One of my absolute favorite things is discovering places in America that are totally different from where I grew up
. I’m endlessly fascinated by the fact that we all share a president and a currency but we eat different food, experience different cultures and weather, and have different words for soda
. (I, of course, grew up calling it ‘pop.’)
So I spent much of my ten days in Alaska grilling my cousin and her husband about life in the frozen north.* I even kept ongoing notes on my phone because I am Super Fun. “What’s the deal with all these Russian Orthodox churches? THIS IS GOING IN MY PHONE.”
My cousin was born and raised in South Dakota but has been living in Alaska for eight years. Her husband is Aleut, born and raised on an island of 1,500 people, accessible only by plane or boat. Obviously, I spent much of my trip just asking them questions, then mumbling “fascinating!” and typing things into my phone.
Anyway, here are seven things I learned that totally floored me.
Seven Things You Should Know about Alaska
Sleeping bag skirts + ice grippers
Minnesota, why aren’t we using these? I saw heaps of cute Alaskan ladies wearing fleece-lined leggings, those adorable Joan of Arctic boots
, and a fitted little number I can only describe as a ‘sleeping bag skirt.’ Also: ice grippers on everyone’s shoes. So much smarter than driving the three blocks to the co-op because my neighbors don’t shovel their sidewalks.
Somewhere I heard an urban legend that every Alaskan citizen receives $10,000 when they turn 18 and everyone receives yearly checks for thousands of dollars. I had vague notions that this had to do with … oil? or gold? Alaskan citizens do get yearly checks, but they’re different every year and are usually around $1,000 – or less. The PFD checks come out the same time every year and retailers frequently time their sales to coincide with people getting their checks.
Native Alaskan food
Our culture and the resources that surround us determine the food we eat, right? So Native Alaskan food is obviously heavy on seal, whale, fish, moose, berries, and animal fat. I looooved hearing about stink flipper
(the front flipper of a bearded seal that’s been buried, allowed to rot, and then boiled) and ‘eskimo ice cream
,’ reindeer fat, seal oil, snow, and fresh berries. Thankfully
Sadly, I didn’t get to try any of these myself.
Again, Minnesota, why don’t we have these? At least twice this winter I’ve done 180 degree spin outs at a stop sign and had to awkwardly recover by puttering off in the opposite direction of my destination. Studded tires are, of course, expensive and not particularly good for non-icy roads. Citizens are required to remove their studded tires by April 15th or face fines and tickets.
There are lots of places in Alaska where the permafrost is too high to install in-ground plumbing or running water. This means that there are beautiful cabins with internet, cable, and modern amenities – with an outhouse and water tanks. People can also install huge water tanks and pay a water wagon
to visit their house for monthly top ups.
Cities that are ‘off the road system’
Did you know that there are huge swaths of Alaska that can’t be reached by road? Including the capital city? This is probably painfully obvious to anyone who has ever looked at a map of Alaska but I was floored (and sort of thrilled, really) to think of thousands of people who make lives in places that can only be reached by plane, dog sled, or snowmobile.
The Russian Orthodox Church
Since Alaska belonged to Russia for centuries, it makes sense that the Russian Orthodox church would be part of the culture, particularly among Native Alaskans. But it still surprised me to see those round domes among the pickup trucks and cabins of smalltown Alaska. Equally interesting? The tradition of ‘starring
‘ during the holiday season.
What’s surprising about where you live? What common misconceptions do people have about your state?
I think people are surprised that we Minnesotans don’t all talk like we’re in Fargo.