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 #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.

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)