Editor’s note: This story by Joan O’Neal appeared in the December 2009 Observer. A native islander and teacher, She shared her experiences living in Alaska at the Ocracoke Library last winter. The photos here are from her time spent in Alaska. She is currently teaching on the mainland.
By Joan O’Neal
During summers on Ocracoke, I meet and talk with many people who want to know more about how I have come to live and work in Alaska, and what it is like. When I tell them that I’ve been living and working up here for 12 plus years, most of them look at me with an expression that rates somewhere between bewilderment and curiosity. Most commonly, I get asked questions like, “Do you live in an igloo?” “Is there really snow up there all year round?” and “What’s it like to work/ get a job in Alaska?”
For starters, I have never lived in an igloo. Ironically, the only igloo I ever went in was in Kenny Ballance’s front yard in the 1980s during that big blizzard that hit Ocracoke. We built one right by the side of the house, and it caved in on top of us. I think I was about 9 years old. I have seen igloos, built in Fairbanks as ice-sculptures and made just for show. Having lived on the North Slope among the Inuipat Eskimo people, I can verify that no one lives in igloos and that these structures are only used as temporary hunting camps.
Our home is a small cabin that is surrounded by wood lands. Through the woods, we can catch glimpses of smoke from our neighbors’ wood stoves. Since we are on top of a hill, we can look down on the frozen river below and the snow-capped mountains off in the distance.
Basically, we have all the modern conveniences minus a few things. We get fresh moose meat and king salmon in the fall. The town here has a small store, about half the size of the Community Store on Ocracoke where we can buy frozen hamburger, chicken and most items. Some people order food off the Internet from a grocery store in Anchorage called Fred Meyer who ships it to us as freight. Since I’m rarely in Alaska during the summer months, I don’t keep a garden. We order fresh vegetables from Carnation, Washington, which arrive bi-weekly. Recently, I made homemade sushi.
My morning commute is usually not too complicated. I wake up about 6:30 am, and
leave the house around 7:30 to arrive at work early and call a few friends on Skype. Skype and the Internet really have made life in Alaska feel more connected to the rest of the world. Getting to work means starting the Arctic Cat snow machine and taking a short spin up the road. Our roads are not paved and become snow-covered in mid to late October and stay that way for several months.
The only time this is difficult is when the temperatures get to -40 degrees. Then we have
to plug in a heater to warm up the engine prior to starting it. Many people use popcorn poppers as they are small, produce a lot of heat and seem to work rather efficiently. Sometimes, the snow machine just decides not to go; but, it is easy to understand as sometimes at -40 degrees humans don’t want to go either. When the temperature drops to -55 degrees we cancel school. At this temperature, you can basically feel the thickness of cold in the air. Any exposed skin will instantly freeze. The only thing to do at that temperature is stay inside and be certain you have plenty of wood for the stove and fuel oil.
I am often asked if we have snow all year round. The answer where I currently live is “No.” We have snow from mid-October to mid-April. When I lived way up north near Pt. Barrow we had six months of darkness and six months of light and there was snow when I arrived in August and snow when I left in May. I think it thaws out up there for a month and a half or something like that.
We like snow in Alaska. It means that we can use our snow machines, a much preferred means of travel over trucks, cars and four-wheelers. It also means sledding for the kids. But, most importantly, it means that the weather is generally warm.
Finally, people want to know what it is like to live and work in Alaska. My experience relates entirely to working in the public schools up here. I have friends who work as pilots, health professionals, fishermen, oil workers and in many other fields; so their experience here is much different. What I can say is that jobs up here do pay more, but the cost of living is higher. Retirement from the state of Alaska is good; it has been better, and many new people coming to the state to find that “pot of gold” in the wilderness are finding that they can do the same thing for about the same pay in California and a few other states where it is much warmer.
Then why is it that I continue to live in Alaska and work here? Well, it is about a simplified life-style. I enjoy spending time with friends and working in a place where I know that I am truly making a difference. In our town, people stop and visit for what seems to be hours at the store, post office, city building and school. Cakewalks, Chinese Auctions and other fundraisers support the school and bring people together. We have celebrations for all the major holidays, and birthdays are still celebrated community-wide. Kids still play outside and learn hunting and survival skills. Although we are just two short plane trips from Anchorage, we remain a world away in life-style.