Decoding ‘Sarah Palin’s Alaska’: Meet the real Mama Grizzly


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On Sunday night’s episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” we learned that it’s all well and good to enjoy the beauty and power of wild animals from a distance, but it’s even better to kill ‘em and chop ‘em up.

Also, there’s a triple dose (at least) of Palin’s very favorite hinterlands-based life lesson: ‘You have to be prepared, you have to be so safe, you have to be careful. Because ... if something goes wrong, there’s no one out there to help.’


No one is gonna help you, Part 1: Unless you’re the talent on a reality show

As with the mountain climbing and commercial fishing episodes, Palin comes across as game to try dangerous, painful and disgusting physical activities, but not terribly familiar with the “typical Alaskan” stuff she’s ostensibly been doing her whole life. In interviews, she waxes nostalgic about hunting with her dad, Chuck, from the time she was a little girl, but for someone with that much experience, she sure makes some rookie mistakes. On Day One, for instance, Palin, her father and their friend Steve Becker have to cross a stream; the men, both in tall rubber boots, cross efficiently and wordlessly while Palin, in ankle-high hikers, desperately holds up her pant legs and whines about the cold while prancing across the stream like a Lipizzaner stallion.

“I know that my feet are gonna be wrinkled and blistered by the end of the day,” she says in an interview, “but this is what has created within me a desire to be tough and to be self-sufficient and to be independent. A lot of it has to do with the upbringing that I’ve had in Alaska.” Back at camp --accessible only by a tiny bush plane, with not another soul around -- Palin is shown warming her feet by the fire, still wearing the wet boots because she presumably has no other option.

The next morning, however, she has on a pair of thigh-high rubber boots. It’s a tundra miracle!

No one is gonna help you, Part 2: Unless you bring more experienced people along When the trio finally spots a sufficiently slow and dull-witted caribou on Day Two, her father hands Palin the “varmint gun” she prefers and begins coaching her. As she misses the first five shots (the young cow she’s aiming at helpfully continues to stand there anyway), her father’s and Becker’s urgent whispers blend together in a mishmash of advice that pretty much amounts to “We’re trying really hard to be quiet and patient, but oh my god, how do you keep missing?”

Eventually, she borrows Becker’s gun and bags the animal (which even Palin’s daughter Piper, hilariously, will later pronounce “a tiny caribou!”), and her hunting partners demonstrate how to disassemble it so it can be packed out in parts. By all three of them.

So, to recap: Hunting is all about being self-sufficient and prepared and independent and stuff. But if that doesn’t work, you can always bring daddy. And his friend with a better gun.


No one is gonna help you, Part 3: No really, no one is gonna help you

The most interesting character we meet in this episode is Sue, the director of a hunting camp so remote that when asked where she lives, she replies with the coordinates (beginning with some horrifying number of degrees north). “It’s a geographic location, not a town,” she explains. “I am the only resident.”

Palin calls Sue “the Alaskan woman” and, rather less comprehensibly, “the Mama Grizzly.” (If Sue has kids, they don’t live within a thousand miles of her.) And indeed, the woman is nothing if not hard-core. Once, after being attacked by a bear, she crawled back to her cabin and sewed up her own head because there was no one else to do it. Sue is not fooling around.

But also, Sue is not most Alaskans, much less the rest of us. She chooses to live completely alone in the tundra; even Thoreau would raise an eyebrow. And even Sue is not made of steel. Palin’s voiceover: ‘She’s a very amazing and inspiring woman. She encapsulated that Alaskan spirit: Pioneering, independent, not looking for anybody else to meet challenges for her, she’s going to do it herself. That’s what you see in Sue.’ Meanwhile, we see Sue weeping as she waves good-bye to her visitors. In an interview, she explains that with them gone, she won’t see anyone for nine months.

To a point, I absolutely agree with Palin that self-reliance is an admirable characteristic. But completely isolating yourself just to prove you don’t need any help can get awfully lonely. And not for nothing. It means you never have an opportunity to help anyone else.

-- Kate Harding