Change Over

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My Saturday was eventful in the way that makes you feel like things are happening.  In actuality it was a change that had to happen, a change that needed to happen, and then a change I wanted to happen.

It had to start with a change for spring.  Yeah, I know, Spring is a whole season of change … it’s the whole point of spring.  But this Change is a legal one.  Tires!!!

Winter driving in Alaska just isn’t easy.  We get snow, obviously, and the road crews do a pretty good job clearing it.  But being this far north means ground freezes faster, roads are more glare ice and packed snow.  To be safe, most drivers in Alaska use winter tires, and nearly half of us have studded tires.  The problem with studded tires is that they chew up the pavement during the warmer summer days, so they are illegal to have on your car from May 1st to September 15th.  So, check your calenders kids … my studded tires had to come off and my summers had to go on.

Think about it, though, when you have about 100,000 cars that need to have their tires changed over twice a year means that tire shops are big business, but only during those change-over periods.  The way most of them deal with it is to not take appointments for a change over, and doing the work when you arrive on a first come first serve basis.  This time of year, so many come in to do their change over that the shops max out of work and they do it pretty early in the day.

So my Saturday started with arriving at the tire shop 45 minutes before the place even opened and stood in line in the cold.  I mean it … STOOD IN LINE.  By the time I got in there, I was looking at 3 hour wait, and the line behind me was long.  If I got there when the place was opened I would have had a 6 or 7 hour wait — and if I got there 15 minute minutes after they opened, wouldn’t have happened.

So that was the change that had to happen.  While that was going on, I headed to that change that needed to happen.  My first day in a gym that I joined this week.  Since curling ended, I needed to find another way to get back in shape … this is it.  40 minutes on an elliptical and I found that energy buzz that comes from a good workout (surprising because I thought I would going to feel old and in pain all day).

That last change, that one I wanted to happen — it didn’t really happen but a plan is in place.

I need a new summer hobby.  Okay, maybe not need, but I want one.  Something Alaskan, something outdoorsy, but something new.  So I stopped by a store and asked about fly fishing.  I fully intended to walk in and say “set me up”, but this little shop owner did what good shop owners do … he said “no, there is a class in a couple weeks, take that, and then if you still like it then I will set you up.”  Okay, he wasn’t as blunt, in fact it was pretty awesome that conversation, but the idea still is there.

So yeah, the season of change is with us, and will keep going.

Are You Unhappy in Alaska?

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Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Bill Blake, a co-worker from my Cessna days and a kindred spirit in the passion of Root Cause Corrective Actions nerd-isms.  The subject of the e-mail set the tone for the discussion:
Are you unhappy in Alaska?
With his permission I am sharing parts of that conversation (edited in part because I needed to tone down the language I used and in part because I always think I can write things better).

———-

Hey Mitch,

How’s it going?  Hope all is well.  Great

….
How are things going?  Seems like your Alaska posts are leaning more towards the depressive instead of the positive I was reading last year.  Has the allure worn off yet?
….

Ttyl – Bill Blake

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Bill,
I tell you what is most different up here in Alaska is that my life has flipped around to what it was at Cessna.  
I liked living in Wichita, but I am realizing how the things I liked about Wichita were things that I could like about living anywhere – the people were great but people can be great anywhere and the stuff I did for fun wasn’t anything special to Kansas.  The people up here are great, but the stuff I do for fun up here is special – like hiking and curling and fishing.  Then you add to it the scenery and beauty that is in your face constantly, and life outside of work is pretty great.  
Truth is, the job is more frustrating and aggravating.  I didn’t expect the pain that comes with oil and gas.  Everything I do has to be touched by, discussed with, and approved by a laundry list of people.  Since I am the “guy that came from another industry” I’ve been seen as unqualified to do things I was considered to be an expert at in Aerospace.  I found myself becoming more egotistical – before I could be good at something by just doing it, now I have to tell people how good I can be so they can let me be good at it.  Processes that took 4-5 months at Cessna average 18 months at BP.   I try to make it better, but the process to make it better can be as demanding.  
So at the end of the day – when I lived in Kansas, my work life balance was more about work than life.  Here it’s more about life than work.  Best example is that most of my Kansas friends were people I work with, while most of my Alaskan friends are people I DON’T work with.  
Sure I complain a lot in my blog, but in part that is kinda how I am trying to create humor in the blogs too.  Seriously, I have write a post every month where I claim it to be “the worst time of the year” – how is that not ironic and funny.  The real truth is that we are running into the best time of year — we suffer for 9 months of winter, so we can have the best 3 months of summer anywhere in the world.  I am going to take up fly fishing, I am going to try to dip net for salmon, I am going to take my RV out, I am hiking in the backwoods, camping in the broad daylight of summer midnight … it’s going to be awesome.
Mitch
———-
Probably more honest about my work than I should be in this blog, but I hope it puts some things in perspective.
The easy answer to Bill’s question — am I unhappy in Alaska?  The answer is a resounding “No”.  But if you ever read a single post on this blog … I wouldn’t be Mitch Nelson if I didn’t complain.

