A year ago I was in a bad place

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, and to be honest, I haven’t been writing much at all lately, this is largely to do with the day job being incredibly busy, but also an experience at the Alaska Writer’s Guild annual conference which put me into a seriously weird place as a writer. I’m still digesting that and giving myself time to think about the writing endgame (read: Publishing etc…) In any case, I’ll blog about that sometime in the future, for now, something else is on my mind.

This morning, as with most mornings, I crawled out of bed and picked up my phone to check Twitter and Facebook. As Facebook sometimes does, I got a notification about memories from previous years. One of those memories was a blog post titled “Can’t I just disappear for a while?” I’ve been thinking about this post a lot lately. Not because I feel that way, because I don’t, but because it was about a year ago. Arguably, I’m as busy right now as I was then. This past weekend was the first weekend that I really took in its entirety since about mid-September. The post from last year was a long and ranty about how I wasn’t having a super-great time. What I remember most about the post was standing in the parking lot at work and staring at the building and wondering what the bloody hell I’d gotten myself into and was it worth it? There was also a keen feeling of self-loathing and failure. At the time, I was doing a lot, but didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything. In fact, every step forward felt like two steps back. I’m a pretty driven individual, usually, and this wasn’t a good place for me to be.

Not three weeks after that post, I’d gotten a promotion and a shiny new office. I blogged about that too. There was some hope and optimism in it, but in my heart I didn’t actually feel it. When I moved into that big new office, it put me in mind of what I used to do at Fish and Game, and those feelings grounded me, a little. However, by the end of November last year, I had left that job and gone back to the old one.

In looking back at those posts, it feels so far away it may as well have been someone else’s life. In hindsight, leaving that job was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, but so was taking it.

When I left Fish and Game, I had loads of reasons, I wanted more advancement opportunities, a more stable position, a place where I could get back to programming, and all sorts of other stuff. A lot of that really ended up being true, except for the position stability – turns out that doesn’t really exist for my generation. In any case, by going out to experience a completely new environment where being the new guy meant nobody had time for me was a tremendous growing experience. Of course, that’s a bit harsh, I did get along with folks well enough, and I did get help, when I asked, but a lot of times, especially when it came to the biggest most important parts of the job, it wound around to things like “I don’t know” and “I hope this project fails” or “This project is going to fail”.

I could easily rant all day about the things that made me feel bad or worked against me, or made the job intolerable, but nobody wants to hear that. What I can tell you is that not quite one year on, and I’m back where I started and I feel positive in ways I haven’t since I first started at Fish and Game back in 2004. A lot of that attitude adjustment has to do with the negative experience I had at the other place. I think it just goes to show that sometimes we all need to step back from our current problem or situation and look elsewhere for perspective. Maybe it’s not as bad as we think, or maybe turning your back is the right thing. In any case, it was a good experience for me, even if I really look back on it with a negative attitude.

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Where the hell you been, mate?

Short answer? Bethel, AK for work. To be a lot more specific, I’ve worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) for about 12 out of the the past 13 years. For all practical purposes, this has been my entire professional career. Unlike the vast majority of other Fish and Gamers, I’ve haven’t spent any of my time working in the field or remote places in AK. I’m one of the few who has the honor of holding down a chair at a desk to make sure all of that great info we collect is analyzed for various uses. 

This past week, I finally made it to one of the more remote corners of the state. It’s not field work, but Bethel is probably as close as I’ll ever get. Bethel is an interesting place, it’s a town of about 6,400 people along the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska. It’s some 500 miles off the highway system and accessible by plane and barge. If you’ve never been to rural Alaska, I can say that it’s very likely it’s like no place you’ve ever been. To put this in terms my lower-48 friends might understand, Bethel is a lot like a developing foreign country. You’re as likely to hear the word “Quyana” as you are “Thank You” and you are aware very quickly that while this is Alaska, it’s not Anchorage.

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The truth is that I want this post to be about a lot of things, the lack of internet access being notable, anyhow I thought a lot of things while I was there, but nobody wants to read a sixty page treatise on what Dave thought of Bethel, AK. So, instead, I’m going to give you a couple of anecdotes that sum up my experience.

