Number 1 Hot Topic is Number 1

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This is your official warning — this is a post about politics, specifically Alaska politics.  I hate talking politics, but against better judgement I am covering a hot Alaskan topic.  So move along if you have no desire to read it.

If you are an Alaska resident reading this blog, I am not here to tell you which way to vote and hate bloggers who think they can tell you what to vote on, so I am going to be quick and to the point:
“Yes” on No. 1 Returns to ACES
“No” on No. 1 Keeps SB 21 (or MAPA).
Election Day is August 19th
Now head on out to your regularly scheduled non-political summer fun / moose spotting, and ignore the rest of this post.

For the rest of you in the Lower 48 let me start off with a couple of quick comments about Alaska Politics.

  1. Alaska politics is different than what you have, and you don’t understand Alaska Politics.
  2. Even if you think you understand Alaska politics, you don’t understand Alaska Politics.

Don’t assume that an Alaska politician is nothing but folksy people shooting bears, staring in reality TV, and judge themselves on whether or not anyone can see Russia.  Yes, Alaskan politicians tend to be more “of the people” than in the Lower 48 – just by the nature of so much of the state that is represented is small villages and towns.  Yet their job requires them to be on top of international relationships, mega-billion dollar corporations, and the most wealth rich resources in North America.  There is nothing to prepare the common Alaskan for that kind of responsibility.

On the books for an upcoming election is a proposition that typifies the challenge faced.  That is “Prop #1″, an effort to repeal Senate Bill  No. 21 [or the More Alaska Production Act (MAPA)] in place of Alaska’s Clear & Equable Share (ACES) act of 2007.  But first a little background.

The greatest source of money in Alaska is Oil.  Okay, maybe you knew that, but how much is the crazy thing.  On average these days, they pull 500,000 barrels of oil out of the ground per day.  Based on current crude prices that means there is nearly 19 Billion Dollars of oil leaving Alaska this year alone.  Part of that number ends up going into the cost of producing it & turning it into stuff like gasoline, part of that goes to the oil field lease owners (a native Alaskan corporation – thus there are no need for casinos here), but a large chunk is collected in taxes.  So much so that BP Exploration – Alaska alone pays for 40% of the State of Alaska’s Discretionary Revenue each year out of the taxes they pay.

There are a couple problems though, the biggest is that the oil production is declining.  When oil first started coming down the pipeline, it was humming at 2 million barrels a day.  The oil was so ready to jump out of the ground that they basically just poked holes and up it came.  You pull that much oil out of the ground, and the flow rate slows.  That’s not an Alaskan thing, that’s a hard fact about all oil wells, production just slows as the oil field gets older.  There are ways to overcome it, for instance Alaska’s oil is rich in Natural Gas, and since the pipeline can’t handle it (and there isn’t anyone up there to buy the gas) they pressurize it and pump it back into the ground.  Pumps can be put down well, and water can be sent down too.  Extending production, though is really about sinking money back into the field to get as much out of it.  Oil field management always is about return on investment; and because taxes can impact between 30 & 50% of the cost of oil, it carries a big concern in the investment you make.

The decline was in full swing about ten years ago, and the old tax system was a major hurdle.  Politicians saw this in 2006 and passed a pretty low tax rate bill.  Like, extremely low tax rate.  Turns out it was too low.  Way too low.  So low that the FBI showed up and found out that some un-kosher things were going on; and a number  people ended up in jail.

Most of those politicians were run out, and a more ‘anti-big company’ legislatures came in, including a small town Governor intent to return to a higher tax system to get corporations under control – named Sarah Palin (chances are you have heard of her).  She instituted in 2007 ACES, a plan that gave some incentive for capital investments but focused more on a progressive tax system that return more money to the state when the big companies are making the most profit.  It would have theoretically worked if the price of oil stayed around $70/barrel.  Which it didn’t (it’s currently $103/barrel).  The decline worsened and a shale oil boom in North Dakota & Texas made Alaska non-competitive for the available investment money.  Alaska was losing production faster than anyone expected.

In 2013, Governor Palin’s replacement Governor introduced a bill (SB 21 or MAPA) to set everything at a flat tax rate, but give greater incentives for capitol investments.  It flipped the tax system in the other direction.  However, there is a question if it is too much of a break.  The truth is, noone can really know because we can’t predict either what the price of oil will do, or how quickly the oil will decline in the future.

Of course there were opponents of the new bill.  Some opponents, upset by the new system, felt that it was just giving too much of the oil money out of Alaskan’s hands and into the oil company’s hands.  So after a successful petition campaign, a proposition on this month’s election would allow that law to be repealed.  In other words, they put the decision into the hands of the voters.

