Northern Exposure: Is Alaska All Snow? No Is Palin Popular? No 10/30/11 Concord Monitor
After 15 months of living in Anchorage, Alaska, I have returned home to beautiful North Wilmot. While I am delighted to be home, I have to say that Alaska still has allure, almost gravitational pull. There is a reason so many people harbor Alaska fantasies.
Alaska is a surprising and paradoxical place, like New Hampshire except on a much larger scale. While I did not know much about Alaska before I arrived, I have to say it did not turn out to be what I expected. A good way to discuss the real Alaska is to discuss the questions that have been put to me since I returned:
Isn’t Alaska all snow and ice?
No. Everything depends on where in Alaska you are. Watching the extensive weather forecasts on TV in Alaska, you realize there are about seven weather systems going on simultaneously in the humongous state. The weather in downtown Anchorage is probably more moderate and temperate than New Hampshire. Generally temperatures hover between 0 and 20 Fahrenheit in the winter. While Anchorage gets some snow, last winter was very light. I had to smile hearing about all the snow in New Hampshire.
Fairbanks, the largest city north of Anchorage, is another story. You can get a solid two-week run of 40 degrees below in December or occasional 60 below days. You better plug in your car at night or else.
I also spent some time in southeast Alaska, in Juneau and Ketchikan. These places feature rain 250 days a year. They do sometimes get snow but not much. The climate makes Seattle look sunny.
Does Alaska have summer?
Summers in Alaska are not what I would describe as warm, but they are a big draw. Usually, for the tourist influx, we are talking summer temperatures in the balmy 50s in Anchorage. I found the best weather from March to June, which was a positive contrast to our mud season. When I got back to New Hampshire this August, I felt beach-deprived. I made a beeline to the Seacoast. If you are looking for beaches, Alaska is not the place for you. Instead of beaches, there are mudflats with warning signs and freezing water temperatures. The mudflats are like quicksand. Every year there are rescues of misguided people who ignore warning signs and wander out on the mud.
Did you get studded snow tires?
I did not, and I must report that there were only a couple days when driving was dicey in Anchorage. I did overhear many conversations about the need for studded snow tires. Having driven in both Alaska and New Hampshire, I think New Hampshire does a much better job of snowplowing and clearing roads. I am not sure if the poor quality of snowplowing in Anchorage reflected a macho ethic or cuts in the budget. I will say it was a little spooky approaching downtown intersections in Anchorage and wondering if you would slide into traffic. Black ice is for real.
Driving in Fairbanks in the winter was a trip. There was at least an inch of ice coating big chunks of the roads. Mastering stopping and turning was an art I never picked up. The slide factor apparently did not bother people in Fairbanks. They still drove fast. I learned they considered people from Anchorage wussies.
How dark was it?
Let me put it this way: By October the sun is almost a goner. I thought the dark was harder to cope with than the cold. Maybe if you were a vampire, you would find it cool. There is a reason Alaska is a popular locale for horror films featuring zombies and other denizens of the night. In Anchorage around the winter solstice, the sun would come up at 10:30 a.m. and
it would set at 3 p.m. By October, the tourists clear out and Anchorage becomes something of a ghost town.
Of course, the other side of the coin is the light in summer. The light can be confusing – you might think it was 6 p.m. at 11 pm. You have to tell yourself to go to sleep because you cannot tell if it is late from how it looks outside.
The fireworks are better on New Years Eve than the 4th of July. On the 4th, they did not do fireworks until 12:45 a.m.
Do people live in igloos?
I did not see that in Anchorage.
Did you meet Sarah Palin?
No I did not meet Mama Grizzly, Todd, Bristol or Levi Johnston. I must say I was surprised by Palin’s unpopularity in Alaska. A co-worker who was an Aleut Native called her “the quitter queen.” A perception that she quit on the state to cash in was widespread.
Is Alaska an arch-conservative red state?
Not really. Alaska started blue and has evolved red. It is a funny mix. When Alaska first became a state in 1959, conservatives feared its liberalism.
I am old enough to remember the great senator Ernest Gruening, who was one of the first senators to oppose the war in Vietnam and who was one of only two senators to oppose the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
While Alaska has elected many conservative Republicans, I think the recent senatorial election in which Lisa Murkowski beat Joe Miller is instructive.
Though Murkowski was a long-shot write-in candidate, Miller’s Tea Party extremism deconstructed his Republican base. Miller also roused the Native Alaskan community into almost total opposition to his candidacy.
Alaska can go both ways politically although indisputably there is a strong libertarian tradition in the state.
Alaska has no professional baseball or football teams. Who do people root for?
While there is some preference toward Seattle teams, the Seahawks and the Mariners, I found Alaskans very open on sports team preferences. It is not like New Hampshire with Red Sox and Patriot dominance. The Red Sox, Steelers, Cowboys and Packers all appeared to have a following in Anchorage based on numbers of hats and jerseys. Sports bars opened early since football comes on at 9am on Sundays. One great thing about Alaska was that you could always be up for the finish of games, a benefit of the four-hour time difference.
Are you going back?
I would love to go back. Anchorage is no backwater. It is a vibrant, youthful, ethnically diverse city of 300,000. It is a fun city in its own right. It is also a great jumping off point for numerous vacation destinations. Whether you are driving down the Kenai Peninsula, heading north or south to trek on a glacier, or going to Denali, Alaska is visually spectacular. Probably there is no better place to go for a vacation.
Being away, I did realize though that life is the constellation of important relationships you have. That is not immediately transferable to a new location. New Hampshire is home for me.