Friday, November 30, 2012

Location and Setting in Alaska

As they say in Real Estate, it’s all about the Location! And it’s hard to beat Alaska for unique locations.

What do you envision when you think of Alaska? Wide open tundra dotted with lakes and lichen? Soaring mountains covered in ice and glaciers? Stormy seas lashed by gale-force winds and thirty-foot waves? Icy green lakes surrounded by majestic mountains? Forest primeval with moss covered rocks lining tumbling streams teeming with salmon?

Alaska has all that and more. Sand dunes, barren isles, quiet lakes perfect for a canoe or water skiing. Wide rivers, raging rivers and babbling brooks. Big cities, little villages, quaint towns, stretches of land that haven’t seen a human foot in a thousand years or more. It can be friendly or forbidding, forgiving or ruthless, but the same stretch of road is rarely the same each time you drive down it.

When setting a scene or novel in Alaska, research is necessary. You won’t find the same services in Cantwell as you will in Healy, Eek, Ketchikan, Fairbanks or Anchorage.

To begin your research, head for the internet or find a map. Is the location you want on the main highway system? The rail system? Or beyond? Is it on a river or only accessible by air? If your location is on a road system connected to the main highways (to get out of Anchorage, one goes north, the other south) Google Maps might be able to give you an estimate of travel time by car. Then again, they may not have all the facts concerning road conditions.

For example, the drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks via the Parks Highway is fairly straight forward. Allowing for a lunch and gas stop and a couple breaks, it takes about six hours to drive the 358 miles. Many stretches of the road may be traveled at 65mph, although frost heaves north of Healy generally mean slowing down to 50 or 55mph. Depending on conditions, slower might be better. Say, in winter when the road might be icy. In the summer, no worries. Or rather, not many if there isn’t road construction going on. And there is ALWAYS a road construction project, or three, along the highway.

Mountainside covered with fireweed along the Steese Hwy.
By comparison, the drive from Fairbanks to Circle, a city at the other end of the Steese Highway, but not on the Arctic Circle, is 155 miles. A distance Google Maps estimates will take about 4 hours to drive. They’re not off by much. Only 2 hours. The day I drove from Fairbanks to Circle and back, Liz Selvig and I spent more than twelve hours on the mostly dirt/gravel road. Granted, we made a couple of stops along the way, mostly to take photos, but we didn’t make four hours worth of stops. We had the advantage of a clear, hot, sunny day with no rain and mostly dry roads, although there was one section that was sort of soggy and we weren’t all that confident we’d get through it. There was also a section where a “creek” was cutting into the soft side of the road. The creek was wider, deeper and faster than rivers I’ve seen in Colorado and California, but since it was feeding into the Yukon, I guess creek was an appropriate term. Sort of.

In the end, however, no matter how much information you dig up on the internet, there will be huge holes. Holes that can only be filled in by personal experience. This is where making friends with an Alaskan resident can help your manuscript immensely. I’ve been asked questions such as: Is it possible to run the length of the Alaska Pipeline? Um, well, I wouldn’t recommend it, and I’m pretty sure Alyeska Pipeline Service Company security wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea. And there are sections where the ground is so boggy, I doubt it would be possible, although there is the Dalton Highway (aka the Haul Road) north of Fairbanks, but between the dust and mosquitoes in the summer, and the ice and subzero temps in winter… no, it wouldn’t be practical at all. Better to have the hero jump in the Arctic Ocean in the annual Polar Bear Plunge. Or the Seward Harbor in February during a snowstorm. Same idea.

What about medical care? Where will your characters go if they need more care than the handy First Aid kit can provide? 

The largest city with the most options is Anchorage, although hospitals may be found in Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka, Kenai and the Mat-Su Valley to name most of them. The farther out you go, the smaller the facilities and the fewer services available. Time of year also makes a difference. Some roads are not plowed in the winter, even if they are on the highway system. Anchorage has three large hospitals, only one of which has a Level III Newborn ICU. Many babies from the villages end up there. Medical care in the villages is often re-routed to the larger cities, and sometimes further south to Seattle. If you watched the episode of Deadliest Catch when the captain had a stroke, you would have seen a lovely shot of Providence Hospital with the Chugach Mountains in the background. He was airlifted from Dutch Harbor to the largest medical facility in the state. A process that took more than a few hours.

