Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When Winter Won't Stay Outside, Part II

            This weekend it rained steadily for a day and a half, and the high last night was 39 degrees.   Just to reiterate, that is a full twenty degrees warmer than it was in West Virginia the same day.   As far as I am concerned, Alaskan winter has completely failed to live up to its reputation.   Is this really the same state that I read about in Jack London books as a kid?   I don't remember the boy from Dogsong ever having to put up with any of this rain-in-January crap.   Seward, on the other hand, is continuing to live up to its reputation as a place capable of providing rain even in the most un-rain-like of conditions.   I knew from previous years that Seward is capable of providing winter in the middle of July; I was not aware that its climactic idiosyncrasies extended to providing spring in the middle of January.

            A few nights ago, I was dog-sitting for a friend, which gave me the opportunity of accumulating more dog hair to add to my clothing.   It’s the Alaskan style.   If your clothing isn’t made out of animal parts to begin with (leather boots, wool scarf, down jacket, fur hat), it probably still has animal hair covering the outer surface anyway.   It's a little like having an extra insulating layer.  Base layer, thermal layer, dog hair layer, rain layer.  Is it colder than usual outside?    Just find a long-haired dog, get him really excited, and encourage him to roll around on your clean laundry.  

            On Sunday, the weather transitioned from ‘winter wonderland’ to ‘slushy purgatory’ in about five hours, and turned the roads and sidewalks into the water-covered sheets of ice that so terrified me when I first visited the state.   (In March of 2007, I tried to get from my room to the Seward library, and slid around on the ice so badly that I eventually gave up and went home.   This might have been more understandable if the library and my room were on opposite ends of town.   In fact, they were on opposite ends of the same block.)   In similar conditions, I decided that I would stop by the library before going to watch my friend’s dogs, figuring that a nice, long, period BBC drama was just the thing to kill three or four hours.   I made it there and back without falling on my face, with a six-hour miniseries version of Jane Eyre stuffed in my backpack, and went to hang out with the dogs.   The weather was so wet, that even the hyperactive Lab didn’t want to go outside very much.   So we ate dinner, and curled up on couches and dog beds for a few hours of English accents and period costumes.  Around the time our TV-screen heroine was throwing water on flaming bedcurtains and hearing ghostly laughter in the hallways, I decided to go down to the basement and check the boiler settings.    

            Not all of the splashing noises were coming from the speakers.    Water was seeping under the basement door, between the bottom of the door and the frame, and there was already a sizeable puddle on the floor.   I spent the next few minutes moving all of the stuff near (and in) the puddle towards the other, drier end of the room, and left what was probably a fairly alarming message on my friend’s voicemail.   Hi.   You’re house isn’t actually flooding, and your dogs are fine, but there’s a lot of water coming in your back door.   Call me?

            Further investigation showed several inches of water had collected in the well of the basement door, which I bailed out with the help of a small trash can.   It was the first time in six months that I missed not having a boat pump handy.   I never seemed to get the trick of flinging the trash can without spilling some water on my knees.  

            Eventually, I got the well bailed out, and the dogs settled down (though I think they were still wondering what all the excitement had been about).    It was still raining, so I went back outside and bailed more water before I went to sleep.     That seemed to work – at least, the basement floor was still dry-ish the next morning.  
            I am now two for two on ‘bad things happening to places I am house-sitting’ - and I’ve barely been back in the state for two weeks.   Perhaps Alaska in the winter is living up to its reputation after all.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Please Do Not Feed the Three-Year-Olds

            Today in aquarium-land, we had a group come through in the afternoon with two young twin boys, one of who was armed with a sippy cup full of cheerios.   

            I will be the first to admit that I do not always enforce the ‘no food or drink in the aquarium’ rule, but I will try to encourage guests with food to observe some commonsense rules.   Such as, don’t set a coffee cup on the lip of the touch tank.   True, the starfish don’t move around very much, but pouring caffeinated beverages into their water supply is still a bad idea.  So don’t put your cup there; because I will call you out on it.   Another commonsense rule: do not let your small child carry the food.   They will (a) leave it on a chair, (b) spill it on the carpet, or (c) try to feed it to an animal.   Yes, some kids have tried to do this, and I always feel bad telling them not to, since I do appreciate the sentiment (if not the nutritive content) of their offering.   

            This particular kid at least was eating the cheerios himself.   Unfortunately, when the kid ran around, he shook the sippy cup so much that cheerios flew out in all directions.   I was in the bird exhibit when I noticed this, and it looked a little like one of those toys you give to dogs where they roll it around and treats fly out.   If the kittiwake gulls had discovered that these small brown projectiles were edible, they could very well have decided to play the part of the dog.   

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Boiler, or When Winter Won't Stay Outside

            Today the daytime high was around 5 degrees above zero. The weather report says that the current windchill is around negative 15. Which makes it a perfect weekend to walk three miles to work in the dark. Dressing for the outing is more straightforward than you might think – I just put on as many layers as I can, and at some point I get so bulky that the zippers won’t close all the way. Then it’s time to cinch up my balaclava and brave the ice on my back steps. 

            The walk is beautiful, especially because as I get into town, the sun is just starting to come up. The stars are still out; the snow on the mountains is reflecting blue, and the mountains at the entrance to the bay are just coming into view through the dark.  I have about ten seconds to ponder how I am so lucky that this is my daily commute. Then the wind comes ripping down the valley with bitter fury of a thousand jilted ex-girlfriends. I pull my hat lower, and go back to scanning the sidewalk for black ice.  

