What do you wish you had known before you moved to Anchorage, Alaska?
April 6, 2010 6:32 PM   Subscribe

What do you wish you had known before you moved to Anchorage, Alaska?

I have a one-way ticket to Anchorage from DC. I have housing, some savings, and a few leads on part time jobs (will be pursuing a second degree in nursing at UAA). I plan to stay in Alaska long term. I am 22 years old and female.

Purposefully leaving this open ended- would love to hear any of the things that you usually only learn by living somewhere, like the best place to sit around and read with a cup of coffee for a few hours, how to navigate the PDF bureaucracy (I know it doesn't kick in for a full year and change), and which of the many local events are absolutely worth going to. Fun activities, really good meetup groups, etc. Thanks!
posted by charmcityblues to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
My memory is getting really hazy (lived there 1989-1993) but be prepared for long, dark cold winters. I didn't mind them all that much--lots of reading, movie-watching, computer time, projects and stuff (and the summers MORE than make up for them).

You will be an "Outsider" for a while, probably.

Mosquitoes can be bad.

Stay OFF the mud flats. It's not a beach, it's mud flats, and they will suck you in and then you will be trapped when the tide comes in and you will drown.

Go to the park by the airport and linger under the runway and watch the jets take off above you.

Don't tease the moose. Seriously, give the moose a wide berth. Even if they are in your yard, and between you and your car.

If you drive a car and park it outside, you will need to plug it in during the winter.

The Chugach mountains are so close--get out of the city every chance you can. Nothing's very far.

Go out along Turnagain Arm and watch belugas.

If a volcano goes off, you'll have awesome sunsets.

Termination Dust--snow on the Chugach Mountains--will arrive in late August. That means summer is ending...

Lots of men around. Mostly military.
posted by Savannah at 6:51 PM on April 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

I just wanted to add that I would go back to Anchorage in a heartbeat, if circumstances allowed it. Alaska is stunningly beautiful and I envy you your chance to live there. Go out and see Denali park and Seward, too. Watch the aurora. Enjoy every moment.
posted by Savannah at 6:54 PM on April 6, 2010

I currently live in AK, though not in Anchorage, but not to far by Alaskan standards. Right now it starts getting light at 630am and gets dark at almost 10pm, we gain 5 mins of light a day until summer solstice (June 21) then we start losing the same amount. At winter solstice there is about 5 hours of daylight and that light is pretty dim...

Getting the PFD is easy, just document, document, document. Get your Drivers License as soon as you get here to start establishing proof of residency.

As far as food/drink/hangout:

Tidalwave Books

Kaladi Brothers Coffee
New Sagaya Markets
Middleway Cafe

Coming from DC you will be underwhelmed by the food options, but the quality of the seafood can't be beat.

Girdwood and Alyeska Resort are only 45 minutes away.

There is a saying here: Anchorage, only 45 minutes from Alaska. ;-)

All kidding aside, Alaska is AWESOME. MeMail me if you have any specific questions.
posted by Fuzzy Dog at 7:28 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I lived in Fairbanks for a while a few years ago (now in DC -- oh, the irony!).

Savannah's right about the mosquitos -- I've never seen them as bad as they were in Alaska. Summers are otherwise incredible though.

Food choices are a bit weird. Some things are massively more expensive, many are comparable to any other city, and a few (ie. fish) are cheaper. You might need to tweak your eating habits to stretch your dollars further. IMO, Fred Meyer was the best food store in AK. Like DC, half of the Safeways are scary/sketchy, while the rest are quite nice.

Anchorage was just named America's 47th-most bike-friendly city. Although this isn't exactly something to brag about, there are parts of town that are great for cycling when there's no snow on the ground. I used to bike all around Fairbanks, which was also surprisingly bike-friendly, and it's a great workout.

Try to keep a new mind, and be open to exploring and trying new things -- despite their reputation, I found Alaskans to be by far the friendliest geographic subculture I've ever encountered. As with any new locale, it can be tough to meet new people, but it's definitely worth it to make the effort; I've never encountered such an interesting group of people.

The winters could be a bit much in Fairbanks -- I'm told that Anchorage is a lot milder, although I really have no experience here to go off of. If you think you're experiencing SAD, go see a doctor about it! It's incredibly common among new Alaskans, and can be managed quite effectively.

Take the train to Denali/Fairbanks at least once. It's a stunningly beautiful ride.

Echoing Fuzzy Dog, Alaska is indeed AWESOME. I genuinely hope that I'll be able to return there someday! If I could work out a legitimate career path that placed me in Alaska every summer, I'd be the happiest man alive.
posted by schmod at 8:05 PM on April 6, 2010

I'm going to limit my comments to what's available immediately in and around Anchorage.

