October 15, 2009

Life in Alaska

Filed under: Everyday Life — Susan Stevenson @ 11:14 pm

A reader commented to my last blog entry with a question about living in Alaska.  Responding to her comment would have taken up a lot of space, so I decided to address it here – in another blog entry. Here’s what she wrote:

I‘ve been following your blog for awhile now, and I really enjoy your writing and your pictures.

My hubby and I are both military and we are angling to PCS to Alaska with the option of retiring there…any advice?  We would also like to plan a trip to Alaska to kinda scope it out.  My husband at the moment is in Iraq, but due back next Aug…that’s when the trip would be…

Could you maybe make a post about “Things to know when you think you want to live here?”

First of all, thank you Summer for your comment, and for your request that I write about life in Alaska! I love living here, but Alaska is not for everyone. In some ways, living here is much more challenging than living in other states in the US, but in other ways, it’s not much different at all. I’m going to write mostly about life in Interior Alaska (Fairbanks/North Pole) as I know it, but if you do find yourself in Alaska, courtesy of the Army, you could find yourself stationed at Fort Richardson, which is in the Anchorage area. Life in Anchorage can be much different than life in Fairbanks.


Fairbanks has long, cold winters and short, comfortable summers, with most precipitation occurring in the summer. On average, the season’s first snow falls in Fairbanks in late September, and the first inch of snow accumulates by mid October. The snowpack is usually established by late October and remains until *breakup* in May. When snow does arrive, it usually falls in large amounts. January is generally the coldest month, with lows and highs below zero. Occasionally, it will warm to above zero temps, but remain in the single digits.  August is generally our rainiest month, and we joke that the rain comes with the Tanana Valley Fair in early August. In the summer, the average temperature is in the 70s, but we can have periods when the temperature is in the 80s and even the 90s.

Dressing for the cold weather isn’t as difficult as some might imagine. Layers work better than just one heavy coat – although a good parka can’t be underestimated.  Layers are perfect if you’re going to be active, as they allow you to peel them off one by one for ease of movement, as well as for comfort.  Layers help trap warm air near your body for the best possible insulation. The stuff those layers are made of is very important. In general, avoid cotton; it holds moisture and will eventually start to chill you.

Although it can get very cold here in Fairbanks, there isn’t much wind, and the cold is dry. Imagine standing in a freezer, as opposed to standing near a lake with gusting wind.  Winter in Philadelphia seemed much more severe than what I’ve experienced here. Likewise, the cold in Wisconsin where my kids live. The cold seems to cut right through you in those places.  While I’m not denying that it gets extremely cold here, having a good layering system can make it possible to be outdoors and remain comfortably warm.

Frostbite is a big concern here, and when the temperature is -40F, it only takes a few minutes to get frostbitten. It is important to keep all skin covered to protect yourself against this. In the winter months, at severe temps, the only thing that shows on me (and most everyone else) is our eyes.

By not being careful, I got contact frostbite a few years ago, when I grabbed onto my metal tripod with a bare hand. In a matter of seconds, I felt a severe burning sensation, and within minutes, I had a raised blister on my palm. You can bet I will never do something that senseless again!


Contrary to what some people think, Alaska isn’t dark for 6 months and light for 6 months. Like the rest of the world, we lose light as we move toward Winter Solstice, and we gain light as we move toward Summer Solstice.  Our loss and gain is much more rapid, which means our dark days and our light days last longer than lower latitudes. But it’s certainly not as if a curtain suddenly goes up or comes down.

On the shortest day of the year (December 21st) we have 3hrs 41mins of day, but with the long periods of dawn and dusk, it’s actually more like 6 hours of visible light.

You’ve read about my personal issues with the dark days of winter, and my insomnia and slight depression. I’m not alone. Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) affects many people here in Alaska, in varying degrees. To help combat this, the use of full-spectrum lamps helps, as does getting outside for the short amount of hours that the sun is above the horizon. This year, I’m going to supplement my diet with Vitamin D tablets, which I’ve heard can help. Exercise helps too. But the best medicine, if you can swing it, is a  mid-winter vacation, to somewhere “Outside” (anywhere but Alaska)!

On the longest day (June 21st), we have 21hrs 49mins of day, but 24 hours of visible light. During the summer months, most of us are in *GO* mode. We’re outside tending to our gardens, hiking, camping, fishing, roadtripping, enjoying community events, walking, BBQing, and just absorbing the much missed sunshine.