Interesting Times

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Following a meeting early on when I worked at Cessna where it was announced that layoffs were coming, my ultimate optimistic boss Jason Zagula looked at us and said: “well, they say you should live in interesting times.”  As good as his intentions were, I still wanted  to punch the guy (funny thing it worked, and the jerk made me feel better).  This week was one of those interesting times.

Back when I worked at Cessna, going through layoffs was like going through pay raises – you knew you were bound to get them so you might as well not worry about it until you go there.  Part of the reason I left was that in the last two years I was there we went through 12 rounds of layoffs.  I found out this week my old company went through another round and are expecting another later this year.  Some old friends and great colleagues were let go.  I know some of you out there reading this are people who work in the Aerospace field, and if you know of positions out there keep the old Cessnans in mind.  If you can’t help, please keep them and their families in your thoughts & prayers – there is nothing easy about that kind of transition.  While there are many things I miss about Aerospace, it was the constant threat of layoffs and (since I was lucky enough to never be laid off myself) the survivor’s guilt that hung with me after each round.

While I like to say this post is just about something that is going on in Kansas, it’s not.

BP-Alaska, my current employer, is going through two transitions of their own which are just as concerning.  Our overall organization throughout the corporation is realigning itself to ensure it is focused correctly – which usually means ‘right sizing’, a nice way of saying people are going to get laid off.  This was something in the works for 9 months already, and will take another 9 months to finish up (not to be mistaken with the 14 month project of ‘radical simplification’).  Then something heavier dropped on our laps.

BP-Alaska announced (ironically the same day the Cessna layoffs occurred) that 15% of their production would be sold off to another company.  In Alaska, BP Operates a number of locations that are all in the North Slope.  The biggest is Greater Prudhoe Bay, and is largest oil field in North America – we will remain the operator of that.  BP is selling of two smaller fields completely, and half of two others including the operating rates to one of the others.  Put simply, you reduce the amount you produce by 15%, you will need to reduce your overhead by 15%.

So questions have arise, concerns grow, and once more … I live in Interesting Times.

The Great In-between!

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‘Spring Kinda’ has sprung in Anchorage.

The good news is that it is warm-ish.  We have been in the 50s for most of the last few days, and the sun has been out for nearly all of that time.  In comparison to Summer, our average high temperature is in the 60s, so we are practically there.  Most of the snow has melted, yet piles still exist where there’s shade or just a lot of it.  Birds are returning, which is a big deal because southern birds have a hell of a long way to get here, so now that they are showing up that means they are set for the long haul.  Most of the rivers and streams are opened up, though ice still floats here and there.  All the signs are there for us to be through the “break-up” season and out of the winter.  Best of all, for a place that gets rain all the time when it’s warm, we haven’t had any for weeks.  We have every reason to enjoy this time of the year.

So, when I brought up the weather with others the conversation went to:

A) There’s still Snow on the Ground!  Okay, maybe not like winter, but it’s hard to work on your lawn when a quarter of it is under snow pack.  Plus it still freezes over night, so you can’t really plant anything outside yet.  If you go for a hike, you could find yourself in snow so deep that its like January – or the ground could be all dead rocks and vegetation.

