Monday, June 30, 2008

Left Out in the Cold by the Weatherization Program

Don't get me wrong, I think all this sudden (and shall we say a wee bit late) emphasis on energy conservation is a very good thing indeed. Who can argue with bulking up the existing weatherization program or the brand new energy rebate program? As someone who has lived in a number of totally leaky buildings out here in 99709, I can attest to how much LESS one can spend on keeping the home warm when it's not all rushing out the windows, cracks, roof, etc.

But sadly, many of us out here in CabinDwelling land are going to fall through the cracks of the programs as they currently exist.

At right, above: The exterior of the 30 year-old cabin I rent. Insulation was at one time provided by the sawdust now visible between the shrunken boards. After 30 some cycles of freeze/hot, the vapor barrier has been reduced to a bunch of free floating pieces of plastic; the sawdust has, over these years, settled considerably. Thank the gods/desses for shrinky plastic for the windows and the Blaze King wood stove.

Sadly, the Energy Rebate program is not available for homes that are not occupied by their owners. That means landlords have no incentive to improve some of the crappiest housing out here.

If you are, like myself, a member of the great (frequently) unwashed masses living out here, there is a good chance you rent a dry cabin. Meaning no running water except that in the intermittent stream out back, no flush toilet, no dishwasher, no washing machine... you get the point. This is not the land of apartment complexes, although there are a few duplexes, eight-plexes and the like.

Some facts about the state of housing in 99709, at least as of the 2000 Census:
  • Number of occupied housing units: 24,032
  • Number of those occupied by their owners: 15,895, 66.1 %
  • Number of units occupied by renters: 8,137, 33.9 %
  • Percent of rental units built between 1980 and 1990: 31.9 percent
  • Percent of rental units built before 1980: 53.8 percent
  • Median date of construction of rentals: 1979
Most of us who rent out here do so for economic reasons: rents are cheaper out here than in the city. We're university students, or your folks without a lot of income, or folks paying off school or medical bills or a plain bad run of luck, or your folks like me who are gradually saving up for a down payment to some day buy a house. And I mean some day, the bubble hasn't burst yet on the housing market.

And make no mistake. We're getting what we can afford to pay for: older structures of shall we say questionable and/or creative construction. We're talking six inch log cabins, or some old building that the landlord bought cheap and dragged onto the property, or those 'mushroom' cabins so-named for the way large numbers of them seemed to crop up overnight as would be landlords started the trend called 'cabinfarming' (back when land out here was still cheap. )

At right: The underside of a cabin I once rented here in the Goldstream Valley, January 2006. After the dog's water bowl froze (in the kitchen) the landlord and I eventually struck a deal where he bought materials and I did the work and took my pay in rent.

The insulation and general heat retention qualities of these units are generally poor at best, even in the more recently constructed buildings. Most of the structures were built a time when we still operated on the premise of forever cheap oil - meaning they are heated solely by the ubiquitous Toyo stove. And why would the owners spend more on renovation or construction when, almost without exception, the tenants pay for the fuel??

Unfortunately, many of us won't be able to get help from either the AHFC Weatherization program either. The Weatherization program is meant for low income people, which is fine, but if your combined household income is over $57,000, you can't qualify. Not to mention the fact that funding is limited and competitive so a person has to get in while the program has money each year.

Even were my landlord able to get a rebate for bulking up the cabin, at this point, demand far exceeds our supply of energy raters. I called several on the off chance that the rules had been amended to apply to rentals. The first rater I spoke to said the earliest appointment for the rating (a mandatory step in order to qualify for the rebate later) was October 8. The message machine at another announced that they were no longer taking phone calls for ratings due to demand and one ought to call back in late August.

What I'm saying is, we're overlooking a huge percentage of the folks out here - and if we're serious about conservation (and let's not even get into the environmental aspect of wasting less oil today) - we need to bulk up these programs even further.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Not Readily Distinguishable From Insult

$507.5 million? Nearly 20 years later, with how many of the original plaintiffs dead, this is what we get? For an ecosystem that has not yet recovered?

How long does it take Exxon to earn that much? 15 minutes? They've probably spent less in the last 20 years on public relations in this state, convincing us of how benign Big Oil is, what a kind, benevolent master.