October moonrise over Broad Pass
Distances are deceiving here. The more remote the location of a scene, the more you’ll need to talk with someone who’s been there if you can’t make it there yourself. The internet can only give so much information. It can tell you what trees grow in the area, average temperatures and snowfall, hours of daylight day by day, even current news – if there’s a news source there. What it can’t tell you is what it smells like, what sounds you’ll hear while standing under the trees, or how biting or soft the breeze is. An aerial view might show you the landscape – are there trees or tundra – but it won’t show traffic patterns, or how fast the placid-looking river is actually flowing.

Like the land itself, the topic of Alaska is extremely vast. To drill down and investigate one facet could fill pages here. It’s certainly filled libraries. I’ve lived in Alaska since 1977, with brief ventures out for college and a few years in Colorado, and I still don’t know everything there is to know about this wild and beautiful land. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it, but I always respect it, because like a wild animal, it can turn from benign to deadly in the blink of an eye. Something it’s hard to explain to Outsiders enthralled with the myths, the mystery and romance of The Last Frontier.

Here’s my advice to people writing about Alaska: choose your location, do your research, then find someone local to talk to. Your book will have a ring of truth that will enhance the reader’s experience and not add to the many misconceptions already out there. If you’re not sure where to start, well, there’s a whole chapter of RWA members here who are happy to help!

Morgan Q. O’Reilly
Romance for all Your Moods

All 2012 Royalties from the sale of Weathering the Storm, Book 3 of the Shaughnessys, will go to the Alaska Red Cross to help with disaster relief stemming from the Sept 2012 floods in Southcentral Alaska.

Weathering the Storm: Available at Kindle, Nook, Sony eReader and from other ebook retail sites.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


A world apart...

Some would argue that Southeast Alaska has two seasons: wet and wetter. Water defines life in Southeast, from the way we dress and work to the way we travel.

While the rest of Alaska speaks of ‘Outside’, in Southeast the equivalent term is the ‘Mainland’ – a mindset any Hawaiian could relate to. Only three of the many towns and villages of Southeast are connected to the mainland via a road, every other community – including the state capitol, Juneau – requires some form of boat or airplane ride to get there.

The state ferry system, the Alaska Marine Highway, is a lifeline for visitors and locals alike. These ‘Blue Canoes’ haul everything from summer tourists to school basketball teams, vans of produce to cement mixers. If it needs to be shipped, the ferry is one of just three options. Every stitch of clothing (unless you wear buckskin or tanned salmon hide), every vehicle, every gallon of milk at the store – all of it - is shipped into the region.

Most freight arrives via a barge – and the lion’s share comes from Seattle.

Some consider Southeast another suburb of Seattle – with the added bonus of not having to pay Washington sales tax (however what you save on taxes doesn’t offset the cost of the commute). We do more shopping there than in Anchorage, although if one does end up in Anchorage you can bet that we’ll fill those three free bags (Alaska Airlines allows three free bags, up to 50 lbs each, on all in-state travel) to their weight limit. Forget Samsonite, luggage in Southeast is often a set of beautifully matched Rubbermaid totes – they’re inexpensive, lightweight and, best of all, rainproof.

Speaking of air travel, around here fish fly first class. It’s one of the few places in the world where ‘combi’ aircraft are still used. In a combi, the front half of the jet is taken up by ‘igloos’ – storage containers that only resemble an igloo if you’ve had one too many slugs of orange juice (most flights in Southeast are too short for a full beverage service – and forget about a proper meal). It has to be one of the few places in the world where a scheduled jet flight can be as short as 15 minutes (that same flight can last an hour if the weather is bad with a missed approach). Passengers fly in the ‘back of the bus’ – which also means deplaning into whatever form of rain is falling at the time since only two airports in Southeast have those cozy little tunnels found at airports elsewhere.

If the jet has a mechanical issue and the ferry schedule is no help, you might find yourself on a floatplane. For many of the smaller communities, small planes serve as transportation, mail carriers, ambulances and a way ‘off the rock’.

Getting off the rock can be important in February when you’re fed up with the freeze, thaw cycle that is winter in Southeast. Up north they complain about breakup – a two or three week period of time when winter is dissolving into an icy, slushy mess that soon blossoms into spring – in Southeast winter IS breakup.

