Livin’ the Dream in Paradise


When people find out I live in Fairbanks, Alaska, they almost always have lots of questions. First and foremost is, “Why?” (Actually, that one is usually phrased more like, “What the fuck are you doing there?”)

Other common questions concern living in a place where it’s winter seven months out of the year, where there’s lots of snow, how do I stand the cold, and what does an indoor girl who hates the outdoors do in Fairbanks?

And, of course, I get a lot of advice and opinions about my adopted state, especially where Sarah Palin is concerned. For the record, I don’t know her, don’t want to know her, and don’t agree with anything she says (what I’m able to understand of her word salads, anyway). No more Palin questions, please!!!!!

So, without further ado, here are some random thoughts about living in Fairbanks.

I came here for a job, planning to stay about a year. Nine years later, I’m still here and don’t ever want to leave. I love this place. It’s a beautiful state, inspiring and awesome in every sense of that word. When I look out my window, I see birch and spruce trees, willows, raspberry bushes, mama moose and her current litter (twins, usually), fox, ravens, squirrels (I can hear them on my roof, too), and myriad birds whose species I don’t know, but whose songs are splendid.

I do not live in an igloo, or even a snow house. Since it gets up to 70 or 80 degrees a few days each summer, that would be bad. I live in a house. Just like everyone else.

You may have heard that Fairbanksans live in dry cabins. And no, a dry cabin is not an abode that does not leak or stays above the floodwaters – a dry cabin is a not-plumbed, usually very small log cabin with an outhouse in the back. Yes, it is legal to rent/sell cabins with no indoor plumbing up here. I, however, am not that adventurous. Or young.

I live in a cabin which is not connected to city water or sewer – I’m too far out for that. So I have a holding tank which brings water to my kitchen and bathroom and laundry room. I have water delivered once a month – some people haul their own, but I drive a small SUV, and those water tanks are big and heavy. I also have a septic field behind the house. Civilization, what a wonderful thing.

My home is part cabin, part frame. The cabin part is very old, completely refurbished inside. It’s approximately 12 feet by 12 feet, one room. The kitchen is in a corner. It has high ceilings and skylights. It is roomy and spacious and, during the summer, very bright. The rest of the house was added a few years ago by the former owner. It includes the bathroom and laundry room, a bedroom, sewing room, and an upstairs loft, which is like a full-floor penthouse. All wood – and the stairs were hand-built from trees on the property. Four high triangle windows bring light in even in the dead of winter.

It is an amazing place to write. Yes, I write in a loft. Such a cliché, but … My desk sits next to a window overlooking the back 40, which never ceases to inspire and re-energize me.

Summers here are the best. They’re short, yes, but since the sun doesn’t set for very long, we always get the most out of every 24 hours. Once summer hits, few people want to be inside – we take advantage of the nice weather to garden (okay, some of us garden – others of us just go to the dog park and take walks to photograph every flower that waves its petals at us).

Mom and I like to take one-day road trips – pack up the car with water, snacks, the dog, and a big emergency kit – and drive. We usually have a general destination – say, go up the Haul Road, or take the Steese Highway to the Yukon River – but we have been known to take detours and side roads when the moods hit us.

Some Alaskans think we’re nuts – after all, the roads in the upper part of the state aren’t really what most of us term “roads.” They are usually two-lane dirt or gravel tracks that wind through hills and pingos and over small creeks (we call them ‘cricks” up here) and some pretty big rivers. The gravel is great for putting cracks and chips in windshields, and I’ve seen numerous motorcyclists wipe out and mess up their pretty bikes on the roads. Also, there aren’t many gas stations or other amenities along the way (hence, the loading up of water and snacks). There’s not even cell service, so a flat tire or other vehicle emergency could be bad. Thus, the big emergency kit. And flat tire filler. And extra tires. And …

But the scenery and landscapes are amazing. We generally don’t get as far as we plan because I always have to stop to take photos. Lots and lots of photos. Sometimes, if I’ve forgotten my memory card, I have to go through and delete a bunch halfway through the trip so I can take more. I know. **Sigh.** It’s a disease.

March is kind of the worst month here – the snow is old and dirty, dripping onto badly paved roads or non-paved roads. The gravel set down for traction flies off car tires, and most Fairbanksans have cracked windshields as a matter of course. Worse, as the snow melts, all the trash people have thrown out of their car windows or that has flown out of their trucks is stripped of its covering. It’s gross. In May, the local Chamber of Commerce sponsors a road clean-up – and for one whole day, the roads are lined with volunteers picking up trash, broken furniture, discarded mattresses, old appliances, nasty stuff, and anything else that doesn’t belong. One of the bigger companies volunteers its trucks and drivers to pick up the bright yellow bags the trash is put in, and the landfill waves the tipping fees. It’s an amazing community effort to start the summer off right.

In the winter, after a big snowfall, the world is quiet, blanketed in white. Stepping outside, I can feel the air bite, but it’s a dry cold, so I don’t usually feel cold. The world is still, almost like it’s waiting for something. Maybe it’s just conserving energy. Winter is long here, and dark. Even though we don’t hibernate, it’s really easy to lock yourself inside a warm cabin and avoid undue activity. However, the dog loves the snow, so couch-potatoing isn’t usually an option.

Like almost 98 percent of the dogs in Fairbanks, ours is half-husky. She laughs at cold. Well, okay, she laughs at it unless we’re forcing her to go out in it. Then she lets her red heeler half take over. She body surfs in the snow drifts, with the biggest grin on her face. She also thinks the large mama moose is a big dog, and her favorite thing to do is play with other dogs. We have had no luck convincing her that mama mooses are not doggy playmates. So now, we just keep her leashed all the time.

I could go on and on about living here. It’s the kind of place you either love or hate – guess where I am on that scale. Lol. My year has turned into almost a decade, and I can’t imagine leaving. The fact that jobs are scarce and heating costs astronomical make that possibility more and more likely each day, though, and I’m dreading it. I bought my little cabin with the intent of staying for the rest of my life – I even have my final resting spot picked out.

One final word – yes, it does get cold here. I’ve seen a few winter days when the temperature dipped to 55 below zero. Really. When it’s that cold, just breathing hurts. Boiling water evaporates in the air. Fingers and toes freeze before you can pick up a dropped set of keys. It’s not the kind of atmosphere you screw around with.

But layering, buying good (read: expensive) cold weather gear, and knowing when you’ve had enough go a long way toward mitigating damage. I always keep an emergency box in the car filled with blankets, extra outdoor gear, and flares and other necessities. Never go anywhere without coats and boots and hats and gloves. Once you learn your limits, and really respect the harshness and brutality of the landscape, you can live within it – you can never beat it – but you can survive. Some of us even thrive.


Bull moose near the Richardson Highway

Bull moose near the Richardson Highway