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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Being an Urban Alaskan #6 – Do you use American Money? (Misconceptions)

You’ve found your way to post #6 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. If you’re interested in catching up, you can go here.

When I was college, I spent my first two summers working at a small tour company out of Seward (note: It’s not not pronounced See-ward, it’s pronounced Sewer-d.), called Kenai (Keen-eye) Fjords (If you pronounce it with a j sound, I’ll smack you, seriously) Tours, or KFT. What was most interesting about the job was not the free any time you had time tours or four free passes you could give to family and friends, it was the absolutely ridiculous questions we got. To start, I was in data entry, which meant I rarely took phone reservations, but the second year, that was my job. Answer phones and get customers all set up on the tours to include making sure they got on the tour that was going to make sense for them. Birders where the easiest, they wanted to be out on the water the longest and go the furthest. I’m pretty sure most of them didn’t even ask the price, they just confirmed there was space and rattled off a credit card number. Other folks, however, not so much. In any case, it was that year I got the best questions.

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Before I start, quick geography lesson: Seward, the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad, is a city 3 hours driving distance south of Anchorage bordering the Kenai Fjords national park, which contains the harding ice field, some 700 square miles of ice that feeds a dozen or so glaciers. The picture above is pointing at a narrow stretch or road that is, quite literally, one of the end points of the highway. Seward is also home to the state’s only maximum security prison (not pictured). And arguably the most scenic maximum security prison in the universe. It’s a part of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, which is about the size of West Virgina (I know I already used that comparison for a different borough, but really, I’m not making this shit up. Wikipedia will sort you out if you don’t believe me). In the winter, some 2000ish people live there, by some estimates summer-time doubles that with seasonal workers. When a cruise ship is in town, the population increases another two thousand or so, if only for a few days. There is an annual foot-race on the fourth of July that leads 3000 feet up Mount Marathon and back down again. Seward sits between a deep bay and the towering Chugach mountains on little more than the fan-shaped debris field of rock left behind by a creek that was long ago diverted to empty as an angry rush of white water south of town. To put it bluntly, Seward may as well be the poster child for Alaska tourism. The image below is literally 5 minutes EASY walk on a road from my father-in-law’s house.

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Now you know where I was sitting and what I was looking at when I picked up the phone: “Kenai Fjords Tours, how can I help you,” or some shit, I can clearly lay out all of the absurd questions. Or at least some of them, because, let’s face it. You’re not going to have the patience for all of them.

Best Question: “Do you accept American Money”

My answer: Silence. Then, after entirely too long waiting for the laugh of a joke that wasn’t, “Yes. Yes we do.”

Alaska isn’t even the last state admitted to the union, and we’re a pretty sizable chunk of the overall US foot-print.

Question: “When do they let the animals out at Denali Park”

Answer: “Er. Well, it’s not like a zoo. The animals live there and we just get to go visit them at their house. You have to ride an old school bus.”

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Question: “I found the exit to the glacier, but I couldn’t find the entrance.”

Answer: I may have hung up on this guy. To be fair, this one needs more set up. Just outside of Seward, you can drive into the Kenai Fjords National park and then hike about a mile or so up to a glacier. It just happens that the glacier is called Exit glacier. So, the sign, a big blue one with an arrow, says Exit Glacier → 5.2 miles or something. I don’t remember how far.

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Question: “Can I take a boat up to McKinley Park?”

Answer: “No, you bloody can’t. It’s 250 miles inland.”

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Question: “So, I’m going to be in Valdez on the 23rd and we’d like to take a cruise on the 24th. What time do you reckon we’d need to leave to make the 8am boat?”

Answer: “Did you intend to sleep? If you left at midnight, you might make it.”

Question: “Oh, really? Well, what if we stopped off at McKinley park on the 24th and came down on the 25th instead.”

Answer: “Would you drive from Nashville, TN to Cleveland, OH in one day and then on to Washington DC the next and expect to see anything? Because that’s what you’re talking about. Plus there’s road construction, so just slap a few extra hours on top of that.”

Runner up (to be fair, we actually got this one when we moved to Maryland)

Question: “Alaska is an island isn’t it?”

Answer: “No, we drove here and everything.”

Questioner: Pulls skeptical face. “You’re having me on. I’m going to check the map when I get home.”

The Alaska Highway is, quite literally, the only road in or out, but you can drive it and it will absolutely get you to Ellicott City, MD from Wasilla, AK.

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Really, the questions weren’t all bad, and for the most part centered around trying to explain to folks just how damn far apart everything was and also the fact that if there is a road, it’s probably a 2-lane highway and under construction. You’ve got to go to an urban center to get a multi-lane divided freeway. For an Urban dweller, such as myself, getting from home to work is not profoundly different than taking route 100 down to the Baltimore-Washington parkway to pull into an office park. Really, I think my western state friends from places like California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada will understand.

Next Up: Moose.