Monday, September 28, 2009

The Permanent Fund Dividend

Imagine living in a state with fresh air, interesting people, and beautiful snow-capped mountains. Now imagine that state paying you to live there. Unimaginable?  Think again. Think - Alaska!

Since 1982, every Alaskan resident has received an annual payment if they have lived in the state for the previous calendar year. With the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline in the mid-1970s, Alaska voters approved a new Permanent Fund, into which the state's dedicated oil revenues were deposited. In the early '80s, the state legislature created the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, which ensured that the investment income from this fund of dedicated oil revenues would be distributed to state residents through the Permanent Fund Dividend program. This annually distributed payment is called the Permanent Fund Dividend (or PFD).

Every year, the arrival of the PFD has become a much anticipated event. Since 1988, these annual payments have topped $800 per person, with amounts of more than $1000 for many of these years. This year's dividend check, to be issued to direct deposit recipients on October 8th, will be $1305 per person. As long as you have lived in Alaska for this previous calendar year, no matter how rich, poor, young, or old you may be, you will receive a check. Even babies get them! This year, for example, a family of five will be receiving $6525 into their coffers overnight.

This annual autumnal influx of considerable cash into their vacuous vest pockets sends Alaskans into a surefire shopping frenzy. While many sensible people keep the check in the bank, many more splurge on plasma TVs, sound systems, and snow machines, driving sales for local retailers up by as much as 30%. Although the PFD checks are issued in October, car dealerships run specials throughout September allowing buyers to use their upcoming checks as an advance deposit. Alaska Airlines runs PFD specials, enticing even the hardiest to head for warmer climes. When my daughter was in kindergarten nine years ago, a travel agency ran well-advertised PFD specials allowing entire families the opportunity to fly to Hawaii and frolic in the sand and surf of an all inclusive resort, all for the price of that year's PFD. During the last week in October, half of the students in my daughter's kindergarten class were "sick" for a week.

Every year, the PFD presents a tricky ethical, moral, and financial dilemma for Alaskan parents - what do you do with your children's dividend checks? Because the checks are issued to the parents, some decide to simply put the money into the family budget and use it for rent, utility bills, and basic groceries. Others pool the checks to buy a luxury item for the family, like a new ATV (an all terrain vehicle or four wheeler). To my daughter's dismay, we put the money immediately into a college savings account before we are tempted by the brilliant lure of Blue Ray and high definition. We are immediately met with a never-ending barrage of tales, however, about more fortunate schoolmates who are given their entire $1000+ dollars to spend freely as they wish. (I have yet to hear any such accounts firsthand from parents, however.)

While receiving $1305 for doing absolutely nothing sounds like a pretty good deal, many of us in the 49th state were disappointed with the news of this year's payment amount. Last year, the dividend payed to Alaskans reached a colossal $2069. To add even more sugar to an already lusciously sweet dessert,  Governor Sarah Palin added an extra state-funded $1200 per person to defray rising energy costs, leaving each Alaskan with a colossal $3296.

After ten years of feeling like an outsider, this year I finally feel like a true Alaskan because I find myself complaining about the "low" payment of $1305 for living in the most beautiful state in the union.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Alaska Railroad

When I used to live in England, I noticed that British men were enamored with trains. Some would simply comment on the beauty and power of their engines. Others would spend hours building extensive systems of model trains, tracks, tunnels and bridges in their dining rooms or basements. The truly smitten would wait outside near local train station tracks on damp, rainy days  to record the exact time a particular train engine would pass by a particular lamppost down to the millisecond. Britian's train-mania seemed odd, obsessive, and somewhat unsettling... until I moved to Alaska.

The engines and rail cars of the Alaska Railroad are some of the most beautiful and breathtaking pieces of machinery in the world. The trains' designs and lines are timeless. Their engines and passenger cars are painted entirely in the colors of the state flag, blue and gold. I am normally not a fan of this color combination (also the school colors for my overcrowded, football-obsessed suburban Maryland high school), but on a train, they are pure delight. Since the inception of the railroad's blue and gold design in 1947, no two colors would stand out against Alaska's seasonal palettes so perfectly.