Common dress in Southeast is Xtratuffs (brown rubber boots) and a ‘halibut jacket’ – a heavy woolen shirt that could be either shirt or jacket. If you don’t mind being marked as an ‘outsider’, by all means, wear that suit or skirt and heels, just watch your step on the float – those gaps in the boards will kill a pair of heels faster than a gravel road – which we’ve also got plenty of.

 The cool, wet climate grows luxuriously dense forests. Don’t plan on riding your horse through this underbrush (if the skeeters don’t get you, the devil’s club will). If you need to hide from the world, our temperate rainforest is the largest anywhere.
Just don’t let anyone in town see you because (with the exceptions of Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau) you’ll be that ‘new face’ and easy to point out to the authorities.

Logging still happens, but in very small, family-style operations. We may not have cowboys in Southeast, but we do wrangle a lot of fish and all of it is natural….no farmed salmon here!

Like our neighbors to the north – Southeast has a mystique and rugged beauty all its own. And like our northern neighbors you’ll see the sun here, but only about as often as you’ll see Denali in all its glory – about 30% of the year.
One thing about rain, clouds and fog – it makes for atmosphere (pun intended) and amazing, Technicolor sunsets, those 20 minutes in the day when the sun is low enough to peek beneath the clouds just before it sinks behind the mountains. If you’re writing about Southeast….don’t forget the sunsets!

--- By Kris Reed

Friday, November 9, 2012

Eareckson Air Station - Shemya, Alaska

Alaska is home to many magnificent places, including the Aleutian Islands which are an important part of Alaskan and American history. In July 2012, I spent two weeks at Eareckson Air Station which is located on Shemya Island, part of the Near Island group. My career as an environmental scientist has afforded me the privilege of traveling to many remote sites, and Shemya is probably one of the most unique spots. The professionals who manage the base and the natural beauty of the island captured my heart.

The totem pole
located in front of the main building
on Shemya Island


View of the coastline
off the
northwest side of the island

The only mammal on the island is the Blue Fox, locally called "Scruffies". Russians originally stocked the island with these sweet beasts as a source of fur. Today, the population is closely monitored and managed.
As you can see, they aren’t camera shy!

 A blue fox I encountered near my work site
And if you’re looking for the comforts of home on this remote site…you’ll have to travel a bit to get it!
The closest hamburger joint
 is 1,500 miles north!

I’ve included a brief history of the air station below…

Military forces first occupied the once uninhabited island on May 23, 1943, during the final days of the battle to retake Attu Island from the Japanese. Shemya was originally intended as a B-29 Base for the bombing of Japan. Air Force activities were reduced after World War II, but its location provided an ideal refueling stop on the Great Circle Route. Following the Korean War, Shemya was declared surplus and the base was deactivated on July 1, 1954.

The facilities were leased to Northwest Orient Airlines who remained on the island until 1961. In 1958, the Air Force resumed operations in support of various Air Force and Army strategic intelligence collection activities. The Cobra Dane AN/FPS-108 Phased Array Radar facility was constructed during the mid-1970s and is used to monitor space and missile activities. In April 1993, Shemya AFB was renamed Eareckson Air Station after the World War II commander of the island.

--- by Elizabeth Komisar

Thursday, November 1, 2012


--- by Liz Selvig

Reading and writing about Alaska is extremely popular these days. Alaska is one of those “sexy” book settings—like London or Paris. Think New York with bunny boots instead of Jimmy Choos, Carhartts rather than couture, and Denali (Mount McKinley) rather than the Empire State Building. If you wrote a meme about the 49th state it would read: “I’ve never wanted to visit Alaska,” said nobody ever.

It’s true. Everybody wants to visit Alaska at some point. And that makes Alaskans just a little smug—because they know they’re part of a legendary place. And it makes those who’ve lived and been accepted as honorary Alaskans (like lucky me) even smugger. (I’m a writer; I can make up words.)

Alaskans are also very interested in and sensitive to books set in their state. They read with hope but a lot of skepticism the details included in these stories, and they’re wont to pick on mistakes in things like distances, weather scenes, snow conditions, light conditions, and descriptions of bush planes. To name a few.

This protectiveness is probably true of people who live in any setting a writer chooses, but because Alaska is so big, so grand, and so beholden to stereotypes, its native sons and daughters pray for the rare book whose writer didn’t fall into the trap of making stuff up based on Nanook of the North. (Yes, he was a Canadian Eskimo, but that illustrates the point: it’s another fact most people get wrong.) In other words, they look for writers who get the details right when they write. 