Sleeping can be a problem for some people when it’s light out all the time. Most of us have some sort of light-blocking system to darken our bedrooms. You can buy light blocking curtains, which are lined and do a great job of keeping the room dark. We have them on all our bedroom windows.  Some people tape foil on their windows. Other people put cardboard up to block the light. Whatever works!


The population of the city of Fairbanks, according to 2008 census estimates is about 35,000.  The population of the entire Fairbanks North Star Borough, which includes the communities of North Pole, Fox, Two Rivers, and several more, is approximately 98,000. After spending our entire lives living in very populated and congested cities, Fairbanks is “small town USA” to us.

The area of the city of Fairbanks is about 33 square miles. The area of the Fairbanks North Star Borough is more than 7400 square miles. It takes about 15 minutes to get from one end of the city to the other, if you’re hitting the lights right. During rush hour, add on another 10-15 minutes.

Although we are located in the ‘middle of nowhere’, as some would say, we’ve got many of the same amenities any other city in the US has. For shopping, we have the typical box stores: Walmart, Fred Meyer, Safeway, Sears, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, Sportsmans Warehouse, Old Navy, Home Depot, Lowes, and PetCo. We also have many locally-owned businesses.  For dining, we have a few chain restaurants: Boston’s Pizza, Chilis, and Gallos Mexican Restaurant, as well as many locally owned restaurants (which serve much better food in my opinion).

We have one movie theater with 16 screens. Generally, we get new releases at the same time the rest of the country does.  We have two bowling alleys; one of them is on Fort Wainwright.  We have several indoor swimming pools, a couple of golf courses, indoor glo-putt, outdoor mini-golf (in season), and quite a few bars (a couple have dance floors). We have several museums, the largest being the Museum of the North on UAF campus, with the others being smaller, community museums located throughout town.


Throughout the year, you can find events to get you out of the house, or keep you busy. I regularly search the calendar of events at the Explore Fairbanks website to see what’s going on around town.  I also check out the Latitude 65 insert in the Fairbanks Newsminer and online, to see what’s coming up for the weekend. Fairbanks might be a small city, but we have some very talented folks living here. There are plays, musicals,  concerts, lectures, art shows, informational movies, sporting events, and much more.  And we can’t forget the many sled dog races, Christmas in Ice in North Pole, the Yukon Quest, the Ice Art Championship, the outhouse races in Chatanika, Arctic Man, the Summer Solstice Celebration, Golden Days, the Red Green Regatta, and so on. There is no reason to be bored here, and anyone who says they are bored, is not taking full advantage of what the city has to offer.


For the most part, things are more expensive here. Of course this all depends on where you are coming from. If you move to AK from CA, you’ll find that housing is much less expensive. If you’re coming from AL, you might find real estate here ridiculously priced.  The same goes for rental homes.

Produce is expensive, and usually has to be eaten quickly. By the time it gets to AK, it’s in its final days of freshness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent $$ on strawberries and had them grow fur a day later.

Gasoline is very expensive, despite the fact that we have an oil pipeline running through our backyards. Last I checked, the gas at Sams Club (usually cheapest in town) was $3.27/gallon for regular. Diesel can be a dollar or so more!

Fuel oil is also expensive. If you’re renting, some landlords will include the cost of heat in your rent. If not, and you don’t live in an energy efficient home, be prepared to spend hundreds of dollars a month just to keep your home at 65F in winter. (Unless you have a wood stove, which cuts the cost of heating)  Electric is expensive too. However, energy costs in the summer months are minuscule when compared to winter.

A lot of people shop via the Internet, to get better prices on items. While good deals can be found that way, you have to be careful about the S&H charges that are added on for Alaska. Some companies gouge us because of our zip code, even when there is no reason to. Other companies only offer UPS shipping, which is very high to AK.  It’s a good idea to ask before you finalize your purchase.

We don’t have Dollar Menus at our fast food joints. We have $1.50 menus.  If you’re going to have breakfast out, expect to pay about $18+ for two (egg platter w/coffee).  Lunch for two (not fast food): $20+ (sandwiches and soft drinks). Dinner for two: $55+  (split appetizer, two entrees, one alcoholic drink each, dessert to split).  Needless to say, Steve and I don’t go out to eat very often. I’d much rather have a nice (less expensive) dinner prepared at home.

On a good note, the pay scale up here is a little better than the Lower 48.  Someone told me that McDonalds workers up here are paid more than $10/hour (I don’t know how true this is).


(The following sentiment is mine. Others who live here may or may not agree with me. Edited to add: I’m glad to see in the comments, that quite a few of you DO agree with me about how great the folks of Fairbanks are!)

