Being an Urban Alaskan #5 – Do you really get paid to live in AK?

money-1428594_1280You’ve found your way to post #5 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’d like to catch up, you can check here.

To answer the question in short, Yes. We get paid a Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) each year. We don’t pay any sort of state taxes, however cities and boroughs are a bit different, each having a patchwork of sales and property taxes. Before I go on about this at all, I want to be clear, one thing the PFD is NOT is universal basic income. Regardless of what Mark Zuckerburg said about it, or anyone else. The PFD is the tip of an odd regulatory iceberg that is somehow both socialist and fascist. In this state, even in our little urban corners, land owners only own the surface. Everything below ground is available for sale to the highest bidder. This means that it’s totally possible for a company to drill for oil under your house without any sort of personal compensation. The PFD is our consolation prize for having the minerals sold out from beneath us. On one hand it’s a totally equitable system where everyone shares the wealth, on the other, it’s a system where big companies run everything and dole out a little cash to make it seem above board.

The past couple of years of PFDs have been pretty average as far as things go. In general, the value of the PFD has a lot more to do with the stock market than oil these days. The state has some $60 billion invested in various places. Alaskan residents are given equal shares of ½ the five year average net earnings of the PFD or something like that. Right now these payments are in jeopardy due to a massive fiscal crisis. So, while last year we were each due some $2100 (Yes that’s 10K for my family), we only got just over $1000 each. This year is going to be similar. Next will probably be even more

What’s interesting about the PFD isn’t the fact that we get money, I think, it’s the PFD sales. At this point you might ask, “PFD sales? What the hell is this?” Put this picture in your mind: A twenty foot tall stack of flat-screen TV boxes. Back when I was in college, before flat-screens were in wide use, we had a couple of really good PFD years. I recall walking into Fred Meyer and seeing TVs stacked to the ceiling. This didn’t actually even cause me to stop and think at the time. I mean, hell, everyone was flush with a couple thousand bucks a person seems like it’d be as good a time as any to buy a TV. I didn’t think about it until I moved to Maryland and there was no PFD or PFD sales.

About ten years ago or so, when oil was astronomical AND the stock market was clipping along, we had a two-thousand dollar PFD PLUS Sarah Palin gave everyone another $1,000 ‘energy bonus’, which rang up to a solid $3,000/person across the state. There is a reason she’s well liked here. Overnight, my bank account went from being a mud-puddle in a desert to a Scrooge McDuck swimming-pool. That’s the year I put the addition on the house.

I can’t speak for rural residents, but for an urban Alaskan, the PFD has become a pretty routine part of life that, more often than not, gets put to some practical use with a bit of splurge. Each year, we apply and receive our money. Typically, we use it for mundane things, like fixing the car or paying off some debt. This year, for example, we’ll be paying off the remains of Stacy’s student loans and maybe, if the kids have all straight-As and I don’t have to yell at them every night for not doing their homework, we might invest in a new video game console.

There it is – we get a PFD. No, it’s not anything like what folks experience in the lower-48, but also recall that food and things (like lumber or cement) cost a lot more here, as does fuel (in spite of owning vast oil reserves), and to be honest, paychecks aren’t dramatically better here than elsewhere, in some cases rather considerably less than industry standard. While it sounds cool, it’s just helping us to fill in the cracks and help us forget that an oil company might very well just drill our water out from under us at any moment.

Next Up: Do you use American Money? (Misconceptions)

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Being an urban Alaskan #4 – Yes, it’s bloody dangerous to live here, even in the city

IMG_2442You’ve found your way to post #4 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 want to catch up, you can see post #3 here.

I know I promised the great title of do you really get paid in AK, but this topic is more relevant for the week. And to answer the original question – yes, we get paid, more on that tidbit next time.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the day my brother-in-law went missing. This was back in 1999. It was a beautiful sunny day, and for Seward, AK, that’s a rare thing. Actually, the whole summer had been a nice. I think that was the same summer it’d hit 90 in downtown Seward and the pavement buckled. Stewart, my wife’s twin, decided to go to the lake for a spin around Bear Lake on a jet-ski on his day off. Somewhere in there things took a rather tragic turn, and nobody is around that actually knows what occurred. He had a couple of friends with him, but they were otherwise occupied or out of sight when the incident occurred. In any case, Alaskan Lakes are mostly very, exceptionally, cold. Typically, the temperature of an Alaskan lake isn’t a great deal higher than freezing. With water so cold, hypothermia happens so quickly that you might only have a couple of minutes. Yes, you can survive for a surprising amount of time in some of these lakes, but as a rule. You’d better be wearing a life preserver because you’re not going to have the strength to swim to shore if you’re any distance in at all. Now, there are exceptions to this, especially around Anchorage, but I can also tell you that swimming for me as a child meant wading into your knees and completely losing feeling for a few minutes. This also made my boy scout swimming test absolute hell because I was so terrified of the cold water, I couldn’t jump in for the swim, even though the water was cold but not deadly. At this point, folks from the lower-48 might conclude that I’m exaggerating and it doesn’t happen that fast, but it does. Falling into a lake without a life preserver, even for an excellent swimmer can be a death sentence. Add physical injury to that and your odds of survival are about as good as jumping from a very high place. Because of the icy water, everything sinks too. So, not only did he go missing, he stayed missing for days before they were able to find him at the bottom of that unforgiving lake.

