Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What it's like to live in Alaska--part 2

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Things people always ask about (today)
Part 3: To love, or not to love
Part 4: Local Foods

"Isn't it dark all the time?" (or, occasionally, "tell me about that midnight sun thing")
3am, early June, near Tok
 Ahh the light! The light is both a pro and a con in my opinion. In the winter, here in the southern part of the state, there's only 5ish hours of light, (Fairbanks has 3) so you wake up in the dark and go to bed in the dark and eat dinner in the dark...however it really only lasts a couple of weeks (the light changes by about 5 min a day, so that's 35min/wk, so it goes but then comes again very quickly). In the summertime, right now near solstice, we only have a couple of hours of dark. The sun is set for about 5 hours, but it never really gets darker than twilight. Having it so light can make it hard to get the kids to bed in the evenings (good curtains are essential),
sunset, 11pm, late June, Kenai Peninsula
it also means that the evening escapes from you...my husband is a teacher so we don't have a work schedule in the summer to regulate our days...so I'll start thinking hmm, I should work on dinner, and I glance at the clock and realize it's hours past our normal dinner time. It's just so light that it's energizing and I lose all track of time. Also, on the nights that I neglect to shut our blinds (because we often stay up until it's getting darker), the baby gets wakened by the bright sunlight streaming in at 5am...so yeah, curtains are very important. ☺
It's ironic I suppose, because we do love the light in the summer, but it actually has required more adjustment for me than the winter darkness... In the wintertime there are so many other things going on (holiday gatherings and such) that I am busy and don't notice so much...by January when the social events peter out, the light is already on its way back. That summer light though, well, let's just say I've been sleep deprived for two months and the end is not yet in sight.

"Is the climate seriously that mild?"
The climate varies a lot from one area to another--remember that from Juneau to Fairbanks is about as far as from Texas to Minnesota... So the climate I talked about was what I have experienced here in the southern part of the state and in "southeast" (the islands in the Juneau/Pelican region). In Fairbanks (which is only halfway up the state) they get temperatures of -40 (yes folks, that's Fahrenheit, so it's actually 72degrees below zero). They are inland, without the moderating effects of the sea which we have (and had in Pelican too). In the summertime they get temperatures up to 80+, which we don't really here. The other day we went to the Farmers Market and as I was buckling the kids into the car I thought wow, this is a nice warm sunny day...on the way to market I heard the temperature on the radio: 59.
I should note that I've always been a person who tended to be a little cold, BUT I would rather be cold than hot. When you are cold, you can always put on some socks or a sweater; but when you are hot there is a point at which you cannot take off anything else...I am very content to be in a place where 80 is flippin hot and doesn't happen very often. I find that people acclimatize (so long as they are not mentally refusing to do so), and so while 59 would probably have been jacket weather in Utah, here we are in our t-shirts and sandals enjoying the sunshine.

"Isn't Alaska really expensive?"
The cost of living here varies by where you live--life in the bush is extremely expensive because everything has to be shipped out. In the more developed areas (on the roads) it's actually about average for the country, although that's still higher than most non-metropolitan regions down south. Salaries usually compensate for that, but many (many) families feel the need to have two or three or four incomes (as in, both parents work, each of them with a couple of jobs). A LOT of work here is seasonal with fishing and things like that, which I think is part of the reason. Whether you can get by one one income or not really depends on your lifestyle and how you budget and your feelings on wants vs needs. Heating bills can be pretty high in the winter. We live pretty simply, and frankly there are times when I really wish for some extra money, but we are getting by.

"I hear the hunting and fishing is awesome"
Yes, it is. ☺
Some love it for the sport, I love it for the whole "eating local" and "living off the land" thing. I actually don't like salmon very much and would never buy it, but when you can stand in the river and catch them just standing there with a net, yeah, not gonna turn down nearly-free fish. A combination hunting/fishing license for a resident is $50 (non-residents pay a lot more--Alaska is smart like that, knowing the the locals rely on wild meat for food, but the tourists could afford to travel up here so logically they can afford an expensive license too!). My husband has caught a couple dozen salmon in the last few weekends and our freezer is filling up. He's going to go out after halibut (which I do like), and hopefully this fall he'll get a moose, which is about 700lbs of meat. The wild berrying is good too. There is just a lot of bounty from the land, and few enough people that we can all harvest from it all that our families need. There is something deeply satisfying about providing for your family with your bare hands, you know?