The KoKon has a post featuring a comment that I particularly like. I won't spoil it for you. But I have a better idea for a damages, given the fact that Big Oil has been reaping windfall profits and daily we struggle with the question of how Alaskans are going to afford to heat their homes this coming winter and for the foreseeable future.

11 million.

That's the number of gallons that the Exxon Valdez dumped in 1989. Rather than rebates and or vouchers - although I think weatherization and energy rebates are not a bad idea, only the black helicopter crowd can be against encouraging conservation - I say Exxon Mobil owes us oil.

11 million gallons of it. Model the system after the CITGO program that has helped out rural Alaska immeasurably in the last two years and let Exxon Mobil help heat homes until they've reached the 11 million gallon mark. Then they've paid their tab.

In the meanwhile, the Alaska Legislature and the Gov could set about to establishing a robust energy policy with conservation at its core - and with meaningful shifts to alternative energy sources.

And apologies to Dan O'Neill for cribbing his phrase for the title; it comes from his excellent book, The Firecracker Boys.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

It's a Dog's Life

Or, why I live in Alaska

This is Miss H----. Not being the brightest bulb in the chandelier, she is eager to be sitting the truck (because even in her sled dog brain, truck = go somewhere fun), but she is also very worried, because trucks are scary things, especially truck roofs - she is quite certain they can fall in and crush a dog.

It being a fine Interior mid-summer morning, the brown dogs (2) and I headed to our favorite hiking spot just a bit before noon. Despite late night plans to get an early start, that, also in typical midsummer Alaskan fashion didn't happen either, or maybe it is just that when you have sun nearly 24, getting going at just about noon is an early start in the AM.

Anyhoos, here is why I live in Alaska.

Just 3o miles north of town, and one can head out and overlook hills that go on and on and on. And if one squinches up their eyes, one could almost mistake these for the Blue Ridge mountains of Appalachia - and think this must of been sorta what it was like, oh, a hundred years ago before exurbs piled upon suburbs; before cloverleaves and interstates, before big box junk and Burger Kings and mountaintop removal.

Today's count of critters in a four-hour span? Three dogs (two of them mine), five other humans, six if you count me, and one bear. Oh, the bear wasn't in his tracks when I came across them, but they were spanking fresh tracks. If there was one thing useful I learned from my stint with he-who-shall-not-be-named, it was how to track animals and how to tell just how fresh the tracks are. These were fresh. Very fresh. Dogs and I decided to choose an alternate route - better for us, better for bear.

Brown dogs and I were happily home and drinking coffee and chewing flip chips (I leave the asute reader to sort out who was doing what) when the afternoon thunder storms hit - safely off the ridgelines. Excellent timing too, as the home-made rainwater tank (salvaged wood from the dumpster, lined with a blue tarp - natch - holds 300 gallons) had been drained dry this AM doing minimal sustenance watering of the garden (at $0.10/gallon, tanked water is not watering the garden this year!). Now garden is good and soaked, rain tank is filled, and brown dogs are happy and tired.

Only bummer in the day so far was discovery of the aftermath of a fish fight in the fish tank; one was down and rudderless with its tail bitten off... so it was the green net of death for that one.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Do things hang right-side front in Australia?

This a a little owl made of a gourd...made by someone somewhere in South America - and they probably got 0.03$ for it, but it sold for about 9$ at the trinket trap located immediately outside of the exit of the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (I forwent the 45$ headband of fake flowers and hair that one could buy to have an instant Kahlo "do", or the $300 knock-off Mexican traditional flounced skirt).

This owl has, as one can see, a perfectly front facing hook with some string so that one can hang up this little bird.

Which I did, in my kitchen.

But why does it hang in no other direction but backwards?

Even after I carefully untangled the string and made a perfect front-facing loop, the owl slowly swiveled and gave me the cold shoulder. And persists in this even now; no amount of fiddling with either the hook in the gourd or the hook on the shelf can alter the view of this bird's finely detailed - well - rump.

So it being the middle of the summer when sleep isn't really an option (as well as a proposal deadline a few days back, which is always great for getting the creative procrastination juices flowing) I got to thinking about why is it that when one hangs up something that has a front and a back (like fancy Christmas ornaments, perhaps), they always hang facing the wrong direction?

Is it to do with the magnetic pole?

I have heard that it is a myth that water goes down the drain in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere, but maybe all their handed ornaments hang in the right direction.

