A Year in the Life – A Rural Alaskan Retrospecticus

Photo Mar 31, 12 21 21 PM

It’s May here in Hughes, Alaska … just like it’s May everywhere else, too. I say this because sometimes it feels like we’re in a different universe way up here. Heck, Little Caesar’s Hot-n-Ready pizzas aren’t even the same price as in the lower 48:

***Plus tax where applicable. Available at participating locations. Prices higher in AK & HI.

The nerve! At least my Hawaiian brethren can empathize! In either event, its not as if we can get their pizza up where we live. Pizza here only comes branded as Digiorno or Totino. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. I know a lot of people are/were intrigued by our ‘bush’ adventure, but more specifically the ways in which we live up here. So, without further ado, our first year in review!

Travelling by Plane

Photo Oct 27, 2 05 32 PMFairbanks, AK is the local hub, a town of roughly 32,000 individuals also psychotic enough to live up here. Aside from an international airport that only flies to Anchorage or Seattle, us rural villages use a company called Wright Air Service. They have an entire fleet of Red Baron, single prop planes (that’s short for ‘propeller’ in the aviation biz.) They charge you the cost of your firstborn whenever you fly ($180 bucks one way) so we don’t go back into town very often (or, in other words, never.) The planes have enough leg room for anybody aged toddler and below. They are cold and somewhat turbulent due to the gusty Alaska atmosphere. But, in spite of all of that, the views are nice!

Mail and Deliveries

So, Wrights is literally the only company that flies out to the village. That means everything goes through them. Passengers. Pets. Freight. Packages. Medication. Mail. Everything except gasoline (which comes in on a bigger plane). Generally speaking, everything still reaches us in a timely manner. Amazon packages get to Fairbanks rather quickly and then we just have to wait for Wrights to determine when they actually load up the stuff and send it here. There isn’t really a rhyme or reason to what packages are shipped up on which days. There is only one flight a day into town so if your stuff doesn’t show up on the Tuesday flight, you’re hosed for at least 24 hours. Then, if it is too windy/snowy/rainy, the flight will be cancelled, and you have to wait another day.

Food

Photo Feb 16, 7 05 52 PM

Cooking on ye olde wood stove.

IMG_8463

Some cinnamon rolls my wife made from scratch!

We don’t starve to death, though I did lose all of the weight I had put on in South Carolina, putting me back to my Ohio scarecrow frame that everyone remembers … retro is back in style! Food does cost a lot more up here, especially having it shipped out to the village. The only grocery store around is Fred Meyer (owned by Kroger) in Fairbanks. We go online, make a grocery list, pay for it, email it to Lisa at the Fred Meyer store, she has one of her peeps pick the food for us, box it up, drive it to Wrights, we call up Wrights to pay for it, and then it gets shipped up. Quite a process, eh? It has its drawbacks (like, if you just feel like buying something spur-of-the-moment), but also has its benefits (like, if you just feel like buying something spur-of-the-moment.) We spend more money, but we also save money by not swinging by the store every other day like we used to do. In the end, it balances out.

Photo Apr 28, 10 55 07 AM

Our village grocery store.

There is also a small store here in a town (a house that was converted to a store) that opens for about an hour each day, except Sundays. Everything there costs a lot since they have to make money off of the stuff, but its no big deal. We go down there regularly to pick up bread, eggs, milk, and, of course, Pepsi.

Oh yeah. Milk. All the milk here comes in boxes that can sit out in room temperatures and doesn’t expire for months. I don’t know how that works, but I’m still alive.

Utilities

Photo Apr 28, 10 54 51 AM.jpgThe town electricity runs off of two big, gas generators, of which one seems to always be dropping out. Individual homes use little gas heaters called Toyostoves. Each home also has a wood stove that, well, uses wood. I chopped up a whole pile of wood with a chainsaw back in January that lasted me through the cold months. Our stove runs off of propane and propane accessories. The water in the village goes through a treatment facility, but, if that goes out, we can go down to the river, crack a hole in the ice, and boil some river water. That happened a few weeks ago.

