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Posted January 11, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska

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Practical in All Ways   8 comments

What’s the best purchase you ever made and why?

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ponchoI’ve bought a lot of things in my five decades of living from cheap $1 items to a house now inexplicably worth nearly a quarter-million dollars.  It’s hard to inventory all the purchases of my life and come down to “the best” and for what reason. Some things just give me joy. I like the look or feel of them. Other things are practical or were a great investment with a good return on value. It would take a great deal of soul-searching to narrow that most-worthy item down from the thousands of purchases I’ve made in my life. In fact, I am overwhelmed at the prospect because Brad and I are known among our friends as not being very consumer-oriented. Most of our “stuff” is second-hand and we are frequently asked if we ever plan to put furniture in our family room. Maybe … someday … if some neighbor in our garage-friendly neighborhood is looking to sell a sofa for cheap. Does a family room really need furniture beyond a bunch of bookcases and some cushions on the floor?

But not answering the question would be disingenuous, I suppose. Let me tell you a story.

Thirty years ago this summer Brad and I were working for a company that thought it needed our undivided attention, but we needed our annual salmon catch, so when they let us go for three days for the 4th of July holiday, we scrambled to load what we needed into the car and get headed on the 600-mile journey to Chitina Alaska and the red gold that are Copper River salmon. And, I couldn’t find my raincoat. I determined I would do it in a sweatshirt if necessary, even though I knew that would mean a miserable wet weekend.

Brad stopped on our way out of town to buy Meals Ready to Eat — military-issue rations that often find their way into the local military surplus stores. While he was deciding which of the menus to buy this time, I spied a shelf of Army ponchos. Jokingly, I said “These would make great tents.” Brad thought I was serious and he grabbed one and threw it on top of the box. Cost? $10.

The closer we got to Chitina, the darker the sky got. O’Brien Creek was running so hard we decided not to risk driving over it. I donned the poncho before we headed out. Except for the hood, which consisted of a Velcro closure under the chin to keep the rain out and a bill over my forehead to shed it to either side of my face, it fell shapeless to the tops of my Xtra-Tufs. The sides could be left open or there were grommets to hook together by any means desired. I had run lengths of 550 cord through them to form some sort of closure. It was so large on my tiny frame that I put it over my backpack to keep it dry.

We hiked in 2 1/2 miles to “the glory hole” and we caught 45 salmon in 2 1/2 hours. By pulling the 550 cord this way and that, I configured the poncho so that it kept my clothes dry while I clubbed fish to death as Brad was catching them two at a time. And meanwhile, it poured buckets of icy rain from the sky, flung sideways by the glacier wind out of the Wrangell-St. Elias ice fields.

When the fish had been caught, Brad began to load them into his “moose bag” backpack and it quickly became clear that he could only take half the load. I weighed less than the remaining fish. I would have to stay behind with them while Brad hiked the first half to the car.

It was dark and growing darker and I didn’t really feel that brave out there in the forbidding wilderness, but I told him I’d have tea ready for him when he got back. We both knew it would take two hours for him to hike out, at least a half-hour to pack the fish in the ice in the coolers in the back of the car and another hour to hike back to me. A part of being an Alaskan woman is not turning into a clingy suburbanite when your husband suggests he leave you in the rain-soaked forest beside one of the deadliest rivers in the world with 20 salmon and, possibly, grizzlies in the forest. Nope, I’d be fine. I’d have tea ready for him when he got back. I watched his Helly Hansen fisherman’s coat disappear into the darkness and didn’t ask him to come back.

Despite the monsoon-like ice bath occurring in the outside world, it was dry under my poncho. I could do this.

As anyone knows who has ever spent time in the woods, the key to building a fire is dry wood. Did I mention it was pouring and had been for several hours? I hiked around the cluster of wind-tough cottonwood trees, looking for twigs and leaves that weren’t soaked and I found some. Under a cut-bank near the river, I found a sheltered cluster of roots that I could hack off with my knife. Up in the forest, I found a spot sheltered among three trees that was less wet than the surrounding forest. I piled up my fire-starting treasure, sat down on the ground with my back against one of the trees and pulled my legs up into the sheltering tarp that was my poncho, protecting my treasure hoard from the deluge.

Rain dripped off the bill of my poncho, dropping onto my covered knees and rolled out into the wet ground. I dozed, buying time. Occasionally, the tree behind me would bend, groaning in the wind, and I’d be pelted with icy droplets, but my poncho didn’t move and my hoard stayed dry, warmed by the heat of my body. Time passed and stood still. My watch told me two hours had passed. Time to act.

I tied one end of my poncho to one of the three trees, pulled my head out of the hood and tied the other end to my back pack, creating a slanting roof. I knelt under the shelter to scrape sand together into a makeshift firepit and create a little nest of grass and leaves. Using strike-anywhere matches from the chest pocket of my poncho, I started a little fire, feeding dried twigs into it until it wouldn’t blow out at the faintest gust of watery wind. I warmed my hands over its tenacious warm. Smoke rose up to slap into the underside of my poncho and then seep away into the night. I filled the little tea kettle with rainwater as it ran off the edge. I sat with my knees drawn up to my chest, watching for steam to rise and listening to the steady drum of rain on the makeshift roof. Time passed and stood still while my socks dried above the little fire in the shelter of my poncho.