To be clear, I went there to work, and work we did. The average day was something like 10 hours. That was good and productive, but not interesting to anyone not involved. Perhaps it’s odd, but after having gone and returned, I feel a hell of a lot more motivated than I did before leaving. Not sure how ten hour work days for a week without my family can accomplish that, but it did.

The first thing that happened actually started while I was getting on the plane headed out, and as I sat on the plane. I happened to be just behind a young woman, probably in her early twenties who fit the description of soy pumpkin-spice ‘basic’. She repeatedly, and loudly, announced to anyone who made eye-contact that she was from Oregon, was going to move to Bethel to be an accountant to be with her boyfriend who was a dentist. She repeated this so many times I think it may very well be burned into my permanent memory. After getting off the plane I found my colleague waiting to pick me up. We stood, as it happens, behind this young woman for about twenty minutes waiting for my bag. While we waited and chatted about writing, the survey project, and whatever, the young woman and her boyfriend were rapidly becoming entwined in a situation that was going to require a bedroom very, very soon. 

So, we got my things and hopped into the work truck. As soon as I closed the door, I let out a breath and unloaded with young lady’s story. In part because it cracked me up and in part because this is the sort of shit I like to write about. My colleague’s response amounted to a shake of the head and something between amusement and exasperation along with “Bethel is going to rock that girl’s world, and not in the best way.”

By all accounts, Bethel is a rough town, but it didn’t strike me as a bad place, just incredibly real with real problems, and about as NOT Oregon as you can get. You’re not going to find Starbucks out there. The best place for coffee was actually a little safety shop in the hospital administration building, and it was, indeed, a good cup of coffee. 

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The other little story was my trip to the tundra. On night two, my colleague took her dogs out to burn some energy and let me tag along (and also made sure I didn’t freeze to death out there – if you happen to read this, thank you, that hat made all the difference, even if a bit girly). We walked maybe a half mile out and back. It was amazing. You can see the bones of the land out there in a way you can’t elsewhere, except perhaps a desert. But unlike the open hostility of a desert, this place was slightly more conciliatory. While the wind roared icy threats at us, the ground cover included all types of berries in impressive quantities. It felt a bit like an apology for all the unpleasant weather. 

In any case, as we walked back to the truck, we got to talking about living and working in Alaska. I don’t quite recall the flow of that discussion but it landed more or less like this: “Here we are, taking an evening walk across an absolutely gorgeous landscape that some people would consider a once in a lifetime trip they might never get to take, and we’re being paid for it.” Not paid to be walking, of course, but we were paid to travel out there and work, and really, who gets to go to a place like this (picture below) and be paid to be there? Okay, we’re not unique, but holy moly…

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Being an Urban Alaskan #7 – Moose.

You’ve found your way to post #7 of my series of articles on the Urban Alaskan, written for my non-Alaska friends, where I talk about how my day to day experience is exactly like yours, mostly, except for the moose and timezone. You can catch up here.

I bet you think that because I work for Department of Fish & Game that I know everything there is to know about Moose. Well, that’s absolutely not true. I know about databases, we have biologists for moose. The few incontrovertible facts I know about moose can be summed into the following bullet points:

  • Alaskan moose are big,
  • They taste delicious in curry,
  • They are not scared of you (Usually. If one sees you with a gun, it might actually run away. This happened to me once when I was small game hunting up near Sutton.)

However, just because that’s about all I know about moose, doesn’t mean I can’t bang on about what moose mean for the Urban Alaskan.