"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)?"
If you're moving to the bush (off-roads) then it's going to be more expensive than anywhere on the roads. If you're heading for southeast then you can take stuff on the ferry--the general policy there is that you have to haul your own stuff on and off the boat, but you can bring about as much as you want. If you're heading for the Aleutians, I know there are barges and I think there are ferries, but I admit I don't know the policies. If you were in the inland bush--where all transport is on tiny planes--then it's going to cost a fortune and there's no way around it. Freight on the seaplane in Pelican was by the pound, and it was $1/lb for whatever you wanted to bring on besides yourself and 50lbs of luggage. Those little plains can only hold about 1200 lbs (depending on the plane of course), so they weigh everything that goes on board (even the pilot) and add it up to determine what can go on this trip and what has to wait.
I can tell you what we did: we got rid of most of our things--definitely anything large--and replaced it up here. When we were in Pelican we were in a partially furnished apartment (which I believe is fairly common in bush areas, since it's so expensive to get things in and out) so you should definitely check on that before deciding what to bring. When we moved back out to the roads we brought what we could by ferry and road, and then everything else was sold down south and replaced up here. That actually was cheaper than renting a truck down south and bringing everything up... (the truck was over $1000 for a week, and gas would have been probably $3000+).
If you are going to be going into a furnished apartment, then all you'll need is clothing, toys, personal items, and maybe some kitchen stuff or linens. That was what we had, and we just flew with it, paying the extra $50/box on the jet when we flew. (A short recap of our trip is here.) That trip--after our airline tickets--was about $700 in moving costs. We moved a family of 4 (plus a dog) in 20 boxes/suitcases.
When we moved from Pelican to here, we packed what we could into our van, and the rest we mailed to ourselves (or, rather, to a friend in Anchorage who held them for us until we got there). Yes, we moved mostly via mail--35 boxes mailed to ourselves. That cost for all the mailed boxes was under $400 if I recall correctly (and the ferry charges for the family and vehicle we would have paid anyway, so I don't see them as moving costs per se, you know?)
I would recommend to call the ferry/barge/plane companies and tell them you're moving and ask about rates. Talk to locals in the town too--they tend to know a lot, and may be able to tell you things that you would not know to investigate yourself (like that one company offers discounts to people who are moving, or that so-and-so has a couch they'll let you have for free so you don't need to bring yours).

"Are there things that are outrageously expensive or unavailable in Alaska that we might take for granted in the lower 48?"
Fresh dairy or eggs cost a fortune in the bush--they are not produced there and cost a lot to bring in because they have to be brought in via fast methods rather than cheap ones... In Pelican milk cost about $8/gal, and the eggs were I think around $4/doz. We (like everyone else) used a lot of powdered milk and eggs (very easy for baking) and reserved the fresh stuff just for eating straight. We also had a lot of the boxed milk (super ultra pasturized, not much nutritional value left I'm afraid, but it's shelf stable, and passable on cereal or in sauces where powdered didn't cut it). I also made yogurt with it.
Living in the bush requires a lot of planning ahead. In Pelican they shipped in Costco orders once a month--we all ordered together and shared some of the cost that way. Since the truck was not temperature-controlled I had to consider the weather in deciding what to order--frozen meats and veggies in February, potatoes and fruits once things warmed up a little...
The one thing that is hard to come by--at least in the bush--is fresh produce. We ate almost exclusively frozen or canned. The frozen and canned produce is 'normally' priced, but anything that can't be grown locally will have to be shipped up and of course that means it will either be very expensive or very poor (or both). I am learning to simply enjoy eating foods that grow here, and rarely buy things that do not.
Utilities can be very expensive here too--depending where you are. Heat, especially, is important of course, but depending on the source (many use oil heaters) and how far the fuel has to be brought in, it can be extremely expensive. I recommend getting a place with a wood stove if you can, and heating that way as much as possible.
Finally, shipping costs to Alaska are a pain. I use almost exclusively amazon.com and their free shipping. Everybody else tends to have the $7 AK surcharge (even if you order over $50 and get the 'free shipping' you still have to pay the surcharge). Amazon is my hero in that regard (I understand that drugstore.com does the same, though I have never ordered from them). In the cases where you can't find free shipping, or for places that simply don't ship to Alaska, get yourself a friend or family member down south. More than a few times I've had a box sent to my mother in Washington, then she mails it on to me and I reimburse her...and it's usually still cheaper than if I'd had it shipped directly to me.