I was kneeling by the fire, preparing two cups of tea when I heard boots scraping on gravel near the trail. I was alone, a woman in the wilderness on the edge of one of the most deadly rivers in the world, guarding 20 salmon in grizzly country. I held my breath until Brad emerged out of the gray dawn, water pouring off his Helly Hansen coat.

“I have tea ready, just as I said.”

We sat on opposite sides of the fire, my poncho as our roof, sipping our hot beverage and eating a breakfast of pilotbread slathered with butter. While Brad caught an hour’s nap with his back against my tree, the weather broke, the rain stopped and sunlight spilled from heaven like liquid gold, sparkling through the wind-tough trees and casting the world in watercolor hues. I knocked the rain off my poncho and bundled it up loosely on top of my backpack. Brad stretched and groaned. I carried the camping gear and he carried the salmon and we turned toward our car that was 2 1/2 miles away, both of us dry and comfortable … because of my poncho.

That chance purchase 30 years ago still lives in my outdoor wardrobe. It is a constant companion, always packed for every expedition, though used only when necessary — as a coat, as a tent, as a tarp, sometimes a blanket to sit on. Once we bundled one of the kids in it on a canoe trip when she got cold. It’s kept backpacks dry, provided some protection from the damp dog that insisted she join us in the tent and been used as a bellows for building a bonfire. It still doesn’t leak and the only maintenance it’s required is replacing the 550 cord closures occasionally. And, thus it is the most useful $10 I’ve ever spent.

 

Not All That Star Struck   5 comments

Have you ever spoken to a celebrity you really like? one you hated? tell us about the encounters.

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Image result for image of ted nugentLiving in Alaska, you might think I wouldn’t have had a lot of opportunities to meet celebrities, but that’s really not true. So many people want to come to Alaska for the adventure of it all and I used to work for a local concert venue, plus our Baptist Student Union used to participate in bringing Christian artists and speakers to Fairbanks, so I’ve met a few “celebrities”.

Let’s get the one I hated out of the way right from the start. The Judds played Carlson Center while I worked there. My association with Wynona Judd was brief. I was asked to deliver water to the stage for the sound crew and she screamed at me for interrupting the sound check, which wasn’t going well. The sound tech apologized and told me I hadn’t actually been interrupting. You could tell, he was having a really rough day. I gladly went back to selling tickets to people who hadn’t met her in the real.

The “celebrity” I met that I liked the most was Sarah Palin, but she wasn’t a celebrity yet … just mayor of Wasilla and then later a gubernatorial candidate. I first met her at her church during a statewide youth function and she was introduced as the wife of a friend’s North Slope roommate. That would be Todd Palin. She was helping us get things set up for this youth function and it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. She said she worked in “city administration.” It was only after she left that our friend explained she was the mayor of the town. That is a really Alaskan way of being, by the way. I met her again when she was running for governor and once when she was governor. It was just after the magazine article touting her as the next great conservative to watch and before John McCain tapped her as his running mate. Every time I met her, she was just people. She remembered me from that earlier meeting and the encounters were pleasant. She was also a great governor, taking care of some things Alaskans had wanted and needed to be addressed for a long time … including widespread corruption in our legislature and Frank Murkowski’s ill-conceived giveaway to the oil companies (which Palin’s successor Sean Parnell got the legislature to reinstitute). I can’t explain why she went off the cliff after that. Our common friend believes it was initially media distortion and then, after being unfairly cast as an incompetent evil-doer, she allowed herself to be distracted by fame and sucked into the co-opting of the tea party movement. Being 100% consistent before the world isn’t easy, not for anyone, and when you’ve got reporters following your family around and looking for dirt to dig, it’s a foregone conclusion they will find some.

I met Mohammed Ali when he was here for a fight in the 1970s. I was a maid for a hotel and I was asked to run some extra blankets and towels up to the suite of rooms his crew was in. I was surprised when he opened the door. He was polite as he took the linens. I answered some question he had and then I was on my way. It could have been a meeting with any hotel guest.

IImage result for image of bryan duncan spent 45 minutes with Ted Nugent when he was here doing a concert. I was a ticket seller. The afternoon before the concert, Ted wanted to meet some real Alaskans and our events coordinator set out to fulfill his wish, coming to find me because he knew I’d been born in Alaska (that’s actually pretty rare. Lots of Alaskans are from somewhere else originally). I was not a Ted Nugent fan (in fact, that concert might have been the first time I’d ever listened to him as more than a song on the radio as I was driving). I went down to the green room and met two of the most-down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. He asked me about hunting in Alaska and his wife offered me half of her sandwich because I was giving up my lunch break to talk to them. She seemed amused by how excited her husband was to meet a “real” Alaskan. Tony Knowles was out governor then and Ted asked me what I thought of him (Idiot!) and he seemed to agree with me. I didn’t know about his politics then. Then during the concert, he talked about meeting real Alaskans and how he appreciated “us” for answering his geeky questions and not acting like he was some big celebrity they needed to be awed by, so I guess I made an impression too.

