Archive for the ‘#alaska’ Tag

Electric Car Math   3 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.

 

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Posted February 8, 2018 by aurorawatcherak in economics, Uncategorized

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Northern Adventures   11 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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Cold Weather Prepping   4 comments

October 23, 2017 – How to post. Pick something and explain how to do it. It can be writing related, craft related, garden related – just share how you do it.

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I thought long and hard about this post and finally decided not to share a craft or something writing related and my garden has been frozen for a few weeks at least. Which is kind of my point. So I decided to post on preparing for winter.

Alaska has really COLD weather, so we actually have a season for prepping for it. Pretty much everything stops right after moose season while we turn toward getting our houses and cars ready for winter. Our cars especially need some TLC to be ready for the icebox.

Image result for image of head bolt heater cordOur garage was built by people who apparently owned toy cars. We can pull in, but we can’t open the doors of either car … and heating our garage would be prohibitively expensive because it was incorrectly insulated, so … well, it’s an unheated attached tool shed that we can, if needed, pull a car into if we are prepared to climb out of the trunk to exit the car.

First order of business? Change the oil. You can, of course, do this at Jiffy Lube, but I like knowing it’s done right, so we usually do it ourselves. We have a special tub for catching the oil (and our local solid waste collection site accepts fluids like oil.) We buy a new filter, five quarts of 5W30-50 (depends on the car; we use 10W whatever in the summer) and a replacement fuel filter. While we’re changing the oil, we check to make sure all the lights are working and that the battery is doing well. Being an electrician, Brad has meters for that. We also check the coolant in the radiator, which also requires a meter. While most people can get away with premixed coolant, here in Alaska we have to make sure the antifreeze can go down to at least 40 below, so we usually mix it ourselves. We check our tire treads in the spring to give us time to buy new tires if needed, but we check them again now just to be compulsive. This year we have a tire that needs repair as it has a slow leak. That could easily become a big leak as the cold hardens the rubber in the tires.

Then we check the engine heating devices. Because it gets so cold here, whenever your car is parked, you have to plug it into a headbolt heater. Mechanics insert a heating element into the engine through the headbolt. We also warm our oil pans with a glue-on heating pad. While not absolutely necessary, it can be helpful to also put the battery on a battery-warming plate. (I am personally not a fan of battery blankets, probably because my stepfather the mechanic had no use for them).

These devices usually run to a central cord that hangs out of the grill of the car. You plug it into an extension cord that runs to an outside outlet that, ideally, is connected to a timer so that it only comes on for a couple of hours before you leave. Ours comes on at 5 am. We also have an override so we can give the cars some heat before going to pick up kids in the evening. Of course, we have two of these timed plugins because we have two cars. At one time, we had three cars, so one person had to plug in inside the garage – by running a cord under the door and actually get up two hours before departure to manually plug her car into that outlet. She was young and overslept a lot, so her mom often did it for her.

To check the headbolt apparatus, I plug in the car when it’s still warm outside and check to see if the engine compartment gets warm within a half-hour. If it does, we’re probably good to go. Brad checks the industrial Arctic-grade extension cords for cracks annually and replaces the ends about once every two years. We check the timers to make sure they’re working, still keeping time, etc. We run the 20-foot extension cords behind the garbage cans because, should we forget to unplug the car, the cans will fall over as the extension cords uncoil. This acts as a warning that prevents us from dragging the cords down the street — which often results in destroying the cords, or in getting them wrapped around an axle, which can seriously damage the car.

A final step in prepping the engine involves wiring a piece of cardboard to the backside of the grill, blocking about three-quarters of the airflow. This keeps the engine from being too cold, allowing the interior heater to actually warm us up. Brad’s Jeep has a bra, but my car needs the cardboard.

We squirt graphite-based deicer in the locks, clean the windows, smear this anti-fog stuff on the inside to try to prevent frosting (it’s debatable if that actually works), cover the backseat with a blanket so the dog can enjoy car rides without getting frost-bitten, fill an auxiliary gas can with gas and put it in the trunk along with some survival gear (most especially jumper cables) and a couple of bottles of oil. We move the ice scraper with attached brush from the trunk to the back seat (we’re going to need it).