Internet and Telephone

We have the internet through the school and a satellite service. Apparently, it costs the school district thousands of dollars each year to provide this service. This means, if there are budget cuts, you guys will have to burn me CDs of funny YouTube videos and send them via priority mail.

Generally, this has been a welcome change. Back in January, the company that provides the internet to us goofed up and throttled our speeds. I was under 1 Mbps for about two months (nerd talk) meaning nothing streamed very well at all. In fact, a Fortnite update for my kids took 48 hours. That is not an exaggeration. The point is, we have found other ways of entertaining ourselves at times and it has been rather refreshing.

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Look at these inferior speeds! The problem was rectified and now I can happily stream nothing worth watching on Hulu.

Also, it is definitely a different experience watching the Superbowl at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Sunrise, Sunset

Three things everybody on Earth thinks about Alaska:

  • It is very cold
  • There is no sunlight
  • We eat polar bears and/or we get eaten by polar bears
Photo May 02, 10 41 38 PM

Photo taken at midnight, two days ago (05-01-2019)

In response to number 2, yes, we only get about three hours of sunlight in the first two weeks of January. But since the beginning of March, we have had sunlight throughout most of the day and that has been a huge positive difference about living here. Now, the sun rises around 5 AM and sets past midnight. In fact, you can still see a soft glow over the horizon past 1 AM. I mean, I’m still pumped and doing things at 10 o’clock at night because it feels like it is still 4 PM. It really is energizing. Sleep isn’t impacted, either, because we bought blackout curtains that make the house feel like a warm little crypt.

Sky Anomalies

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and parhelion (Sun Dogs). That’s what its all about.

Wildlife

There are both black bears and grizzly bears here, but they keep their distance from the village. Moose are the main source of food in rural Alaska and each September, they are in season (yes, Alaska has regulated seasons for hunting just like anywhere else). Other wildlife includes snow hares, a random squirrel, wolverines, foxes, wolves, martins, geese, caribou, and (sigh) ravens. Those huge black birds are always lingering, squawking, and tearing through any trash bags that might be laying outside. I put a trash bag outside, with every intention of taking it to the school five minutes later, and when I opened the door, four of them were pecking the entire thing apart. Five minutes! Foxes show up and dig through trash sometimes, but they generally don’t want to be around humans. We can hear wolves every now and again outside of the village and make sure to “take care” of them whenever they encroach on our territory. Otherwise, the village is safe from wildlife.

Photo Sep 19, 1 49 34 PM

Ethan hanging some fish for drying out down by the river.

There are also, like, a billion gnats in the fall time (seriously, we had 10,000 dead gnats in the windows at the school last year that I sucked up with a vacuum … every night!) Mosquitoes are terrible and began to show up in the last few days, the instant the snow began to melt.

As for fish, the main fish in our river is the sheefish. It is like a fat salmon and they can get to be pretty big. I also know that there are little pike in the river … not sure of what other horrors lurk in those waters, though.

Climate

If you look at the climate between my hometown of Willard, Ohio and my current locale in rural Alaska, you’ll find that they are comparable in many ways. We get much more snow in October/November (because Ohio doesn’t really get any) but Ohio is also rainier throughout the entirety of spring and early summer. Each gets about the same number of sunny days each year (152 here, 171 in Ohio, but the winters are comparable). All in all, my point is that the only difference is the extremes in the winter time. Yes, it snows and snows and snows, piling up 6 feet high in some spots. Yes, it gets really, really cold with wind chills approaching -50deg Fahrenheit. But, as my wife and I have both stated, this is no different than when it would spike up to 100 degrees in the Carolinas. In both cases, you just stay inside and hope for the best. The only difference is, you can create heat. You can’t create ‘cold’. Therefore, in the south you rely on an AC … up here, you burn oil, burn wood, throw on some blankets, or even turn on an electric space heater. Or cuddle. Doesn’t matter. There are so many ways to stay warm that I didn’t even notice how cold it was, most times.

Weather Proofing!