One of the main reasons we decided to stay in Fairbanks, is because of the people.  Fairbanks folks are friendly. They talk to you in the checkout line at grocery stores, in the aisles, on the streets, at community events. They smile and say hello when you pass them on the sidewalk, or on a walking path, or on a hiking trail.

They pull over to see if you’re OK when your car breaks down. They hold the door for you when you follow them into a store. They say “Thank You” when you hold the door for them.

The waitresses know the regulars, and stop by your table to ask how the family is. You run into familiar faces everywhere you go. You may not formally know these people, but you recognize them.  Fairbanks people like to hug.  (OK, maybe it’s just the Fairbanks people I know! From the comments, apparently not only my friends are ‘huggers’.)

There’s no formality here. Invited to a wedding? Pull out your black jeans and a clean shirt and you’re good to go. If you don’t have ‘dress jeans’, wear what you have.  Many times that wedding is going to take place in a back yard, or on a hill overlooking the city, or along the river, or on snow machines. Special occasion dinner? You can wear that pretty dress in your closet, or you can go in jeans and mukluks. Whatever you choose, you’ll fit right in.

There’s no ‘keeping up with the Joneses” here.  It doesn’t matter if you live in a half million dollar home on the hill or live in a 500sf cabin with no running water. Your character is the most valuable possession you own. The ‘designer label’ of choice is Carhartt here. Clothing is purchased for its warmth rating and not fashion. Your snowpants don’t match your parka? So what! You’re warm, right?

The “Six Degrees of Separation” phenomena here in Fairbanks is amazing. I can’t tell you how many times I meet someone new, who knows someone I already know – and I didn’t meet that person through them! (does that make sense?)


And last, but not least, the most important reason that we decided to stay in Alaska: the natural beauty.

We love that we can drive 20-30 minutes in any direction and be totally alone. We love that moose and snowshoe hares, and various types of birds visit our yard on a regular basis. We love how the stars look on a clear winter night. We love the way the aurora dances over our house, and being able to stand outside in our pjs and a parka to enjoy them.

We love having places to walk and hike nearby: Murphy Dome, Creamers Field, Chena Lakes. We love the way the landscape looks after it snows. We love the beautiful sunrises and sunsets of the winter months. We love the midnight sun in the summer months.

We love having Alaska as our playground in the summer. We love camping and roadtripping, and exploring. We love that Denali Park is only 2 hours from here. Steve loves the fishing. We both love the rivers and lakes and ponds.

I love… he loves… we love… Alaska!

There’s no place like home.


No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening – still all is Beauty! ~ John Muir


  1. Susan,

    You’re so right about the people here. I grew up 5 miles north of a small town of 900 people in PA, so Fairbanks was a big city to me. I’ve since learned it’s really a small town. You’re always meeting people who know the same people you know. I love that when I’m out and see an old friend, there’s always a hug. I love that I can go out for breakfast and the waitress asks which of my two favorites I want today. I love that I can find a friend no matter which store I’m in.

    And the natural beauty is unmatched. The mountains, the northern lights dancing across the sky, the wildlife, the vivid colors of flowers and grass in summer, snow on trees – it’s like a picture postcard.

    Though I love visiting my family in PA, I’m always happy to get back to Fairbanks – it’s home.

    I’d better stop. You covered it very well.


    Comment by Linda Douglass — October 16, 2009 @ 3:49 am

  2. Great job on this post! I’m going to have to share it with some Outside friends!


    Comment by Michelle Simpson — October 16, 2009 @ 8:14 am

  3. You have made me even more homesick for Faibanks. You’ve covered everything that I could think of. I’m gonna share this also with someone who is moving to Fairbanks this coming spring.

    Thanks Susan. You have a way with words.


    Comment by Tammy Kauffman — October 16, 2009 @ 9:10 am

  4. OMG – I have tears in my eyes I’m so “home”sick. You hit the nail right on the head. Thanks Susan.


    Comment by Mary — October 16, 2009 @ 9:47 am

  5. I really enjoyed the post today. I’ve been in and out of Fairbanks several times but never long enough to get a feel for the place.

    I’m considering going back to work on the Slope and if I do I will base out of Fairbanks half the year and out of Oklahoma the remainder of the year.

    Best regards,



    Comment by Mark — October 16, 2009 @ 10:34 am

  6. Wow..what detail..you have a gift for writing and provided more than enough information for anyone considering the move to make the choice. Thank you for taking the time to respond to MY Wife Summer. She regularly mentions Alaska to me while I am here in Iraq and honestly..I think you may have just sold us both on the idea.