B) It’s so dusty and dry.  We haven’t had rain in weeks, I said.  So none of the regular vegitation is coming up, and any wind picks up every bit of dirt you can breath.  Plus the city uses grit and dirt on the winter roads, all of which is now free to be blown around, or is being blown around by people trying to clean it up.  I mean, there is loads of that stuff.  At the parking lot at work, I drew a smiley face 10 feet wide in the inch deep grit still in the parking lot.

C) Bug Season is Starting.  Last May & June we got hit by the worse bug season this area has ever seen.  You couldn’t go outside without being swarmed by hundreds of mosquitoes and flies. It could be as bad this year, and with each person swatting at something from their arm, the fear of the bugs grows.

Most of all people are NOT saying what we are all thinking:

D) There’s still one more snow left.  Last year we had snow fall on May 10th.  It’s only April 23rd.  We are bound to get something still before summer really arrives. That uber depressing day will come and it looms over us like a dark cloud.

So we are in that Great In-between, when the summer fun  taunts us to go give it a try in bad conditions, yet we have enough to be pessimistic about to wonder if its worth it.  Soon though, very soon, summer will be here.  Already the sun is up past 10PM, and I am running out of days when I will see nighttime on a regular basis.  It’s coming, we just got to get through this part of the year.

 

BEAR FEED Note:  I created a new category in the blog, and will be back updating previous posts in the coming weeks with that new category.  It’s covering the posts I seem to write every couple of weeks saying “this is the worst time of the year”.  So look for that.

It’s Not How You Think

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I am on an unexpected Day 3 on the slope today, and I took a little break from work this lunchtime because I got to think of how some might picture the struggles of being up here.  Prudhoe Bay (aka Deadhorse, AK; aka ‘The North Slope; aka the slope) is hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle and covered in snow & ice for nearly as long of the year as it is thrown into the black of night.  Temperatures dip below zero so often that the equipment up here has a bigger issue when the it gets above +50°F than when it drops below -40°F.  Without a tree anywhere for over an hour’s drive and the landscape flat and pockmarked with normally frozen (and invisible in the winter) lakes, the wind blows up here constantly no differently than you would see in the great plains of the Mid-west meaning wind chills can drop as low as -70°F.  Deadly Polar Bears roam the land, musk ox the size of a small car are strong enough to put a dent in your truck, and even the cute & fuzzy fox are so rabid that a bite will send you off to the funny farm.

So when you ask someone up here if it is hard to work on the slope, the answer usually is “yeah, but it’s not how you think”.

First of all, polar bears are very rare, and usually are taken care of by the wildlife security before they are ever a threat to us or themselves.  The rest of the wildlife are usually good if you left them alone.

As for the cold, well, everyone carries (if not wears) arctic gear capable of keeping you warm down to -40°F outside.  By everyone, I mean everyone, dragging those bags of gear around are a pain.  We do so from October 1st through May 1st.  But it’s not like we need them that often, nearly everyone who works up here needs to have that gear just in-case there is a problem in the vehicle you use – and most leave their gear in the truck the whole time.  Nearly everyone works in a facility or camp – a nice heated warm facility.  Everyone else mostly works out of a truck – a nice heated warm truck.  So when you end up going outside only to get to something to take you back inside, you don’t notice the weather much.  When the weather gets bad, they just have you work from the camp or get an escort here and there.

Work shifts are 12 hours 7 days a week, and usually means someone will work for 2 to 3 weeks straight until they are replaced with an alternate.  That means when you come here, you come to work, nothing else.   That isn’t really that bad either, because it means there isn’t the time to do much sitting around and doing nothing.  You work, you get off work, you eat, you go to bed, you wake up, you eat, you go to work.  For those on a rotation up here, working 14 days straight means you have off 14 days as well – think about getting a 2 week vacation every month (especially getting huge hazard pay to work up here – and free room and board for 2 weeks that you are here).    Maybe hit the gym, maybe catch a movie, but that’s it.  And the food here is great, too great, I mean … ice cream!!

What is tough about the place, like anywhere, is the unexpected.  Up front in my head is that planes can’t land in bad weather.  Yesterday, a day that was a nice warm 30°F caused fog to roll in at 9am causing my 6PM flight to get delayed.  It cleared up but by 7PM when I was supposed to go out, the fog was back.  The flight got cancelled, and we were told we would have to wait until today when the entire plane would be rebooked.  Problem was, Thursdays are the busy flight days, and the earliest a plane could be freed up to be rebooked would be a 10:40PM departure (28 hours late).  For me, that got in the way of a few things, and is an inconvenience.  For some that live in the Lower 48, it meant rebooking 2 days out, and thats 2 days longer away from their families, and 2 days closer to coming back.