This means — it’s on this month’s ballot — and because it’s a political thing, it is ugly.

Supporters of the repeal are mostly funded by organizations who also fund equal pay initiatives – meaning there is not that much financial support even if there is considerable backing by voters.  On the flip side, those against this repeal include every oil company, and every company tied to oil production in Alaskan … or … all of them.  It’s said that the “no” campaign is outspending the “yes” campaign by a factor of over 10 to 1.  As much as this should make people upset that one side is spending more than the other, most on both sides are saying “if I stood to make a couple hundred million dollars, I could see affording to spend a few thousand”.

You can bet that working in a company that has a pretty big dog in the fight, we hear about this proposition quite often … and by quite often I mean, you don’t go anywhere without seeing information or media to support a “No on No. 1″ vote.  But I kinda shuck it off.  I am voting, I know how I will vote, but that’s not my company’s buisness to know.

So there … that’s the hot news up this way … now let’s get back to random pictures of my dog and other fun moose stuffs.

Light The Sky Aflame

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Anchorage passed a key point in the year today.  From sunrise to sunset is 16 hours, meaning there is 8 hours of night.  We have passed into the period where you can sleep during “nighttime”.  Sure there is twilight going on, but in the last couple of weeks we have moved out of the time of year when it never really gets dark.  Now, it is dark for hours.  In fact, I started using lights in my house again.  It’s actually the time of year where I learn that I don’t turn off lights enough — because it is bright enough in the evening that I may turn on a light and not notice it is still on until about 2AM when the darkness outside makes that closet light a laser beam into my eyes.

With the return of darkness there returns something you don’t know you miss until it’s back.  Sunrises and Sunsets.  For the most part, the sun heads down quite unremarkably at the end of the day.  We can catch a day or two when it sneaks behind Mt. Susitna, a large glacial remnant as it silhouettes the sleeping lady across the Anchorage bowl.  The colors it brings, all with its yellows and oranges, are nice and comforting, if not warm for the summer eve.

What really stands out are the sunrises.  This time of year is also the start of our rainy season.  While it isn’t raining constantly, the threat is there constantly with grey clouds hanging overhead day in and day out.  We also start seeing Chinooks from the Chugachs – or huge breaks in the clouds at the edge of the mountains where varying pressure by changes in elevation plays with the saturation of the sky.

What that REALLY means is that when the sun comes up this time of year, the sky is lit aflame.  The reds and oranges from the rising sun pierces through the clouds to the west of the mountain tops well before it breaks over the rocks itself.  It streaks between the grays, the blacks, the whites; influencing the hues with it’s new morning light.  Every morning, as I start my day, I look up out to the east and watch the new colors between the spaces of sky where the clouds start and where the night ends.  While one could argue this is just another sign that we are a step closer to the end of summer and the beginning of winter, I’ll take this burning air. It is the color and beauty the sky can create if you just get a chance to see it at the right time.  And that is something to hold onto for as long as you can.

Salmonstock – Squares in Hippie Clothing

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Somewhere between my days growing up in small town Wisconsin or years and years of being an engineer, I’ve grown into … well, let’s be honest here … into a “square”.  To go to a music festival that is basically considered to be the Burning Man of Alaska would easily tag me as “out of place” in the most reserved description.  But that was what was on tap these last few days.

Salmonstock is a three day music festival at the Kenai Fair Grounds in Ninilchek, AK.  It hosted three stages of music playing for nearly 12 hours a day, plus a mix of food trucks and art sales booths throughout.  The festival is a fund raiser for Renewable Resource Foundation, an organization to help protect salmon spawning grounds & fishing waters from man-made threats, and has a deep focus on stopping the Pebble Mine project in the Bristol Bay region.  During the festival, there is a number of activist organizations and political groups attempting to garner support for a variety of environmentalist programs.  So here’s the deal – I love music, I love festivals like this, but let’s just say the politic side didn’t gain a supporter in me this weekend.  In fact, it was a running joke that when I ran into a fellow BP employee at the event, we would act like they could lynch us for being the enemy.  But then again, my liver felt like jumping parties after the beating I gave it this weekend.

Festivals like this are stuff of legend in my mind.  I mean, I heard people talk about events where you park your tent in some field and come & go to different stages all day long.  Especially when you have an event like this that seems to draw the ‘great unwashed’ complete in their tie-dyed cottons, their dreadlocks, and their willingness to share whatever little “feel goods” they brought with them for the weekend.    Since it was still rural Alaska, there was still a fair bit of rural Alaskan performers and attendees.  There were as many families and fishermen there for the country music as there were hemp sandals dancing to the indie rockers.

