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 #1 – Why the hell do you live in Alaska?

Last Saturday morning as I crawled out of bed and rummaged through my social media notifications from friends in more civilized timezones, I tossed out the idea of a blog about the urban Alaskan experience. This was followed immediately by positive reception and encouragement to consider a series of posts. So, here I am. These blog essays are going to be relatively short and focused on one general topic. As I proceed through my stories of the Urban AK experience, if anyone has a story to share, I’ll post it in the series.

I live in Alaska because this is where I grew up. While I wasn’t born here, this is home. From my earliest memories until I was about ten, I lived in Anchorage then we moved to Wasilla. My college years were spent in Fairbanks with a couple summers in Seward. After college my wife and I moved to Maryland for a year then we were back to Seward, then Anchorage and finally Wasilla, in the home we’ve lived in for twelve years.

Even though I wasn’t born here, I don’t remember the time before and so I consider my year long adventure in Maryland as the only time I’ve lived out of state. While I’m about to go on in a whole pile of posts about how much urban Alaska is just like everywhere else, I’d be lying if I tried to tell you moving from Fairbanks, AK to Ellicott City, MD wasn’t a shock to the system. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but there is a real, tangible difference between east and west coast culture.

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The truth of it is that I had a great job in Maryland. It was super interesting, paid well, and had excellent prospects for advancement and long-term career stuff. However, neither Stacy or I could handle the bustling ocean of humanity or the unfamiliar pace of life. After several months, we started looking around us and gazing into the future in that lazy manner twenty-somethings do. It’s a place we’d have to go at some point, but not just yet. In that gazing, we realized that life was going to be more or less completely unlike either of our childhoods. We weren’t going to have a cute little house with a creek out back and maybe some chickens and things. Living in Maryland meant we’d be crammed into a row-house, neighbors stacked so tightly on either side that we might as well be dried, salted, and packed in oil. Even then, it still took about a year before I realized that happiness wasn’t going to be in work. We were also going to have to be happy with where we were. So, we packed all of our things into our Subaru and a little trailer and scuttled back up the highway. Neither of us had a job, our savings amounted to just enough to get us through a month, and yet off we went.

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Of course, we found good jobs, a nice house with the creek and eventually chickens. Really, we could have gone anywhere find this. Even in Maryland, had we really really looked and made some concessions, we’d have found something similar, but the pull to home was strong and so here we are, and hopefully, here we stay.

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Next up: What’s it like to live in Alaska?

Sick days & fever dreams

I was out sick yesterday. It wasn’t awful. Didn’t have the plague or anything, but I did want to sleep in and then spend the rest of the day basically sitting around. Really, I just felt tired and didn’t want to get anyone else sick, plus a bit of rest can go a long way in feeling better. Anyhow, that’s not the interesting thing. Last night I crashed out a little too late and I had odd dreams. Last night’s dream involved me talking to someone else, also me. The writer part of me. He reminded me of a story  idea that I’d come up with some weeks ago and failed to write down. Then, we proceeded to have a discussion of plot and characters and research methods. It was so vivid that I remember it even now after getting up, coughing my guts out and downing most of a cup of coffee – and also being chased round the house once by the geese. It was odd seeing the writer side of me personified and telling me things that I couldn’t remember the night before.

Anyhow. That’s my writer update. I’ve got a new concept on the sketch pad and I’m stalling on Dark Queen because, well, I want it to be an awesome story and don’t want to rush it. It’s sitting at 90K right now with a plotted target of 110-120K. In other news, I just submitted a short story to a self-pub anthology effort. The deadline is the 31st of August, so hopefully I’ll have more news on that as it progresses, but it might be a while. Now – on to chores. They don’t pause for sick days 🙂