Then there is the sleeping here.  It’s just not easy.  Warm dry air in the camps, light through the shades during the spring summer and fall, and beds that resemble less of fluffy goose down, and more of dry wall.  ‘How’d you sleep?’ is like a rhetorical question up here.

Everything has to come with you too.  In my old traveling days, I got used to the idea that if I forgot something at home I could always pick it up on the road.  That’s not going to happen on the slope.  There is no Quik-E-Mart.  There is a comissary, but it’s little more than a place to buy a magazine or a cool “got oil” t-shirt.  They have some supplies, but not what you want (or want at the price they will make you pay).  So I end up over packing every single time – because whether or not you may need it, you better have it.

The camps up here, though, rough it out like you would expect in any plant floor life – just with a little twist.  The people you work with here expect you to keep them safe, and you have the same expectation in return.  Everyday you look for everyone to make it back uninjured and in good spirits, because tomorrow is another day.  As someone who doesn’t have a real shift up here, it feels like trying to fit into a party where you are the only one that doesn’t know everyone else — ‘vinyl sticker with big block letters saying that I’m just visiting, that I’m not permanent’.  It makes me respect those who make it through the day here, makes me like what they accomplish.  But it’s still not even as hard as I think.

Down That Turnagain Road

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Let me start with a simple, definitive statement:  The drive down Turnagain Arm on the Seward Highway south of Anchorage is the most beautiful drive I have ever been on.  Now before some of you start listing off some places where you took a really nice drive somewhere let me reiterate … Turnagain Arm is the Most Beautiful Drive.

I’m not some rookie driver here that has had his head stuck in the sand in one location.  Few things strike me than a beautiful drive along somewhere.  Now, I am very partial to hills and mountains, very partial to coastal drives, and like a good forest as long as it doesn’t draw out into a ‘one trick pony’ for fifty miles.  Before you start challenging my statement with your own, know that I have seen some pretty nice places for a drive in my years.  Keep in mind that I have been to all 50 states (at least twice – not counting for Geocaching).  I’ve owned four different cars that I put more than 100,000 miles on.  I’ve driven in five countries outside of the US.  I’ve even considered that a night spent sleeping in the car at a wayside in the middle of summer to be one of the pure pleasures in life.  In all my days, I have a short list of truly beautiful drives:
– Autobahn & Hauptstrasse #9 in Switzerland between Sion & Zurich
– Flint Hills North of El Dorado, KS on I-35
– I-40 North of Waynesville, NC on the way to Gatlinberg, TN
– Mississippi River Valley just north of my hometown of Prairie du Chien, WI
– PCH South of Monterrey, CA
Turnagain Arm has them all beat.

You may have heard me mentioned, faithful Bearfeeders (both of you) that Anchorage looks much like a triangle.  It points westward to Cook Inlet and is bordered on the north and south by “arms”, or smaller inlets heading into rivers.  To the North is the Knik Arm which is a beautiful drive in it’s own way; but to the south is Turnagain.  The name, by the way, was created during the 1778 expidition by Captain Cook (thus ‘Cook Inlet’) who’s sailing master William Bligh (of HMS Bounty Fame) was sent into each arm to see if there was a Northwest passage – but after failing in Knik Arm having to turn around, they were very angry that in the second arm they had to ‘turn again’ to find their way out of the Inlet.

So what makes Turnagain so special?  Well, it was hinted in my notes before.  I like drives along the coast, and the arm itself is a coast … so there’s one plus.  I am partial to Mountains – and it has MOUNTAINS.  To the north of the drive the Chugach mountains raise as high as 6,000 feet.  The south of the Arm is the Kenai Mountains that are just as high in the part of the range.  Then of course there is a high treeline heading up the sides of the mountains.  The arm was created by a glacier during the last ice age, and remnants are visible deeper into the arm, even at the end where Portage glacier still grinds away at the mountains.  Turnagain is also home to the second largest tide in North America (30 feet) & the fourth largest in the world, where you can see tidal bores (waves created by the incoming tides fighting against the outward current).  Much of the drive runs hard up against the hillside, and only a few craggy rocks to the water below.  Along the route, the road turns over and over again as the jutting mountains provide the only land to keep four wheels on.  While the road is well maintained, it is far from safe – between a constant summer threat of rockslides, a constant winter threat of avalanches, and a constant year round threat of wildlife that could end up out there.  When you drive on the road, you are officially in bear country, but also goat country, moose country, and (while not specifically on the road) buliga whale country.