With that extreme cold comes a lot of minor differences. For starters, all buildings are equipped with water circulation pumps on the main line to keep water moving, meaning no need to ‘drip’ your faucet constantly. Heat traces/tape are installed and connected to every breaker panel so that needs to be turned on from December to March. Ice forms on the insides of windows, door frames, etc. sometimes. We have a draft blocker in front of the door to stop the arctic chill form getting in (some people use wrapped up comforters and blankets). Otherwise, the homes are pretty well insulated … and the two feet of snow on the roof all winter only add to that.

Community

Photo Dec 31, 8 26 57 PM.jpg

Karaoke night, singing Metallica’s “One” with my co-teacher.

There are no malls or spa resorts here, but the village comes together to find things to do with what is available. We celebrate the major holidays together at an octagonal building that we call the village hall. This includes birthdays and massive potluck feasts. There are random bingo nights at the hall, as well, along with ongoing card games, a random dance here or there, and the annual dog sled races in February/March. Add to that, my wife is constantly dreaming up activities at the school (student sleepover, Grinch night, school dance, karaoke night) and the school district also provides paint nights, literacy nights, and other events. There seems to be something going on every single week here, even if it isn’t an Adele concert.

Most recently, we even had an Easter egg hunt for the little ones. Granted, we did it outside in the snow, with wicked winds blowing snow over top the eggs. It was certainly a unique Easter memory, but everyone had a blast. And I didn’t even have to wear pastels!

Communications

Some people in town have a telephone but that costs money and is only really useful for calling people outside of town. Again, no telephone lines back to Fairbanks so it is all Satellite based. I used to use WiFi calling with T-Mobile but they ticked me off, so I dropped them and now … just don’t have a phone. How liberating!

The real way we all communicate in town is by utilizing VHF radios. Everyone in town sets their radio to channel 10 and it acts as a sort of community bulletin. Anybody can get on there and talk about anything at any time. Some people make announcements for the town, like when the store will be open or if there is some event happening at the community hall. Some people ask for blue berry muffin mix. Kids get on and ask other kids if they want to play. Some parents are always looking for their kids at dinner time, every single night. Some people have one too many drinks at night and play old Arlo Guthrie songs. I usually turn it off when they start.

Activities

Our family took up a handful of fun/useful activities this year that the Alaskan outback (and laid-back lifestyle) afforded us. The big-ticket hobbies included:

  • Skiing
  • Sledding and tubing
  • Trying out snow shoes
  • Archery
  • Bead-work
  • Crocheting
  • A little bit of fishing (when possible)
  • Making bread
  • Earning a Bachelor degree with all my free time

I should also expand on something I mentioned earlier: the dog sled races. This is a big-time deal and it is pretty cool. A couple guys here in town raise these dogs and train them for racing and, once a year, people from other villages make their way to Hughes to be a part of the event. Races range from 2 or 3 dogs (for the kids) to 8 dog teams. These dogs go for miles atop the Koyukuk river and really are amazing. I get tired just watching them. Here are some photos of the pups being bred and the racers in action.

Getting Around

Photo Aug 14, 9 15 24 AM

ATV! ATV!

We mostly walk, but every once in a blue moon we hop on the school ATV or snow mobile to move around. It’s great because snow doesn’t matter anymore. In Ohio, the only reason I hated the snow was because I had to drive in it. Here? There’s no driving so there is no concern. I actually ENJOY looking out the window and seeing snow flakes falling. Who can say that on any day other than Christmas? The village does have one or two trucks that can be borrowed for hauling trash or whatever else, but we never need it. I digress, however. The ATV and snow mobiles are pretty fun to drive around whenever given the opportunity. In time, we’ll probably buy our own so that we can cruise around whenever we’d like (even though gasoline costs NINE DOLLARS A GALLON up here).

