Saturday, January 31, 2009

The "city", the "hub" and the "village"

Life in Alaska is generally lived on one of three levels. Well, actually there are four. The fourth would be completely isolated, as on a homestead or out on a trapline, at a fishcamp. etc. But we'll skip the fourth and focus on the other three.

Living in the "city" refers to urban areas. Keep in mind we are talking about Alaska here; a state with a total population roughly equal to the city of Boston, so "urban" is a relative term. The urban areas in Alaska are basically three. Yep, three; that's about it. There are more than three incorporated cities, but three urban areas is really all we have.

In order of population, you have the Anchorage/Mat-Su area (where most of the state's residents hang their fur hats), Fairbanks and Juneau. Calling Fairbanks "urban" is a stretch (37,000); Juneau even more so(about 30,000), but it is what it is; for us that's urban.

Numerically, most Alaskan's live in the "city". More are moving there every day, driven cityward by the tough economic conditions. Like elsewhere on the planet, it is easier to find employment in the cities, and a dollar (or a peso, tenge or yuan) tend to go a lot farther where the people are.

The "hub" refers to communities that serve as something of a middle ground between the city and "the bush" (bush = rural Alaska, off the road system). Hub communities come in large or small versions, determined by size, and are found throughout the state. Some of the large ones are Bethel, Nome and Barrow. Small hub villages are communities like Aniak and Galena.

Most services run through hubs; a sort of "trickle-down" system from cities through the hubs to smaller villages. Mail, social services, State Troopers, air travel; all these and more "trickle" through the hubs. If you get into trouble for a minor offence, you'll probably appear before the magistrate in the hub. If you need medical/dental services on a minor level, the hub may be where you go. If you need a Trooper, the hub is where you call. Fish and Game, mental health, regional events; these things happen on the hub level.

Hubs tend to be growing in size also, since they offer more than villages. More employment, better schools, more of this, better that, etc., etc. A couple of examples.

I was in our hub yesterday, flying from the city (where we had gone for medical services and to attend a conference) to my home village. While I was waiting four hours to make my connecting flight, I talked with two men; both currently employed as construction workers. Winter construction work just doesn't happen in villages, but these two were enjoying year-round work because a housing facility is going up in this hub (the housing facility would NOT be built in an outlying village).

Hub schools are also a cut above. This hub's school (actually there are two; one is a boading school with students from all over the region. You'll note the boarding school is located in the hub too), aside from offering better teachers, a wider variety of subjects, being equipped with an indoor swimming pool, etc., gives student a bunch of choices when it comes to sports. Their students can play basketball, run cross country, ski, wrestle, play volleyball, and probably other stuff too. That's a pretty sharp contrast to our village school, where kids can play basketball...and that's it. Even that is a financial strain on our school and community.

Village residents are cut from different cloth when compared to the rest of the state (or the county for that matter). New Yorkers are silk. Californians...microfiber. Cotton seems to work for the south. Maybe...denim for Wyoming or Nebraska. So village Alaska? Hmmm, how about burlap. Or maybe just fur.

Village dwellers tend to live very close to the environment around them. Food is often harvested from the surrounding land and waters, so they spend considerable time there harvesting it. "Store food" is secondary.

Weather conditions affect them much like it does farmers and ranchers. An untimely frost or a prolonged spell of rainy weather can adversely affect their "crop". That's not even considering other variables like if the fish run is down this year or if the increasing numbers of wolves are making moose hard to find.

Law enforcement is usually a long way off, as are other things like stores (real ones, I mean), jobs, churches, emergency medical services, cell phone service and lots of the other things that most Americans take for granted.

So think of northern life as lived on three levels. City life, which is probably similar to what you are used to; hub life, which, to you would seem primitive; and village life, which is primitive.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

First big storm of '09

Our bitter cold morphed quickly into a thaw (well, a partial thaw. Up here it takes a while for a complete thaw, known as "break-up"). Temps hit the forties. All the snow became wonderfully glazed, turning the entire outdoor world into one big skating rink. Skates are in short supply and golf shoes are hard to find in a 10" insulated boot version, so we must hope for more snow and colder weather to cover the ice.

Then the wind came last night. It's the latest variety of weather sent to us from Hawaii. Most people would love Hawaiian weather, especially in January, but it just doesn't work in the sub-arctic.

The blow knocked down trees (about one per household; we missed out but my neighbor made up for it with three), killed the power twice as two homes lost their service connection, turned a couple of roofs into kites (one dog house suffered the same fate and this morning the mother and pups were snowed under) and generally wrought havoc. As you can see, one family had their truck remodeled, same for their snow machine, and their cache (aka "shed") was threatened.

A drive down to the river bank became a Wizard of Oz type trip, only instead of leaving Kansas we went to North Dakota. You can see the white out. Just beyond the two houses is an entire river, obscured in blowing snow.

I don't want to seem like I'm complaining though. The rest of the country has been hard hit with extreme weather of late; the northwest especially.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

1-15-09; "Warmer?"

Just a quick thought on the "warm" thing. Last week our temps were in the mid-fifties...below. Today the temp approached forty above. That's a swing of what?...ninety degrees?

Imagine a winter where your temperatures can vary by 90 (sometimes 100) degrees. Not to get pedantic* here, but if a "cold" winter day where you live is zero, imagine next week you hit ninety or a hundred. That would certainly be "warm". So, compared to minus fifty, thirty five or forty above is definitely warm. Today some people even used the word "hot" to describe it.