In the next few months here at AKRWA’s blog, real, honest-to-gosh Alaskans will divulge their secrets to writing credible scenes about various Alaskan topics. I, as a non-native but adopted Alaskan, want to share my favorite facts about Alaska—the things I fall back on when I’m working on my Alaskan novels. These are just insights and basic helps. One thing I learned when I lived in Anchorage is that nothing, but nothing beats getting to know Alaska like talking to Alaskans. So if you need one to research with, contact me or any writer on this blog!

13 Random Things I learned about Alaska:

1.     Alaskans are incredibly friendly and welcoming, but they are laid back. The whole state is laid back, even the largest city Anchorage. There’s a subtle, “hey, don’t worry about it, where’s it going to go even if it tries to leave?” mentality about every problem from making a hair appointment to fixing a broken pipe. Any place that isn’t Alaska is a long way away, so you might as well chill. (No pun intended.)

2.     A new arrival in Alaska is a Cheechako. A full-fledged Alaskan is a sourdough. I lived there three years and was honored by several friends with graduation-from-Cheechako status, but I’m a long way from being a sourdough!

3.     If you go somewhere not in Alaska you have gone “outside.” Outside ALWAYS means outside of Alaska, not outside your front door.

4.     The two biggest tourist attractions in Alaska are Denali (Mt. McKinley) and the Inside Passage (where the cruise ships go) and they are NOWHERE near each other. You can’t drive from one city to the other, although you can get close – Anchorage to Haines, for example. But then you must fly or take the Alaska Marine ferry. (IMHO it’s really just quicker to fly the whole way.)
5.     Mount McKinley is the highest mountain peak in North America. Alaskans never refer to it as Mt. McKinley. It is Denali.  Or The Mountain. (And other names, too, but these two will do if you’re writing a book.)

6.     When it’s clear, you can see Denali from Anchorage even though it’s 140 miles (as the crow flies) away. It’s about 125 miles from Fairbanks, so you can see it from there as well. But The Mountain makes its own weather so it’s only visible 30% of the time. Most visitors to Alaska don’t get to see Denali at all, which is a shame, because it’s stunning.

7.     It takes five hours to get to Denali National Park from Anchorage, and nearly three more to get from DNP to Fairbanks.

8.     Yes, moose DO walk down the busy streets in Anchorage. Many times I saw a line of cars stopped at a green light so a moose could saunter through the crosswalk. And, in a smaller town, like Homer, they are ubiquitous.

9.     They use dollars and cents and USPS stamps in Alaska. I actually knew this before I ever got there, but I just wanted to clear this up. Seriously, when I came back outside to visit, several people asked me what Alaskans use for money. Seriously.

10.  They don’t live in igloos anywhere in Alaska.

11.  There are no penguins in Alaska and there are no polar bears in Anchorage. Or Fairbanks. Penguins live in Antarctica. Polar bears live in the Arctic. Never the twain shall meet except, possibly, in a zoo.

12.  The scenery is spectacular, but the politics are the most interesting part of Alaska. If you’re writing about The Last Frontier (Alaska’s nickname) read the Anchorage Daily News online. There’s always something unique going on. Oh, and, it has been thoroughly established but I’ll reiterate: you can’t see Russia from Alaska.

13.  The Iditarod. Someone will write an entire blog on this 1149-mile sled dog race, but if you’re going to use this event in a story PLEASE research the rules and check out a LOT of pictures. Long distance dog mushing sounds sexy. It ain’t sexy. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a VERY cool sport and I’m a huge, huge fan. But 70 men and women dressed in fur and ice, dealing with dogs and fatigue and no real showers for nine-plus days is not a great setting for a romantic scene—if you get my drift. A few master storytellers have tried it—but I promise you, the stories are not realistic.

I could go on, but thirteen is my lucky number. There are so many amazing facts and colorful details you could put in a book about Alaska. This little list is simply meant to whet your appetite for reading and/or writing about one of my favorite places in the world. And it should serve as a nudge to get you researching anything and everything about your book, your trip, or your fantasy rugged Alaska hero.  Keep watching this blog spot for more info about State #49. And I beg you, if you EVER get the chance to visit do not turn the chance down. You will never ever regret a trip and you’ll have fodder for stories from now until the midnight sun sets!