You’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?