Or is this a phenom that goes in the category of buttered bread? You know, that if you drop a piece of toast slathered with gooey jelly, it WILL land upside down and incorporate every piece of dog fur and other crud that was littering the floor.

No answers tonight or any other, either metaphysical or practical. I am resigned to the intransigence of hanging objects.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

There's No Place Like Nome, Except Perhaps the Pribs

Like your fog?

Ask a Nomeite, or a tourista trapped in Nome, or a Kotzebue person trying to get on a backed up flight along that route.

The isolation of off-the-road-system coastal Alaska is not just about the lack of paved or gravel surfaces. (Or in the case of Nome, paved and gravel surfaces that do not connect you to the rest of the road system.)

Word is, nine jets have not made it into Nome in the last few days (should be three days, with three flights a day scheduled in the summer) causing quite a back up in the system. A friend of mine up here in the land of OTZ sent several of her children down to Nome last Friday, planning to join them the next day. Here it is Wednesday, and she and the rest of her kids still can't get down there.

I'd guess if the fog is that bad, flights are backed up going into and out of the villages that use Nome as their travel hub. The month of June often plays hell with the best-laid plans of all those birders who have flown thousands of miles to bird out at St. Lawrence Island.

Of course, it's not as bad there as the Pribilof Islands. Where is? But I'm sure people are getting antsy down there.

I've always thought it was a mistake for local airlines to keep a coffee pot on on days like this. Bad enough that the tourist/birder folks are getting anxious about their travel/ticking plans, but giving them an unlimited supply of caffeine probably ups the impatience level, too.

I'm sitting here at a local airline in OTZ, waiting, you guessed it, on a weather hold.

Happiness: New Blue Foam in the Outhouse

Of course, I have to follow a serious political post by Flic with something far less weighty.

Yes, it's about time for another poop post. Okay, only tangentially, but as you might glimpse from the photo at right, the outhouse is involved so we can connect the dots here.

Blue foam, for those of you that read FBH from places where you take care of business indoors and flush afterwards, is the outhouse seat material par none if one lives in a place that drops into the minus 40s in the winter. Many parts of a person will be cold on those winter nights, but at least your butt isn't going to sitting down on a minus 40 degree wooden or plastic seat.

That stuff is, like, temperature neutral.

Life events that demand fresh blue foam in the outhouse:
  • 2007: The visit by the sort of in-laws
  • 2008: An impending baby shower
As the installer of the new foam, I took the liberty of, uh, taking it for a test drive. With the addition of a new fly strip and replacements for the old Adbusters and Harper's magazines, it is a not an altogether unpleasant experience out there.

Unless you take into account the ever increasing number of mosquitos.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Are We Tired of All the Energy Blah Blah Yet?

Hey, don't get me wrong - I am sitting here nervously wondering if next year at this time I might be contemplating losing my house if fuel costs keep going the way they are - but the overweening blather of assorted politicos and others trampling each other to get on the bandwagon of the great energy crisis is getting old.

However annoying it may be, this mad rush by talking heads to offer up profound opinions on what all the rest of us should be doing to correct the situation offers prime views of primate preening.

Recently, Rep. Mike Kelly*, formerly of GVEA, and David Van den Berg, ED of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, got into bed together when they demonstrated their paternalistic attitudes towards others - aka those beneath them, the hoi poi loi, the great unwashed. It's not too surprising however, when one reflects that the most self-righteous tree huggers share much with their conservative NRA-loving counterparts...most particularly a finely-honed hypocrisy that enables them to judge others without looking too closely at their own lives.

In a rare congruence, there were Rep. Kelly and Mr. Van den Berg united in their opposition to Gov. Palin's proposed $100/month energy assistance to Alaskans. Mr. Van den Berg is of the opinion that "if electricity costs half as much as it does now, people would likely use more of of it". (Fairbanks Daily News Miner: Administration re-evaluating its short-term energy plan )

Sure. If I get that $100/month from Palin, you betcha David, that is just what I am going to do with it - turn on every light in my house and leave them burning 24/7. Talk about patronizing; Mr. Van den Berg, an enviro elite, plays Conservation Papa (and not for the first time either) for the rest of us who obviously are too ignorant and too greedy to be able to wisely budget or use any fuel assistance that might come our way.