* not sure if I used the word correctly; I heard an NBA coach use it and thought it sounded pretty cool, so I thought I'd try it out. Forgive me if I'm now being pedantic, or perhaps even ostentatious. Or perhaps I should quit playing with the dictionary altogether.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


It finally warmed up and snowed. Yes, you read that correctly. In this region, during winter, clear weather is cold weather. Low pressure systems (which usually contain clouds, wind and precipitation) bring snow. So think of snow as warm weather and you've got it. I realize that's a twist for most people, but it works for me.

It's been piling up all day. I drove the 4-wheeler plowing my yard and a couple of other places today. One was the driveway of the oldest man in the village. He's my buddy and a guy I've learned a lot from, so I like to help him out when I can. You'll find some photos of him in the post "Lush"; 10-23-08 (he's the older one, in case you weren't sure).

There is the threat of freezing rain tonight. That can be a real bummer, especially if you have a lot of snow sitting on your roof. The snow soaks up the rain like a sponge and the weight goes up fast; which is why I shoveled the roof yesterday.

Rain can really help travel; not at the time but in the long term. We have a couple of feet of snow on the ground (less than normal, due to the clear, cold weather) so "breaking trail" is still doable but hard work. Put some rain on it and let it freeze and you get a good "crust" which helps support the snow machine and gives the track something to bite into. All that means snow machine travel greatly improves.

Lots of wildlife receive the same benefit. All the small game can run around on the top of the crust. Even animals as large as wolves and wolverines can stay on top of a good crust. About the only animal who won't be happy will be the moose; they punch through, so a crust is bad news for them. Picture in your mind a dozen hungry wolves scampering around on top of the crust as if it were pavement. Now picture a half-ton moose in their midst, breaking through the crust, struggling, trying to stay alive.

It's a "good news, bad news" thing; good for the wolves, bad for the moose. That's just how it goes.

My computer just gave me an update on the weather. My wife has it set up to notify us when there is a weather alert. We continue to be under a "winter storm warning", with total snow accumulation for this storm estimated to reach 12". That means tomorrow will be a replay of today; shovel snow, plow snow, etc...snow.

What fun!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Alaska is a land of harsh realities. The long dark of winter. Brutal cold. Geophysical isolation. Wild animals. Even the tiny insects of summer are HARSH!

It seems to follow that Alaska is also a land of resolve; of persistence, determination and stubborn perseverance. Examples are prevalent in the natural surroundings.

The solitary bull moose standing resolute in a driving snowstorm. He squints his eyes to shield them from the stinging snow. His back, neck, even his head and horns are heavy with accumulated snow. But he stands there firm; holding his ground against the storm.

The sockeye salmon returning to waters of her birth. Relentlessly she overcomes the current and moves upstream, day after day. Far behind are the familiar ocean and the food it provides. Ahead she can expect hunger, fatigue, danger and the unknown. Yet she perseveres.

The Alaskan husky, leaning into the harness, working in concert with rest of the team, moving down the trail. Seemingly forgotten are the miles behind, the injured shoulder and the sore feet. The day the trail was obscured by snow drifts, and the one when they hit overflow and got wet up to their bellies; distant memories. This dog lives for the moment. He pushes on. He perseveres. He won't give up. He goes...on and on.

It's surprising to me that the local inhabitants don't possess more of these same attributes. Their ancestors did. They were a people who were tough! In generations gone by they spent the frigid winters in canvas tents on the trapline. They caught fish year-round; even keeping a net or fishtrap under the ice. They cut wood by hand; using an axe and hand saw.

When a fresh moose track was found, men would drop everything to go after it. Equipped only with what they could carry on their backs, they would strap on hand made snowshoes and pursue their quarry, literally running it down. Hours or days, the duration of the chase was no matter. But perhaps the greatest example of how tough these people were, they endured summer mosquitos without "bug dope".

It is a mystery and a controvery to ask "What changed?" Years of drug and alcohol abuse, government subsidies / "free money", loss of culture, loss of language, lack of employment, the decline in trapping, boarding schools, "the white man", changes in the home/family, abusive priests; all these and more are possible reasons. But what is certain is things have changed.

A key factor may be rapid advances in technology. A couple generations ago life was lived a lot closer to the edge. A poor fish run, an unsuccessful moose hunt or even a minor injury could result in death. Starvation, disease, hypothermia and other monsters were always lurking just outside the door. Life was uncertain. Local inhabitants faced that uncertainty much as the bull moose faces the snowstorm; with resolve.

Today we have med-evacs, village clinics, energy assistance, housing programs, a variety of food assistance programs for seniors, women with children and the poor. We have a plethora of other government subsidies as well. We have oil heaters in addition to wood stoves in energy efficient homes. Snow machines have replaced dog teams. Many communities have indoor plumbing; all have electricity and phone service and satellite tv. Most have internet access.

In short, life today is easier. It may require more cash, but modern life is less demanding. Hauling water and wood, feeding the dogs and checking the fishnet were once daily chores. Now they are basically optional, if needed at all.

Chatting with an elder ten years ago, we talked about how village life has changed. The gist of it came down to two things. Life now is easier (less physical work, no threat of starvation, more money) but life today has more problems (drug and alcohol abuse, lack of motivation, suicide, loss of cultural values, etc). The two seem to go together, and he admitted, "There's no going back".

Today you can still find the modern counterpart to the tough, resourceful ancestor, but sadly, they are the exception rather than the rule. And they appear to be a dying breed. When they are gone, the moose, the salmon and husky will mourn their passing.