Are you considering relocating to Alaska? Then get an insider’s point of view! Library staff from around the state and from all types of libraries have written stories below describing their lives in the Last Frontier.
- Far North Alaska
- Interior Alaska
- South-Central Alaska
- South-East Alaska
- South-West Alaska
- Western Alaska
David Ongley – Director, Tuzzy Consortium Library
Beauty and the Beast: Life in Barrow
Did I say Beast? No, sorry. I meant Best. The title should have read, Beauty and the Best Life in Barrow. Having lived here now for 10 years – longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere – I can tell you that life here isn’t for everyone. It’s an acquired taste. The population of Barrow is about 65% Inupiat which gives it its distinct cultural flavor. It is pervasive. The Inupiat are the most welcoming and truly friendly people I’ve ever met. They kindly share their culture, their food and their prosperity with hundreds of foreign workers that come here every year to earn a good living.
The guest workers sometimes come for the excitement of living in an exotic place: their northern exposure year. They stay for a year or two then move somewhere else. Others find Barrow relentlessly boring bereft as it is of bar, bowling alley and cinema. The singles scene here is nonexistent – or so I’m told. Still others come with unshakably preconceived notions of what life should be like, what’s fair and unfair and exactly which parts of nature are beautiful. They find Barrow to be dark, cold and insanely flat and windswept.
I came here because I desperately needed a job. The one I found may well be the best library job in Alaska. I go to work everyday happy and anxious to be in the finest building on the North Slope. But it’s more than just the job that keeps me here. For the first time in my life I feel that I can really make a contribution to librarianship in ways that I wasn’t able to before. But that isn’t all.
When I came here I believed like most of the rest of the world that mountains and trees and rivers were natures way of saying, “Here’s the best and the most beautiful.” It never occurred to me that nature had no intention of being either beautiful or ugly. These are human perceptions. Nature just is. Flat is just as beautiful and awe inspiring as mountainous. Ice and snow are just as varied and intricate as trees.
It isn’t really dark here in the winter as the snow and ice reflect the sun’s light from below the horizon as well as the starlight and moonlight from above it. The sky goes through amazing hues of blue. The human body adjusts to this place like any other and one sleeps as well in the summer as the winter. The cold is a dry cold and you dress for it. Your body acclimates to that too. The easterly wind in your face at -20 degrees bites and braces. I’m fascinated with life in the arctic. It makes me glad to be alive.
There are no cockroaches, spiders, ticks, fleas, mice, snakes, toads, or other pesky creatures here including mosquitoes for most of the year. Even in the summer, mosquitoes hang inland as the coastal breeze keeps them from Barrow. Living in Barrow sometimes feels like living in a foreign country. Sometimes it even feels like living on another planet. I try to remain mindful that I am a guest here and even though this is part of Alaska, it is truly the land of the Inupiat. It is their land and their home. If Alaska had been part of the lower 48, this would have been a Native reservation and the people here would have sovereign control of the land.
Attempts by the Governor and Legislators and the oil companies to take from the North Slope Borough its control over the land and take from it the wealth that is rightfully theirs is misguided and smacks of racism. The people of Alaska benefit greatly from North Slope oil. They should not be so greedy that they insist on taking it away from the people to whom it has belonged for thousands of years. We should all be thankful that the Inupiat are more than willing to share the bounty of their land. I know I am.
Robyn Russell – University of Alaska, Fairbanks
Living and Working in Fairbanks
About your author: I was born in this city which makes me both a native born Fairbanksan and a native Alaskan (the few, the proud). I’ve been here so long that I navigate by landmarks that aren’t here anymore. So what should a newcomer here know about my fair city?
Little known facts about Fairbanks:
We have some of the best Thai restaurants in the state and perhaps the continental U.S. Visitors exclaim over how good the Thai food is. Why are they clustered in the Interior of Alaska? No idea, but we don’t complain. The food, by the way, is very, very good.
Fairbanksans like to see things burn—bonfires, especially. Fairbanksans like to see things explode— fireworks, mostly. Fairbanksans like to see things thrown from a height—small rubber ducks, watermelons, computers, etc. Fairbanksans like to bet on things, anything—the ice going out, the dogsled races, the Rubber Duckie Regatta*, you name it. The ideal Fairbanks activity would involve something explosive being set on fire and thrown from a height while on-lookers bet on the outcome.