You may not have heard of them, but the Alaska Gold Panners are a National League baseball team that acts as an incubator for future major-league players while they’re in college. When I was growing up, there were a lot of Gold Panners who I had met who went on to be major league players – most notably Tom Seavers, who used to bag my family’s groceries at the local Safeway. He married a local girl and they would come back to visit. Again, just a regular guy with an extraordinary sports talent. We also knew the Boone brothers and Olgiby McDowell.

Christian artists come to Fairbanks only with a lot of community effort and our Baptist Student Union used to do a lot of work in that area. As a campus organization, they could get cheap rates for on-campus venues and then we students would act as roadies since the artists couldn’t afford to bring their full entourage up with them. My husband and I continued in BSU as adult lay-ministers and I would sometimes give the artists tours of our area. I was tour guide to Kim Hill, Randy Stonehill, Michael Card, Bryan Duncan, Steve Camp, Wayne Watson, and Twyla Paris. The only ones that stand out are Bryan Duncan and Michael Card because they both, separately, experienced the fun and joy of Alaska volcanoes.

Michael Card’s encounter was fairly sedate. He did the concert and then learned that his flight had been canceled on account of volcanic ash near Anchorage. He and his accompanyist were just going to kick back in the hotel, but in talking with a friend of ours about it, I got roped in with driving them around for the afternoon. It was winter, so they got a little different experience from ordinary tourists. Michael is a deep spiritual thinker and that’s the part I remembered best, that we had some weighty conversation about the Bible.

Bryan Duncan impressed me the most with his great attitude in his encounter with the volcano (there’s a couple of pesky ones outside of Anchorage that can shut down the entire state from time to time). Bryan got to Anchorage and his flight to Fairbanks was canceled. All the group could offer was to drive him to Fairbanks. No problem, he said. He was doing this concert solo to keep costs down, just stick him in a vehicle and let’s go.  His gear had made an earlier flight before the airport was closed. The first car made it as far as Wasilla and broke down because of ash aspiration (yes, that’s a thing). And then the second truck blew its tranny near Talkeetna and Bryan actually had to hitchhike for a while to get to help. Then a third vehicle had a malfunction coming into Nenana. So I got in my car and broke several speed records to pick up this total stranger in a tiny town 50 miles from Fairbanks. His hair was wild,  he needed a shower, he’d been in the air or traveling on the highway for over 24 hours and yet he was joking and in good spirits as I was blazing toward Fairbanks along winding mountain roads. And he gave a GREAT concert — still in his road clothes and not having had time to comb his hair or even do a sound check because I got him there with 30 minutes to spare. He will forever be my favorite Christian artist just because of his great attitude.

So, that’s about it unless you count having actually met our state’s Congressional delegation (including the late Senator Ted Stevens and the current scandal Representative Don Young) and several Alaska governors (including eating egg salad sandwiches sitting on the floor with Walter Hickel – former Secretary of State and twice governor of Alaska).

Hiking Essentials   2 comments

May 28, 2018
With the Memorial Day holiday marking the unofficial beginning of summer in the United States, the season of cookouts and camping has arrived. What are your “must haves” for these events?

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Living in Alaska, Memorial Day weekend is really the first weekend of the year when you can camp out without risking frostbite … although there are people here who use four- season tents with heaters called Arctic Ovens, who do camp out in the winter.

But even in summer, Alaska posed camping challenges.

Just because it’s raining doesn’t mean the camping trip is canceled. With only about 20 weeks of good outdoor weather, we can’t be shy about camping in inclement weather. Besides, Alaska is a big state, so while it may be raining in Fairbanks, it might not be raining in Paxson … or vice versa. It could be beautiful at my house and snowing in the mountains. You just never know. And, so, here are a few of my must-haves for any camping trip in Alaska.

By the way, most of our camping trips involve leaving our car and hiking into the wilderness. Brad and I have it down to about 50 pounds of gear shared between the two of us.

TentBug Spray – mosquitoes in Alaska are everywhere. The Interior is pretty boggy for a semi-desert, but the worse mosquitoes we ever encountered were on Mount Prindle, which is at altitude. This is because much of our ground is overlain with permafrost, so water has nowhere to go. Mosquitoes breed in water. Therefore … bug spray. A tourist back when I worked in the industry asked me why Alaskan women all seemed to have an evergreen perfume. My reply was “We call it au de Cutters.” If you say it with a French accent, it like a high-end item.

Sunscreen – yes, we have sun – 22 hours of it in June. And you can actually get a bad sunburn on cloudy days and a worse sunburn on snow. So we always carry a bottle of sunscreen, even after we develop our summer tans because … sun.

