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.

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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?

Being an Urban Alaskan #2 – What’s it like to live in Alaska?

You’ve found your way to post #2 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 and other stuff. If you want to catch up, you can see post #1 here.

I wanted to go into this post talking all about how my day to day life is exactly the same as any other American’s, I even got stuck in a lovely long traffic-jam this morning (do you see the line of traffic? It’s way off in the distance at the foot of the mountain),

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but as I approached work, thinking about how I was going to re-organize this post to talk about the mundanitude of the usual Urban Alaskan day, I passed a moose sauntering up the sidewalk on a road more or less smack dab in the middle of Anchorage. To be clear, this is a totally normal thing here, and it reminded me that, yes, actually, even Alaskan city life is a bit unique, but in that unique sort of way every place is. No matter where you’re from, there is some unusual aspect to your life that isn’t common elsewhere. But really, I want to start out trying to talk about commonalities before I get into the more interesting tid-bits.

In any case, I can’t really answer the question posed by the title of this post without a bit of context and I’m certainly not going to answer it in a single post. Being from Alaska is a sexy thing to be. It’s always an excellent ice-breaker, gives you infinite leverage to discuss everything Alaska, no matter how urbanly-myopic you might be, and will inevitably make you seem way cooler than you actually are. The truth of the matter is that living in urban Alaska is about like living anywhere else in the continental US. For example, there is a better than 50% chance that I will buy a coffee at Starbucks tomorrow, and I think that’s a pretty typical thing for a middle-class American to do.

In the early stages of drafting this post, I realized that I need to clarify my definition of urban. One major difference between most non-Alaskans and someone like me is your definition of rural and urban vs. mine. Believe it or not, we’ve actually got a legal definition for it. That definition explicitly draws the lines around what’s ‘rural’ and what’s not and I don’t feel like pulling out the map to be all precise. In all likelihood you’d point down at Ketchikan and say: “Oy! Mate, what the hell’s going on there, it’s in the middle of nowhere and there aren’t any roads,” and I’d shrug. I’ve never even been to Ketchikan. (If you’re legitimately interested in that check here.)

For someone outside Alaska, where I live might be considered ‘rural’ or ‘country’. We’ve got nearly 6 acres, sit across the street from a lake, draw our water from a well, and have a septic tank. However, we’re solidly suburban. I don’t feel like getting your mind around this is much of a stretch, really. Plenty of suburban dwellers live in similar circumstances. In my mind, you’re not truly rural until you’re off the road system. In any case, when I get to talking about urban and rural, I’m mostly talking about reasonably developed communities along the road system vs. those you’ve got to fly to.

There are three main urban centers in Alaska, Anchorage/Mat-Su, Fairbanks, and Juneau/Douglas. Some folks might also consider Kenai/Soldotna, part of the Anchorage/Mat-Su urban center, but I’m not going to argue that point just now. Or maybe ever. It doesn’t matter.DSK - AK map1

I happen to live in Wasilla which about 30 road miles north of the state’s largest city and economic hub, Anchorage. We haven’t got counties up here, we have municipalities and boroughs, all of which are large enough to beat up a small east coast state and take their lunch money.

Wasilla sits in a borough by the name of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough (Mat-Su for short or just ‘The Valley’ for folks in this region). It’s about size of West Virginia with a total population of about 100K (7% of the total state population). WV-MatSuTo get your mind around that number, if you flew every single one of us to Columbus, Ohio we’d all fit inside the Buckeye’s home stadium. Being that Wasilla is so close to Anchorage, you can’t really talk about living here without also talking about Anchorage. After all, many, many people living in Wasilla and our companion city, Palmer, work in Anchorage. Apart from being the state’s population center, the Municipality of Anchorage is geographically larger than Rhode Island and takes roughly two hours to traverse in light traffic when you hit all the lights green. It sports a population just shy of 300K. When combined, this region makes up roughly half of the state’s entire population.

Now you have a solid handle on the geography of where I live, I feel like I can proceed, and I’ll keep the rest of this brief – I promise.

Last Saturday, we hopped in our car and drove about ten minutes up the road to Target for school supplies. Along the way, we were on paved roads the entire time, didn’t pass a single moose or bear, I don’t recall seeing a single dog musher, and absolutely none of the houses we passed were igloos. No small airplanes swooped down to the roadway in for a quick landing, and the temperature hung right at about seventy degrees. I’ve been to Target stores in Maryland, Ohio, and Minnesota, and the one thing I can say about them is that they’re all about the same. When we were done with our school shopping, which did not involve extreme winter gear or specialized Alaska school stuff, we got our groceris at Fred Meyer (Kroger). I’ve never visited one of these outside of Alaska, but I understand they all have about the same layout across the pacific northwest. So, you can bet that was pretty normal. After that, a quick stop at JoAnn Fabric for some knitting stuff and home. As we drove across Wasilla, we passed the usual fast-food restaurants and box-stores you might expect to find in a town of this size – Carl’s Jr, Taco Bell, Panda Express, Walmart, PetCo, Famous Footware, Verizon, iHop, Lowes and Home Depot, more than one Starbucks, and a bunch of others. (Pardon the image, it’s from a couple of years ago in fall, but you can see some familiar logos in there)

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I think the most remarkable thing about the whole routine trip, from the perspective of someone living outside (yes, we bloody call you outsiders), is that I bought some Navel Oranges for $2.59/lb. If I don’t miss my guess (Because I found it on USDA website), the national average is closer to $1.50/lb. A similar cost difference is true for apples, onions, berries, and bread. It’s true that living in urban Alaska is more expensive than elsewhere, but not horrible – no worse than living inside a big city. At least not as far as consumer goods are concerned. Sunday, I’ll probably roll down to the Verizon store, and sign a two year contract so I can upgrade to an iPhone 7, which runs about the same as anywhere else in the country. My point is that day-to-day, my life here is really not so different from the average American.

Next Up: What’s winter like?