I grew up in Anchorage (currently living in DC) and get back a few times a year. I agree with what's been said above. Anchorage is the type of place where you'll learn about all of the restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, etc quick enough just by talking to locals. You don't really need us for that. BUT, that's not going to stop me from plugging two or three of my favorites.

Bear Tooth Theater, as mentioned above, is a great bet for food and drink while you catch a movie. Don't forget about Bear Tooth's older brother, Moose's Tooth. This is the place you're going to want to go for pizza. Also, now that summer is around the corner you're not going to want to miss Moose's Tooth's first tap parties.

Snow Goose is a great bet for breakfast or lunch.

If you're a hiker, make sure to check out Flat Top. The views are unbelievable. It's not the most difficult hike, but it's not a short walk to the top either.

The park that Savannah mentions close to the airport is Kincaid Park.

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail runs the length of Anchorage and is a great place for biking or a run. There's another trail that runs from South Anchorage all the way down to Girdwood. I want to say that it's part of the Tony Knowles Trail, but I don't think it is.

There's a lot to do outside of Anchorage. If you'd like to know more, just MeMail me.
posted by ASM at 8:12 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

People in Anchorage are fucking ornery and crabby - I call it "Crankorage"

posted by tristeza at 8:20 PM on April 6, 2010

I live in Anchorage now- moved back 5 years ago after growing up here and then going to college/working out of state for about 7 years. I love it.

The PFD stuff is easy to do, but you need to get yourself an AK driver's license and some utility bills as soon as possible. The only person I've ever seen have trouble with did not do those things.

Anchorage has lots of good "big city" opportunities (it is the biggest city for...thousands?...of miles), but not quite all the big city stuff that you would expect in a REAL big city. Things close early (I can count the number of non-bar places to eat past 10 PM on one hand). Socially, it feels smaller than you'd think.

The park near the airport where you can watch the planes take off is Point Woronzof (also good for sunsets!)- the far west end of Northern Lights Blvd. Kincaid Park is really nice and is, indeed, right near the airport, but you can't sit and consistently watch planes there.

Mosquitoes are an issue. Always have bug dope in your car. Use it liberally if you're going to be outside. Or bring someone with you who mosquitoes love (my current strategy).

If you're going to be outside a lot, take a bear safety class or read up on it. It's not a big deal. Bring bear spray on hikes if it makes you feel better. Don't bother with a gun.

You can tell the tourists from the non-tourists because the non-tourists bike right by the moose, and walk by them as long as the moose is comfy and a few feet away from the trail.

Don't go to the Anchorage Zoo, it's just sad. Do, on a road trip in the summer, stop at the Wildlife Conservation Center near Portage, because it's awesome and you can watch them feed the bears roadkill moose legs on a good day.

Go outside as much as you can in the summer AND in the winter. Walk/run/rollerblade on the coastal trail or on any of the other billions of paved trails in town (from the trails near UAA, you can get pretty much anywhere in town). Play disc golf at midnight. Go for hikes. Learn to ice skate or skate ski. In the the summer, do it because it's fun and everyone else is doing it. In the winter, do it because otherwise you'll get grumpy and hibernate and hate it. Most people don't really understand the impact the light has on them the first time around until later March hits and all the sudden they feel really happy and stop yelling at the people they love. There's a very active "Adventurers" MeetUp group to help you with this.

Coffee: any Kaladi Brothers has good coffee, wireless and good places to sit. Side Street Espresso downtown is not bad. Terra Bella out on Dimond is also good.

Local niche grocers (more expensive than the chains, but fancier stuff and/or stuff you can't find elsewhere in town, also decent lunch/takeout): City Market and Sagaya's (they're related). Both have L'Aroma bakeries inside. I also like Fire Island for lunch or for tasty but very pricey bread.

Good places to eat: breakfast at Snow City. Lunch at Middle Way Cafe or Urban Greens or The Bagel Factory (midtown/Westside for MW/BF- UG is downtown). Pizza and beer at the Beartooth Pub or Moose's Tooth (and cheap movies at the Beartooth). Dinner at the Beartooth Grill, Glacier Brewhouse, Spenard Roadhouse. Dessert at Sugarspoon. Best Thai in town can be found at Thai Kitchen on the Eastside, and the only decent Indian food is at Yak and Yeti (also Nepalese). My favorite sushi place burned down, but you can do well for yourself at Yamato Ya or Sushi and Sushi, both in midtown. Italian: try Sorrento's on Fireweed or Villa Nova on Arctic (both expensive).

I love it here, and if you think of any specific questions, I would be more than happy to answer them the best I can.
posted by charmedimsure at 8:22 PM on April 6, 2010

And, for a bonus, if you are here in the summer and have time and a car and some money, a quick/dirty/hastily-typed roadtrip guide. Some good mini-roadtrip destinations:

Girdwood: hike the Winner Creek Trail through the rainforest, take the tram up the mountain for a brown bag lunch, hike back to your car and drive to Jack Sprat's for dinner (make sure you have the yam fries). Or hike up to Crow Pass/Raven Glacier and back in August, so you can fill up on salmonberries. Or bike the paved trail from Girdwood to Indian. Or sneak into the saltwater pool at the fancy schmancy hotel. Or follow the bore tide up the inlet.