            The entire walk-to-work plan would not be possible without my Yaktrax – a set of steel studs that I can attach to the soles of my boots. I would like to publicly give Yaktrax a huge thank you for making boot studs that make it possible to walk on Seward’s ice-covered sidewalks at something approaching a normal walking speed. Not only can I make it downtown in less than an hour, but I can actually walk fast enough that my legs stay somewhat warm.   

            Also on the weather front, the boiler in the house decided to go on strike at some point this afternoon.  I came home at 6pm to a cold house, and figured I just needed to put on a sweater.   And a maybe hat.   And then dive under a blanket with a cup of hot tea.   Finally, I drug a space heater out of the basement; when I turned it on, the temperature sensor blithely informed me that it was 32 degrees inside the house. (Though I don't think it was actually  that cold.) That was when I decided I should call my landlord, who walked me through resetting the boiler, which through some quirk of the electrical system had turned itself off.   An hour and a half later, the space heater informs me that it is now at a comparatively balmy 54.   My landlord’s dog Remington has given up on trying to convince me to take him outside (why he wants to take a walk at these temperatures I’m not really sure) and is curled up on my bed like a very shaggy electric blanket.  

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Ticketing Counter in January

            Today was my crash course in running the aquarium’s ticketing program. It will be a minor miracle if I can make it through the weekend without running into major problems doing basic ticketing operations – things like making change and taking down telephone reservations. I won’t even say how long I had been working at the aquarium before I could consistently remember what the admission price was. I mean, I never paid to get in, and neither did anyone I knew. A lot of folks who actually live here in Seward either work here, or are a member - or are related to someone who works here or is a member. That helps to explain why we have very few guests in the winter who actually pay admission.   

            This time of year, you can easily divide the people who come here into a few basic categories. The military people have the best hair, and the commercial fishermen have the most hair. The lost tourists walk around wearing enough clothing that you wonder if they had to pay an excess-baggage fee to get it all up here. And the native and resident Alaskans are strolling around town in Carharts and a flannel shirt, because right now Seward is 20 to 30 degrees warmer than most of the interior of the state. (Though that’s not saying a lot. It’s five above zero at the moment.)

            And yes, we do get the odd tourist here in the winter. Most of these poor souls seem to have been duped by a close relative into visiting during the off-season. (‘Here’s that great hiking trail I was telling you about. We could probably manage the first mile in snowshoes, at least until it crosses the avalanche chute… And there’s the bay where I saw those breaching humpback whales.   Of course, the whales will all be in Hawaii until May… But whatever we do, we’ll need to bring the headlamps because it’ll be dark by 3pm. Or maybe we could visit the aquarium. They have heat, and indoor plumbing!)

            We also get people who have come to Alaska (usually Anchorage), for business, and are visiting Seward as part of an earnest attempt to see something of ‘real’ Alaska other than ice fog and the stuffed polar bears in the airport lobby. To come up here in January, you have to think that these folks did something to piss off whoever is in charge of making the office travel arrangements.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dirt, and Dark

            Somewhere in between updating my watches and computers to take into account the four-hour time change, my watch, computer, and cell phone have come to a substantial disagreement about what day and time it is. The sun seems to be in on it as well. Today it didn’t make an appearance until almost 10am.   

Welcome to winter in the 49th state.

            I spent the bus drive down from Anchorage trying to maintain a few square inches of clear glass on the window by melting ice from the inside of the window with my hand. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything about the dirt on the outside of the window, so perhaps it was a moot point. But, I was stuck in the van for two hours regardless, and driving the Seward highway in winter without the view could be just like driving for two hours through rural South Dakota. Even through the postage-stamp sized viewing hole, the mountains looked brilliant, especially after we got onto the Kenai Peninsula and the ice fog began to burn off.

            On arrival in Seward, my landlord Ben introduced me to the ice-coated luge chute that is the path to my door. My Yaktrax, sadly, are still on order, as is my car, so the trip to the grocery store today was a test run for my theory that it is possible to walk the three miles to the aquarium I work at with only my rubber boots, a flashlight, and enough wooly layers to fully outfit a sheep. So far, the results seem inconclusive – as in, while it might theoretically be possible to do this for the next two weeks, it also strikes me as a very bad idea. Also, as the walk, in ice-free conditions, usually takes an hour, I think the walk with the sidewalks in their current state would take closer to two, as my speed could only generously be described as a shuffle. The good news is, it’s been two days and I haven’t fallen over yet. 

            Alaska, interestingly enough, does not salt its roads – first because in much of the state it’s just to cold for the salt to do any good, and also because once the snow falls, we’d actually be really happy if it didn’t melt until April. Seward, in its enviable location in Alaska’s banana belt, has winters that are just mild enough that the snow frequently melts and then refreezes, instantly creating skating ponds out of any nearby drainage area – such as ditches, parking lots, and the bottoms of hills. All in all, we’d rather the snow didn’t do this, so instead of salting its roads, Alaska dirts its roads.  

            One unsurprising result of this practice is that Alaskan cars seem to be far dirtier during the winter than cars from the lower 48. (Also, no one wants to risk entombing their car in ice by taking it to the car wash.) However, as they’re not being exposed to salt on a daily basis, perhaps the paint jobs are holding out better. Though since the paint itself is entirely covered up by the gravel dust, it’s difficult to be sure.