Friday, October 28, 2011

If you don't like our government, maybe you shouldn't be running it...

            I usually don’t open emails from Shelley Capito, the current senator of my former congressional district, and only partially from reasons of geography.   This time, the title of her email seemed fairly innocuous – a congratulations to West Virginia University, for becoming a member of the Big 12, (even over the objections of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who apparently thinks that somewhere in his job description is a paragraph that explains how it’s OK to mandate how sports team conferences are organized).   Though I did not attend WVU, I have some half a dozen family members who are alumni or current students, and my grandfather is enough of a fan that he bought my parents a Mountaineer lawn gnome as a Christmas present.   (If I had a lawn, I’m sure I would have gotten one, too.)   So keeping vaguely informed about the trials and tribulations of WVU sports teams can be very helpful in making small talk with my relatives back east.

            Unfortunately, the title of Senator Shelley’s email was the electronic version of a bait and switch.   After one sentence saying that she thought it was great that West Virginia had made the Big 12, she jumped right into the sort of subjects that make me consider unsubscribing from her email list.   I’ll quote a few sentences from the press release included in the email.

            “Today, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., released a new video inviting local businesses to share with Members of Congress how government regulations are holding them back through American Job Creators. The initiative is part of an ongoing effort by Republicans to encourage our nation’s job creators to share their stories about how government impacts job creation.”

            I tried going to the site hyper-linked above, but the AJC share-the-stories form had so many mandatory fields that patently didn’t apply to a normal, non-company-owning person that I couldn’t figure out a way to express an opinion through the site.   I then decided to email Senator Shelley, only to be confronted with a form that required my full ten-digit zip code before I could send anything.   I do, in fact, know my ten-digit zip code, but the site refused to recognize it as a valid US address.   (Funny, the postal service in Seward seems to like it just fine.)   Finally, after a few google searchers, I was able to look up the ten digit zip code for my parent’s address in West Virginia, which I entered, and finally was able to gain access to the heavily defended internet fortification that is Senator Shelley’s online comment form.    Considering that a senator is, at least theoretically, supposed to at least appear to care what her constituents think, she is making it pretty difficult for constituents to even register an opinion.   Unless you’re a business owner – you guys have a whole website set up to solicit your opinions.

            The following is a slightly edited version of the comment I (finally) submitted to Senator Capito through her online form.

            Dear Senator Shelley, I just received your newsletter, inviting business owners to share, and I quote, 'how government regulations are holding them back'.  

            If your idea is to actually get information from business owners on what’s preventing them from hiring new employees- why not actually ask them, instead if blatantly implying that government regulations is responsible for what's happened to our economy in the past three years?    

            For example, I work seasonally as a guide for a private lodge in Alaska.   I don’t own the lodge by any means, but I have worked at the company for long enough that I have a layman’s understanding of how our business model works.   The lodge’s small private acreage is completely surrounded by a huge parcel of land that is federally-owned, and completely off-limits to any sort of commercial development.   Clients patronizing our lodge often do so specifically because it is a base from which to explore this onerously regulated parcel of federal land, which is otherwise known as Kenai Fjords National Park.   Without the government regulations limiting exploitative use of this natural area - as well as the increased visibility and visitation the lodge gets due to our proximity to a national park - we likely would not have a large enough client base to make this lodge a viable business.  

            Because we operate in and near a national park, the lodge I work for must also comply with KFNP’s rules and regulations.     Doing so isn’t, as far as I know, any sort of logistical or financial hindrance, and helps to ensure that all of the various commercial enterprises that operate in the park are all basically following the same rules.   For example, we are only allowed to take a maximum number of twelve clients at a time into certain areas of the park. Some days, keeping our tours within this limit can be a real hassle, but in turn, it helps to assure that all of the other commercial guides are following the same limits.   Basically, it means that my clients and I aren’t going to hike up to our lunch spot one day and find the place overrun with fifty teenagers from an Outward Bound course.   It’s in everybody’s best interests to follow the regulations that KFNP (i.e, the government) has set up, that helps to preserve the wilderness environment that my clients have come to Alaska to see.   

