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.

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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)

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?