"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?"
In my experience, as a German/Scandinavian myself, no, race didn't really matter. Now some villages are more heavily native than others, so that may vary--Pelican was less than half native. The native families tended to take pride in their heritage, but so long as everybody was respectful about it (and allowed them their pride) I never saw tension over it. I think the important thing is to be willing to respect them and their culture. (My Wolf went to a summer 'culture camp' in Pelican where they made traditional deerskin drums and learned dances and such, and when they asked him what clan he was from he didn't know and came home to ask me. I told him the only clan we were from was the Stewarts of Scotland--he went back and told the teacher that that was his clan, and she thought it was adorable...)
You should be aware that there are two different groups of native peoples here, and they take great offense at being confused. In the south/southeast parts are "Alaska Natives" (Tlingit, Haida, etc) and they are of similar ancestry to the tribes in British Columbia or Washington state. They fished and foraged but lived in a generally forgiving climate and had (compared to more northerly tribes) an easier life. In the more northern areas are the Inuit peoples (Athabascan, Aleut, etc) and they are genetically and culturally totally different. They are the peoples who were once called "Eskimo" and while that term is no longer considered politically correct, they have the heritage of igloos, sled dogs, and survival in sub-zero temperatures. Their ancestors were the ones who came across the land bridge from Siberia, and they do not even look the same as the peoples who migrated up from down south. One of the most offensive things you could do is to confuse the two groups of peoples...so I stick with avoiding assumptions, and treating everybody the same and not worrying about it. So far so good.
As for whether you'll be an outsider, well, that has nothing to do with race. That has everything to do with the fact that you'll be coming in from out of state. No matter how much you say you love it, everyone will nod knowingly and say "wait till you've done a winter before you decide..." It's fair enough. A lot of people like Alaskan summers, but realize they are not cut out for the winters. People who don't like Alaska only last a couple of years usually. Particularly in the little towns, you will be a newcomer for a year or two. Once you've stuck around for a couple of winters, and participated in the community events, they will accept you more. If you subsequently move within the state, you'll be already an Alaskan, and will not be an outsider anymore. (I don't think Anchorage is the same in this, since they're a suburb of Seattle rather than part of normal Alaska...but I can't say for sure since I've never lived there!)


Becky said...

Gotta love that midnight sun! I went to girl's camp last week and we kept staying up until one in the morning because that's when it started to get dark-ish. Good stuff!

Funny thing about Alaska, too - I'd never heard of a moving sale until I lived here. But they're everywhere! It's just cheaper to buy stuff when you get where you're going, I guess.

Thomasin said...

This is fascinating--thank you!!

Rachel said...

The 'midnight sun' is fun, but quite an adjustment. You do certainly lose track of the hour.

The cold has been an adjustment. We still wear our coats even on 'warm' days (60 degrees)- my husband laughs that the natives are running the A/C in the rental cars. (Of course we just came from India where it was 110 degrees).

Overall, I don't think things are more expensive, as long as you shop around. Some things are super expensive, but if you shop around for them, you can usually find them for a 'normal' price, even here in Homer :)

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