Stark Beauty 11/15/10 Concord Monitor
After living in New Hampshire for 28 years, I moved to Anchorage, Alaska, last May. I had one question that I wanted answered: Does Alaska have snow days? Based on my own informal poll, the consensus answer is “no.” Snow is business as usual.
As we head toward winter, it is the light, or lack of light, that is the big adjustment. It has been dark until almost 10 a.m., and every day we lose five or six minutes of sunlight. The season switch is fast flipping from fall to winter.
I am what Alaskans call a cheechako – a newcomer. That is anybody who has not lived through an Alaskan winter. Long-termers are known as sourdoughs. For a state full of transient people, the ethic of who is a real Alaskan is reminiscent of New Hampshire. I think you have to live here more than a lifetime to be an authentic local. Anything short of that, you are a flatlander equivalent.
When I first arrived, what hit me was the big sky, the vastness of the land and its physical beauty. On a clear day, flying up from Seattle, as you close in on Anchorage, all you can see are mountains beyond snow-capped mountains. While Anchorage is gritty, it is nestled between big water and majestic mountains.
More than any place I have lived, there is a frequent buzz of small plane traffic overhead. One reason people fly so much is that roads are not a given. It is not like the Lower 48, where roads go everywhere. Small planes are a way of life because distance and the lack of roads make flying the only way to go.
This summer I made two trips to Juneau. First time there, I caught a week of perfect sunny weather. Locals call days like that “sucker days.” There is a history of tourists arriving on sunny days and deciding they want to move to Juneau permanently because it is so beautiful. Little do they know that it rains 75 percent of the time.
Still, for those who might contemplate a trip to Juneau, taking the tram up Mount Roberts and hiking on the mountain has to be one of the most visually spectacular experiences in Alaska.
Wherever you are in Alaska, wilder parts are not too far away. There are great hiking trails around Anchorage. I hiked the Powerline trail on the hillside near Anchorage and came upon a large moose parked in the trail. I did not try to walk past. I waited until some other hikers with dogs came along. Then the moose scooted.
The big issue for hikers is not moose – it is bears. When I first got to Anchorage I was surprised by all the ads for bear spray. I have heard a number of conversations on the subject of what type of gun takes down a grizzly.
In Alaska, the bears are an obsession, largely because there are so many. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates 50,000 black bears and 35,000-45,000 brown (grizzly) bears in the state.
Bear stories are a staple of local news. The most recent story I saw involved a hunter near Kodiak. The hunter got off a round from his .375 calibre H&H Magnum rifle before he was charged, bit on the leg and butt, and tossed like a rag doll. The guy’s hunting partner saved him. In the moment when the bear stopped mauling, the hunting partner shot again and killed the bear.
Male grizzlies can weigh up to 1,100 pounds, but it is a big mistake to assume bears will be slow and lumbering. Grizzlies have been clocked at 35 mph.
In September a guy who was fishing in the Kenai area had part of his scalp removed by a grizzly who dragged him about 30 feet. He was also fortunate to survive. The bear let him go.
I do not want to create the impression that maulings happen that often. They do not. I would say, though, that one difference from hiking in New Hampshire is that I never have worried about bear encounters in the White Mountains. The bears are now headed for hibernation as the long dark approaches.
Speaking of the dark, Alaska has no shortage of dark side issues. Homelessness, substance abuse, domestic violence and racism toward Native Alaskans top my list. Considering the dimension of each issue, I find the public discussion here weak. I would call it denial.
During the summer, many homeless people panhandle and beg at street corners all over midtown Anchorage. It had a third-world quality. I have also been surprised how many people are tent camping into the winter. Mix in alcohol, and homeless people freezing to death in the winter has become almost routine. The increase in homelessness appears to me to be outstripping any public response.
Substance abuse, especially alcoholism, is of epic proportions. Excuses abound about the long winter, cabin fever, etc., but the lack of treatment facilities considering the size of the problem is beyond shortsighted. It is irrational, almost a form of throwing in the towel.
Domestic violence is another whopper problem. From my observation, we are not dealing with the world of “he said, she said” threats. Much more often we are talking beatings, strangulation, broken bones and rape. There is a level of brutality that passes as normalcy. The Justice Center of the University of Alaska at Anchorage released an important victimization study this year that was the first statewide study of domestic violence. That was an important step and public acknowledgement.
As for the racism, my impression is that the history of Native Alaskans has much in common with the history of other Native Americans. Conquest, discrimination, loss of land, loss of cultural traditions – these are much the same. I think there is a taboo quality around this history. I do not see much candor or openness around this discussion.
The longer I have been here, the more I have felt the differences with New England. Behind the bluster about fierce independence, there is a neglect of infrastructure that goes beyond New Hampshire. Alaska has a good way of surprising conventional expectations, though, and I expect it will continue to do so.
It is youthful, vibrant and volatile – good qualities in my book. There is a lot to like here, but I have to admit, I am still homesick for New Hampshire.