Tent – did I mention the mosquitoes? And that we never know when a rain squall will catch up to us … or snow at altitude? Even on an 80-degree day, the weather can change dramatically and suddenly you’re dealing with hypothermic conditions. We have three tents. The backpacking tent goes with us always, even on day hikes … just in case. Three of us and the dog have crawled into that thing made for two very friendly people, but hey … better crowded than frozen. We also have a mid-sized tent which we often set up for several days at a base camp and we still have a family-sized tent for car camping. That’s the only one you can stand up in.

Sleeping bag – The good news is that the sun doesn’t go down at night from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, so it doesn’t cool off much … normally. But then there’s the abnormal weather – snow at altitude, thundershowers — and the fact that our ground is underlain with permafrost. It can be sweating hot and the minute you lay down on the ground, you feel your body heat ebbing away. Each of us has a three-part military surplus bivouac bag that we don’t always need, but it has come in handy at times. You can throw the bivy sack under you to help insulate from the cold ground. Once when I was visiting Brad on our land, I decided to stay the night on a lark and he let me have one of his two inner bags. It was hot out, so that was all either of us needed.

Tent2Ridge Rest – closed-cell camping pad that rolls up into a tiny roll and is impervious to water. It eases the rock under your shoulder and it insulates you from the cold hard ground. When we used to take the kids with us, we’d turn four Ridgerests sideway so we couldn’t roll off them when rolling over. We still carry three today for just that reason. We upgraded a few years ago and got the ones that can be folded and braced with straps to make camping chairs. Love the back support!

Water filter – the bugs are not just in the air. Giardia is a thing here – beavers inhabit almost every waterway and … well, they ain’t house-broke, if you know what I mean. Plus there’s lots of minerals and debris in our streams, so we filter all of our water, just in case.

A water container – I cannot tell you how useless a water filter is when you have nothing to pump the water into.

Cookstove – this is not a Coleman two-burner outfit, but a Jetboil single propane rocket that will boil water in under a minute. It means we can travel light and still have warm beverages … a must if you get caught in snow at altitude.

MREs – Meals Ready to Eat – military issue surplus. Once you’ve eaten these, Mountain House just seems so inadequate. There’s about 4,000 calories in each meal kit, so Brad and I usually share one or we eat the entrees and save the extras for another meal. The beauty of these is that you don’t need a cook stove to warm them … they come with carbon dioxide heaters that just need a little water to activate them. Also, when sealed, they don’t appear to give off a smell. The dogs aren’t interested until you open them, so it’s unlikely they’ll attract a bear.

jetboilBaby wipes – you can buy body wipes, or whatever they’re marketed as now, in the camping section of most mega-marts or hardware stores, but for half the price you can buy baby wipes and get the same effect. We put them in a 1-gallon freezer bag so they don’t take up much room. It just feels so good after a day of hiking in the hot sun with bug spray and sunscreen coating your skin to wipe off before hitting the sleeping bag.

Powdered potatoes, powdered milk, tea bags, coffee bags, chocolate bars and pilot bread – These are our emergency supplies – the just-in-case-we-turn-the-wrong-way-and-end-up-lost. Well, the coffee bags (like tea bags and way better than instant) are for breakfasts, but we always bring some extra, just in case. Often we eat a chocolate bar or two on our drive home in celebration of a successful outing, but we don’t eat them until we’re off the trail because we’ve had the experience of needing that final burst of calories to finish a trek and were so glad to have forgotten a candy bar in the bottom of the tuck sack.

A knife – until you’ve tried to open an MRE meal kit with your teeth, you really can’t know what a necessity this is. We also carry a multi-tool now after we had a dog get mixed up with a porcupine. It sure would have been nice to have scissors and a pair of pliers to pull those out ourselves rather than backtrack to take the idiot to the vet. And, yes, we have since spent an evening by a campfire pulling quills out of a dog’s face. Her name was Black Dog and she was certain she would one day beat the porcupine. The black Lab in the photo below also had an encounter with a porcupine, but she learned from the experience as did the yellow Lab. Huskies — convinced next time will have a different outcome.

Baggie of shortening – not only can you cook with it, but it’s great coating for chaped hands, feet and lips.

Baggie with soaped kitchen sponge – to be honest, I let the dog take care of the worst of what’s on the cooking implements, but then I wash the germs off with soap. It’s mostly to assure there’s no giardia left on the surface.

Lab backpackA gun – if you know me, you knew this was going to be on the list. The world in general is a dangerous place, but in Alaska there are large animals to contend with. About 20 people were attacked by bears last year in Alaska. Bear spray can be effective, but only if you’re far closer to the bear than is sensible and only if the wind cooperates and doesn’t send the pepper powder back into your face. Plus grizzly bears will ignore pain when they’re pissed off and hikers who have hit them full in the face with an entire can of bear spray will attest it didn’t stop them. There’s also moose, wolverine, wolves, coyote, and fisher who can pose threats to human life here. And, if we do get lost and start to run out of emergency supplies, hunting with a 357 is not the easiest thing in the world, but I have taken grouse and rabbit with mine. And finally, I’ve had a couple of encounters with humans in remote areas where I think, had I not been armed, something might have happened that would have made me wish I was armed.  In a huge state of deep wilderness, cops are always hours away when seconds count. When we’re prepared, we just don’t know what might have happened had we not been prepared. I would go so far as to say that living the way we do in Alaska would not be sensible without guns to protect ourselves from large carnivores and poor decision-makers.