Fairbanks is big enough that no one knows everyone, but small enough that everyone knows someone who knows someone else. In Fairbanks, you’re separated by much less than six degrees from everybody. Community events like the Tanana Valley State Fair, concerts, parades, Winter Carnival, etc. are basically occasions to see people that you know, but only ever run into at these large gatherings and then, while talking to them, discover that you know people in common ….
Gardening is not a hobby for us; it’s a kind of obsession. After a long dark winter as the sun starts to return, people get antsy to see some kind of green growth that’s not thriving in their refrigerator. In spring, people wait impatiently for planting out time—traditionally June 1st. In summer, people’s yards are a profusion of blooms and vegetables and almost every business has flower boxes out front. The Fairbanks Farmer’s Market is crammed almost every day that it’s open and the greenhouses do a thriving trade.
Recycling is not a way of life as much as it is a sport and the pursuit of the perfect dumpster and/or garage sale find is pursued with fever pitch. This is the kind of sport that many can play, but only few can attain zen master status at.
Fairbanksans are an artsy lot. As a result of my totally unscientific poll, I would say that 3 out of 4 Fairbanksans are artists of some kind—they paint, sing, play an instrument, act, dance, knit, weave, quilt, etc. The fourth is a supporter of the arts.
Other things you should know about the Golden Heart City:
- Meteorological events that the city shrugs off: Snow, ice fog, fifty below zero temperatures.
- Meteorological events that bring the city to a halt: Freezing rain.
- What people think they will hate most about Interior winters: The cold.
- What actually bothers people the most about Interior winters: The long hours of darkness (only four hours of daylight at winter solstice)
- What bothers people the most about Interior summers: The long hours of daylight (about 23 during summer solstice). Some people find that the lack of darkness disturbs their sleep cycle.
- Common obsession of all Alaskans: The gain and loss of daylight as the seasons change.
- How to ingratiate yourself with the locals: Perfect your potluck entrees. Potlucks are to Fairbanksans what luaus are to Hawaiians—the preferred method of socializing.
*A net full of actual rubber ducks is dropped from the bridge and floats downriver. Spectators buy tickets on the ducks and win money depending on the order that the ducks cross the finish line. Kinda like the Kentucky Derby, only more amusing. No rubber ducks are harmed in the running of this derby.
Emily Blahous: Technology Facilitator, Mirror Lake Middle School
(From LitSite Alaska)
Marit Vick: Librarian, North Pole High School
(From LitSite Alaska)
Michael Catoggio: Reference Librarian, University of Alaska Anchorage
(From LitSite Alaska)
Patience Frederiksen: Grants Administrator, Alaska State Library
(From LitSite Alaska)
Barbara Jorgenson: Reference Librarian, Loussac Library
(From LitSite Alaska)
Stetson Momosor: Youth Services Librarian, Samson-Dimond Library
(From LitSite Alaska)
Sharon Palmisano: Research Librarian, Anchorage Daily News
(From LitSite Alaska)
Librarian commentaries coming soon!
Denise Halliday: Head Librarian Girdwood’s Scott and Wesley Gerrish Branch Library (From LitSite Alaska)
Librarian commentaries coming soon!
Julie Niederhauser: Reference Librarian, Kenai Community Library
(From LitSite Alaska)
Librarian commentaries coming soon!
Daniel Cornwall – Gov Docs Librarian, Alaska State Library
I have worked at the Alaska State Library since November 1998. I have found Alaska to be both professionally and personally rewarding. I got my MLIS at the University of Texas at Austin back in 1996.
Alaska has a great tradition of sharing. There is a lot of collaboration between different kinds of libraries here that I don’t think you see as much of in the lower 49. For instance, in my hometown of Juneau, there is a single library card that allows you to borrow books from the public library, the Alaska State Library, the University of Alaska Southeast Library, and the Juneau-Douglas High School library. We share a common catalog and sometimes hold training sessions for one another.
Because Alaska is a small state, it is easy to present at statewide conferences. Pretty much any member of the Alaska Library Association (AkLA) who wishes to present at our annual conference can do so. Overall, I’d say we’re pretty good presenters. It’s also easy (some would say unavoidable) to become involved in statewide library leadership. I’m currently chair of my association’s Documents Roundtable and chair of the Statewide Library Electronic Doorway’s (SLED) Advisory Committee.
People at my library have been AkLA Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and various committee and roundtable chairs. Other libraries in Alaska boast similar AkLA rosters. With less than 300 members, you WILL be asked to have a role in AkLA. Finally, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I’ve been able to collaborate with fellow librarians around the country: I’ve co-authored a book on state gov’t information; I’m an author at LISNews; and have recently begun working with several UCSD librarians on the Free Government Information web site. Just because Alaska is far away doesn’t mean you can’t participate in the national world of librarianship.
Juneau is a wonderful place to live, unless you mind rain. You might want to try it anyway. I didn’t think I’d like to live in a place with so much rain, but my morale has held up and there are many advantages. We don’t use low-flow shower heads here in Southeast Alaska. The water tastes fabulous – I had a friend from Texas up here in April 2005 and she spent the whole week praising the water. There is almost no fire danger up here. When the sun does come out, the city looks glorious and everyone walks around with a silly grin.
If you’re a hiker, you’ll love Juneau. We have over a hundred trails, most of which are within reach either by walking or by our bus system. Whether you want to scale steep mountains, walk along the seashore, or wander through meadows full of beautiful wildflowers, we have a trail for you.
If you love fish, especially salmon, you’ll love Juneau. Salmon of all kinds is sold in the stores. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can by whole salmon off the boats and fillet yourself at home. If you’re really lucky like me, you’ll get to know people who will simply GIVE you salmon. Sometimes I’ll be gifted with salmon for watching someone’s cats, and I have two friends who HATE salmon who toss their salmon gifts at me. Yum! If you need hints on preparing salmon, try the recipes page of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute at http://www.alaskaseafood.org/flavor/recipes/recipes.htm
Juneau is surprising cosmopolitan for a town of 30,000. We have a professional theater, many art galleries that hold free showings with snacks every First Friday, an orchestra, an opera group, and two large music festivals – the Alaska Folk Festival and Juneau Jazz and Classics. If you look at the new local entertainment calendar at http://juneaumusic.com/, you’ll see that choosing what NOT to do will be harder than finding something to do.
If you have specific questions about Juneau, feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com
Elise Tomlinson – Instructional Services Librarian, University of Alaska Southeast Egan Library
Raised in Nebraska on too much Grizzly Adams and Adventures of the Wilderness Family, I headed north to Alaska right after High School. I attended the BFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage and while a student worked for both the UAA Consortium and the Anchorage Municipal Libraries before I eventually decided to attend the University of Hawaii for graduate school.
I planned to return to Anchorage after earning my MLIS but instead applied for a job at the UAS Egan Library after viewing the Juneau Photos website they showed me. The weather and people were wonderful during my visit and I decided to accept the position of Outreach Services Librarian (and later became the Instructional Services Librarian).
My first year in Juneau was harsh. Southeast Alaska is very different from Anchorage and at first I *hated* it here. However, after I got used to the weather and the fact that there are no roads in or out of town, Juneau really grew on me. Now I can’t imagine living anywhere else! I own a small sailboat and house on Douglas Island which is across the Gastineau Channel from downtown Juneau. As an artist I have plenty of opportunities to exhibit my work and there are way more fun things to do than I have time for.
In my opinion Juneau is the perfect mix of urban culture and unspoiled wilderness. To read more visit my following web pages:
FAQ About Living in Alaska (where I’ve answered actual questions I’ve received from people considering relocating to the state) If you have a question not addressed on my FAQ, please feel free to contact me as well at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Deborah Thompson Librarian – Kuskokwim Consortium Library, Bethel
Life in Bethel
Bethel is the hub for 56 villages in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. Even
though I’ve only lived here a few years, there are many things I love
about Bethel. But it’s not for everyone. Many people step foot off the
plane and walk right back into the airport to book their flight back. But
if you take the time to get to know the place and the people, I think
you’ll love it too.
Bethel is mostly Yup’ik. The Yup’ik people have one of the strongest
Native languages in Alaska. There are many language-based projects that go
on in Bethel. Life is based on a subsistence economy, which means most
people support themselves through fishing and hunting. There is very
little industry. The main employers are the Kuskokwim Campus, the Lower
Kuskokwim School District, and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. The people here are very busy, but very nice. Many people are involved in
politics. People will challenge you, but they’ll support you too.
Even though there are no bars, movie theaters, or bowling alleys, there is
almost always something going on in Bethel on the weekends during the
school year. There are concerts held by the Bethel Council on the Arts,
there are art gallery showings from the Art Guild or the Yup’ik Museum,
there are school book fairs and bake sales, there are PTA movie nights,
there are fiddle dances, speech competitions, and basketball games.
Bethel is not on the road system; there is only one paved road in Bethel
and it is the 6-mile stretch of highway that runs through town and out to
the airport. During the winter, the river freezes and becomes the ice
road. Bethel has one of the highest per capita ratios of taxi cabs in the
country. The only way in and out of the Delta is Alaska Airlines. The cost
of a ticket is usually about $350.
It’s not cheap to live here; groceries and gasoline are pretty steep.
There are no malls, no WalMart, no McDonalds (although we do have a
Subway). But, there are lots of really good restaurants (especially if you
like Chinese food), and the fishing is good too.
Like Barrow, Bethel is very flat. It is all tundra, and brown most of the
year. It is very windy here most of the year, and during the spring, it’s
very muddy; but it can be a very beautiful place if you take the chance to
Librarian commentaries coming soon!
Dale Brandt – Director, Kegoayah Kozga Library
Nome is a small town, hardly more than a village. About 12 miles from the western tip of the Seward Peninsula is Siberia, home to the coldest temperatures on the planet. During winter I could walk over the ice to Russia. The last time someone tried that Russian authorities arrested him for illegal entry. First observations: Icebergs on the Bering Sea, no traffic lights, few trees, two grocery stores, seven churches, seven bars, old, barely habitable wooden buildings, muddy alleys, ATVs, snowmobiles and dogs aplenty. Population mix is 60% native Inupiat or other native affiliation, and 40% non-native. Like many others here, I came up for the job, with a background of having lived seven years in Juneau. Juneau was my half-way-house experience. Lacking that, adjusting to Nome would have been far more difficult. Fortunately, my wife, Doreen, was eager to make the move. That was May, 2003.
Now, Nome reminds me of the Red Green show where “the odds are good, but the goods are odd.” It’s something I can relate to.
Alaska Airlines is the link to “outside” for shopping, mental health vacations or for serious medical treatment, human or animal. Within days of arriving in Nome my dog, Bosie, became critically ill with a condition beyond what the local vet could handle. Without delay, I booked the evening flight direct non-stop to Anchorage. At the Anchorage airport I rented a car and broke a few speed limits getting the dog to a 24 hour walk-in veterinary clinic.
After a brief consultation with the vet, she motioned me away and rolled the dog into surgery. I spent the next few hours walking about, alternately worrying about my dog and my job. At 1a.m. the vet told me my dog was “out of the woods” and starting to wake up. Terrific! But I had been on my new job in Nome for just a few days, already missing work, and worn down from not having slept for 24 hours. In my absence Doreen had explained the situation to my boss. Bosie recovered, and I still had a job. People here understand the bond between a man and his dog.
Iditarod is the legendary dog-event of the world; and it is largely responsible for putting Nome on the map. Folks from all over the U.S. and other countries descend on this frozen, isolated town for a peek at the winning lead dog and dog driver, making for a photo-op frenzy as the first team crosses the finish line. The driver then stops the team, makes a few brief remarks—usually about the dogs—and receives a check for around $70,000 before seeking the luxury of a bed and roof overhead.
Dog teams become spaced far apart while running the trail, so time between the first place winner and the last team to cross the line can be several days. If I am busy with work and don’t get to see the winner, that’s OK. After work I can sit in my car with the heater on and wait for other teams pull in. My eyes get moist and I get a lump in my throat every time a team jogs by. Each dog has worked hard and pulled steadily for more than 1,000 miles.
During Iditarod I open the library additional hours for the influx of visitors needing an internet fix, and I invite a musher to visit the library every year as a guest speaker to talk about his or her experiences on the trail.
I enjoy seeing wildlife and living where there is a lot of it. The Seward Peninsula it is one of the best places on earth for birding and it draws a dedicated crowd each summer. There are caribou, moose and bear in the area and I always enjoy seeing them. It’s the musk ox that fascinates. They seem snobbish; completely unaffected and unimpressed by human activity. If I spot one or a group close to the road and stop, I will be ignored. It seems they have elected to remain in the early Pleistocene and let the rest of the world move on without them. Musk ox outlasted the mammoths, and they might outlast humans.
