Thursday, April 3, 2008

Once An Alaskan Always An Alaskan

by Robert L Gisel

 To Alaskan residents past or present it has been a long understanding that the call of Alaska never really ever leaves one once you have tasted the Great Land. Moving around the south 48 I hear mostly these two recurring lines: "I've always wanted to go to Alaska" and "I really want to go back".

 Personally I grew up there and I'd be there today but the need for work in my technical skills required I go elsewhere. The dream of returning never departed but was only partly satiated by knowing my family was still there and trips back for visits were still on table. This grand lure is amazingly widespread so one could wonder what this is all about.

 One is hard pressed to really find something to object to about living in Alaska where there was some willful desire to go there in the first place. Okay, work can be hard to find sometimes. Not if you are rather intent on going to work though. There is the usual array of jobs found in any city in the US and more in the main industries of tourism, mining, fishing and lumber. There's attorneys and taxi drivers, pizza cooks, grocery clerks, churches, bars and you name it. The population is only around 670,000 in the entire state though, as huge as it is. So some certain amount of people are vying for a set amount of jobs which I'd guess to be less than 350,000, some of which are quite seasonal. Truly though for me there was never too much a problem to keep working when I needed to as I really wasn't allergic to work.

 People usually say to me as the very next response to saying I grew up in Alaska "Isn't it cold there?" Of course I concur, how so very cold it is, lest I ruin the game for real Alaskans. Sometimes though I get smitten with a streak of honesty and let them know that is just what we tell people to keep the population down.

 The truth is it is a big state. Very big. While it might be raining in Ketchikan that very day there could be also a cold snap that at 60 below zero freezes a spittle before it hits the ground at Point Barrow. It is after all a distance between those two communities of about 1320 miles as the crow flies. Being around a hundred miles north of latitude 70 and about 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle Barrow is really far up there.

 To exaggerate this even further the temperature varies not only in degrees but in the mind of the beholder. Personally the dry cold and little or no winds found in Anchorage suits me fine so that 10 below zero Fahrenheit is just right. The air is really fresh and crisp like that. It kind of snaps you alert and that is it. Throw on an overcoat, don't even button it, gloves or not, and no hat is all that was needed. When cross country skiing around the seasonal golf course it was just a heavy turtle neck sweater and no gloves. If the temperature dropped to 20 below I'd throw on an open coat and keep some gloves handy in my pocket.

 In my brief stint living in Fairbanks during the winter the temperature was dropping down to 30 and 40 below while I was walking to work 15 minutes away. At 40 below a scarf over my face was necessary and there would be icicles on it from my breath when I got to work. Here again it is is a dry cold and no winds to speak of.

 Just when I was thanking my lucky stars there was no breeze to drop the wind chill factor, one of the neighbors came racing out at top speed on his snow mobile on the park strip. That could be one very cold ride, one would think, but not to watch this fellow. He was obviously quite used to it and he was having a ball out there recreating before he had to go work. You get acclimated to it and more so by reason of one's consideration than anything else it would seem.

 On the other hand it is more of a wet cold in Juneau where I grew up and tends to have extreme winds in the winter so that 30 degrees above with a 40 to 50 knot wind can be somewhat bitter because of the wind chill. Dressed well with a good coat and hat though this is no problem either. All that considered, it was a much wetter cold in the Missouri winter so that at 35 degrees above in that climate chilled me to the bone and was too uncomfortable for me.

 Talking to people from the upper lower 48 it was at first amazing to me to learn the weather there was colder than what we were experiencing in places in Alaska. Montana, Wisconsin or Minnesota which regularly go into minus temperatures are far colder than Juneau which stays around 30 degrees and occasionally lower.

 Once in Juneau I saw the temperature break records by going under zero down to 12 below. At that time the winds were whipping around at 40 to 50 knots so the chill factor was so ridiculously low I had to invalidate my calculation of it as nothing could be that cold. Believe it or not we really didn't mind it.

 Until we found my car on the street had a flat tire. I still have to thank my friend Doug for spelling me on the tire iron to finish the job as that was just too brutal, even for me, a die-hard Alaskan. It's still a consideration: Doug was smiling away, getting that tired changed without a complaint.

 New York and Massachusetts always saw more snow fall than we did. One time there was 36 inches of snow in a 48 hour period and that was the most I ever saw in Juneau. New York gets piles more than that every year. In Anchorage the snow was even less. Remember it is a dry cold and thus a dry snow.

 One year there was so little snow cover insulating the permafrost it started thawing. The wood building our business was in shifted on its foundation and we started having trouble opening the doors. The permafrost, the level of underground frozen water table, is an essential facet of building foundations.

 The summers turn around into warm days anywhere from 60 to 95 degrees depending on where you are and the amount of sun or clouds. I went water skiing a lot in the summers in Juneau. I believe it was Doug and Bill and myself near the end of one school year who water skied down the Channel past the High School windows brazenly announcing our tardiness.

 Maybe it was just that, these extreme variances and the cocky acceptance of them, which makes one forever an Alaskan. When you watch the radical difference in the length of day and night you really get the idea you truly are barely perched on the side of the globe. The winter I spent in Fairbanks the sun never fully came up above the horizon. Midday was dusk at best.

 One other time I went to Fairbanks over my summer vacation and watched the mid-summer sun tracing the line of a shallow bowl as it rolled across the horizon , never setting below it.

 You just know you are someplace really different and if all this hasn't impressed then realizing you don't have to watch out for snakes anymore as there are none, but you sure better keep alert for those bears as they will impress you.

 "Scenic" was almost taken for granted while all the time my backyard was a mountain, where literally walking from the yard into the woods sloping up steeply 4000+ feet was the mountain top, and the glacier was just over there where you could practically drive up to the face of it. I came to realize this as the most beautiful place in the world. For sure it has been that for me.

 It's time to go back again.


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