Screamer – otherwise known as a personal body alarm. If we can get away without killing the wildlife, we prefer to just deafen them and it has discouraged bear and moose — sometimes. Wildlife is not always predictable.

First aid kit – again dangerous world, plenty of things that can hurt you. Our kit is a 1-gallon freezer bag because it fits where ever there’s room in the packs and it’s customizable. I once sewed up a friend who sunk a fish hook in his thigh. It allowed him to continue the trek. Brad’s allergic to bee stings so we always carry Benadryl. We include first aid items for the dog. You just can’t buy that with one of those kits from Walmart.

Extra socks – you never know when you’re going to sink into muskeg to your ankles and need dry socks. Plus, all day with your feet sweating in hiking boots … you don’t want to wear those socks tomorrow.

Windbreaker, sweatshirt, rain poncho, baseball cap and stocking cap. I hike in a pair of rip-stop pants that can be rolled up into shorts and (usually) a tank-top or t-shirt. I layer as the weather changes. Sometimes I’ve needed all of these items and sometimes they’ve just been extra weight, but if you don’t bring them, you will need them and it’s better to be prepared when you encounter winter in the middle of a 90-degree day.

Safety shades – Sunglasses that can take a licking and still be unscratched. Alaska forests are not groomed and I am not tall. I got tired of getting poked in the eye by branches. And, hey, the sun is bright at this latitude and it never goes down in the summer. You can buy $100 hiking sunglasses or spend $10 for a pair of dark safety glasses – you choose.

Gloves – I have office worker hands, but Brad brings a pair too. You never know when you’re going to need to saw up a tree limb to make a warming fire or scrabble up or down a scree slope and then there’s the wild-rose bushes. It cuts down on busted knuckles and spending time digging slivers out of your palms.

A fold-saw and matches – Again, you might not need these, but if you do, you really will kick yourself for not carrying the extra half-pound.

Camera – this is Alaska. It demands to be recorded.

You might have noticed what I didn’t include on the list. Extra clothes are a luxury when hiking. I do usually carry a clean pair of panties and my hiking sandals as camp shoes or for crossing rivers and creeks (I have wimpy feet), but I leave those if we’re getting overweight. There is usually a notepad and pen in my gear, but I leave them if we’re overweight. We don’t bother with GPS because a lot of Alaska is not digitally mapped yet. We usually carry a geodetic map of the area we’re hiking. We leave a duplicate in the car marked with our intended route and our estimated return time, in case someone needs to come looking for us. We don’t waste the weight of a cell phone because you usually can’t get a signal, although we do have our eyes on a new texting satellite phone that also act as GPS. One of those might be worth the extra weight. The dog carries her own food, blanket, booties (for rough terrain) and a frisbee (good for both play and a water dish) in saddle bags. We don’t bother with flashlights or lanterns because it never gets dark enough to not be able to see.

Now, if we are car-camping, there’s a lot more luxury involved — better food, changes of clothes, camp chairs, books, fishing poles — but that’s a whole different experience and I chose to tell you about one type of camping, not any of the others.

 

“Let” Us?   Leave a comment

Image result for image of fairbanks alaska snow wind stormBrad couldn’t sleep last night (worried about our dog who just had surgery, I think), so he got up really early and checked out some friends on Facebook. He graduated high school in Chappaqua, New York, but he lived all over New England as a kid and still has family there, as well as spending several years in Texas where he also has family.

So he was talking with someone (a friend) who lives back east and telling him how two weeks ago, the temperatures here were 30 below zero, but it’s 30 above now and we got over a half-foot of snow last night. He’d decided I was driving his Jeep to work this morning.

The conversation went from there.

Brad – My wife is driving the Jeep to work this morning so I can fix what caused her car not to work last week during the 30 below.

Of course, Facebook is a “public” forum, so a friend of his friend responded.

Friend Once Removed – I’m surprised they let you drive in that.

  • Friend – Drive in what? Which?

  • Friend Once Removed – Either. It’s dangerous. They should close the roads.

  • Friend – He lives in Alaska. If they did that, they’d spend all winter trapped at home. And they’re used to it.

Brad (responding to “surprised they let you drive in that”) – Let us? There’s no “let” involved. We drive if we darned well want to and accept the risk.

  • Friend Once Removed – The police should arrest anyone who doesn’t obey the law. You don’t have a right to endanger yourselves.

  • Brad – Fella, we live in Alaska, where freedom is a higher priority than being protected by the government.