I can keep going too.  There are human features, like the infamous Arm Pit BBQ.  Alyeska Ski Resort is tucked into Girdwood halfway down the arm.  The Alaskan Railroad has the arm on it’s main route, and seeing the tourists go by is always fun.  Not to mention the rivers you can pull off and watch fly fishing, net fishing, salmon fishing, and bears fishing.  The arm is perfect for bikers, hikers, campers, and bird watchers.  It rolls along for a good 40 miles until it reaches the end of the arm and starts up the mountains south to Seward, Homer, and Soldotina.  I have driven the road at different times of the year, and each time it gives me something else pretty to look at.  I watched the sun go down at 11PM last summer from over the mountain peaks.  I was guided through soft snow by the lights of the Alyeska Ski Resort.  Sometimes the fog kisses the mountain tops, sometimes the snow melt washes silty blue along the road.  Yet that drive never, ever, gets old.

So yes, it is the most beautiful drive I have ever been on.  I dare you to talk me out of it.

 

((Bear Feed Shout Out to Mr. Joe Courtney.  Always good to get a note from him.  I can send the note to you directly, Joe, but I just want anyone who knows you know that I am so awesome that I get a legend of the Drum Corps world to read my blog.  So it’s all about me. 😀  ))

 

 

So Ends the Curl

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Been a slow month for the Bear Feed, but I should give better reasons than “just plain busy”.  While I have a couple of posts in my head from an event earlier in the month, the timely thing to post about is something that happened this past weekend.  The End of the Curling Season.

As you faithful Bear Feeders know (all 3 of you), part of my life in Alaska seems to be surrounded in curling – my new winter hobby.  Curling, though, is a winter only sport.  Sure, it’s an indoor winter sport, but the cost of maintaining curling ice through the summer and the competition for doing fun stuff during the summer outdoors makes maintaining it useless to our little curling club here in Anchorage.  Like any good thing, we ended it with a bang.  The annual Spring Spiel (or Spring Bonspiel), a tournament which included prime rib, caribou chili, beer that kept getting cheaper as the weekend continued, and of course curling.  My usual team was broken up this time, in part because one of them decided to get married on us the weekend before, but we still had a solid team – which meant we got stuck against competition well over our head and we ended with a respectable 1-4 record.

But to know me is to know that I like symbolism, and this weekend was full of it.  First of all, unlike last year, I ended the season on a personal play highnote.  I was haunted most the summer by my last rock of last year, a shot at points if I just aimed right, and I missed so bad the rock wasn’t even in play.  With pushing myself into better shape and some new equipment, I was throwing the rock better than I had all season including being able to slide out past the house (which is like saying in golf that you can drive past the women’s tee – but not the point).  In truth, the further you can slide when you are throwing the rock the more time you have to adjust the rock before you release it; only thing better than sliding past the house would be to make it to the hogline something I never did ever … until the last rock I threw on the weekend.

Probably as big of time was a game I played this weekend where our team went up against four guys that all had a part in my curling development in different ways.  Playing against them with my own team (and leading my own team) was like showing them what they taught me and to play well against them was to give that back in a way – and it was the best game I have ever played in my Curling career.  In the end, I missed a very very tough shot for the win, but made some nearly impossible shots throughout the game to keep our outclassed team right there to the end.  Playing a team that had my full respect so closely was just icing on the cake.

So the weekend ended and we headed into the summer without curling.  That too marked by symbolism when the compressor keeping the ice in condition was shut down, and the kids were allowed out there in ice skates (something that destroys curling ice – so its only allowed one day a year).  We raised our glasses, said farewell, then raised a few more glasses after that.

Curling starts again in October and we will see where we are then.

Now let’s get summer started already.