Starting right about now (mid-October), we’ll warm the car for about a half-hour before starting the engine and then we’ll let it run for a couple of minutes before backing out of the driveway. When true winter (defined as colder than 0 F) arrives (around Thanksgiving, but sometimes as early as Halloween), we’ll warm it for an hour and run it for five minutes before departure. When it drops to 20 below, we go to an hour-and-half or two hours of warming. I only usually let the car warm up for five or 10 minutes, although there are people who let their cars run until they’re warm inside. That wastes a lot of fuel, I am not convinced it is easier on the engine, and it sure adds a lot of pollutants to our atmosphere. I also wear clothes that suit the weather.

When I get to work, there is another extension cord waiting for me to plug into because that’s what’s needed to keep the car going around here. Brad carries one with him in his vehicle so that he can use clients’ plugins so his vehicle doesn’t freeze when he’s inside. It’s not uncommon when you visit friends for them to tell you where the extra plugin is, but if they don’t have one, you have to go outside about every two hours to run the car for a few minutes (10, 15) to keep the oil loose. There is a big move here to encourage employers and businesses to provide outlets. That would be nice for those times when you go to the movies or out to eat and you know you have to take care of the car every two hours or pay the consequences.

So, there you go. One piece of a larger puzzle for winter time prep here in Alaska.

Learning From History   3 comments

September 25, 2017 – Tell us your biggest business lesson learned. If you were to start your writing career all over again, what would you do differently?

Image result for image of adventure canoeingHere in Alaska’s Interior, some rivers meander through gently rolling hills, occasionally changing their courses, creating slow-moving sloughs with a trickle of water flow that eventually become oxbow lakes stranded from the main channel. Other rivers run through the broad, mostly flat Tanana River valley in miles-wide multi-channeled braids, occasionally divorcing sloughs that might only have water in them every decade or so. When you’re canoeing or riverboating, sometimes you end up going down a slow-moving slough and get stopped by a big logjam or gigantic beaver dam, so you have to turn around and paddle back upstream to take another route. What does this have to do with our OP? It’s a metaphor.

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My writing career has been long and varied and I’ve learned a lot from the many mistakes and writing sloughs I have taken. I started out as a creative writer, scribbling for my own pleasure in elementary school and junior high and then submitting to school literary publications in high school. But I knew that I couldn’t make a living doing that, so I majored in journalism in college. Newspaper reporting was fun, low-pay and frustrating as the politics of the editorial staff began to dictate what facts were allowed to be reported. Throughout the rest of my career, I’ve done a lot of technical writing – editing grant documents, producing newsletters and excelling at desktop publishing. Different kinds of writing are useful in different parts of my life, so I can’t call any of them “sloughs” or “mistakes.”

Image result for image of alaska braided riverThroughout all of it, I’ve always written for my own amazement and I am now mining my back catalog of tales written for myself to publish.

I have no regrets writing-wise, although if I had to do it all over again …

  • I’d have jumped on the self-publishing bandwagon sooner. It doesn’t mean my books are lesser quality. It just means I have a smaller advertising budget.
  • I’d have embraced Facebook and Twitter for marketing sooner.
  • I’d have started socking small amounts of cash into my Pay Pal account earlier so that I would have a larger cash-flow stream now.
  • I’d have paid closer attention in art class to improve my book covers now.
  • I’d have worked harder at teaching myself to write Alaskana – it sells, but I struggle with it (which is why I haven’t published any … yet).
  • I’d have not taken a 25-year hiatus from writing short stories. They’re a great marketing tool for the novels if you can get them into good anthologies.

Overriding lesson – write for your own amazement and you might find other people enjoy it as much as you do, but also do things sooner, don’t be so slow to adopt great ideas … be adventurous. You’d think an Alaskan would already know that lesson about adventure.

 

Posted September 25, 2017 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop, Uncategorized

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Actions Speak Louder Than Twitter Storms   Leave a comment

I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. I’ve taken some heat for complaining about some of President Trump’s actions and I’ve taken some heat for applauding some of his actions. I don’t care about his Twitter flurries. Those are not governance. Honestly, I find it refreshing that a politician says what’s on his mind before convening a focus group to find out what should be on his mind.