Three unpaved roads spreading out in northerly directions like a raven’s foot are the only driving-cruising options. The Nome-Teller Road ends in a small fishing village by the same name on the south-western coast of the Seward Peninsula 72 miles from Nome. The middle road, the Kougarok, heads due north and once terminated at a gold mine. Today, the mine is abandoned and the road ends at a washed-out bridge on the Kuzitrin River 85 miles to the north. The Council Highway ends in Council, a small village on the Niukluk River 73 miles east of Nome.
The road system may seem confining to those endeared of long road trips in the lower 48, but I find this situation much to my liking. The first road Doreen and I traveled was the Kougarok. It was June, snow was melting, rivers were running fast and high and the road was barely passable. It was rather stupid of me to take our car with little ground clearance on such a drive. There was danger of a rock punching a hole in the oil pan or transmission line, and danger of getting stuck in the mud. In many places we kept going only because there was no way to turn around. But after several hours we reached beautiful Salmon Lake, looking much like a postcard of the Swiss Alps. We had not seen another vehicle.
It’s now summertime, and at the end of the day I can be found sitting on an old rocking chair in my front yard sipping a can of cold beer, watching boats go by on the Snake River and listening to gulls caterwauling over the harbor. The dogs are stretched out basking in the sun, tired out after a romp on the tundra. Doreen is listening to “Gypsy Kings” and cooking up fresh salmon.
All I can say is: “life is good.”
Lois Petersen – District Media Specialist (i.e. librarian), Bering Strait School District Media Center
Living and working in western Alaska
Unalakleet, located just below Nome on the western coast of Alaska, offers a great mix of terrains – rivers to boat down, offshore islands to explore, hills to climb, and beaches to comb. Mushers find it a great place to raise and race dogs, and the whole community gets dogsled fever each March when the Iditarod racers come through our town on their way to the burled arch finish line in Nome.
The district office for the Bering Strait School District (BSSD) is located in Unalakleet, the hub community for the 15 village schools that stretch out in an area the size of the state of Washington and are all part of BSSD – Brevig Mission, Diomede, Elim, Gambell, Golovin, Koyuk, Savoonga, Shaktoolik, Shishmaref, St. Michael, Stebbins, Teller, Unalakleet, Wales and White Mountain. Unalakleet, where I live, is only accessible from Anchorage via air. Pen Air offers a direct flight from Anchorage which takes just short of 2 hours and costs about $500 round trip.
My position manages the District Media Center, with the assistance of a full time Media Assistant, and also supervises the libraries and library aides working at each of the village schools. Traveling on either the district plane or an air taxi, the District Librarian flies at least once per year to each school to work on library projects, introduce library resources to staff and students, and conduct on-site training of library aides.
Most school districts don’t have their own plane, but BSSD does. The BSSD plane can save flight time by flying its passengers directly where they want to go as opposed to an air taxi, which makes scheduled stops that require layovers and plane changes. Thankfully, I’ve had no misadventures on flights here, but because they are small planes, pilots often choose to fly low allowing us to view the wildlife below. In the years I’ve been in Unalakleet I’ve had the opportunity to see bears, whales, seals, walrus, caribou, and more in their natural habitat.
There aren’t airports except in the hub communities, just gravel airstrips and cross strips so that landing is possible when the wind is blowiing north/south or east/west. Wind is often a huge factor in rural Alaska so bush pilots are skilled at “crabbing”, coming in sideways on whichever airstrip best matches the wind direction. Once the plane nears the airstrip, the pilot straightens the plane up to align with the runway and the rest of the landing is normal. It’s scary the first time or two, but it works well.
When traveling on the job, most site visits last from 3-5 days, but longer stays are scheduled as needed. While accommodations in most villages are limited to foam mattresses on school classroom floors, site visits have been a great way to meet the people of the district, sample the various cultures of our region, and make lasting friendships.
I’ve lived and worked in many areas of Alaska; Western Alaska is very different from South-East, for instance. When I lived in Metlakatla, all my travel was via ferry or float plane and weather conditions were very different. The wind, however, was as real there as here – and SE pilots did their share of “crabbing” too!
If you get the chance to visit a bush community, take it. It’s a great opportunity to see some new scenery and get a taste for the cultures in other parts of the state.