Thursday, October 29, 2015

Autumn: Moose Hunting and Float Plane Seasons End; Permanent Fund Dividend Arrives

Other parts of the country refer to this time of year as Autumn or Fall. In Alaska, we refer to its functionality as “the end of moose hunting season” or “the end of the float plane season” or, soon, Freeze Up, when bogs and shallow lakes freeze, followed by slow moving sloughs, creeks, and finally, rivers. It is also time for the Permanent Fund Dividend, or “PFD” checks which are distributed to every resident Alaskan in October (along with the predictable retail sales campaigns hoping to capture some of that windfall).  

End of moose hunting season:

Cow and calf swimming; don't shoot.
August is the rainiest month in South Central Alaska, followed by September, so it always rains on moose hunters (the season for residents runs from mid-Aug to mid-Sept, and for non-residents, about 10 days in early Sept). This year it has rained almost every day for three weeks. I feel like Mrs. Noah. Last year it rained for ten days straight. I pity those out-of-state hunters, clutching their $400 big game licenses (but that cost is just a drop in the bucket. Guided, trophy moose hunts are advertised for $10,000 – 16,000 per person). There they sit, dressed in their Cabellas outfits, surrounded by a mountain of gun cases, coolers, and butcher bags, waiting, waiting, waiting in the lobby of one Anchorage air taxi or another as their vacation time ticks down to a disappointing end. Every once in a while, sitting in our remote cabin, listening to the rain beat on the metal roof, we'll be surprised to hear a small plane, followed by two or three more in quick succession. Walking down to the dock in our rain slickers, we see a thin line of blue sky in the direction of Anchorage, and figure that the pilots decided to make a quick exit from crowded air space toward some remote spot where their arrival circumstances might be questionable.

When flying ourselves, in between skimpy patches of blue sky this time of year, we hear all the other pilots communicating about weather. Yesterday, in a 30 mile diameter region, one pilot was grounded by fog, another could see ten miles, but under a low ceiling of clouds, and a third, like us, was trying to beat the rain and clouds pouring over a mountain up ahead. This morning, I read that a private plane had crashed about twenty miles from here, killing the pilot. I'm sure the weather was a factor.

Once those vacationing moose hunters finally get to their destination, conditions have to be pretty miserable. The rain soaked bogs suck at ones feet with every step, and the hiker quickly gets hot and sweaty in rubber waders and rain gear. The rivers are high and fast, making them tough to cross. ATVs are useless in such terrain so expensive Argos are highly prized. Once in the woods, conditions are better. The rain has battered down much of the grass, ferns and devil's club so one can see some distance, and the trees offer some protection from the sky, but, after unpacking everything in position, binoculars, scopes, guns, glasses, seats are dripping wet for the duration. 

The good news about the rain is that if a hunter does land a moose in such weather, fewer flies are attracted to the corpse during the bloody butchering process, when the enormous animal is cut into “smaller” pieces, that weigh several hundred pounds each. With their large, sensitive noses though, hungry bears vector in toward the blood from a great distance away (they try to munch down as much as 20,000 calories a day before hibernation), so the hunters need to work quickly to wrap the meat and entrails, clean off themselves, and head back to camp and some place to secure the meat. 

Hunters with subsistence licenses have an easier time. They can hunt during the winter, when not only are there no flies or active bears, but they can travel quickly across the landscape by snow machine with a large sled for the meat. Once back home, they can hang the carcass outside to freeze, and carve off a meal now and then. There are many reasons why I am not a moose hunter, so these descriptions are those I've gleaned from the hungry, tired, sodden hunters who return to my house for dinner and a dry change of clothes.

End of Float Plane Season:

June on floats

The end of moose hunting season signals the end of float planes, too. The timing game is to keep your floats on as long as you have water to land on and not get stranded by a rapid, deep freeze. One friend's float plane sank under an unexpectedly sudden fall snow (into fortunately shallow water)! So float plane pilot conversations this time of year often include questions about “when are you off the water?” This fall is warmer than last, when we had a light snow fall on Sept 12, followed by two nights of frost in the following weeks and a fully frozen lake by Halloween. Be that as it may, our plan
March on skis, same lake
is to fly our float plane to town toward the end of September, when our maintenance company will haul it out of the water onto a trailer, and trundle it across the road like a captured pterodactyl to their hanger. There, they'll perform an annual inspection, put the skis on, and park it along the tarmac, to await enough snow at that location for take off and enough ice at our lake to land. Because of the vagueries of these time tables, Freeze Up is a convenient time for remote people like us to travel. We drop off the plane, drive our truck to a long term storage facility, and head to the airport for an early winter trip. After the weather is conducive to ski plane travel, we return.

The Permanent Fund Dividend:

One of my favorite Alaska governors was the wise and practical Jay Hammond (1974 - 1982). When massive amounts of Prudhoe Bay oil were discovered, he negotiated with relevant parties that 75% of state income from that oil would be invested for state reserves and 25% would be set aside to pay an annual dividend to state residents (based on a 5 year average).    The fund is structured as a corporation, administered and invested by a publicly accountable board. He said at the time that the oil was a non-renewable resource and these annual payments could be used wisely (or foolishly) by the state and its people toward a time when that oil would inevitably run out.

The first check was $1000 per person back in 1982. Since then it has varied from $331 to $2069. In October, 2013, the deposit amount is $900 per person. The pipeline's oil throughput has diminished considerably, down to about 1/3 of the high. But oil prices have risen precipitously in recent years, and the money is invested in a diversified portfolio, softening the decline. Currently, the fund is worth $47 billion. I think Mr. Hammond's plan contributed to an environment in which, with enlightened self interest, each recipient is aware of the diminishing or increasing check amount, and the underlying oil volume. Thus, we have a feel for the state budget that most other states' residents lack. Alaska is the only state I know in which both residents and legislators openly discuss the end of the gravy train and weigh options for cutting the state budget or increasing its revenues.   Naturally, use of the PFD varies from household to household. A number of families saved their children's checks ($33,000 since inception) over the years toward college tuition or wedding expenses. Others, particularly in villages where fuel oil costs $10/gallon and milk costs $9/gallon, use the money to pay for winter heat or food. Other people, of course, fritter it away.

Every state I've lived in has its own culture and its own vocabulary, but, like many other people, I find Alaska to be the most interesting. I can say that today even though it is raining cats and dogs, I have cabin fever, and the PFD hasn't been paid out yet.

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