  • Friend Once Removed – You people are what’s wrong with this country. You endanger all of us with your callous disregard for safety.

At this point, I asked Brad what he was muttering swear words about and he showed me the exchange.

Me – Yeah, I have conversations like that all the time under my Lela account.

Brad – What do you do about it?

Me – Sometimes I embrace the debate in hopes that someone will learn something from it and sometimes I refuse to pick up the rope. Surprisingly, others have started doing that and it feels good to know that people are thinking about liberty issues.

Brad – What should I do about this?

Me – Can I pretend to be you?

Lela Pretending to be Brad – I’m not sure how my driving a 4×4 Jeep through 6 inches of snow in Alaska endangers you when you live in New Jersey. Can’t we both live our lives without trying to control the other?

Friend Once Removed – No, because your “freedom” gives people ideas and those ideas put them in danger.

Me to Brad in the Real World – Leave the rope right there and stop this conversation right now. You can’t win this argument and if you continue he’ll be calling his Congressman insisting that Alaskans be stopped from driving in “dangerous conditions.” Now I’m going to go put on my winter gear over my office clothes and drive that 25-year-old Jeep through the “dangerous conditions” so I can field phone calls from the public who want to know when the roads will be plowed. Fun times!

Which, actually, it was. I LOVE driving that Jeep through snow and the wind just added another flavor – a wild primordial feel that a day of ordinary weather just doesn’t give you.

Posted February 23, 2018 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska, Uncategorized

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Electric Car Math   5 comments

These are Fairbanks, Alaska figures.

According to Plug In America, a quality electric car (a Tesla) uses 32 kwh to go 100 miles. For the record, 100 miles is less than one-third of the way to the nearest city in Alaska. I am so looking forward to stopping overnight on my way to Anchorage since the Tesla only has a 300 mile range.

Coincidentally, my car needs to be filled about every 300 miles. $2.38 a gallon for gasoline. I know, we produce the oil, so why is gasoline so expensive here. Nobody can give us an adequate answer. Economies of scale are the explanation given, but we produce the oil, so you’d think we’d get a break on reduced shipping, but apparently not.

Image result for image of tesla carElectricity is 27 cents a kilowatt hour in Fairbanks. So to travel 300 miles in a Tesla would cost me $26.00.

My car holds 18 gallons and can take me 300 miles. That’ll set me back $43. Oh, the cost is half, so get an electric car. But ….

BUT … I need a heater or I’ll die in Alaska’s frigid temperatures. Running a heater in a gasoline engine hardly reduces the gas mileage because it’s excess heat off the engine. Running a heater in a Tesla does reduce the range … by 50%. If I wanted to drive to Anchorage, 380 miles away, I’d have to stop for gasoline in Wasilla. That would take 15 minutes (half an hour if I decide to grab some food and use the facilities) and I’d be on the road again. I would not stop to sleep along the way as it only takes about seven hours to drive 380 miles.

Image result for image 2005 ford taurus covered in snowIf I was driving a Tesla in the winter, with only 150 mile range, I’d have to stop in Healey and Wasilla and sleep overnight – $120 per night for the hotel, $60 a day for meals, and two nights of my time since it takes a Tesla 9.5 hours to achieve a full charge (assuming it can do that when it’s -30 out). So what I save in gasoline over driving electric, I more than make up in other costs.

A $400 trip to Anchorage (round-trip – gasoline, meals and assuming a decent hotel) would become a $1300 trip in an electric car, plus add four days onto my trip.

So please stop telling me about how much money I would save with an electric car versus my gasoline car. Yes, commuting to and from work in a warm climate saves you money, but those savings evaporate in a cold climate and become a liability if you need to travel any distance.

 

Posted February 8, 2018 by aurorawatcherak in economics, Uncategorized

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Northern Adventures   12 comments

January 15, 2018 – Share a recent travel experience or anecdote.

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I heard recently that about 40% of Americans have never traveled outside of the United States and about 11% have never left the state they were born in. Wow! When you live in Alaska, which has no land connection to the contiguous 48-states, travel is sort of required to live.

The OP for this blog hop, however, says a recent travel experience. I flew down to Seattle a couple of months ago, but Seattle is just a gateway city for Alaska where my mother’s family happens to live. Kind of boring – Pike’s Market is only super exciting if you live in the vegetable-deprived northland, although I really do want to explore the Puget Sound area more thoroughly when I have time and a car and no relatives suggesting sights within Seattle’s urban environs. The west side of Puget Sound looks cool to me … a mystery that must be explored.

Alaska, however — most everybody thinks that’s sexy. So, digging back into our summer travels -we drove the Dalton Highway this summer.

I do say that living in Alaska is the adventure of a lifetime. Even our Sunday drives can be exciting. We realized that our son had never driven the Dalton, so we decided it was time. Brad has driven it many times as an electrician on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, but I hadn’t been above Yukon River Bridge for several years. Not a lot has changed since the days when we called it “the haul road” (because the Legislature took decades to name it), but memories fade and I was excited to renew an old acquaintance.