One thing I always heard about festivals like that were “the guys”.  It’s the people who get nicknames for being or dressing in some way.  I liked the idea so much I kept snapping selfies of “the guys” that I saw.  Checking my phone now, I seemed to capture:
– The sousaphone guy
– The wolf pelt boys
– Dorthy (from the Wizard of Oz, okay not a guy, but still awesome)
– Cute Security Girl
and last but not least:
Neon Octopus
My selfies didn’t end there.  Twice I ran into performers hanging out after their show.  One of them was part the reason I came down to Salmonstock; and I went full on fan-boy gushing about her songs.

Probably the thing I walked away with from this event was really how the ‘politics’ inter played with the actual event.  I assumed there would be protests or banners or placards being held – and while there were booths on certain things there wasn’t any thing outwardly negative (except for the fact that I did get pepper sprayed, but I would bet that is my own fault).  Sure there was a cause, and sure there were people pushing causes everywhere.  The messages, though, were always positive.  Like … ALWAYS.  So many talked about their love for Alaska, their love for the Alaskan way of life, and how salmon are a part of that.  And that’s where it would stop.  Not the same old political rhetoric of ‘hate this guy so vote for me’, but ‘support us supporting this’.  And it didn’t stop at politics.  People loved the music, whatever it was.  People loved the food.  People loved each other.  Yeah, I know, a hippie love fest; but it’s hard not to feel good about a place or a time when everything that is there is essentially good.

So I rolled on home, peeled off the tie-dye, & washed the pepper spray from my eyes.  I was happy to have had that experience, happy to have been around so many great people, and happy to return back to my same old square life.

The Smell of Alaska – A Two Year Retrospective

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It smelt Alaskan, that was what I told myself.  It was a mixture of mossy green and pine; a smell I can still smell when I close my eyes and remember that place.  When I picture that small apartment with a tiny front room, breakfast bar, and a king size bed that swallowed up the bedroom; the first thing I can remember was that smell.  There was a small overgrown lot behind the place, fenced off with razor wire so that it isn’t turned into a tent village, but was much of the source of the smell.  Just finishing a two week span of 100° heat in dry Kansas, this cool wet air in the apartment beckoned me to find a new comfort.  I breathed it in shortly after leaving the airport.  It was a rainy day, but now that it cleared it remained wet, overcast, and some clouds rolled along the Chugach peaks.  As I pulled up to the apartment in a cheap rental car, I approached the door in blind faith.  I had two numbers in an e-mail, one for the key lock of the front door, one for apartment door – my apartment door.  When the lock opened I stepped inside, and I started my residency in Alaska.  There was nothing impressive about the little apartment I had for a temporary span; but it was my safe harbor on what was the greatest upheaval in my life since moving out of my home of 18 years to a college in a different state light years away from all that I knew.

That was two years ago this past weekend.

The  soundtrack in my head those days were full of energy and bravery.  I was looking for that chance to run forth into the great unknown and walk the line between where I controlled my world and the world controlled me.  In days I had my first run-in with a bear, in weeks my first run-in with a moose, and I chased the end of summer that came all too quickly those first few weeks with a pace that was exciting and relentless.  That wasn’t all.  I was on the cusp of a great opportunity, a job that I was unabashed to say I could “fix the world”.  I had hope, direction, and enough of the unknown to feel fear on my lips like sugar.  My wardrobe of t-shirts, ventilated hiking shoes, and loose shorts were cast off for sweaters, cargo pants, and waterproof boots; only the work clothes remained the same but they grew longer sleeved in short order.  My world immediately changed, and I changed with it into the great unknown of Alaskan future.

Things change though.  In months I moved into a house, I settled into a less rebellious routine, and even bought a dog.  That little apartment send me down the path of eating out alot, when lumped with a far more sedimentary job helped a weight gain back to when I was at my worst.  I grew a beard, shaved it, then grew it again – keeping this one for over a half of year, most of it promising myself to shave it off “this weekend”.  My work goals shifted from saving the world to saving my sanity; or probably more accurate ‘saving who I really am’.  I grew older, much older, the white in my hair becoming more pronounced, and it seems I have spent half this time up here with a bad knee or a bum ankle.  Hitting the gym is like a hell unknown to me like anything else.  I’ve lost parts of my life that I miss utterly, and wonder if I will ever get them back.