By and large, I was at least half-pleased with President Trump’s cabinet picks. I know lots of people disagree, but they would have disagreed if Trump had allowed Hillary Clinton to pick his cabinet for him. And, no, that’s not a joke. Some people seem to be unfamiliar with how the Constitutional election system works. Donald Trump won the presidency completely by the rules. Maybe your candidate should have not played fast and loose with state secrets on her unsecured private email server and bit her tongue before declaring that 40% of the country’s voters were irredeemable racists she would consign to a “deplorables” basket where she wouldn’t have to take their concerns seriously. You don’t have to be a Donald Trump fan to recognize that she was declaring she would be president for only some Americans. We’re lucky she didn’t win, which does not mean we are blessed that Trump did.

Image result for image secretary elaine chao in alaska

Alaska swung pretty hard to Donald Trump. They didn’t need my help and they didn’t get it, but a lot of people here think they made a right decision because of the Trump administration’s behavior toward Alaska. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, Alaska has been the host to at least three federal department chiefs — Secretaries Rex Tillerson (State), Ryan Zinke (Interior) and Elaine Chao (Transportation). Zinke and Chao came to Alaska at the behest of Alaska’s Congressional delegation. two come quickly to mind, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was here a couple of weeks ago.

Both Zinke and Chao toured the state and talked to all walks of Alaskans and then said they hoped to be able to work with the State of Alaska and Alaska residents to develop infrastructure and allow reasonable resource development. Contrast this to the Obama’s administration’s cabinet visits. Antony Foxx (Transportation) and Sally Jewell (Interior) both visited Alaska, but they met only with Native groups, appeared to be hostile to the State government and announced they would further tighten regulations on the state so as to prevent development of infrastructure and further restrict resource development, hobbling our economy even more than the Jones Act and previous environmental regulations already do.

Last week Chao spoke with transportation officials and industry leaders in Alaska, coming to the conclusion that the federal government will more quickly advance projects, which have been delayed, often for decades, by a burdensome regulatory process.

This is no small matter for Alaska, which receives about $500 million annually for its transportation projects through the Federal Highway Administration. Southeast and Southwest Alaska benefit from federal highway funds through limited road projects, but federal funds are used to build Alaska Marine Highway System ships. Like all other states, Alaska matches federal dollars with a 10-percent contribution.

Toward alleviating project delays, Chao noted that Alaska has become only the seventh state to acquire an agreement with the federal government that allows it to conduct environmental reviews for state and federal highway projects. The agreement, which is under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), is expected to be signed in October, according to Chao.

Environmental protections will remain and the federal government will monitor the state’s reviews, but projects should be able to move forward more efficiently.

Actions speak louder than Twitter storms, disapproving pundits and shouting, rock-throwing protesters. There’s been considerable noise coming out of Washington, D.C. since Trump’s inauguration. It’s often difficult to know what’s true and what isn’t, because politicians and pundits present points of view favorable to their preferences, often ignoring the needs of states and even those of the nation.

I’m still not a Donald Trump fan. I doubt I’ll vote for him in 2020, but he’s doing some things right and it’s been a long time since Alaska has seen that coming out of the Oval Office. Alaskans, lets focus on what’s actually being accomplished for Alaska and tune out the rest of the nonsense.

Posted September 12, 2017 by aurorawatcherak in politics

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It’s All in the Attitude   Leave a comment

This is Brad. Lela admitted to me last night that she really hasn’t posted anything on Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and so she’s letting me today. I have to thank our son Kiernan for helping me with hash tags and photos as I am still pretty blogging illiterate.

 

I used to live in Houston. Although I was raised in the Northeast, my father has been based in Texas since I was in middle school, so I spent a year of junior high there, summers all through high school and then I moved to Houston after high school graduation to work for Dad’s electrical company. All together, I lived in Houston about six years before moving to Alaska … my forever HOME.

