South to North: Adjusting to Life in Alaska
This is part three of a four part interview with one of Birchwood’s residents, Conni Smith. Conni and her family moved from Fayetteville to Fairbanks and graciously shared their experience here with us. You can start from the beginning here or just start reading below… This section deals with getting settled in Fairbanks. Conni gives a good picture of what you can expect if you’ve never lived in Alaska…
BH: What were your first impressions of Fairbanks?
CS: This is the edge of the wilderness so you’re not really expecting to see it developed like you would see in other parts of the country. But, for me, we have all of the amenities that I personally would need. There’s not a lot of restaurant chains like you would have in other parts of the country – you would have like Chile’s, Red Lobster and Olive Garden and that kind of stuff. The only real chain restaurant we have here is a Chile’s – there’s some fast food restaurants, but the rest of the restaurants are family owned, which is nice.
There’s not a lot of shopping. The mall is very small. One end is a Safeway the other end is a Michael’s craft store. So, it’s small. There is a Sears, there is a Wal-Mart, there’s two Fred Meyers. Our family isn’t very into the shopping and eating out and stuff like that. So, it doesn’t bother us at all. I know some people who are used to that city life and that urban atmosphere don’t like it. But for us, I love the small town feel of it. You know, you go downtown and downtown is actually active and full of businesses and a lot of parts of the country you don’t see that.
BH: So you got to town and then you went looking for a house?
CS: Yeah, we started looking for rentals because we knew we would only be here for a couple years. And that is definite for us because Alaska is considered an overseas tour because it’s not part of the continental 48. So, a tour here is only three years. You can extend [the tour to six years] but for the most part it’s three years and then you’re sent back to the lower 48. We weren’t really interested in buying because we don’t want to buy until my husband retires from the Army because we don’t know where we’re going to retire. So, we started looking for rentals and because we do have pets it tends to be harder. We had problems with people not returning phone calls or places being posted online and the pictures weren’t recent. Even places that were supposedly approved / inspected by Army housing people.
BH: So you put your trailer at a campsite and that’s how you were doing it?
CS: When we first got here we stayed at a campground. In town there’s actually an RV park that’s owned by the state. It’s a state recreational area and so we stayed there. We could’ve stayed at a hotel. The Army actually gives us an allowance for so many days to stay in a hotel and house hunt. But, for the same reason we didn’t want to stay in hotels to begin with, we just went ahead and stayed in our camper. It’s centrally located and we were able to house hunt from there.
We went to look at one house that was right along the river that looked perfect and the pictures had to have been years old because that was not the same house. In real life it had been demolished. It wasn’t even livable. But Birchwood was available and they actually had a program where they waived your deposit for military. And because they did allow pets and were welcoming to pets we chose to go ahead and move in here because we’d been on the road for 3 weeks and we’d been camping still for a couple more weeks house hunting and we were just ready to get out of the camper (laughing).
BH: Is there anything you can say about living at Birchwood?
CS: Anytime I’ve needed a repair done, they’ve come out and done it in a timely manner for me. Anytime I’ve gone into the office the staff were always very friendly to me. Always been helpful with anything I ever needed. I haven’t had a whole lot of interaction with them because I haven’t had any problems.
The neighborhood is quiet. You wouldn’t realize there were that many people that lived here because you don’t hear much. It’s nice and quiet. They are helpful when you’re moving in – especially with the military and their waivers for the deposits and things like that. That for us is very helpful. And the fact that they do allow pets. Not a lot of places do.
BH: Once you got all moved in and everything how did you adjust to life in Fairbanks?
CS: I think the biggest adjustment was that things are a lot more expensive here. Anything that you’re renting, you can expect to pay double here than what we were paying in North Carolina. You know, like a 1200 square foot house, your rent’s probably gonna be about $2,000. We just spent $900, maybe $1000 for that in North Carolina so that’s the adjustment. Groceries cost a little bit more just because things have to get shipped. We’re all the way up here. It’s an adjustment. You do have a little bit of sticker shock at first but once you’re over that initial shock… As long as you don’t have a problem with the small town feeling it’s really not that bad. We love it. Of course, we always wanted to come here.
The first month we were here I had a moose walk through my back yard. How many people can say they’ve had that happen? It’s pretty interesting. Just minutes from town it’s just wilderness. It’s beautiful… the animals that you see. We see moose quite often. We see foxes right near the house. Especially in the late winter / early spring we’ll have a lot more moose in the neighborhood just because they’re hungry so they’re coming after the trees. You can see where their tracks go and they’ll go from shrub to shrub to shrub just eating the new growth. It’s funny ’cause a lot of people think that up in Alaska it’s the bears you have to worry about but really it’s actually the moose because they’re very territorial. The most dangerous thing you could run into is a mama moose with her baby. You’re toast. You see people getting way too close trying to take pictures and they have no idea. You do not want a 1200 pound moose kicking you. I’ve seen them, they’ll kind of hunch their head down and kind of puff up their shoulders and their ears go back. You don’t want to get anywhere near those.
Continue Reading here to find out what the Smith’s first Alaskan winter was like!
To read the rest of the interview with Conni:
March 16, 2012