Other Highlights

Finally, I’ll just lump together some of the highlights of this past year in our rural Alaskan village:

  • The views of Alaska from the plane rides are spectacular and remind you of an Indiana Jones fly-over scene. I pack an inflatable yellow raft each trip, just in case.
  • We drove a sled full of kids up and down four miles of the frozen Koyukuk river. What a feeling, cruising atop frozen waters.
  • Cooking food atop the wood stove, grilling up moose steaks, trying out Indian tacos, Indian ice cream (note: it’s not ice cream but fish, berries, and I think fat, all mixed together), muktuk, and bear meat!
  • We climbed to the top of the big hill/mini-mountain behind the village and got an awesome view of the village, the river, and the surrounding landscape. Kristina fell through the snow half a dozen times which was pretty funny, and then slid down the mountain, screaming the whole time as if she was going to smash into trees.Photo Mar 31, 12 27 03 PM
  • At one social gathering, after having a handful of drinks, me and two other guys started playing instruments on the stage at the hall (I was somehow on drums – an instrument I never play.) I couldn’t spot Kristina in the crowd and ended up just making a song out of it, conveniently named “Where’s My Wife?” It was a real hit with some of the people in town.
  • At the Christmas get together, Santa was inebriated so they asked me to step up to the plate and do the honor. Talk about a skinny, disheveled Santa Claus. Many of the little kids cried as I screamed their names and belted out my terrorizing “ho, ho, ho’s”.

    Photo Dec 24, 8 10 28 PM.jpg

    What a sad Santa.

  • My wife went with a group of women blue berry picking and had two of the men in town tagging along with rifles. Bears are a constant threat whenever you stray too far from the village (truly, I saw bear scat at our landfill and that can’t be much more than a mile from our community). As the boy scouts say, “always be prepared”. Also, “don’t be stupid and go into the woods without something that can kill animals”.
  • Fishing in a river is a new experience for me. I’m used to calm lakes. With moving currents and shallow waters, you have to cast and recast constantly at the shore. I ended up snagging on rocks a half-dozen times, losing two lures, and breaking my line before finally quitting.
  • We had a Fortnite themed birthday party for Owen which included a llama pinata (thanks aunt Lindsey), music from the game, burgers/tomatoes, blue Gatorade chug jugs, and a massive battle royale of laser tag!

    Photo Mar 17, 3 05 26 PM

    Llama pinata eliminated.

  • The fireworks show on New Year’s Eve was pretty impressive … and interactive. Somebody knocked one over and set it off. That sucker went flying through the crowd and popped off about fifteen feet from us. Meanwhile another guy was firing off tracer rounds as a part of the festivities, all while kids ran around the place as if it weren’t the Battle of Stalingrad.Photo Jan 01, 12 01 05 AM
  • Earthquake! We felt two of them this year and they were pretty cool. Kristina was up walking around for the first one and didn’t realize it was happening – she bumped into the trash can and probably thought she had vertigo. The second time, I was reading a bed time story to the boys when it happened. Kristina yelled to us about it from the other bedroom and I convinced the boys to play along and act like we didn’t feel anything. “Are you serious,” she yelled, “the entire room is moving!”
  • Back in Fairbanks, our car battery was dead, frozen, and corroding. I paid up to get a non-liquid variant and found the right torque driver so that I could actually get to the stupid thing and disconnect the cable for storage.Photo Jan 31, 3 35 16 PM.jpg
  • Finally, I got a snow mobile stuck in the snow, trying to pull off a big U-turn. Kristina got pretty mad at me about that one. Que Sera!

So there you have it – everything I can think of regarding our life in rural Alaska. If you have questions, post them below and we’ll be sure to tack onto this ever-growing novel of a blog. See you back in the lower 48 soon for summer time!

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6 thoughts on “A Year in the Life – A Rural Alaskan Retrospecticus

  1. Thank you for sharing your life in the village.
    I lived 14 years off grid near Livengood about 65 miles North of Fairbanks
    and smiled knowingly at a lot of your descriptions.

    Like

  2. Yay for rural Alaska! Karaoke night sounds like a great time, and doesn’t getting the sno-go stuck on those U-turns just totally suck? Sounds like you guys had a great year out there!

    Like

  3. Also, I nominated you for the Sunshine Blogger Award – you brightened up my last week of school with your funny, accurate depiction of village teaching.

    Like

      • I’m in Arctic Village, over in Yukon Flats SD. It’s completely unlike anything I could have imagined before moving out here, but I fell in love with it as soon as I stepped off the plane. Sounds like you guys are in much the same boat.

        Like

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