I know these sorts of accidents happen everywhere. It’s the nature of being human – shit happens and sometimes we pay for it with our lives. However, nearly everyone who has lived up here for any significant amount of time knows someone who has died attempting to enjoy the outdoors (or at the very least has a 1-off). Sometimes it’s an accident that could’ve happened anywhere – jet ski accident or the like. Other times it’s a rare accident. For example, I knew a guy from high-school who died in an avalanche a few years after we graduated. This year there was even a bear mauling on a popular trail just south of Anchorage. I’ve also heard stories of people getting stuck in the mud in Turnagain arm and drowning from fast moving tides, and plenty of people going off on what we all trick ourselves into believing is an easy day-hike alone only to suffer an injury and subsequently die of exposure.

Now, I’ve said all of this, but I don’t think the exotic ways people die up here is actually particularly unique. After all, nobody was ever eaten by a gator up here or taken up in a tornado. What is unique is the ultra-low population densities. So, when something does happen. It can take days or weeks before someone happens across you, even when they’re looking for you. What’s more, when this sort of thing happens, odds are that your extended family is very far away indeed, so pulling together in that family way is difficult to impossible. I think this is really what gives urban Alaskans the sense of remoteness that we probably don’t deserve. After all, if I can go have lunch at a Subway sandwich shop and yet in twenty minutes, ON FOOT, be so remote that even after years of searching nobody could find my mangled body at the bottom of that ravine, it can set up some pretty confusing dichotomies. On one hand, wilderness, on the other, city life. It’s weird and dangerous.

Next up: Do you really get paid to live in Alaska?

Being an Urban Alaskan #3 – What’s the weather like?

You’ve found your way to post #3 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 get to the last post here.

I’ve tried writing a response to this question no fewer than three times. Given that the question is really code for: “Is the winter really as long, cold, and harsh as we’ve all been led to believe and is the summer that bad too?” or sometimes “Do y’all live in igloos?”, you’d think I’d be able to crack the nut rather quickly. After all, I’m trying to debunk notions that Alaska is this mystical realm where only the burliest of men and hardiest of women live. Unfortunately, regardless of where you live in Alaska, you’re likely to be subject to some pretty gnarly weather at least a few times a year. All that said, where I live, the best description I can give our average weather day is: Mostly tepid. However, a quick geography discussion before I carry on, just to give you some context.

Anchorage is at latitude 61°13′N, which is very close to that of Lillehammer Norway, and interestingly, further north than Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. I’ve always reckoned Whitehorse to be much further north because its climate is more like that to Fairbanks, AK. Fairbanks doesn’t have a well-known comparison, perhaps Reykjavík, Iceland is the closest well known place? Also, Fairbanks is further south than Tromsø Norway. Juneau, our state capital, and a place I’ve never lived, sits in a coastal rain forest at a latitude roughly halfway between that of Inverness, Scotland and Stockholm Sweden. And just to really nail the point home, Sitka, AK sits at roughly the same latitude as Aberdeen Scotland, and our southern & western most community, Adak with a windblown tundra-dwelling population of some 230 in the middle of the Bering sea sits at about the same latitude as Oxford, England. There now you know some things that probably confirm your opinion that Alaska is a windblown ice-land. For those who need such things, citations on latitudes.

I can only speak to the Anchorage/Mat-Su and Fairbanks areas, as these are the only places I’ve lived, and as this is about the urban Alaskan experience, hopefully you can forgive me for mostly sticking to these. As far as I’m concerned, we have two Seasons. Summer and Winter. Fall and Spring are short-lived affairs lasting no more than a couple of weeks, although we’ve been known to have protracted spring or fall times. That said, when the leaves go, they go fast and when they come, it goes from just a green halo to full foliage on all of the native trees about as fast. Except for those very short transition periods, Alaska isn’t really a heck of a lot different from other northern states. I submit for your consideration a comparison of four communities, Wasilla, Fairbanks, Warroad in MN, and Fargo in ND. TemperatureI’d like to draw your attention to the averages for January and December. Wasilla is pretty mild on average compared to all three. It’s also milder than all three in the summer time, but still above freezing 🙂 These data were sourced from (weatherbase.com – this data has some issues, but it’s generally ball-park). This graph illustrates the fact that cities deep inside a continent exposed to more extreme weather than those near the coast, even northern cities. While it’s easy to forget that Wasilla is near the coast, Anchorage is a port city and even though we’re 180 or so miles from the expansive gulf of Alaska, we still experience the moderating effect of the ocean.