Rep. Kelly and Mr. Van den Berg also assume that the reason people aren't retrofitting their homes, or buying hybrid cars, or biking to work is because they just are choosing not to. It doesn't enter these elites' heads that there are many people (in fact probably the majority) who simply do not have the financial resources to take on another car loan, front the money for energy retrofits, or have a job/lifestyle that allows them the option of commuter biking.

What makes their sanctimonious comments even more galling is their own lifestyles. Mr. Van den Berg is married to a scioness of the Cook family - and thus quite closely associated with extractive resources of the oily sort. He drives a pick-up truck, and owns a guiding/rafting business that utilizes heavily small aircraft to ferry supplies and high-paying clients in and out of remote places.

Rep. Kelly, as a member of the Fairbanks political and business elite, surely does not face the same financial constraints that a majority of Alaskans, urban and rural, are dealing with now as energy costs escalate. Rep. Kelly is also very fond of flying his private plane all over Alaska, and enjoys access to remote places of this state that many of us only dream about. Yet he too feels very qualified to speak on the subject of energy conservation, especially as it applies to the rest of us.

Personally, I don't really care how either of these two use energy - but I do care when they presume to speak for the rest of us, especially when they suggest that we are all too ignorant to make wise decisions about how to cope with escalating energy costs.

*Not my representative - I didn't vote for the man!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Insane Summer Roadtrip #4: Three Days of Clam Tides

Yes, these are what we spent an entire day driving for.

The object of our 1000 mile+ roadtrip: the elusive, tasty, and kind of gross-looking razor clam.

I'm back from the coast, the far off, way-the-hell down there Kenai coast, with a (small) cooler full of razor clams. It was work this year, let me tell ya, with none of those gorgeous blue skies or that stunning view across the Inlet. We spent the majority of the trip in weather that was truly coastal: 50 degrees, wind, rain... it was enough to make a diehard anti-RV person reconsider her devotion to camping in a tent. Kodiakians would have felt very much at home, Ish.

I have a dreadful case of what we call "clam hand." After three consecutive days of digging (and rooting around in the sand for fast moving ones; I am not one to let a clam get away without a fight) my right hand looks like I took coarse grain sandpaper to it; my day one blisters did not cotton well to subsequent days of playing in the mud. I don't think I've yet got all the dirt out of them.

And despite what the news reports have said about gas prices and their impact on vacationers, the itty bitty campground on the beach was full up with RVs and all the other toys folks towed down there: ATVs, smaller cars, boats, etc. As the low tide neared, even more would be clammers showed up and parked along the road to the beach.

You could definitely tell the difference between those on a mission and those who had bought a bucket and clam gun to give it a try. The former dug like their lives depended on it and only razor clams might stave off starvation. The drawback, of course, being that you have to clean them after you get them, a task that usually takes longer than digging them with none of the thrill of the chase.

Fortunately, we had a bottle of El Jimador to ease us through that task.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

... And I'm Not Making This Stuff Up

At one point last week, a family member down in the Lower 48 looked at me solemnly and offered the following summation of my life:

"You live in an indie movie."

Which I chose to take as a compliment, conveniently ignoring all the really BAD ones featuring a bunch of needlessly morose spoiled middle class white people wearing black. Seriously, the only genre of film with a higher percentage of stinkers is lesbian cinema - which is a whole 'nother post. I'm talking about those cookie cutter Gen X films of a few years ago. You know, that crap foisted on us by Hollywood during the first Clinton administration, back when suddenly you could sell anything with an 'X' associated: Xtreme beverage, Xtreme skiing, etc.

Whoops, digressing.

All the above being merely an amusing way to introduce another list of weird shit oddities I've seen living here:
  • Do-it-yourself weatherization: entire buildings encased in a energy-saving cocoon of spray foam. (The foam then painted to lend the finished product a touch of class.)
  • A dumpster diver driving away from the transfer station in a Mercedes.
  • A big, wooden fish painted red. (Found in my yard, a space seemingly stuffed with odd items. ) Why did a previous tenant need a homemade wooden cutout of a fish? Why red? Note: I think it is a poorly done grayling.
  • Makeshift mass thawing device: Yesterday, I saw a friend 1.) remove a package of meat from the freezer, 2.) walk over to the hot tub, 3.) drop it in. Apparently, the hot tub does a really good job of thawing out frozen items and doesn't accidently cook them like the microwave does.