Related imageMy dad pulled stakes for Austin some years ago, but two of my sisters and my brother still live in Houston. They are all fine. My sisters live on what amounts to higher ground in Houston, while my brother uses Houston as a base of operations, but doesn’t have a permanent residence there currently. His storage unit is on higher ground too.

For such a wild place, Alaska doesn’t really have natural disasters that get people really excited. I guess after you’ve lived through a 9.2 mag earthquake, a mere 7.9 is a yawn. Lela vividly remembers the 1967 Flood here in Fairbanks that devastated the community only weeks before winter usually starts here. While she feels sympathy for Houstonians and was worried about my sisters until they updated their Facebook statuses, she has a hard time weeping for Houston (especially my sisters who aren’t flooded) … and I think I get that after all these years here in Alaska, surrounded by practical people who view 40 below zero for weeks on end as a mere obstacle to overcome.

Here in Alaska, a flood that doesn’t come into your house is an adventure. Our favorite relaxation place is Chena Hot Springs Resort and there’s a spot of low-lying road between the resort and Fairbanks. On several occasions we have driven through two feet of water to get to the other side of a wash-out there. It happened so often that the state Department of Transportation finally just built the road to be flooded periodically and they put up signs that say the road is passable, but before that, Lela and I would regularly dare the risks of a flooded road to get to the other side. One of us would walk out in front, in the COLD water, to determine if the road is still there and then the other one would follow driving the car.

To get to our cabin site off the Steese, we actually have to drive through an unbridged creek. You can’t do it with our passenger car (not enough clearance and front-wheel drive), but one reason we keep resurrecting our 24-year-old Jeep is because it can handle the creek. Summer before last, after a long period of rain, it got a little scary as water started coming in the doors and the engine started sputtering when the exhaust went under water, but again … it’s an adventure until it starts flowing into your basement.

In the last few years, no-wind-in-the-winter Fairbanks has had a handful of intense wind storms that have brought down trees into power lines and onto people’s roofs. It approaches a natural disaster for me when the electricity goes out in the winter because, of course, your needed home-heating device doesn’t works without electricity. Lela just bundled up and started the wood stove. The bad news was there were trees caught in the electrical lines that feed our house. The good news was no trees hit our house or vehicles because the safety net of power and communications lines caught them.

See the Alaskan attitude? It’s not a disaster until your life is in danger and even then … quit bellyaching about it and find a way to mitigate the harm so you don’t die.

Image result for image downed trees power lines fairbanks alaska

During one of those storms, a neighbor who is a lineman came and tapped on our door and asked if I could go around and volunteer to the neighbors to make sure they didn’t electrocute themselves while they cut up their trees. I’m a licensed industrial inside wireman and our lineman neighbor — who had to go to work, of course — knew: a) our neighbors would do it anyway and get themselves killed, and b) I have the skills to assure they did it safely. Within a couple of hours you could hear chainsaws all over the neighborhood. A long time before the electric company could get around to repairing downed power lines, a handful of neighbors who are wood burners, including Lela and me, had taken care of the downed trees. I think we’re using the last of the latest round of wind-blown trees right now.

During 911, I was in a remote Alaska village when the planes were grounded. The barge hadn’t arrived yet with winter supplies. Lela had just sent me a food box and it had arrived on the last plane, but some of my coworkers had nothing to eat. The villagers, even though they were at the bottom of their pantries until the barge came in, kept them from starving.

When a car goes off the road around here, or is pulled over to the side with its hood open, people stop and ask if you need help. They’ll pull you out if they can (and risk a ticket nowadays because it’s against the law according to the cops). Lela, who is quite capable of changing her own tires, has had men stop and insist she get into the warm vehicle while they do the heavy lifting, but she’s also stopped herself for women in inadequate winter clothing and old men who shouldn’t be working so hard. And, yes, so do I. There’s even a website, started by a high school student, called “I’m Stuck, Come Pull Me Out” where volunteers will do exactly that if you have smart phone service wherever you’re stuck. I’m sure it’s driving the professional tow-truck drivers mad, but that’s Fairbanks.