    Summer Reply:

    Hi sweetie I’m gonna start packing now!woot

    Thanks, Susan…this post was exactly what I was looking for.


    Comment by Brandon Neal — October 16, 2009 @ 10:55 am

  7. Yes! What she said!! I agree, whole heartedly. Yes, yes, and yes. Well written Susan, as usual.


    Comment by Karla King — October 16, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

  8. UGH!!!!!!!!!!!! I had to read this didn’t I? I am so jealous of all of you who are so lucky to be living in Alaska! You did an awesome job on this post Susan. I’m still crossing my fingers, one day I will make it up there, I will darn it! LOL!


    Comment by LynnMN — October 16, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  9. Your description of “The People” holds true for all of Alaska (not just Fairbanks), even Anchorage has some neighborhoods that will give you a sense of it. That is one of the biggest things I truly love and appreciate about Alaska, is the people. And you described it pretty good – all of it was done well.


    Comment by Melinda Cornwell — October 16, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

  10. Great post – makes a guy want to head north to Alaska! I’m just below you in Alberta Canada, so we don’t get the extremes of dark and light, but the days are still mighty short for several months of the year.

    For S.A.D., which I have had for most of my life, I personally recommend light therapy, which gave me my life back in the winter – so much so that I founded a company 10 years ago to harness the amazing new white L.E.D. technology and make a compact, portable light box. Today, we sell our Litebook Elite in 50 countries, and have satisfied customers all over your great state, from Fairbanks to North Pole.

    Visit our website http://www.litebook.com to learn more. It can make living in Alaska the greatest experience – all year round!


    Comment by Larry — October 16, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

  11. Susan, this is great! It has given me so much detail that it has actually made me feel better about moving to Fairbanks. Thank you!

    Thank you, Tammy, for sending me the link!


    Comment by Rebecca — October 16, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

  12. I have been following your blog for about a year now after coming upon it while researching life in AK from people who live there. What a blessing! Your photography and writing are amazing and have many times brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing this entry. My husband and I are planning to arrive in Fairbanks in May 2010. I just love reading about the area and seeing photos; they are keeping me going while making our final preparations for the long move with our 5 young boys. We are very much looking forward to our move and meeting you and others from the AK Living group. Thanks again for another great journal entry! I will be sharing this with some of my family to share with them some of the reasons we are so attracted to the area!


    Comment by Jenny — October 17, 2009 @ 3:12 am

  13. After visiting Alaska in the bright summer two years in a row, my husband and I traveled to Fairbanks and Anchorage over New Years sometime back to see what the darkness was like. We were amazed at how much light the snow covering provided. We could walk in one of the more remote neighborhoods at night without flashlights. The snow and the occasional house lights provided all the light we needed.


    Comment by Rita — October 17, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  14. Smoke

    In the summer months, the vast interior forests burn from either prescribed burns or lightning strikes. Fairbanks is in a valley surrounded by several mountain ranges. This effects causes fire smoke to settle in the Tanana valley. When the the smoke appears, it can stay for weeks depending on the size of the fire and the weather.

    If you have respiratory issues, he Alaskan health authority advises you to stay inside. When the temperatures outside rise over 80 degrees the inside of an air tight house that has no A/C can have inside temperatures well over 90 degrees. Opening the doors and windows is not an option because of the smoke outside. From my experience, we had to move downstairs for a week to remain comfortable. When we did go outside, you could not dawdle at the door, it was in and out quickly. Some dry cabins are not air tight, therefore once the smoke gets into the cabin, you have no safe place to eat and sleep.


    Mark Gaither Reply:

    It sucks there is not edit option. Sorry.

    the the = the
    he Alaskan health authority = the Alaskan health authority


    Comment by Mark Gaither — October 18, 2009 @ 10:00 am

  15. Well, now I’m ready to pack and move! lol Hubby needs to send more resumes up there. No luck yet 🙁


    Comment by Tracy — October 18, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

  16. I visited Seward, Denali, and Anchorage for 10 days this year and it really is an awesome place. Not super cheap to visit, slightly more affordable in the winter I guess. If you can stay with someone you know in Alaska at least a few days, it helps, lodging is like $150 a night unless you can tough camping and hiking which is obviously cheaper, but way more challenging.

    Alaska home prices may b seeing new lows, I’m not sure, save your money, you to could move to Alaska one day, which is what I’ve been thinking since I visited.


    Comment by C — October 19, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

  17. ahhh. someday.


    Comment by Another Susan — October 20, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

  18. Top notch write up. Keep up the very excellent work.


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Thank you Thresa. Glad you enjoyed it. It was written several years ago, but it still rings true. I am happy to call Alaska my home.