            In addition, KFNP (i.e., the government) has rangers based near the lodge, who keep a periodic eye on what the various private operators in the park are actually doing.   If I decide to take twenty-seven people out to the glacier overlook, instead of the twelve that my permit allows, they are the folks who will be issuing a citation.   Also, as a guide, if I am handing my group in a way that is patently unsafe (walking my clients under an unstable ice ledge, for example) the rangers are the folks who will dropping by to have a word with my boss.   I don’t pretend to claim that my clients have a clear awareness of the park ranger’s role in monitoring what us guides are doing – but I am very sure that every client I have worked with would be happy with the idea that someone in authority is intermittently monitoring the decisions that I make while in the field. 

            So, in our business model, government regulations are an indispensable part of why my employer is able to turn a profit, and continue issuing me a paycheck.   I am sure that many West Virginia tourism companies near the New River National Scenic Area, and around the Monongahela National Forest, have a similar reliance on the fact that the government does, in fact, have regulations on the books that preserves the natural areas from which the state’s tourism companies derive their income.

            Also, if you are really so interested in improving the job situation for West Virginians, why the heck haven't you worked to pass any of the jobs legislation that's come before Congress in the past couple of weeks?   Do firefighters and teachers and police officers not matter as much because they aren't business owners?   Is it because those occupations work within government regulations, (in the case, of police officers, enforcing government regulations in some cases) instead of (apparently) seeing these regulations as some sort of onerous burden, as your email implies of business owners in West Virginia?     

            So, as a constituent, the next time you want my opinion on government regulations, Senator, you can ask for it - instead of implying you've already decided what that opinion ought to be.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bring on the Kiwi Birds!

            First of all, it’s official – I am going to be spending the winter in New Zealand.   Doing what, I’m still not sure - I’m hoping to find work for at least a few months of the time – but one thing I will definitely  be doing is enjoying warmer weather than will be found up here in Alaska.   I am leaving in a little over two weeks, and I am hoping to be able to sneak out of the Icebox before I have to do any shoveling, snowblowing, or chipping ice off of my car.  

            I originally thought I was going to be staying in Alaska for another winter; unfortunately, the job I had thought I had lined up with a former employer fell through.   Oh well.   However, the longer I think about it, the happier I am that I won't be spending another winter up here battling the elements and staving off cabin fever.   (Which was one of the reasons I started writing a blog in the first place.)   So, I figured as long as I was leaving Alaska for the winter, why not go to a warm-weather vacation spot - as opposed to the glacially-refrigerated rainforest I live in now.   Also, New Zealand has been on the list of places I’d like to visit for several years – ever since I took advantage of a similar temporary working visa arrangement in the UK back in 2006.   The organization that sponsored that program (the British Universities North America Club) also had a similar program in New Zealand (among other places – New Zealand piqued my interest mainly because they speak English, and they have kiwi birds.)   What I didn’t know until a few months ago is that if you just apply for the visa through the New Zealand immigration bureau directly, you don’t have to pay the agency a $500 fee.

            In fact, applying for the work visa was ridiculously straightforward.   Also, it was free.   As in, the New Zealand government is letting me come and live in their country for six months, and the only thing I had to do was to fill out a form saying that I’ve (a) never been convicted of a crime, and (b) do not have tuberculosis.  I filled out the whole form online in about thirty minutes, and they processed it in about three days.   (In comparison, for a New Zealand person to get a similar visa for the United States, it would cost a little under a thousand dollars in visa and agency fees alone – and you have to be in college, or have graduated within twelve months.   Lady Liberty, I think you’re hiding the welcome mat…)   

            Perhaps because it’s free, the visa is a little less spectacular than the ones I’ve got from the UK.   Getting a visa for Britain involved a whole process of sending my passport to a consulate somewhere and then getting it back with a huge embossed sticker and a lot of fine print in a tiny serif font, which the immigration people would minutely examine with a lens and some sort of blacklight pen every time I arrived in London.   

            In contrast, the New Zealand immigration people sent me an email with a number on it.   That's the visa.   All I needed to do was print out the page.   No serif fonts, security codes, or weird hidden passport microchips.   

            Something else I’ve been getting in order is various forms of travel insurance.   I’m changing my medical insurance to a company that will cover me both in the US and abroad.   What’s interesting about this is that I am paying the same premium as I did under my US plan – but I get a $2000 deductible, instead of a $10,000 deductible.   This is just one indication that health insurance costs over here are insanely overpriced compared to the rest of the civilized world.   Want another example?   I was advised by my doctor to bring a three-month supply of my birth control medication with me to New Zealand.   Which sounded like a great idea, except that my (current) insurance won’t approve me getting that much in advance.   Paying for it without their negotiated ‘discount’ would be $90, as opposed to the $45 that I’m usually charged.   However, buying the same amount of the same drug (even without insurance) in New Zealand comes to... about $18.   I ran into this situation in the UK as well – the sticker price of most prescription drugs in other civilized countries is usually well below the ‘discount’ price that my US insurance says that they are negotiating for me.   

        And this is why my friends in Texas stock up on pharmaceuticals every time they visit Mexico…

Monday, October 10, 2011

The End of the Summer

            We wrapped up another season at the lodge about three weeks ago, and Aialik Bay sent us off with three days of nonstop, pouring rain for our shutdown.   Due to bad weather in the Gulf of Alaska, we had to get everybody out a day early, which meant that not only were we cold and wet – we were cold, wet and in a hurry.   Everybody was just trying to buckle down and get everything done.   For my particular department, that meant a lot of time spent sponging a summer’s worth of glacial silt out of our kayak cockpits.   We never really clean them during the season – we just let it pile up over the season, until we get a boat that’s so embarrassingly dirty that we have to clean the worst spots before give it to a client.    Currently, most of our boats are sitting under the lodge building – and getting them under there can be a huge chore, as the things are approximately the same size and weight as an orca whale.   Or at least, they seem that way when you have to carry fifteen of them across camp.   

            The weather at the end of the season was tough.   June was amazing, July was even better, August was rough, September was worse.   And it wasn’t just the rain, either – we had some unseasonably huge storms moving through the Gulf of Alaska.   One or two big storms would have been bad enough, but towards the end it seemed like we were getting them about once a week.   They say that the ocean is always a lady, but sometimes, she’s a bitch.   That’s the side we were seeing for most of the end of the season.   The Iceberg Lodge usually average six days out of a summer where the boats can’t make it out mostly due to weather.  This year we got seven days where the boats didn’t come.   Not seven days total - seven days in a row.   The total number of boat-free days this summer was around a dozen – most (but not all) of which affected guests, and therefore, income.   It also affected my bottom line personally, because I wasn’t working for most of the week of weather – though considering how astonishingly heavy it was raining, I wasn’t complaining much at the time.   Theoretically, I could have done trail work – but the trail that most needed the attention was so muddy that carrying power tools up there would have been downright dangerous anyway.   This was monsoon-style rain – an inch an hour, at times.   Where I grew up in West Virginia, if it rained that hard, you could pretty much guarantee that it would stop in about five minutes – the cloudburst would run out of steam.   In Alaska, it can keep raining like that for three days.  There was so much freshwater pouring into the lagoon that it was even affecting the currents – the tides flooding into our lagoon weren’t strong enough to push against the massive amount of fresh water that was trying to flood out.

            The first week I was back in civilization (or what passes for civilization in a place where the nearest stoplight is over a hundred miles away) became the Iceberg Lodge reunion tour.   It started out with driving up to Cooper Landing right after getting off of the boat to see one of our boat captains playing music at the Kingfisher.   It seemed like everyone in the Alaska tourism industry who was still in the state two weeks after Labor Day (a smaller number than you might suppose) was at that bar.   It felt very, very strange to be around so many people I didn’t know.   After a summer in the wilderness, I think my brain forgets how to look at people and not know who they are.   At the bar that night, I would see a girl with her hair in a ponytail, and automatically think – that’s one of our hospitality girls.   It wasn’t, of course, and the two people didn’t even look much alike, but that was who my brain insisted that it was.    I think that since for four months I was around such a limited number of people – especially younger people, because our clientele is mostly older folks – that my brain basically rewired itself for the smaller number of people it was seeing.  Anyone who vaguely looked like Amber must be Amber, because out at the Lodge, there were very few other choices.   So my brain was matching up strangers with their most probable Iceberg Lodge counterpart – even if the resemblance was as sketchy as the right gender and approximate hair color.   It was a little like seeing ghosts out of the corner of your eye – you know that you saw someone right there, but as soon as you turn to look at them properly, they vanish.   Thankfully, the effect didn’t last for more than a few days.   Leaving a place like that after a season is always a little bit like losing a family; it felt better when I wasn’t constantly being reminded of people who weren’t around anymore.

            Granted, I was seeing quite a few Lodge people in real life as well.   The rest of the week, it felt like I was travelling all over the Kenai, visiting people and taking part in several end-of-the-tourist-season-and-now-we-get-our-state-back celebratory events.   It felt like it was the first time in close to two years that I’d been able to be a tourist in my own state.   I camped out in Hope, Alaska (population 137)  for the Seaview Bar’s last night of the summer (which really is the last official gasp of the Alaska tourist season).   I listened to the Denali Cooks do some good Beatles covers, and then hung out in the middle of the road, dancing in my Xtra Tuffs to keep warm after my friend was thrown out of the bar for trying to bring in beer she’d bought somewhere else.   I woke up the next morning to beautiful weather and hiked out to Gull Rock.   The trail has great views across Turnagain Arm, and I saw some of the Cook Inlet beluga whales (a bona fide endangered species) as I was walking back.   I actually heard the belugas before I could see them – whales are world-class heavy breathers.  I didn’t see them from very close - the trail was a few hundred feet above the water, but I was looking almost straight down at them.   I could see their Moby Dick silhouette in the water as they came up for air, big tails and tiny front fins.   It was very different from the side view of whales I normally see from the boats.   They passed through in about five minutes, maybe twenty of them in all, just cruising along about fifty yards from the shore.   I’ve heard that it’s more common to see the beluga whales in fall, when they follow salmon runs further into the Cook Inlet.

            This is just one example of why the month of September is possibly one of the best-kept secrets in Alaska tourism.   Not because the weather is necessarily better – and in the interior, it can already be snowing this time of year – but because the nice days (when they show up) can be some of the best in the entire year.   For one thing, anywhere you go on a nice day in September, there is a good chance that you will have the place to yourself, as opposed to sharing the spot with flocks of tour buses and rental RVs. Also, rates for motels are often cheaper, and most gift shops are discounting their remaining inventory in a desperate bid to sell off as much of their stock as possible before the last out-of-state wallets depart for the season.   

            Plus, in September, snow is still doing what snow ought to do – hanging out at the higher elevations and looking beautiful.   In most places I’ve lived, during the winter you either had snow on the ground, or you didn’t.   Where I am in Alaska, the mountains are tall enough that the higher elevations start getting snow literally months before we start to see any here at sea level.   From my window (thirty feet above sea level) I can see Mount Alice (4800 feet) – its summit has been getting pummeled with the white stuff for close to a month now, while here at sea level some of my neighbors are still pulling carrots out of their garden.   The snow on the mountains looks beautiful, especially when the trees lower down are still yellow and orange.   Right now, most of the leaves have already fallen, but the snow is still staying put at around 2000 feet.   And over the next month, we all get to watch the snow on the mountains come closer and closer to town.