So, I’m kind of amused at how the media is shocked — SHOCKED — that volunteers are doing a better job of disaster relief than the government in Houston. I’m used to a culture where volunteers are the backbone of every relief effort. Lela and I give money to the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention that partially goes to funding Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. If you’ve never heard of them before, that’s because the men and women who do the hard work don’t like to take bows, but they served the majority of the meals during the cleanup at the Twin Towers, they were a backbone agency in the recovery efforts from Katrina, and I even went with them to work on a lineman’s crew after Hurricane Sandy. I paid my plane ticket and they fed and housed me for two weeks as I hooked up people’s houses to the grid — the utility companies do not restore power when the break is between the pole and the house. SBA Disaster Relief works in coordination with other volunteer organizations (think the Cajun Navy) and some government agencies (although they had to violate some FEMA rules during Katrina to get help where it was needed).

Image result for image of 1967 flood fairbanks alaskaThe other day, Lela was hit up for yet another donation to Hurricane Harvey relief and the person soliciting the donation thought she was being uncharitable when she declined. Lela speaks her mind … I think you all know that by now … so she informed this do-gooder that we had given our regular tithe to our church, some of which had gone to a special donation to SBA-DR, then given a special donation on line to SBA-DR and then also donated to a friend who is member of the Cajun Navy. We don’t feel guilty for not giving to an organization that we know nothing about that may be using the donations to fund administration rather than actual relief efforts. We believe in the power of volunteers to do what needed doing. The Red Cross, which uses 90% of donations for administrative support, will be fine without our dimes and nickles.

The leaves are turning yellow here in Interior Alaska and that can only mean one thing — winter is coming. I sound so much like Ned Stark, yeah. But it’s true. Soon it’ll be colder than cold here and we’ll be facing what many places in the country would consider to be a natural disaster. We won’t complain because this is the life we’ve chosen to live and cold weather really isn’t a natural disaster. It just feels like it might be. So long as we have fire wood in the shed and diesel fuel in the tank, though, it’s merely an inconvenience.

Houston … you have a mess to clean up and I’m sure it won’t be any fun. But as Lela, who has lived through two events she actually considers to be natural disasters, has taught me … it’s all about your attitude. There’s nothing funny about your entire town and your house being under water, but … it’s also an adventure if you’re not in immediate danger of dying. Heck, when she tells the stories about the 67 Flood … she and others who lived through it sure make it sound like it was an adventure. I guess that’s why Alaskans don’t consider 40 below zero, 12 feet of snow or 7.9 mag earthquakes to be disasters. Their frame of reference – five feet of glacial flood water filling homes and businesses just six weeks before winter is a potentially killing event … and they even consider that to be an adventure rolled up into a natural disaster.

Can the Jones Act, Save Alaska   1 comment

Protectionism does damage to the economy. How do I know? I live in Alaska, where the Jones Act has been protecting the American Merchant Marine for nearly a century. I pay 30% more for my groceries than you do anywhere else in the United States. I paid $3.89 a gallon for gasoline yesterday. The rest of the country paid, on average $2.46. Some of our high prices are due to higher shipping costs (we are, afterall, 2000 miles from the mainland), but hidden in those costs is the cost of the Jones Act.

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For almost 100 years, the act has created monopolies for domestic shipping interests, undermined the U.S. shipping industry, and done long-term damage to local economies in Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico. Like nearly all protectionist efforts, the law has, over time, undermined the very thing it was designed to support: national security during times of war through an unparalleled shipbuilding industry and U.S. Merchant Marine.

Under terms of the law, sea trade between any U.S. ports is required to be carried on U.S.-built ships that are also U.S.-owned and flagged and populated by crew composed of at least 75% U.S. citizens. These manufacturing and labor restrictions took effect when the German U-boat submarine — not offshoring — was the biggest risk to U.S. commerce. But research by the George Mason University’s Mercatus Center shows the law has contributed to making the U.S. shipbuilding industry largely uncompetitive over the past 60 years.

As the Mercatus study notes, there were 2,926 large ships in the U.S. commercial fleet in 1960, making up 16.9% of the world fleet. By 2016, that number had fallen to 169 ships, only 0.4% of the world fleet. U.S.-flagged ships carried 25% of U.S. international trade in 1955; by 2015, the share had dropped to 1% of total exports.