Palmer: hike the Reed Lakes Trail, or if you're not into hiking just drive up to the very top of Hatcher Pass and enjoy the tiny wildflowers and the gorgeous scenery. Lunch at the Red Beet, or dinner at Turkey Red.

Seward: hike the Lost Lake Trail in late June, bring a bathing suit and swim in every lake. Or find a 2-1 deal on a Kenai Fjords trip (they're everywhere, or you can spend $100 on an Alaska TourSaver at a grocery store if you're going to to a lot of that kind of stuff). Hike Exit Glacier. Eat at Yoly's or find a fresh seafood joint.

Homer: take the boat across to the Saltry for lunch. Have breakfast at Two Sisters or dinner at Fat Olive's. Or charter a water taxi and a kayak and get a public cabin or a yurt across the bay for a few days. Or just to to the free ocean museum, or the cheap general museum, or browse around in the art stores.

Talkeetna: walk around, watch the mountain, wander around the river confluence, buy a just-returned climber a beer at the brewing company, talk to the nice lady at the Flying Squirrel and have some rugelach there. If you're flush and it's a perfect day go flightseeing around Denali- you'll never forget it.
posted by charmedimsure at 8:30 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I made the exact same trip when I was your age and it was the best thing to do after graduating college.

So here is a before after:

Before you go make sure you eat a ton of Mexican food before you get up there, because you won't be able to find any up there.


After you get there.

I second going to Tidal Wave books. It is one of the friendliest second hand bookstores I've ever been in. They even offered me a job, which I had to turn down :(

Bear's Tooth was mentioned earlier. It is a REALLY fun place to watch a movie. You order your food beforehand and, if I remember correctly, they bring it to you when you are watching the movie. Saw "Bringing Down the House" there and had a great time.

If you can, money wise, make a trip up north, to Nome or Barrow. It will blow your mind. The frontier still exists.


Be prepared for being lonely. That was the hardest part for me, but I guess goes for any big change. Anchorage is small, especially coming from DC, and you will lose your mind if you don't get involved with something. While I was there I became a compulsive hiker and I think that is why I didn't go crazy. Sound like you are open to getting involved which is great. My impression is that these groups are usually outdoor/sporty, so I hope you like sweating.

But you are a nurse, IMHO, the coolest people on earth, so making friends should be pretty easty.

This is only my second comment in like 5 years. People moving to Alaska really winds me up.

Good LUCK!!!
posted by DRE at 12:14 AM on April 7, 2010

I've thought about asking the same question myself, having grown up there, but if I ever go back, it probably won't be for at least another year.

But I was pleasantly surprised to find that Anchorage is now up on Google Maps' street view feature. Scout around if you haven't already. Of course, there you'll only get to see the non-winter edition.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:14 AM on April 7, 2010

Mrs. Seasparrow says: Well you have some wonderful advice above and I don't need to repeat it. Like Asm I was born and raised in Anchorage, 25 years, now living in DC. There is nothing like Anchorage or Alaska it is the most beautiful place on the Earth.

So here goes: There is an Alaskan saying that the odds are good but the goods are odd. When I was growing up and in my teens, it seemed to me that there were seven men for every female. And all of them will be interested in you. Because Alaska tends to attract unique types of personalities, people (usually very odd people) are likely to be eccentric in ways that aren't common in the rest of the country. But remember a lot of these men have come to Alaska to get away from something in the lower 48 states (or elsewhere). Females can be just as eccentric.

This can work in your favor, because you meet some really great people. Also many of these people (you included, probably) are there alone, away from family in the States. So friendships can be a lot closer. People bond in different ways than I have seen in the states. You create new family from the friends that you meet and they will last you a lifetime. The disadvantage is sometimes the relationships between men/women can be a little off. Since you are a 22 year old single woman you will probably be hit on in many ways, many times a day-- much more so than you may have experienced anywhere else. No matter your age or what you look like, there will be many many men in Alaska who are interested in you. Because I don't want to unduly alarm you, I tried not to use the word “stalker-esque”, but it looks like I've failed. I don't want you to be paranoid as most Alaskans are pretty amazing but just be careful.

A few more observations:

People in Alaska are generally more friendly to strangers that almost anywhere else in the US. It is normal and accepted to strike up a conversation with complete strangers. There's still a little bit of that frontier spirit of friendliness and hospitality, even in Anchorage.

One of the posts above mentions finding a group or activity to join. You will be very busy with school work but groups or church is strongly encouraged. It gives you immediate access to a social circle till you find your comfort zone.