Not only are their trains beautiful, but the Alaska Railroad is as cool and unique as the state it services. It is the only train line in the United States that transports both passengers and freight. When you see an Alaska Railroad engine approaching, you never know what surprises it may be pulling - flat bed cars strapped with milled timber, hoppers full of sand and gravel, hi-cube boxcars with unknown treasures stowed inside, or dome cars spilling over with summer tourists anxious to get that picture-perfect shot.

The Alaska Railroad also has some of the last remaining train lines to offer whistle stop service. On both the Aurora Winter Train and the year-round Hurricane Turn Train, passengers may disembark anywhere along a particular stretch of wilderness between Talkeetna and Hurricane.  This allows people access to remote cabins and camping spots far away from the road system and any traces of civilization that it brings. It provides a chance to be picked up and plunked down in the middle of NOWHERE. When you want to be picked up by the return train, you must flag it down by waving a large white cloth while standing 25 feet from the tracks. If you hear the engineer's whistle, you know that the train will be stopping and you will soon climb aboard to be whisked back to the land of television and lattes. As romantic and exciting as it sounds, I would be too terrified (I mean - TERRIFIED) to be left in the middle of nowhere along the train tracks, but I love that, should I ever change my mind, I'll always have that option.

To make it even more interesting, the history of the Alaska Railroad is chock full of drama and intrigue. When it was completed in 1923, President Warren G. Harding drove a final golden spike into the rail line in Nenana. On his return trip from Alaska, Harding died a mysterious death, resulting either from food poisoning or a heart attack. Rumors spread that Harding was poisoned at the hand of himself or others for his role in the Teapot Dome scandal. Even more rumors spread that his wife was sick of his philandering and had poisoned him in retaliation. Harding's golden spike can no longer be found at milepost 413.7 in Nenana. Its current location is shrouded in mystery because various sources place it in a variety of locations, from the Smithsonian to the Alaska Land Pioneer Air Museum to the Mears family estate in Nebraska.

After the final spike was driven in 1923, the Alaska Railroad faced economic difficulties. With only 5400 people living in the three largest cities along its route, the railroad had not become profitable by 1930. The Great Depression further complicated matters, making the Alaska Railroad unable to turn a profit until 1938. Today, too, the Alaska Railroad has been hit hard by the national economy. This week, the corporation will be downsizing its workforce by 20% just to remain operational. No amount of customer service, tourist promotions, or local discounts has been able to stave off the effects of the national recession.

The railroad faced bad news and hard times before and survived. I am hopeful that it will remain a part of our scenic landscape. Maybe I'll do my part as an Alaskan and finally try out that whistle stop service! (Or maybe I'll just take the Beer Train in October, instead...) 

(All of these cool photos courtesy of Alaska Railroad. Thank you!)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Termination Dust

In Eagle River this morning, we woke up to a long awaited and sometimes dreaded sight to many Alaskans: a light dusting of snow on the mountaintops. This beautiful, seemingly innocuous sight of powdery white is known as termination dust and is actually a harbinger of  the winter soon to come.

Termination dust signals the end of an Alaskan summer. During the Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the 19th century, termination dust signaled the end of summer prospecting and the termination of profitable employment in Skagway until the next summer - nine months away. At the other end of Alaska in gold rush Nome, termination dust similarly served as a sign for prospectors  to pull up stakes and head out on the last steamship before the snow set in unless they wanted to winter over for six months in Alaska.

Today, termination dust serves as a reminder of the drastic change that is heading our way. It signals the swift and perennially surprising transition between long, sunny, golden summer days and snow-swept cold, dark, endless winter nights. Unlike the gold rush days, however, when prospectors dreaded the sight of white-capped mountains, I feel a touch of thrill and excitement when termination dust arrives. The air becomes crisp and clean and I know that soon the world in Eagle River will be transformed into a shimmering, crystalline, snow-covered winter wonderland where every day, however brief, holds the magic of Christmas morning.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Record Breaking Vegetables

The 2010 Guinness Book of World Records has just been released. It got me thinking about how proud I am to live in a state that consistently shatters world records, and not in one of the less salubrious categories, like "number of goldfish swallowed" or "heaviest weight dangled from a swallowed sword." Instead, Alaska is home of the giant vegetables!

