Saturday, August 9, 2008


I had a great visit with some of my family who were nice enough to tough it out through the 12-ish hour flight to come see me (and Alaska) and they were well rewarded with some very nice weather. It even warmed up for them a couple of the days- that's saying something this 'Summer'. I want to try to get my niece to do a write up for their trip to post on here as a guest writer. :) I think her point of view would be interesting. Barring that, maybe I can convince my sister (or both- that'd be uber-cool).

Anyway, I'll leave that write-up to them. I was thinking today what it really means to be an Alaskan. I've heard a lot of different ideas on the matter- one is that you have to be here twenty years to be, another is a bit too crude to repeat but two of the three things it takes to be an Alaskan are peeing in the Yukon River and killing a bear- I'll skip the third. When you talk to people about stuff going on in the State, they'll often preface their opinion with 'I was born and raised here' or 'I've lived here 15 years' or something of that nature. As if being in one place for whatever chunk of time inherently gives them more knowledge- like it's gained by osmosis through the snow or from breathing in the clean air for long enough. I know from personal experience that just being somewhere for the majority of your life doesn't mean you necessarily know much about that place. You *could* if you were really interested and got hip deep into some real research, but I lived in rural Illinois for the first 18 years of my life on a farm and I still could not tell you when corn, soybeans, or even the vegetables for the garden are planted. Most of the time it depends on how muddy the fields are and a whole lot of other conditions that are less than ideal, but still, I don't really know even though I lived through it.

So, I don't think that just existing by chance or by choice in one place for a certain span of years makes you a part of it. I think it happens in stages. Some of those stages can happen around you just because you're there and others you have to go out and actively walk through them. Well, more like hike through them around here. Here's the list I've come up with so far. I'll add to it as I learn more of them. Just FYI- I'm somewhere between Stage 1 and 2 since I haven't been through a whole winter.

Stage 1: Rookie - A rookie is someone who hasn't lived through a winter- that's it, the long and the short. If you come up here every summer, working the tourist season, for 40 years, you are still a Rookie. You've got to be able to shrug at driving in the 12, 14, 18 inches of snow that fell last night to go to work, because work and school aren't canceled here for that little snow. You have to warm up the car every morning for 20 minutes because 10 degrees isn't really cold enough to mess with getting a block heater. You have to learn how to fall by the experience of eating it on the snow and ice at least once a week. You have to understand that if you wear heels to work anytime other than the Summer you are a moron and people will look at you funny (you can carry them with you and wear them once you're inside, but people will still look at you funny). After you get through all that and more, you can hit Year 1.

Stage 2: Year 1 - A Year 1 Alaskan is full of wonder. It's an amazing place even if you hate it, you can't deny how gorgeous it can be. You are freaked out on your first, second, third and fourth hikes and then just very, very alert for the next twenty or so. You learn how to drive in all the different conditions, but after Break-up (which you learn not to bother calling Spring), you actually would rather it be Winter because it'd be less annoying. You get S.A.D. and think that you're just kind of tired and sick of the cold. You are nice and helpful to the tourists because everyone is nice up here, but you still mutter 'tourists' behind their back. It's hard not to since they're the reason you have to have a reservation at a restaurant you got a table at in five minutes a month ago. You listen to everyone tell stories (and boy, do they) because you realize you've got a steep learning curve and want know how to hit a moose without it coming through the windshield and how not get mauled by a bear *before* you find yourself in those situations. You clue in to the fact that things really are different up here, even though it sounds really, really condescending when the lifers say that.

Stage 3: Year 2 - By now you know how to fish, you know all the different kinds of salmon and maybe even have a favorite. You can dip net and are getting the PFD. You sweat when it's hits 60 and turn all the fans on in the house because it really does feel that hot after you get used to it being that cold. You know when SAD is hitting and you have one of those lights or hit the tanning beds (there are a million tanning places in Alaska and no tan Alaskans). You don't bother with anything more than a coat unless it's below 20 degrees. You only bother with ski pants and hats and gloves if it's below zero and you're going to be out for a while. You know what gaiters and grippers are. If you go to the Lower 48 in the summer, what you used to think was nice weather is now God-awful hot makes you just want to be back in Alaska.

Stage 6: Veteran - You've been through enough Winters and Break-ups that you can compare them and make judgement and worry about how the salmon will run. You have a chest freezer, a four-wheel drive and either a 4-wheeler, a snow machine or an RV. You go to nothing but chain restaurants when you go down to the Lower 48 then come back and gloat to everyone else. You never go down to the Lower 48 in the summer and always take empty suitcases for shopping at the stores we still don't have and to pick up stuff that's still cheaper down there. You compare this year's PFDs to PFDs in the past and already know what you're going to be paying off with it. You have a bank account set up for each of your kids' PFD/college tuition. You've got a ton of stories and tell them to the rookies and year 1 folks, but in a nice, non-condescending way because you remember how hard that was and how annoying the lifers were to you. You think about leaving, but aren't sure if anywhere else will compare. And anyway, how would you survive a summer anywhere else now? Surely you'd melt in more than a week at those temperatures.

Stage 10: Lifer - You have an RV, 4-wheelers and 4-wheel drives for every family member, snow machines, skis, snowshoes, and a garage just for all your gear- not including vehicles. You don't live in a ritzy house, because all that other stuff costs a large chunk of change and who wants to be cooped up inside anyway. You have a cabin for fishing or hunting or snow-machining and you have a buddy that has one for each of the things you don't. You have halibut honey-holes and know the best stretch of river for each kind of salmon. You have a buddy that will take you out on his boat when he doesn't have a charter, or who will give you a discount when you have family up from Outside. You get annoyed with the new people still coming in even though it means more stores and cheaper prices. Because more stores and cheaper prices mean *more* new people will come from Outside and that just means more people fishing, hunting and hiking. More people that don't know that Things Are Different Here. You talk in a lot of Capital Letters and if you are a jerk, you start off opinions with 'I've lived here thirty years...'