As I think has been well established, Alaska is a place of extremes; it is by no means fucking around. This philosophy applies to its weather conditions as well as its residents, and this week was no exception: heavy rainfall in the Mat-Su Valley led to some pretty NFA flooding of the Knik and Matanuska Rivers, and the Alaskans whose homes are affected are dealing with the phenomenon in the only way that is truly Alaskan: with large vehicles and frequent updates on the weather.
In California, you can’t have a conversation without giving or receiving directions, because big cities are NFA when it comes to traffic. Same phenomenon here: Alaska is NFA with the weather, so most interactions between Alaskans are in some way weather-dependent. For example, I just started working at the local credit union, and I’d estimate that approximately 90% of my interactions with the public go something like this:
ME: Hi, Mr. Palin, what are we doing today?
MR. P.: (thrusting a check in my general direction)I’ll tell you what I’m not doing, I’m not going hunting this weekend. God DAMN it’s wet out there! Gonna have to postpone my trip.
ME: Yeah, I hear it’s supposed to get worse tomorrow! You just want to deposit this into your checking account, then?
TODD: Right. Into checking. I’ll tell you what, no way I’m gettin’ the ATV across the Knik now, not with the river so high…
ME: (attempting to sound fascinated, although I’ve had this exact conversation fourteen times already today) Sure, it’s supposed to be the highest it’s been in years. You need a balance on your receipt?
TODD: (signing the little keypad)Nah. Don’t even need a receipt, it’ll just get ruined. Basement’s flooded. Good thing PFDs come next week.You stay dry, now.
This conversation, which I did not actually have with Todd Palin (you didn’t really think they did their banking at a credit union, did you?), tells you a few key things about Alaskans:
- They are more upset by the loss of an opportunity to kill something than they are by the destruction of their property by NFA weather.
- They have lots of toys, including but not limited to guns and ATVs, because they are serious about their PFDs*.
- When in doubt (or an awkward conversation), ask an Alaskan about the weather; he will regale you with tales of a) the terrible/beautiful weather today or b) the terrible/beautiful weather on his most recent hunting trip.
*What is a PFD, you ask? Certainly not a personal flotation device? Negatory, although those might be useful to the village of Talkeetna, which has been evacuated due to flooding this week. PFD stands for Permanent Fund Divided, the oil revenue money paid to all Alaskan residents each year by the Alaska Permanent Fund, and it is a big effing deal up here. You know how people always joke that the state of Alaska will pay you to live up here? The PFD is what they’re talking about. This year, the PFD is $878, which means that every man, woman, and child who has lived in the state for the previous calendar year (beginning January 1) will receive a check for that amount. Some (all) Alaskans are singing the blues because this year’s PFD is down from $1,174 in 2011, but $878 still sounds like a lot of free money to me.
October 4 is PFD-Day, and the members of the credit union at which I am employed will line up to cash their PFD checks. Not deposit. Not invest. Cash.
Now, I’m not saying everyone who cashes their PFD check immediately spends their filthy oil money on an automatic weapon or a gas-guzzling, earth-terrorizing snow machine. (Whoops; I guess you can take the treehugger out of Boulder, but you can’t turn me into a red-blooded Wasillan overnight.) But I will say that my employer retains only a very small percentage of the PFD funds that flow through it in the days and weeks following PFD-Day, and that a sale is held in nearly every borough from Juneau to Nome where one can purchase one of the aforementioned items at a dramatically reduced price and at considerably lower interest.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Alaskans, by and large, manage their finances with a money-in-the-mattress sort of approach. Lots of people moved here because they don’t want to be bothered by other people, and they certainly don’t trust those strangers to handle their money. This philosophy applies to the government, too, and any sort of aid that might be rendered in a disaster such as the one that affected Talkeetna this week: Alaskans don’t wait around for someone to rescue them; they act. Sometimes recklessly. And often with a gun at their hip.
Case in point: today after I finished my shift of discussing the weather with the good credit union members of Palmer, I drove with the Lovely Lighthisers down the Old Glenn Highway, where we hoped to get a peek at the Knik Glacier. We forgot that we were in Alaska, and thus that a wall of clouds would block our view before we made it anywhere near the glacier, but we were still provided with some entertainment: an old truck had become stuck in the dangerously swollen Knik River, and, in classic NFA style, a pair of intrepid Alaskans had parked a larger truck on the shore and was attempting to haul it out. One adventurer had forded the river to the truck, to which he attached a cable. I really thought he might drown as he waded back. (He did not.)
Several questions were brought up as we did our best to stand our ground in the face of 50+ mile-per-hour gusts: Why did someone try to drive their shitty truck into the raging Knik in the first place? What became of that particular individual? Will they get the truck out? Can you believe how goddamned windy it is out here? We were not able to answer any of those questions, in part because the wind deterred us from staying at our vantage point on the bridge, from which we feared the wind might make us the next victims of the Mighty Knik.
But I did learn one thing today about the residents of my new home: if there’s one thing I appreciate about them, and I say this without even the slightest hint of insincerity, it’s their absolute willingness to help you out when you’re up shit creek without a paddle, and I mean that almost literally. They are a genuine people, the Alaskans, and while I’m not ready to purchase a gun or drive the 4Runner into a flooded river, I admire their can-do attitude and spirit of adventure. I can’t say I’m thrilled to be working a third job in addition to grad school, but if it affords me the opportunity to live in the company of these strange, helpful people, I think I can stick it out for awhile.