew up in western Washington so I've seen pretty wild places, but Alaska really beats all. There is SO much wild space still, and there are literally fields of wild flowers by the side of the highway within minutes of downtown anywhere.
Summer is spring x10. Summertime in Alaska is a well-kept secret I think. If more people knew, more people would come. I can take 5 months of winter to get those 2 months of summer.
It is cooler here, certainly. Average summer weather is 60-75 or so...85 is swealteringly hot. :) We tend to love it--it's one reason we live here.

Anchorage is the 'big city' and it's still only about 200k people if I recall correctly. Alaskans think it's huge but anybody from 'down south' (the lower 48) thinks Anchorage is pretty small. There is a sense of proportion here that is unlike anywhere I have ever been. The people things--the houses and cities--tend to be small. But the wild things--the mountains, animals, rivers, ocean, and sky--they are enormous. We live in a 1300 square ft apartment which admittedly can feel crowded, if only because it lacks storage space...and yet we see mountains and old growth forest from our front window and routinely see moose of over 1000lbs in our backyard. In Alaska, man is the newcomer, the visitor; the one who looks out of place.

There is a sort of "come as you are" attitude here in Alaska. Most folks aren't uptight about whether your lawn is mowed or your hair is highlighted or styled just so, and nobody really gives a second glance if you show up to church in your jeans (not that we do, but people who are traveling through sometimes do). People tend to be friendly and helpful--at least that has been my experience in the smaller towns. I don't find it quite so much in the big city... Anchorage is kindof it's own place in the middle of the state, and most any Alaskan will tell you that it's different. In the city it's a lot like living anywhere else in the country except you're farther north (and close to good hunting and fishing). The rest of the state is not like Anchorage. We're "the last frontier" and proud of it.

I have a part 2 written as well, and will post it in a few days, but if there are any things you're specifically curious about, please ask! I could ramble on about what foods grow wild here, or what I have found the easiest or hardest to adjust to, or what are my most and least favorite things here...tell me what you want to know!


Aimee said...

I love your post! I would love to know about the gardening in Alaska, local food production, any farmers markets type things going that you have experienced.

kimberlee said...

My cousin just moved to anchorage with her little family. Maybe that will be my excuse to come to the State. I have had dreams (like when I am asleep dreams, not day dreams) of moving to Alaska for the past 7 or 8 years. But I am not at all a cold weather girl. We spent 2 years in Las Vegas Nevada and the weather was amazing! (I too liked living where everyone goes to visit.)
Is the climate seriously that mild? I would have expected it to be harsher winters. I've always enjoyed reading about your beach gatherings. I am looking forward to reading part 2.

Brasileira said...

You talked about temperature and precipitation, but what about light and darkness?

Mallory said...

You really make Alaska look like the place I want to live. I'm looking for somewhere that has perpetual fall weather (think -just- warm enough for short sleeves and/or just cool enough for a jacket). I'm not sure there is such a place. And I'm not sure if I could handle a 6 month winter....but I would love a more mild summer!

Thomasin said...

I might know a man who is on a flight to AK right this very evening for a final interview... ;-)

I'm wondering if you have any ideas about what someone might prefer to bring with them, on a move to AK, if they have to fly it or ship it by boat (no roads to where they're moving)? Are there things that are outrageously expensive or unavailable in Alaska that we might take for granted in the lower 48?

Also: you say that everyone in Alaska is quite hospitable to their neighbors (awesome!). But is there any racial tension to think about in that equation? If I am of Swedish/German heritage and were moving, say, to a town with 70% Native Alaskan ancestry, will I be truly welcomed as a new neighbor or viewed as somewhat an outsider? I've never been in the minority before, and am curious what it might be like.

iceburgindian said...

Wow! Alaska sounds wonderful. Perhaps I should come and visit!

Jena Vincent said...

You're not helping my desire to stay in California, you know. This is kind of freaking AWESOME.

Rachel said...

We're really enjoying Alaska so far- it's a lot colder than we're accustomed, after living in India, Atlanta, GA, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica :)

But I LOVE the long summer days (though it makes bed time tough for the kids, but instead we go hiking at 11:00 pm).

We'll have to see how we handle the short winter days.

ashley said...

Ah I love the bit about some people being Alaskans, regardless of where they were born. I have tried to explain to people that in my heart, I know that I was meant
to be an Alaskan. Alaska is where I belong. I love that you get it!

Cindy Seah said...

I really love this comment of yours!!!
"I think that some people are Alaskans, regardless of where they were born, and when we get here we just feel it to our core that this is home"

I am just 17 years old, living in Michigan but is a foreigner! I've been so obsessed with Alaska for months now! If only my family would let me go to UAF! (You probably think I'm just young and naive!) But I can't wait to find out whether Alaska is for me or not in the future!!

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