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Living in urban Alaska does mean wildlife encounters. If you live here long enough, you will absolutely have encountered moose and bear, even if the biggest hike you take is a quick loop around the dog-park lake. Before I get too far into this, I also want to point out that Alaska urban life also means loads of things we haven’t got to worry about (read: we have stuff to worry about, you have stuff to worry about), ticks aren’t generally an issue, snakes don’t live here, spiders are always small enough to be squashed and none are poisonous, neither fleas nor cockroaches are a major issue. There are no fire ants in Alaska, we don’t have anything like scorpions, and even the frogs tend to be these cute little things about the size of my thumb. Opossums, skunks, and Raccoons are the realm of fairy-tale creatures and the biggest wild cat we have is the lynx, which you’d be hard-pressed to see even when looking. Of course, there are exceptions to all of this, but this is how I see it as an urban dweller. My point, again, is that we have our wildlife and you have yours, right?

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Have you ever seen that early 90s TV show Northern Exposure? The opening credits have a moose wandering though town, and while I never really watched it myself, I’d call that scene more or less accurate. Moose do just sort of strut around like they own the place. They’re giant Pleistocene hold-outs consisting of 50% legs, 50% hamburger, and 50% “don’t give a shit,” that still seem to remember when people were pretty new on the North American scene.

I think I could sum up living around moose in a few statements:

“That bloody bastard just broke my apple tree in half!”

“There’s a moose in the driveway and I can’t leave for work.”

“Koster! A moose hit my car this morning. I was stopped at the light and it came charging out of the woods and ran right into my quarter panel.”

Most suburban dwellers around the country are familiar with deer furtively emerging from the woods to chew on the tender grass or fallen apples or some such. Those encounters typically involve hushed voices and “oh, look, it’s a deer.” Then, the deer will scamper off and do whatever it is deer do under the cover of the forest. Possibly smoke and drink. I don’t know, I’m not a deer.

With Moose, this simply doesn’t happen. If they were smoking and drinking, you’d better believe they’d do it right there in front of you. In fact, you could stand on your front porch banging pots and pans and shouting at the top of your lungs and the best you might get is a sour look from the moose and a sore throat from shouting.

If you’re very lucky, the moose will carry on licking the salt from your car or decimating your prize apple trees. If not, well, you’ll be tramped into an unpleasant jelly-like stain.

While a lot of noise is made about bears, because they’re big and strong and sometimes maul people, human-moose interactions are way more common and plenty dangerous. Plus a moose will absolutely maul the shit out of your car. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that nearly 800 moose are killed in motor-vehicle accidents every year on urban Alaskan roadways. That may not seem like a tremendous amount from the perspective of a state this size, after all, deer are hit all the time in the lower 48, aren’t they? Not the same, friend, not the same at all. Hitting a moose is the same as hitting 7-8 deer all at the same time. While getting hit by a car is a death sentence for a moose, it is also an alarmingly frequent death sentence for the car.

I’m sure at this point, you might be asking yourself. Wow. A thousand pound animal gets hit by a car. Seems like an awful waste of perfectly good meat, that… No? Not thinking that? That’s because you’re not from here. The thing is that if you hit a moose with your car, by law, the moose meat doesn’t belong to you. It’s property of the state, and the state gives the meat to charities. Wow – great idea eh? Yes, it is and to add a cherry on top charities in this state also include family groups of 4 or more families. So, it comes around to this: If you want to eat roadkill, then you better round up some friends and call the Alaska State Troopers to get on the damn list.

And one last fun anecdote before I leave you without a conclusion to satisfactorily sum up how living here with moose is exactly like living anywhere else without them, because I haven’t got one. I was on the list with some friends a few years back. So, one week, when my wife was out of town with our youngest son and I was at home with the older kids, I was woken up at 4am. I checked the caller-ID. Alaska State Troopers. You ever had a GOOD call from the state troopers at 4am? No, me either. Well, until that day. Turns out someone had hit a moose and it was our group’s turn. After a full day of butchering with friends at the kitchen table, we had a freezer full of moose.

The whole point of this post is to describe the realities of living with moose, which do suck and all urban Alaskans can commiserate with the story of being trapped inside the house by a moose who refuses to leave. However, if you’re cautious and respect the animals, they’ll generally leave you alone and it winds up being a fun little thing to watch them stomp through the yard onto better munching grounds. It’s really a lot like watching the deer down south, but with plenty of time to take a good picture.

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