When I was in 5th grade back in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I remember seeing a filmstrip on "The Bounty of Alaska." It showed how everything in Alaska was bigger, from the mountains to the mammals. What really stuck with me, however, was the narrator commenting that, in Alaska, "they have strawberries as big as your fist." After being here ten years, I have yet to see a fist-sized strawberry, but I am delighted to see so many mammoth-sized vegetables year after year at the Alaska State Fair.

At this year's fair, Steve Hubacek broke a 20-year record for world's largest cabbage on September 2nd for his 125.9-pound cabbage entered in the "Green Cabbage" category. This gorgeous, perfectly formed cabbage just squeaked by the previous record of 124 pounds set by a farmer in Wales. Before that, the record hadn't been touched for more than one hundred years. Then, out of nowhere - oops, he did it again! Three days later, Steve H. brought in another cabbage to compete in the state fair's annual Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off. Dubbed "The Beast," this monster broke Steve's previously set record when it weighed in at 127 pounds, winning him the grand prize of $2000. 

Overshadowed by its larger and more glamorous cabbage cousins, another vegetable waited quietly and patiently for its shot at fame. Then - BOOM - another record-breaker at the Alaska State Fair! On September 5th, Scott Robb's 82.9-pound rutabaga blew the roof off of the previous world record of 77.8 pounds. However, Scott R. is no stranger to giant vegetable fame. In 2007, he set the record for the world's largest kale. This little beauty weighed in at a delicate 105.9 pounds. He also set records in 2006, twice in 2004, and in 2003 with record-breaking kohlrabi, cantaloupe, turnip, and celery respectively.

Sadly, these entries will not be included in the newly released 2010 Guinness Book of World Records because their records are so new and still in the verification process with Guinness. Stew anyone?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Studded Tires

Despite the old adage for single women in Alaska that "the odds are good, but the goods are odd," Alaska is actually full of studs. Unfortunately, they can only be found only on Michelins, Goodyears, and Nokians. For those of us above 60 degrees latitude, today, September 15th, is the first day we can change over our summer tires to studded winter tires, thus heralding the start of winter in Alaska!

OK, so what on earth are studded tires? They are winter tires with approximately 60 to 120 metal studs or pins firmly entrenched into the outer rubber. When rubber meets the road, these metal studs push into the road, holding it in a tenacious momentary grip. Their tenacity tears up roads; they are noisy as stud and asphalt meet; they reduce a car's gas mileage by at least a a few miles per gallon; and Alaskans love them.

Have you ever driven in really icy conditions, perhaps skidding across the road a bit, sliding into guardrails, or finding yourself face-to-face with oncoming traffic? Now imagine driving like that 120 days a year. If you live and drive in a northern, snowy clime with five-month-long winters in a perpetual state of snowing, sleeting, melting, and refreezing, studded tires offer a feeling of safety and normalcy. They allow you to live six miles up into the mountains or forty miles away from work. They allow you to drive the 358 miles from Anchorage to Fairbanks in near-blizzard conditions.

As any true Alaskan, I love my studded tires. I love hearing their metallic and rocky crunch as I tool down an ice-free highway. I love feeling their gummy stickiness as the studs burrow into the asphalt and are then set free. I love how macho and manly they make me feel, no matter how small or fru-fru my car may be. Ahhhh, the joy of studded tires...

Like any invention of great importance, studded tires are also controversial. Even though a whopping 42 states allow either seasonal or unrestricted use of studded tires, most are veering away from encouraging their use. Snowy and icy Illinois forbids their use. In 2007, Costco stopped selling them in all states except Alaska. The problem is that studded tires chew up roads until they are left permanently rutted with two parallel grooves that scream, "INSERT TIRES HERE!"

