7 Completely Fascinating Things I Learned About Alaska

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.

PFD checks

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.


Things to know about Alaska

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.

Things to know before going to Alaska

Studded tires

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.

dry cabins in Alaska

‘Dry’ cabins

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.

Things to know before traveling to Alaska

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.

What to know about Alaska before going

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.
* as a sidenote, the entire time I was in Alaska, it was warmer than Minnesota.  Even Fairbanks!photos fulbrighticeland // pinchflatfortune // 87mdcs

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  1. Liz

    This was so interesting to read! I spent the first 23 years of my life in Ohio, and so many people assume I grew up in a corn field and went to Ohio State. Nope, grew up in a college town of 30,000 about 25 miles outside of Cleveland and went to two different (smaller) universities. I really couldn't care less about the Buckeyes!

  2. aestheticsnafu.com

    If I remember correctly, studded tires are really hard on roads and are illegal in a lot of places in the US, hence the not having them. We used to put snow tires on our cars in NH but I could never figure out if they actually did any good.

  3. Tricia

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. I'm the same way with questions. I just have to know things and my brain comes up with the oddest things. Usually I have to preface with "I don't me to insult you but I really need to know…." and hope that they realize I'm not trying to be rude. Darn insatiable knowledge desire. Eskimo ice cream-never in a million years would I eat that. I look forward to seeing some of the things you mentions when I move there in May.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Fun! Which city are you moving to?

    • Tricia

      Delani may to Sept. I can't wait.

  4. Manisha

    Yep, Alaska got our warm weather this year, I was watching with envy. I discovered fleece-lined tights which totally saved my bum during this bitterly cold MN weather. I was eying a sleeping bag skirt I found at REI, maybe I can get it on clearance. I just recently returned from New Orleans and I was surprised by the number of people who had heard about MN's local food obsession. Yeah Minnesota!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      That's so funny! I think people usually view us as tall, blonde, reserved, with funny accents 😉

  5. Jenny

    Guys – Eskimo ice cream is really good!! I haven't had it since I was a kid, but it was such a treat at the time. This post made me realize it's time to revisit Alaska, there's a lot I miss about it. Somehow I have no recollection of those Russian churches and want to see some!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I would try the berry eskimo ice cream BUT TOTALLY NOT THE ESKIMO ICE CREAM WITH BERRIES AND DRIED FISH.

  6. Kate

    Love it! As a born and raised Alaskan, I love hearing what people find interesting about my home state.

  7. Ness Shortley

    Fantastic post. Also fleece-lined tights are an awesome thing that exists.

  8. Anonymous

    In this most brutal of Canadian winters, I've been ALL OVER fleece-lined tights.

    I've been to Alaska during the summer (Skagway and Juneau) and was also surprised by the transportation options. But the mountains and glaciers were oh so beautiful! (Minus the hoardes of tourists from cruise ships.)

  9. Treasure Tromp

    my old roommate is from Alaska and I was so confused as to why she never claimed CA residence but it was because of the checks! She'll never give that up 🙂

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