IMG_2429The truth is that summer is about as nice as it gets. It’s light all the time and the temperature is rarely uncomfortably hot in a way that most folks from the lower-48 would understand. The highest temperature ever recorded in Alaska was 100F in Fort Yukon. It more regularly gets into the 90s with an average of 2-4 days per year in places like Fairbanks hitting temperatures in the 90s. It’s much more common for the temperature to be a bit on the cool side. Over the weekend we (Wasilla) soaked in temperatures pushing 80F. Pretty mild by anyone else’s reckoning, however keep in mind it so infrequently reaches the 80s, that we don’t have A/C. It makes being inside the house borderline unbearable.

A typical, nice, summer day in the Anchorage/Mat-Su area is going to look like this: You’ll wake up at 6am, the sun shining, with a temperature in the low to mid 50s. The air is sweet, clean, and slightly damp. By mid-day, the sun will be beating down overhead, and you’ll feel the heat of the sun on your skin more than the hot air, which will have risen to the high 60s.

IMG_2430

When you pass into the shade, it’ll still feel cool, but not uncomfortably so. At around 5, when you’re ready to leave work, the temperature is pushing 75 and is as likely as not to continue climbing. Note, the humidity isn’t awful at this point, maybe not even notable. After dinner, the heat of the day will have peaked and started to fall. It’s still full daylight. At 10pm, after a long day, it’s still more or less full daylight, with golden light glittering through the birches, but the temperature has dropped into the 60s and it feels good, not unlike the feeling after a thunderstorm passes through to leave everything clean and cool. If you’re in Fairbanks, odds are pretty good you’ll have an afternoon thundershower as well.

Winter can be quite as bad as everyone has heard.

IMG_2023One winter, in particular, I think it was 1998/1999, or possibly the year after, when I lived in Fairbanks it did not get warmer than -20F for something six weeks straight. It was routinely around -35F that year and I believe it reached as cold as -45F or possibly pushing -50F. The truth of the matter is that anyone living in a northern US state, like Minnesota, will have experienced similar temperatures. I think the main difference is that in Fairbanks those temperatures can linger for weeks. What nobody ever tells you about those temperatures is just how fast you are robbed of heat on exiting a building. One moment you’re not particularly cold, the next, you’re frigid. The other thing is how the soles of your shoes freeze so that when you walk into a building you have to proceed with duck-footed caution for a few moments, lest your feet shoot out from underneath you. The last interesting thing to note about excessive cold is the fact that you simply can’t touch anything metal with your bare hands. I mean you can, but it’s painful. After living in Fairbanks, you become conditioned to slipping your hand into your sleeve to grasp any door handle. Even in Maryland when things got ‘cold’ I found myself grabbing perfectly warm door handles with my hand in my sleeve out of habit. In Wasilla some years, the wind can be so bad, it rips satellite dishes from their mountings on the roof and piles snow six feet deep in the driveway. I recall one particularly bad year where I pulled up to an intersection to find the signal gone, a lonely strand of wire dangling to the ground in it’s place. So, yes, winter can be a hellish experience that matches or exceeds the expectations you might have from Johnny Horton or Jack London, but it’s not all bad.

Extreme winter conditions aside, a typical winter day here in Wasilla runs like this: You wake up at 6am to dark as thick as midnight. The temperature will be somewhere in the teens or twenties, so you’ll need to start your car and let it run for ten or fifteen minutes. Of course, you’ll have to scrape the ice off windshield and if it’s snowed clear the snow from your car, possibly having to free your windshield wipers from a thick layer of ice. With luck you remembered to plug in your block-heater the night before (this is a little electric heater that attaches to the bottom of your engine block and helps prevent damage from cold-starts). The drive to work probably won’t be that bad, maybe a bit icy here and there, particularly on the starting or stopping. It’s not that big a deal though because you’ve put on your studded tires. By the time you get to work at, I dunno 9am, it’s still dark, but a thin ribbon of light just over the mountains in the east have improved the situation. When you get to lunch, it’ll have warmed up ten or so degrees and the sun will be skipping just above the southern horizon, providing only a vague warming sensation on your face. The hard part of this will be that it’s difficult to see in the glare of the snow and low-angle light. At the end of the day, sometime around 5, the light will be failing again and temperature dropping. If you’re lucky, a pineapple express will have blown in from the south and a warm-wind will be chewing away at snowbanks, leaving the roads running with a slurry of salt, sand, and water. As you drive around, every few miles will require another blast of wind shield washer fluid that clears your view, but completely fails to make any improvement in your ability to see the road because your headlights are so dirty, they’re no better than a pair of flashlights with drained batteries.

IMG_2025My point is that yes, it can be very cold and dark in the winter, or cold and damp in the summer, but on the whole, it’s not actually worse than any northern state, and in my opinion the summers are nice enough to make up for all but the most painful winter experiences. There is nothing at all like sitting outside under the midnight sun around a fire sipping a cold one.

Next up: Do you really get paid to live in Alaska?