Yet there pieces of the last two years that were special were beyond special.  Rainy, snowy, dark days are only bad to me because I can’t see the mountains – the constant reminder of the purple/green beauty of this place.  Any simple drive around this state and you are welcomed by massive glaciers, tall canyons, and forests thick and full of life.  During the winter, the snow creates a blanket that is equal parts comforting and warming.  Summers may be short, but I learn every day recently how lucky we are to have it so short — every free minute I spent trying to enjoy the world outside of the glass windows and wooden walls just to make sure I don’t miss what I have.

The people, though, is what changed me the most.  Alaska is filled with the greatest variety of people I have ever lived around – from the roughest of edges to the most open of open.  They take care of themselves, but they share what they have.  They hate, love, watch, act, involve, enjoy.  What sprung from my arrival at the curling club are friendships that grew so fast and so enjoyably that I couldn’t help finding more of those friendships wherever I went.  If feels like I grow out of a shell, maybe back into a new one, but undoubtedly out of an old one.

There is an incredibly beautiful song by Bon Iver named Holocene.  It’s title comes from the geological Holocene era that started 11,700 years ago and continues today.  The concept is that point when you traveled far enough that you realized whatever road you’ve been on is insignificant in the grand scheme of things — like the 42 years of my life is nothing compared to 11,700 years of the Holocene period.  Yet the song flips it back, and says that to recognize there are some much greater things is to appreciate it.  I stand on my trail through the Alaska wilderness, long gone are the days when the mossy wet smell of Alaska permeated a tiny apartment.  Past the point where darkness enveloped the winters and light filled the summers.  Through the bad knees, the bad ankles.  I look back at these two years and the song’s lyrics come to mind: “And at once I knew I was not magnificent” — yet in those memories, in those days and nights, those many times embracing this state, I look back “and I can see for miles and miles.”

Bunny Count: July 2014

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What’s funny is that in June I had one of the most epic bunny counts I have ever had.  July made up for it, but not for a lack of trying.

Bunnies: 0
Bears: 0
Moose: 1
Sheep: 1
Yaks: 2 (even they went into hiding at the Yak Farm)

July Rainfall:  3.23 inches
Average July Rainfall: 1.83 inches
July 2013 Rainfall: 1.10 inches
Days with More than 0.1″: 9
Days with more than 0.5″: 3

Days in Alaska:  26
Days in California: 5
Days in Sunny California: 5
Days in Sweating My Gonads Off California: 5
Days in Wine Guzzling, Rainless, Fancy Peach Dresses Everywhere, Wine that Tells a Story California: 5
Days Straight in Alaska: 168

Weekends in McCarthy: 1
Weekends in Aforementioned California: 1
Weekends including Impromptu Road Trips: 1
Weekends  including Kenai Fishing: 1
Weekends without Something Cool Happening: 0

Hours Preparing for Dipnetting: 8
Hours Driving to/From Dipnetting: 6
Hours Hauling Gear for Dipnetting: 3
Hours Actually Dipnetting: 2
Fishes Caught Dipnetting: 0
Phones Having to be replaced due to Dipnetting: 1
Cars that Smell Like Feet After Dipnetting: 1
Again, Fishes Caught Dipnetting: 0

Times Killed by Goats, Moose, Dipnets, Californias, or Peach Dresses: 0 so far

Now That’s What I Remember

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Before I moved to Alaska, my only previous adventure up here was a vacation I took over 7 days in 2006.  I flew into Anchorage, rented an RV, then proceeded to drive in the great loop of the Alaskan Road System.  I spent two nights in Denali National Park.  Had a single day stupid run of 600 miles from Denali, to a brief stay in Fairbanks, then down the Richardson Highway to Valdez.  Two nights in Valdez then the return trip to Anchorage.  All in All, I drove 1300 miles in a gas guzzling pick-up with a camper thrown on the back and the worst shocks ever for Alaskan roads.

Since that time, I have driven many of the same roads – heading up to Denali, heading to Valdez, etc.  I’ve seen many of the same glaciers, mountains, lakes, forests.  It’s many times over the beauty of Alaskan countryside I grew to love since I moved up here.

But while I have seen glimpses of it, only in the last few days has there been something that was truly reminiscent of that week in 2006.

The Toad Choking Downpour of Cold Wet Rain!

I showed up in 2006 with sweatshirts and warm clothing; but not at all anything rain resistant.  By mid week I was paying way too much money for a raincoat capable of keeping high sea fishermen dry, and even that was in a fight for it’s life.  Anchorage averages about an inch of rain during the month of August, and when I arrived on August 7th they had a half of inch already, by the time I left, they were nearing two inches – and major roads were closing down due to flooding.

The weather here has been kind some days recently, but down right a pain other days.  Currently, our July Rainfall has nearly doubled what the average should be for the month.  For this time of the month, we should be around 1.68 inches — last Friday & Saturday alone we had 1.3 inches.  Yesterday it only rained for about two hours, and most of it was a light shower — except for about 20 minutes of a downpour.  That would be a half inch of rain downpour.