Grow some food in containers. It will lighten the budget and give you something colorful to look at. You can use books like Fresh Food from Small Spaces:The Square-Inch Gardener's Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting by R.J. Ruppenthal. The summer months in Alaska with the amount of light makes for a great growing season, and having something sprouting or growing under lights during the cold dark times can help adjust to the seasons (see below),

Last tip: People from the States sometimes have a hard time with the darkness during the winter. Sometimes they call it Seasonal Affective Disorder. There are ways to combat this with lights similar to grow lights-- also diet and exercise have proven to be effective for some people. The beauty of Alaska is not to be missed. The information about getting out during the winter is important. If you are one affected, try to find ways to cope as it will be well worth the effort. In the reverse remember to sleep occasionally during the summer, put some tinfoil on the windows or get block out shades. It can be confusing for someone from the bulgier parts of the planet to look outside at 11:30 at night and still see daylight.

All I can say is I am very grateful to have experienced Alaska and I hope you will enjoy it. Take what I have said with a grain of salt and HAVE FUN!
posted by seasparrow at 1:29 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Creds: Lifelong Alaskan, have lived in Anchorage about a decade.

The commenters above have offered enough specifics, so here's a generality: Go Native. In other words, don't hang on to the things you love and miss about your previous life Outside. Embrace Alaska. Do what the locals do. Eat what they eat. Learn how to do winter and/or outdoor activities -- fishing, dipnetting, birdwatching, skijoring, kayaking, snowboarding, road trips, icefishing, rock climbing, canoeing, crafts, etc etc etc. Get a copy of the Anchorage Press (free alternative weekly), check out the events list, and just start randomly going to events. The people above who said that Alaskans are unusually friendly are spot on. Just start introducing yourself and people will start inviting you to things, trust me.

The difference between people who can't stand Alaska, and those who love it passionately, is that the former tend to resist the differences, and the latter embrace them and dive into Alaska with gusto.

- Alaska Jack
posted by Alaska Jack at 3:01 PM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thanks to all for the great answers. I am (if possible) even more excited now!

One piggy-back question: it seems that a car is pretty crucial. Will a non-four wheel drive do? I have the option of taking a 1999 Volvo S80 (driving to Bellingham-- AMH to Skagway-- driving to Anchorage). Is it a better idea just to buy a used four wheel drive in Anchorage?
posted by charmcityblues at 5:07 AM on April 8, 2010

Yes, a car is fairly important- although it is technically possible without, bus service in Anchorage tends to be pretty sparse. You can do okay if mostly what you want to do is go from the U-Med district along Northern Lights west or to downtown, however. Cabs are generally used only call-ahead for airport trips or for the post-bar crowd

You can do okay without 4WD- I have a 2000 Camry that I bought before I knew I was coming up that has served me just fine. The major roads are cleared very quickly after storms, generally multiple times daily, and the city has a stated goal (generally met) of clearing even tiny neighborhood streets within 72 hours. I would not attempt to use a non-4WD car without studded tires, however, ever, in the winter- so if you decide to go with the Volvo you should budget some money for a new set of tires and studs in October or so (consider also now you'll store your extra set).

That said, I wish at a few times a winter that I had a little Subaru or something that wasn't quite so slide-y, even with my studded tires, so if it's an easy option that you can afford, that's probably preferable. But a non-4WD will do, and has done for me for the last 6 or 7 years.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:06 AM on April 8, 2010

I agree with charmedimsure: a car - important; 4WD - not so important; Studded tires - very important.

If you're going with 2WD I hope your car is front wheel drive (I'm not sure about Volvos). Rear wheel drive cars tend to slip and slide on the ice. In high school I had an older model front wheel drive Audi and did just fine.
posted by ASM at 6:49 PM on April 8, 2010

I grew up there and left when I was 20. I consider Anchorage and Alaska in general a great place to be from. I'm sure it's a slightly different (maybe even better) place as an adult, but I'm only around for a few weeks a year now for family.

So that's the background to tell you that you must eat breakfast at Gwennies at least once (reindeer sausage and eggs ftw.)

Make sure you have a shovel and warm stuff in your car come winter time. And in February comfort yourself with the memory that summer almost makes up for winter.

The post office at the airport is open 24 hours and awesome.

A Costco membership will save you money.

Booze is expensive, and there are some liqueurs (e.g. Armagnac) that you just can't get up there because no one distributes them.

That said, go with what Alaska Jack sez. Alaska is a different place and you gotta love what it has to offer. Trying to change it will break you. :)
posted by herrtodd at 1:45 PM on April 10, 2010

(the airport post office now closes between midnight and 6 AM- a sure sign that civilization, such as it exists here, is crumbling.)
posted by charmedimsure at 9:38 PM on April 10, 2010

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