Some retirees still head south

Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2001

If Sonny Converse had stayed in Alaska three more days, the state would have given him $1,000.

But after 62 years in Juneau, he was ready to leave, longevity bonus check or not.

"I really liked fishing and hunting, but when you retire you get out of that rain," said Converse, who moved to Sequim, Wash.

In the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, Sequim has only 15 inches of rain a year and a growing community of retirees. Many are like Converse, Alaskans tired of the weather.

"A lot of them get here because they were pilots. They kept flying into Sea-Tac and seeing this blue hole over Sequim," said Sequim Senior Center Director George Woodriff.

Woodriff also moved to Sequim from Alaska 11 years ago, and now organizes an annual Sequim picnic that draws about 300 ex-Alaskans each August.

"There's hundreds of them," Woodriff said. "I hate to say thousands, because I'm not sure about that."

Alaskans are easy to find in Sequim. Call the Chamber of Commerce and ex-Haines resident Marny Hannan answers. As executive director, Hannan said she frequently sends packets of information to people in her former state. Most want to know what the weather's like.

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They are drawn by other factors too - lower cost of living, proximity to Seattle's medical centers and all the senior services that come with an area where more than half the 25,000 residents are retirees.

"I run into people all the time who have either lived in Alaska or lived all their life in Alaska and then moved to here," Hannan said.

About 20 percent of Alaskans age 45 to 70 eventually move out of state, "not terribly fast, but that's a net loss," said state demographer Greg Williams. Most move to western or mountain states, with Arizona and Nevada high on the list, he said.

While weather tends to push retirees out of Alaska, children and grandchildren also pull them. Carolyn Baker appreciates how much easier it is to get flowers to bloom at her home in Olympia, Wash., but the real reason she and her husband Bill left Juneau in 1989 was to be near their two sons and four grandchildren.

"I think that's why some of our friends will stay in Juneau, because that's where their children have ended up," Carolyn Baker said.

Though Bill Baker was born and raised in Juneau and worked in the capital city for 25 years, he said he didn't mind leaving.

"When you grow up someplace, that's the only roots you've got, but it was time to leave, so we left," he said, adding he did enough fishing, hiking and hunting for a lifetime. "There's no burning desire to go back because when you live there basically for 50 years, the things of interest and the things to do of interest, we've done."

Olympia feels familiar, the Bakers said. It's a small city with saltwater, green trees, mountains and the state capital.

"Sometimes in the newspaper it's just a different cast of characters, but the same kind of things as far as legislation," Carolyn Baker said.

Converse also feels at home in Sequim, between the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The wall by his living room bar is covered with black-and-white photos: the Treadwell Mine, his parents in front of the old powerhouse on South Franklin Street, the old Douglas Bridge. The pictures frame the 49-star flag he was given when he joined the Elks in 1959, the year Alaska became a state.

Though it's been about 15 years since he left, Converse still checks the Juneau weather daily, mostly to gloat.

"I love Juneau, but you can't beat this Sequim," he said. "I shouldn't be advertising it to everyone. They'll move here then."

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