    Comment by Thresa Northouse — January 24, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

  19. We decided two years ago that my hubby and I along with our two toddlers, are uprooting in Nashville, TN to relocate to Fairbanks just because we WANT to! I want my children to love Alaska as we already do. Can’t wait…whatever may be. “See” everyone in May 2013!! Woo hoo!!!


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Hi Liz and Gerald and how cool that you are planning to move here. I hope the planning process goes well for you. Be sure to let me know when you get here so we can meet up for lunch or coffee/tea.

    And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email me!

    Warm regards,


    Comment by Liz and Gerald — May 31, 2012 @ 7:00 am

  20. Hi Susan,

    My daughter has accepted a position as a surgeon in Fairbanks and has recently completed the move with her husband and little boy. I am currently visiting and my husband and I will be spending wonderful time here in the future. So pleased to have found your blog!


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Hi Susan, and thank you for commenting on my blog. And welcome! I’m sorry for the delay in responding. I have been so busy this summer, and now I can finally catch up!

    How exciting for your daughter to have made the move here to Fairbanks. I hope that she enjoys her time here. Alaska is a ‘love it or hate it’ state, unfortunately, without much in between. The winter can be tough – especially the darkness. If your daughter has any problems with Seasonal Affective Disorder, tell her it’s important to try to get outside while the sun is up, even if it’s just to run errands or sit in her car with the heat on and the sun shining in the window.

    Also, there are *happy lights* available, but even the less expensive full spectrum lamps you can get at Home Depot, etc help a lot. I read by one and use another one to work on my laptop by.

    And most of all, I swear by Vitamin D in the winter. Now’s the time to start supplementing if she’s not already. Some of us go on 50,000 ius of Vitamin D (once a week) in the winter.

    Mostly, I hope she and her family make some good friends here, or at least find folks that share the same interests. Having that support system really helps. We’re a friendly bunch, so she shouldn’t have a hard time. 🙂

    Also, outdoor winter sports (snowshoeing, x-country skiing, etc) are fun things to do when it’s not -50F. While Fairbanks can get a little quiet over the holidays (which is when a lot of us seem to get melancholy), activities pick up in January again. Check out the explorefairbanks.com site for activities and events.

    If she has any particular questions or wants to grab a cup of coffee with a friendly Fairbanksan, tell her not to hesitate to email me. susan@susanstevenson.com

    I hope you’ll try to visit in the winter. March is awesome! There’s quite a bit to do and the aurora is usually very active too!

    Take care,


    Comment by Susan Chase-Foster — September 4, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

  21. If you’re expecting to be on Medicare, the 10 years I lived there I saw many of my neighbors leave because no doctors accept Medicare. If a person age 65 or older who was not a veteran needed to go to the doctor, they were forced to go to the emergency room. No ongoing, long-term care there for older folks. Just an FYI. AT the time I lived there, I was very curious about this until they did a special on Channel 2 there. They found no doctors willing to accept Medicare patients. Very, very different from here in NM where I now live. I’m not sure all the technical reasons, but I do know the doctors (and veterinarians) charge ridiculous fees and blame it on the fact that Alaska does not have a medical school or a veterinary school.


    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    That is the saddest thing of all. We are thankful for military healthcare, but with all the cuts being made to veterans benefits, who knows when that will stop – or when I’ll be dropped since I’m not the serving member. It is a crime what is charged for care here. We get free healthcare through the army hospital, but dental care – even with insurance – is absolutely CRAZY. As for vet care, we do have a veterinary clinic on Post which is reasonable, but they can only take care of the basic things like wellness exams and vaccines. If a pet needs surgery, euthanasia, etc. you have to go outside and face the high costs associated with it.

    I’m glad you’re getting better care there in NM. We might turn into snowbirds when Steve fully retires, and we’ll just have to save our dental and medical appointments for our time spent “outside”.


    Comment by Lynne Schlumpf — January 27, 2014 @ 7:50 pm

  22. Sounds like a wonderland of beauty! and so very interesting to read your blog
    Hello to all in Fairbanks Alaska
    From Cherie Hobday in Victoria Australia


    Comment by Cherie Hobday — July 5, 2016 @ 2:18 am

  23. Sounds like a wonderland of beauty and so very interesting Susan. Enjoyed your blog it explained a lot to me.
    Greetings to you and all the folks in Fairbanks Alaska
    From Cherie Hobday in Victoria Australia


    Comment by Cherie Hobday — July 5, 2016 @ 2:20 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment