Our preferred method of travel is to spend enough time in an area to get a feel for what living there would be like, and we were excited about our four months in Alaska because we thought we would really get to know the land and the people who lived there. After a couple of weeks though I have to say, I can’t come close to answering what living here is like. It’s always very clear that we are guests here, and the fact that it is very different in the summer here than it is in the winter is always front and center. Locals talk about things in that way. Sentences often start with “In the summer” because the same rules simply don’t apply the other 8 months of the year. So at this point I can only give you impressions and those impressions are only based on the tourist season. Because of that I thought about holding off on writing these thoughts down, but I am not so good at remembering initial feelings after time has passed, and more importantly these thoughts are what I have to work with right now. If this post ends up being all over the place, that is pretty reflective of where we have been the last two weeks, because Alaska is definitely its own unique place. Seriously, I have had an easier time getting settled into foreign countries than I have here.
A big part of it is the weather. The constant sunshine (roughly 19 hours a day at this point) is mildly unsettling. It hasn’t had the major impact on us that it has on some folks. I can fall asleep when it’s so bright outside you feel like you need sunglasses (not exaggerating that), but I don’t sleep as long. I tend to wake up at least once a night to go to the bathroom, and when I get up because it’s light outside it’s a little harder to fall back asleep. The robins are crazy chatty at dawn (which happens to come at 4am here) and I am countering that by using my white noise machine which works well, but at this point I am unwilling to darken all the windows and live in a cave, so I just have to deal with the light.
The temperature is also strange. In the sun it’s often T-shirt or even shorts warm, but the wind is generally cool and it often gets down to 40 at night, or cooler. Lots of layers are called for, and many days I am in jeans, then shorts, then back to jeans again and a T-shirt, fleece, coat, then back to T-Shirt again. It’s also very dry here (to the point where you feel dehydrated if you are not careful), but it also rains quite a bit. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but it’s true. In the same day it can be blustery, calm, pouring rain, and hot sunshine, sometimes the change can all happen in a couple of hours. I am not a meteorologist, but I am sure a big part of that is the mountains. And the wind here is interesting. Wind is your friend; it keeps the mosquitoes at bay, and since the wind is crisp, clean and sharp (almost like a fall wind but without the fall smell) I don’t mind it as much.
Oh, and speaking of the mountains, since we are working and have been very busy getting the grounds cleaned up (mowing lawns, weed whacking, planting flowers, etc) whole days go by when I don’t walk out to the road and see Mt. Drum. So when I do catch a glimpse of it my initial response is “Holy crap that’s big”. Here in our little corner of the world, you kind of forget about the wildness of the place. We’ve been very focused on prepping this campground for the mid-June business spike and as such our focus has been a little narrow, but even a short drive outside of town and you are in the wild. Speaking of town, Glennallen gives a whole new meaning to the word small town. We’ve seen lots of them in our travels, but up here a small town means less than 1,000 people, and that is considered a town. “The City” is Anchorage and that’s where people go for Best Buy, Home Depot, Walmart, etc. Everyone else makes do with coming to the nearest town which is Glennallen. So what does a town have here? It’s a really short strip along the main highway, and we have a few gas stations (one with towing and auto repair), a cell tower, one radio station (light christian rock and local talk radio), a hair place, a tiny library, a tiny school, a post office, an IGA, a general store with a small Radio Shack section, a Tru Value Hardware store, a laundromat, a couple of RV parks and lodges, two banks, two tiny churches, and two liquor stores. It also is the hub of medical treatment in the area with a dentist, chiropractor, and a small urgent care. Because of all the tourist activity and proximity to federal land, it also has a visitor’s center, department of fish and game, and BLM office.
So what don’t we have that almost every small town in the lower 48 has? There is no “over the air” television of any kind, no McDonald’s, no Dollar store (which is really surprising because those seem to be everywhere), no fire department, no local police (state trooper barracks is down the road a bit), no bars, and no town government. In the lower 48 you would consider it a spit in the road, but it’s not here, because this is the place people even farther out come for services. The nearest Ford Dealership is 3-1/2 hours away and the nearest grocery store is Safeway in Valdez about 1-1/2 hours away. Which is actually all kind of cool. It is not “Everywhere USA”. You know, the homogenized, strip mall version of the United States that is all too common. And the people who live here are used to making do with what they have. They consolidate their trips to “The City” as they call Anchorage. They live off the land and they take advantage of the revenue from tourist season to get by. What we have been told by more than one local is that there is a shortage of labor here in the summer, but in the winters work is difficult to find. It depends on your skill set of course, but the “real oil money” flows out of the state and back into Texas. The Athna people do have some funds though. Because of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, there are 13 regional corporations that administer the claims and manage the funds, and which essentially provides income to the natives through privately owned stock in the corporations. The corporations manage the funds, the remaining tribal lands, and the resources and in this area Ahtna Inc. is the biggest employer in town. The Ahtna people also have the right to subsistence hunting and fishing that the non-native locals do not have. There is an interesting relationship between the eskimos and the other locals and frankly I am still trying to get a handle on it.
You would think in this environment that everyone knows everyone, but that is actually not the case. Dale, for example, who has worked in the Visitor’s Center for the last 4 years didn’t know Bob, the local who has been working on our propane issues here at the campground. That I don’t get at all, except maybe that people largely keep to themselves. But they don’t always. People who have been around for 20 plus years all seem to know each other, but the more recent transplants haven’t met as many people. Maybe it’s the weather that keeps people inside most of the year, maybe it’s the personality type of people drawn to this place, or maybe I keep expecting Mayberry and simply not seeing that. Either way, I can absolutely say at this point that “normal” rules don’t apply. You simply can’t assume anything here. And again that’s largely OK, but the combination of all these factors does leave a person from away feeling vaguely unsettled. It’s still early and maybe by the end of 4 months we will have it all figured out, but honestly I doubt it.
So now that I have set the stage on the area, what have we been doing since I last blogged? Well, we are both very busy getting things organized for the season. We have had a slow start to the summer according to Marc and Darlene and we actually think it may be due to the weak Canadian dollar. Dale in the visitor center says he is seeing far fewer Canadians than usual, and that appears to be having a big impact on business. Plus, we learned the salmon are running a little later this year than usual and many folks visit the Copper Valley region for the fishing. Princess Cruises even has a lodge 12 miles down the road so people can come here and fish. We haven’t seen it in person yet but the pictures look really nice. We are taking advantage of the relative slowness to get things organized and trim back some of the grounds. You can’t just indiscriminately cut stuff down here. There are blueberry bushes, raspberry bushes, wild roses, and many other flowering species that you want to let live, but you also want to get rid of the weeds. We are still learning what is what, but as more things bloom it gets easier and easier.
Then towards the end of our second week, Darlene the owner had an abcess and Marc had to take her to Anchorage for an emergency root canal. Thankfully she is fine and it was great that they felt they could trust us alone with the place. We really enjoyed those two days (after we worked through “you are not the boss of me”) and it really proved to us that we can do this!! And luckily she felt well enough to stay in their house in Anchorage while Marc came back and gave us our days off. Jim and Barb were stopping by on their summer long tour of Alaska and we were so looking forward to it. They have been traveling in a small truck camper they bought used just for the trip (they plan on selling it as soon as they are done) and because they can go almost everywhere and love to fish they spent two months making it to this point! Jim writes one of my favorite blogs and we adore their little dog Daisy so it was a real treat to get to see them. Since the weather was the coldest it’s been when they arrived, we went down to Caribou Lodge in town and had lunch. People often ask me where they can get a meal in town and I wanted to try to to give them a first hand review. Turned out it was really good and we all loved our meal, plus it was a nice warm place to get caught up. And they have a really great gift store with lots of local artisans displaying their work there.
Because it had rained the two nights before they came and we couldn’t mow back there, the mosquitoes were a little crazy, so we made a campfire for them, provided some bug spray and pulled out these mosquito sticks which seemed to work pretty good. We were going to cook dinner, but Barb and Jim insisted on making us some fresh trout they had recently caught and cooked it with butter on the grill. I’ve never had fresh trout before and it was pretty good. I liked it much better than the salmon we tried a few days prior. We had some baby potatoes to add to the mix and we sat outside until it started raining. Then Barb showed me the cake she made me because she remembered I liked it so much in Quartzsite. It is a white cake with jello in it and I am definitely stealing that recipe for desert nights here!