We got up early on Friday morning of the four-day weekend we had planned. It’s 400 miles one direction and this is not a road to be driven quickly, so we were prepared for it to take all four days. At 6:30 in the morning, the June air was crisp and clean and the sun was already up over the roofs to the east, having barely dipped below the horizon from midnight to 2 am the night before. It was sunny and the Jeep was packed. Really, all we had to do was put our toiletries kit and cooler in the car, let the dog and 18-year-old into the back seat and stop for breakfast. I always make a thermos and pack at least one meal before we go because there are not a lot of services outside of Fairbanks, but by tradition, we stop for mochas and something to eat on the way out of town. It’s like a final hurrah to civilization, even if we’re just taking the paved Parks Highway to Anchorage. We had filled up with gas the night before and Brad had checked all the tires, including the spare, and the fluids. We rubbed each other down with sunscreen in anticipation of the day and we made sure we had plenty of water and food. In case you’re wondering, our dog eats dry kibbles off the ground on road trips. As a final step, even though it was June, I checked 511 for the road conditions. You just never know with Alaska roads. A previously planned trip the year before had been canceled when the Dalton washed out at spring breakup.

The first 84 miles of the trip is technically not on the Dalton, which doesn’t start until you get to the mining community of Livengood. It’s a lovely drive on paved highway through alpine regions and we stopped in Livengood for an early lunch/late breakfast from the cooler at which point Brad decided he wanted a nap, so I became the driver with Keirnan shot-gun and the yellow Lab sitting on the floor in the backseat with her chin on Brad’s stomach.

Image result for image of yukon river bridgeThe highway parallels the pipeline for the most part. It’s one of the most isolated roads in the United States. There are only three towns along the corridor and fuel stops are few. The road is mostly gravel. Still, despite its remoteness, the Dalton carries a fair amount of truck traffic, about 160 trucks a day in summer and twice that in winter. Trucks have the right of way and I’m not about to argue with them about it. I signaled every truck that pulled up behind me to let them pass and pulled over whenever I could to make their lives easier.

I have seen the TAPS plenty of times and so has Keirnan, so we didn’t stop until we reached Yukon River Bridge. We went into the visitors center so Keirnan, who is a budding engineer could view the pipeline’s attachment to the bridge and I could use the port-a-pots. Goldeneyes took a dip in the river and Brad woke up. It was too early in the season to pick blueberries, but they were in full pink flower, scenting the air with their candy-like fragrance. We walked down the trail to the viewing deck to take some photos. Then we lost our minds at that point and decided to splurge on lunch at the Hot Spot Cafe. Great burgers, fresh salads, and homemade desserts. By this time, it was midday and we decided to let Keirnan drive since he has a learners permit and needs the practice.

Image result for image of finger mountain wayside alaskaIt’s boreal forest on both sides of the highway, some of which was devastated by forest fires in 2005 and 2006. There’s a lot of new-growth brush with charcoal trees standing above, like wicks in a tub candle. We saw a lot of scraggly black spruce, several moose, a fox, a lot of snowshoe hares, and a family of black bears. After a truck scared the daylights out of Keirnan, we pulled over at Finger Mountain Wayside and hiked the trail to the summit. We dawdled taking photographs and then we stopped and hiked to a small lake to fish for our 5-fish limit of arctic grayling. We stopped for the night (though it was pretty early) at the Arctic Circle. This is an undeveloped campground with a nearby viewing deck and picnic area. There’s no water, but there was an outhouse and trash containers.  We cooked the foil-wrapped grayling over a campfire with pan-fried potatoes on the side. Because this is bear country, we pitched our tent a good distance from where we ate and locked up all food in the car.

Related imageWe didn’t rush to get up in the morning. The sun never really went down, which isn’t a problem if you’re used to it. So we lazed about in the tent until the sun began to warm the air. Then we had eggs scrambled with cheese and thick slices of homemade bread slathered with butter and reloaded the Jeep for our second day of travel. We ate grapes during our morning drive.

We stopped at Gobblers Knob because Brad confessed he never had. I’d swear we stopped there once a long time ago, but he is apparently a victim of memory wipe. He had also never stopped (or more accurately, never gotten out of the truck) at the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center. It is such a quintessential tourist stop I just had to do it and we did learn about a fishing stream he hadn’t known about before.

Coldfoot was established as Slate Creek in 1898 by miners. In 1902 it was a toddling little town with two roadhouses, two stores, seven saloons, a gambling house and a post office. By 1912, it was a ghost town. The town revived for a short while during the 1970s during the TAPS construction and then faded. But in 1981, Iditarod musher, Dick Mackey set up a hamburger stand for truck drivers and now it’s an important stop along the highway, but since we’d blown our first day’s food budget at the Hot Spot, we just topped off with very expensive gas and ate sandwiches from the cooler instead. It’s on our return itinerary.