In any other industry, this sort of economic decline would have set off alarms and drawn a major political response. In a 1999 study, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimated the Jones Act cost U.S. consumers $1.32 billion annually, its requirements being the equivalent of a 65% tariff on shipping services.

So where’s the outrage? Both the Interstate Highway System and cheaper aviation have made massive inroads into interstate commerce over the past century. Meanwhile, U.S. export and import businesses simply use cheaper foreign-flagged vessels. It also helps that U.S. airlines aren’t prevented from purchasing aircraft from Europe, Canada, or Brazil nor U.S. truckers from buying German or Japanese-made big rigs. While no one would propose banning airlines or truckers from relying on these foreign industries, this is precisely what the Jones Act does for the U.S. shipping industry.

Itermodal transportation options have exploded throughout the contiguous United States, while the seafaring industry’s decline has largely been hidden from view, except for the non-contiguous states of Hawaii and Alaska and insular territories like Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico’s case, the Jones Act is the structural foundation behind much of its current economic woes. It’s estimated that the cost of all non-U.S. goods imported into the commonwealth are 15 to 20% higher than on the mainland, with three or four Jacksonville-based shipping companies handling all Jones Act-related transport to Puerto Rico. Thanks to these shipping costs, cars cost roughly $6,000 more in Puerto Rico than on the mainland, and food is roughly twice as expensive as in Florida.

It’s easy to find similar examples of major trade distortions between West Coast ports and Alaska and Hawaii. Cattle ranchers from the Big Island have to charter a weekly 747 cargo jet to get their cattle to the mainland because it’s cheaper than Jones Act shipping. In the 1970s, it was cheaper for a Japanese-owned pulp mill in Southeast Alaska to send its products to Japan and then back to Seattle — 8,000 miles round-trip — than to ship the 700 miles directly to Seattle. There is no wood pulp industry left in Alaska today. While some would like to say it was a victim of environmentalism, the last company to operate here says the real culprit was the Jones Act and its insane costs. In the 21st century, such irrational shipping decisions would bear the additional worries about the excess carbon emissions they produce.

Of course, this has been allowed to continue because Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico have tiny little voices in Congress, so they can’t be heard over the bellicose slogan shouting of the Longshoreman’s Union. Coincidentally, the shale oil and gas revolution is bringing attention to the Jones Act in parts of the country with more political clout. The December 2015 lifting of the 40-year ban on crude-oil exports has boosted oil exports to more than 500,000 barrels a day out of Texas and Louisiana ports. Yet according to the Congressional Research Service, refineries along the U.S. East Coast on average import more than 500,000 barrels of crude a day from Nigeria, Angola, and Iraq, rather than from the U.S. Gulf Coast — thanks, once again, to costs imposed by the Jones Act. Shipping from Texas to Northeast refineries costs roughly $5–6 per barrel using domestic shipping, while shipping even further up the Eastern Seaboard to refineries in eastern Canada (using international tankers and crews) costs just $2 a barrel. For a standard tanker carrying 300,000 tons deadweight, this amounts to cost savings of about $1 million per shipment.

Labor costs are the most significant difference. A unionized U.S. sailor is 5.5 times more expensive than one on a foreign-flag vessel, and such vessels are usually populated with sailors from many nations, especially the Philippines and China. A separate 1915 U.S. statute, written when ships were run by steam boilers, adds to the cost by mandating larger crews to keep watch over the boilers 24 hours a day. The statute is still in effect, even though U.S. ships are now powered by much safer diesel motors or, increasingly, by natural gas turbines.

Jones Act defenders argue loudly that the Act must be preserved because “national security” is at stake. But few commercial ships are useable by a 21st century Navy. There have been thousands of foreign-flagged commercial vessels docked in US ports every year since 2001 without a single terrorist incident tied to them. How would traffic between U.S. ports by these ships somehow increase the terrorism threat?

The 97-year-old law is many decades past due for serious amendment and perhaps even complete repeal. The upcoming centennial, in 2020, presents an ideal opportunity to highlight the Jones Act’s mercantilist history — and to bid it a final un-fond farewell.

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