The next day Lee had to drive to the Ford dealer in Wasilla (home of Sarah Palin) and get the left front brake repaired. Despite our having a platinum warranty with Ford the dealer said it would be $1100 because the brake pad wasn’t replaced in time and the rotors were ruined. When Lee called me to let me know, I was instantly mad. We had the brake pads checked in Rock Hill right before we left, and according to them they were fine, and now my platinum warranty wouldn’t cover it?? I don’t think so. I called Ford and they said it was covered and gave me a claim number for the dealer to call. The Service Manager didn’t want to bother with it because he “was sure it wouldn’t be covered”, but guess what, it was!! So mini rant here. This is not the first time this is happened. Every time we go in for our 100% covered pre-paid service intervals, they try to charge us for fuel filters or some other nonsense, and when we have other covered service work done they are always trying to charge us extra. I don’t know if it’s intentional because they want more money than the warranty company reimburses for, or just not understanding what the plans cover, but it is starting to make me very angry. $1,100 is a pretty big mistake to make and if we had taken them at their word once again we would have had a huge hit to the monthly budget. OK rant over, as it turned out OK, but I really should write a letter or something.
While Lee was dealing with that (it took 15 hours all in to drive there, wait for the work to be done, and drive back), Jim, Barb, and I did a little exploring. We went over to the visitor’s center for Wrangell-St. Elias park and watched the movie, and took a small 1 – mile hike. It was still pretty blustery in the morning but that was a good thing as the mosquitoes are pretty bad on this particular hike normally, and we all enjoyed the 22 minute movie on the park. Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest park in the United States (larger than Switzerland) and holds 9 of the highest mountains in North America. Unfortunately for us, very little of the park is accessible by car and most of it can only be accessed via boat or airplane. So, watching the movie in this case was great because you got to see pictures of the amazing vistas. Several companies in the area sell helicopter and airplane tours and we may have to do one of those at some point, because it truly looks amazing. Oh and interesting story, the ranger asked us where people where from and mentioned she grew up in Dublin, Ohio!! I grew up in Grove City which is about 20 minutes away. When she was a teenager her family farm was taken to build the outer belt and she decided after college to move to Alaska because of the impact the urban growth had on her. She has been here ever since and what a small world it is.
Then afterwards we drove down to Copper Center which is a tiny hamlet where many people died during the Gold Rush years. They ended up getting scurvy because there was no vitamin C in their diet, or many froze to death. Little gold was found in the area and the only reason the town still exists is the military used it as a supply depot.
Jim really wanted to see the river closeup though, so we stopped and walked back a little ways to the river. Holy cow!! I don’t think I would have ever done that, and because we did had one of my best Alaska experiences to date. There were at least 6 eagles flying along the beautiful river and they were swooping down and trying to catch fish. Absolutely, positively fantastic!!
I was giddy with excitement during the period they were active around us, and then they all wandered off. It was absolutely amazing. We walked around a bit and then drove down to the bridge and watched the fishermen for awhile. The fish don’t eat when they are “running” so fisherman try to hook them and yank them out of the water. Kind of interesting, and we went into a cool little fisherman charter business and talked to a very knowledgeable young woman Miranda for quite some time. She knows her fish and her and Jim talked for quite some time. I didn’t understand much of what they said, but it sounded interesting. If the annual fishing licenses here weren’t $150 I would give it a go, but that’s just too much money. Plus, more than one fisherman said that when the fish are running you can easily catch your limit (5 salmon a day), in under 5 minutes or so. Not really my thing, but it was great learning about it with Jim and Barb and they may stop on their way back and give it a try.
It was a really great day. Amazing animal sightings, being with good friends, learning about the area, and picking up some flyers for our guests from Copper Central. Plus we ended the night with a spaghetti dinner and Barb and Jim really liked it. Spaghetti is my go to dinner to fix for folks and I figured they would like it because it’s not something they would fix in their truck camper. Looking forward to reading about their adventures as they continue across the state, and again was so grateful for the visit! Now that the truck is fixed we can take our own day trip on our next days off, and I am looking froward to doing more exploring.
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