Truth is a comment I made about all that rain in 2006 sticks in my head when I want to complain about all this rain.  Sure it really put a damper on the vacation, but I came back with the message: “The rain was just God telling me I needed to come back.”  That, simply enough, is why I am here.

The Dips

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Let’s just get this out of the way … I got zero fish.  The Nelson Fisherman’s Luck Continues.  That wasn’t even the worst part about the weekend.

This weekend, I attempted to go dip netting for the first time.  Dip netting, if you remember from a couple weeks ago, is the salmon fishing that involves quite literally dipping a net into the river, and bringing up the fish.  For my first time dip netting, I hooked up with a co-worker and lifelong Alaskan who does the thing more for feeding his family then the sport.  Me?  I just wanted to do it and bring home a big cache of fish.

The plan we had was simple.  The main dip net site was where the Kenai River met the Cook Inlet/Pacific Ocean, a three hour drive from Anchorage.  My fellow newb, Laura Sherman, and I were going to head down Thursday night, crash in our cars, then hit the beach with before the incoming tide on Friday Afternoon with the help of a bunch of my co-workers.  Things started to fall apart when she got held up working on her car, and we were caught with the tough decision of leaving without her or staying in Anchorage and drinking — I made the run south, she got drunk.  I ended up sleeping in the car – the pup was with me, but he felt more into climbing all over me, whining about being in a weird place, and getting alerted by every drop of rain outside.  Which brings us to the real problem with Friday, the rain, the steady sprinkling of rain that went on the whole day.

Still without word from the Sherminator, I hooked up with the co-workers, we set up a rain tent, and got our gear set up.  Setting up is not to be underrated – the gear itself was not at all small.  Five foot diameter net, poles at least ten feet long attached to the net, then coolers for the fish, chest waders, rain flys, chairs coolers of stuff to get you through the day, and whatelse you would want with you.  There is a single road heading to where the fishing is at, and with the crowd trying to get out there, it meant that there were a mass of people dumping gear, picking up gear, or anywhere in between.  It was that, or hauling it the half mile from the parking lot.  Then once you were unloaded, you still had to drag that stuff the last stretch onto the beach, get your stuff all together and hit the water.  You then sit in water as deep as you want to go, let your net just hang in the river, and wait until a fish literally swims into the net.

Now’s a good time to say, it rained all day on Friday.  Constant wet rain.

Here’s the thing, though, I loved my time in the water.  When I got out there, the river was heading out at a pretty slow pace.  There were some fish, but not many.  Enough that we all had hope.  Where we sat, the ocean was literally a couple hundred yards away, and we were chest deep in it.  We knew that the fish really start coming in when the tide comes in, and we knew it was going to come about an hour and a half after we started, but weren’t sure how we would know it was time.  Turns out, we really knew.  During one of the coolest points during the netting, we watched as our nets just first seemed to shift directions … just a little … just enough that a couple of us were saying we thought we snagged the nets on something because they flowed the wrong way.  Then they really filled up.  In 10 minutes, we were moving closer to shore due to the tide, and our bodies were leaving a wake.  Fish were coming in better then, and we tried our best to position ourselves right enough to get it.

In the true hit or miss nature of dip netting, people around me were doing great and I wasn’t.  One co-worker pulled up 5, another person nearby had 8, and I got zero!  I literally saw two fish swim into my net, and somehow I missed them.  By the time we called it quits for the tide, I was soaking wet from the rain, on the third set of shirts for the day (of which I only brought  three), and hadn’t heard from the Sherman Tank yet.  The pup spent the morning in the car and was now cranky from staying perfectly dry inside the nice warm car away from the rain and ocean .. which gives him reason enough to whine and whine and whine.  And THAT’S when I found out my iPhone was ruined by water.  Knowing I had to take care of the phone, the pup, and the day – I made a run for it back to Anchorage.

But I tell you what, the worse part of the dip netting took place over the next 48 hours.  It took me all day Saturday to take care of my phone, and by Sunday I had too much to do to make a run back.  My friend, Laura, arrived at the beach after a day of further car trouble just as I was arriving back in Anchorage – by that time the sun was out, and was setting beautifully.  She had an awesome weekend, and may limit out with 25 tonight.  She talked about all these cool people she met, the experience of being out there, it sounded like it was wicked awesome.  And I was stuck in the house watching my phone load up all its crap.

So that was my weekend … the glimpse of greatness that was dip netting replaced with all the annoyingness that went along with it.