According to a 2004 research report commissioned by the Alaska State Legislature and completed by researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage, approximately 40-60% of Anchorage drivers use studded tires in the winter. The report also cited studies in Finland and Japan that found banning studded tires is actually more costly than the road repair associated with them because of the increased costs of accidents and road sanding. In the end, the report recommends restricted seasonal use of studded tires and investigation into alternative wear-resistant asphalt mixtures.

In Alaska, at least, studded tires are here to stay.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Up here in the 49th state, coffee is king. Alaska wouldn’t be Alaska without it. Its promise of scented satisfaction and stimulation give us a reason to get up out of bed on those cold, dark winter mornings.

In 2005, a national consumer market research firm (The NPD Group) conducted a study of coffee shops per capita in US cities. As you might expect, Seattle, birthplace of Starbucks and Seattle’s Best coffees, ranked right up there. In first place, however, ranking firmly above the national cradle of coffee, was Anchorage, Alaska! Not only do we have coffee shops in our airports, bookstores, grocery stores, and hospitals, we also have them in our high schools, middle schools, and libraries.

Our addiction to coffee is pervasive and starts young. We get toddlers accustomed to the aroma during mommy-toddler playgroups at our local coffeehouses. When my daughter was in elementary school, one 6th grader regularly brought trays of mocha lattes to her friends. Alaskans’ penchant for coffee continues, even into retirement. Retirees at the nearby Chugiak Senior Center have only go 100 feet to get their smoothies and cappuccinos at the Senior Bean coffee shop.

The Senior Bean, like many local coffee purveyors, is a drive-thru espresso stand. These drive-thru espresso stands, also called coffee kiosks, are found on almost every street corner and can be as simple as a small wooden hut or as sophisticated as a converted railroad engine car. No matter what their design, the procedure is the same. You simply drive up, to the sliding window, give your order to the peppy barista, and, presto-bango, you’ve got coffee! All without ever leaving the comfort of your heated SUV.

In Alaska, getting a cup of coffee can be more than just getting a cup of coffee, too. It can be a social experience where you nestle up in a comfy leather chair in front of a roaring fire while reading a book on a snowy day. You can find teachers, book groups, knitting enthusiasts, and SAT cram sessions all meeting up to chew the fat and sip the joe. A permanent morning fixture at Jitters Coffee Shop in Eagle River is a group of good ol’ boys who spend hours talking politics and hunting while drinking sludge cups, Americanos, and gingerbread lattes.

Traveling to the lower 48 (the rest of the continental United States) can be challenging for coffee-accustomed Alaskans. Without drive-thru espresso stands every quarter mile, life becomes stressful and confusing. Sure, we can get drip coffee at any restaurant, but it’s just not the same. There’s no sound of beans grinding nor milk frothing, no endless array of choices of size and syrup. There are no comfy chairs or chocolate-coated biscottis. When visiting my parents in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee, my husband and I made almost daily 60-mile trips to the nearest espresso shop in Pigeon Forge until we discovered the local caffeinated and delightful Dairy Queen Moo-Latte. When we landed back on Alaskan soil, however, we kissed the ground and bolted to the airport Starbucks.

Friday, September 11, 2009

About This Blog

There are few places left in the United States that still have a bit of mystery and awe about them. Alaska, however, remains mysterious and awe-inspiring, no matter how many episodes of Deadliest Catch or Ice Road Truckers the Discovery Channel dishes up.

When people discover that I’m from Alaska, they either get a faraway look in their eye as they talk about a dream cruise among the whales and glaciers or they appear flummoxed, asking a series of painfully uninformed questions, including: Do you live in an igloo?, Do you know Sarah Palin?, and, my personal favorite, Do they use American dollars there?

Although best know for its natural beauty, crooked politicians, and a recent Vice Presidential candidate, Alaska has so many fun and interesting quirks that make it one of the coolest places on earth. This blog will focus on these aspects of Alaska’s culture, style, and identity that make it truly unique.