Image result for image of black jeep cherokee along dalton highwayWe stopped for photos and some short hikes along the way, finally pulling into Wiseman, which has about 20 people living in it these days. Most of Coldfoot’s buildings were sledged to Wiseman after the town died, so it’s still a lot of fun to poke around there. I do have some friends who live up in the mountains west of Wiseman, but the Jeep, which a great wilderness vehicle, is not a truly off-road one, so we decided not to attempt a visit. It would have taken us all the rest of the day to travel that far anyway.

We stopped at Sukakpak Mountain. Brad and I climbed it years ago and wanted to give Keirnan, an accomplished rock-climber a shot at it. I made dinner while they climbed and then Goldeneyes and I did a little bouldering while the fish simmered over a low fire. The mountain is an incredible limestone deposition of absolutely gorgeous marble.

Image result for galbraith lakeWe didn’t camp at Sukakpak because the mosquitos were a little heavy – marshy land surrounds the mountain — but also because it was still way too early to stop for the night. We continued northward to Atigun Pass, which is the Continental Divide of Northern Alaska, a narrow wind slot through the awe-inspiring Brooks Range.  Just south of there we passed the last tree on the Dalton Highway. That’s sort of a misnomer. North of there, the tundra doesn’t support tall trees, so trees you and I might know – birch and willow for example, only grow to knee height or so. The mountains to either side of the road are austere, beautiful in a lonely kind of way. Not far past Atigun, just at the start of the Arctic North Slope, is Galbraith Lake where another undeveloped campground with spectacular views of the Brooks Range awaited. We slept there. It was lovely ….

Sometimes during the night, the dog asked to come into the tent because she was afraid of dying of hypothermia. Keirnan had to towel ice off her fur before we could all go back to sleep. It was cold and rainy when we woke up the next morning. Not taking off our shorts and tank tops, we layered on our polar fleece and rain gear. We spent a good bit of the morning hiking around and didn’t leave until mid-morning.

The North Slope is a broad, mostly flat, treeless plain that tilts north from the Brooks to the Arctic Ocean. It’s a subtle place – a land of browns and tans and shifting shadows. Fog glittered around us when we woke up and then the sun peeked through the clouds, sending rainbows dancing.

Image result for galbraith lakeWe arrived at Franklin Bluffs by the Sagavanirktok River (we just call it the Sag). The east bank of the Sag is this rich yellow-tan-orange hue from heavy iron deposits. While I was utilizing nature for a natural activity, I spotted the young lady to my right. It’s not safe to interact with Arctic fox because rabies is endemic, but she was willing to pose for a photo.

Brad has been this way many times, so has more photos from more trips. Here are some of the sights he has seen along the Sag. Those are caribou, not reindeer and they were just a few feet off the highway when he snapped the photo.

Image result for sagavanirktok

But Keirnan got this picture while hiking away from our camp.

Related image

Yes, that’s a muskox. He was farther away than it seems. Keirnan has a telephoto. And we was also part of a herd of about five. No doubt there were more that Keirnan didn’t see.

By design we made Deadhorse in the early afternoon. You can go further north if you pay for a tour that will allow you to see the Arctic Ocean and we did – but I might want to use that tour of the oil fields some other time. The public road ends here. We had lunch at Brower’s Restaurant (the sweet tea was really good and we took soft serve ice cream with us).

And then we turned south and drove all the way to Coldfoot where we had two rooms rented for the night. The rooms are very pipeline man camp-ish and the only reason Brad wanted to stay there is that he can’t stand baby wipe baths for more than two nights. Keirnan and I have dry, curly hair, so it doesn’t bother us, but Brad likes to shower. The breakfast was GREAT and it was so lovely to wake up on the sunny side of the Brooks Range.

Related imageIt was now Monday morning and I needed to be back to work the next day, so we drove pretty steadily back south, taking turns behind the wheel, but stopping for photos from time to time and to get the dog wet. She is happiest when her fur is damp. We stopped at that fishing stream near the Interagency Visitors Center. It was a bust for fishing, but a pleasant place to picnic.

Technically, it’s not on the Dalton, but on the Elliott, but we stopped at Hilltop Restaurant and Truck Stop for dinner. Their pies are to die for – unfortunately, Brad and I are reaching the age where we do need to watch our calories. The sun was still above the trees to the west when we turned back onto the New Steese Highway for the last 10 miles to home.

“So what do you think, Keirnan?” I asked, as I was driving and he was my copilot (Brad having climbed into the back with the dog cuddled to his chest this time).

“The state just got bigger, Mom. I’m sort of use to the idea of it taking seven hours to drive to Anchorage and six hours to drive to Chitina (where we go salmon fishing), but now — wow.”

You can live in that state your whole life and never see all of it, which I guess is as good excuse as any for living here your whole life. I love to travel out and away, but there is something about the road untraveled in Alaska … I can just imagine what it must have been like for the early pioneers seeing it for the first time and smelling the blueberries in bloom and thinking “This is heaven.”

Heaven with the capacity to bite you on the bum anyway.

Posted January 15, 2018 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop, Uncategorized

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