So, you’re headed to Alaska for your first visit? Allow me to set a few things straight about my adopted home.
No, “frost heaves” are not something Alaskans get when we’re sick of winter. It’s a freeze-thaw action that turns roads into roller coasters.
No, “termination dust” is not what’s left of the bad guys once Arnold Schwarzenegger is through with them. It’s what we call our first snowfall, as in the termination of summer.
And no, “breakup” isn’t what happens when a love affair turns ugly. It’s an endearing term for that special time of year when the snow melts and Alaska is awash in slush and slop the color of cow pies.
Don’t worry if you weren’t aware of these distinctions. We’re expecting at least a million tourists in 1995--and chances are many of them will be even more clueless about Alaska than you are.
I know this because hotel clerks, tour-bus drivers, gift-shop owners and people behind the visitor information desks tell me they’ve been collecting stupid tourist questions for years.
Such as the person who wanted to know when we turned on the northern lights.
Or the caller who called the Iditarod Trail committee to ask if we had telephones in Alaska.
Or the animal-rights activist who called the headquarters of the Talkeetna Moose Dropping Festival, demanding to know just how far the moose were being dropped and onto what surface. Taken by surprise, the volunteer who answered the phone shot back, “Three thousand feet from a helicopter onto cement.” (For those who wonder what does happen at a moose dropping festival, the animals’ small, oval-shaped scat is used like dice in a game of chance.)
Much of our visitors’ ignorance stems from a hazy sense of geography--and maps of the United States contribute to the confusion. They often show Alaska conveniently located in a box in the lower left-hand corner, as if the state were an island floating somewhere in the Pacific.
Then there are our road maps. They look like any others, except for the fact that they have hardly any roads. People wanting to drive to Nome get so irritated that they chuck them out the window and seek directions from gas station attendants--who inform them that not only are there no roads to Nome, but there’s also a fine for littering.
If you do make it to Nome, keep this in mind: When the owner of Nome’s Arctic Trading Post started selling Eskimo sewing thimbles made of oogruk (bearded seal hide), she arranged them in a basket with a sign that said “Eskimo Skin Thimbles.”
“Are these really made out of Eskimo skin?” customers asked.
Rangers at one of Alaska’s most popular attractions, Denali National Park and Preserve, field more dumb tourist questions than almost anyone else anywhere. A sampling:
“Is Mt. McKinley open to everybody, or just to tourists?”
“How much does the mountain weigh? With and without snow?”
“Do they mow the tundra?”
The classic story, told over and over at Denali, involves members of a tour group who were looking at what they thought was a bear. Finally, the driver announced that it was just a rock.
“No!” one eager wildlife-watcher said. “It’s too big to be a rock!”
Even someone like me, who has lived in this state for 14 years but is still considered too new to be a sourdough (real Alaskan), asks dumb questions.
My first night in interior Alaska, I may have asked the most stupid one of all. Our fixed-wing plane had just landed on an airstrip south of the Arctic Circle. It was June in the land of the midnight sun: 10 p.m. and light as day. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Geez,” I blurted. “What time does it get dark around here?”
The pilot glanced at his watch, looked back at me and replied, “Oh, about September.”
Of course, Anchorage columnist Mike Doogan, author of “How to Speak Alaskan"--which he describes as “a little book intended to make $5 jump out of tourists’ pockets"--doesn’t think there’s any such thing as a stupid tourist question.
“We live up here. We tend to forget what a weird place this is,” Doogan says. “I mean, we’re sitting in the biggest city in the state, (where) moose and bears regularly pass through our neighborhoods (and) eagles land in our trees.”
Thirty years ago, when Doogan was in college “Outside” (the Alaskan term for everywhere but Alaska), people were constantly asking him if people lived in igloos and drove dog teams to work. At first, he straightened them out. Then he noticed how disappointed they were.
“They want Alaska to be like Oz, where normal rules don’t apply . . . a place under an American flag where the problems are with wolf packs and not muggers,” he says.
So, Doogan started telling them what they wanted to hear: “Yeah, we live in a split-level igloo, and let me tell ya, it’s a pain having to rebuild that thing every fall.”
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Alaska Do’s and Don’ts
Here’s some advice from locals:
* Don’t tell us how you do things in “the States.” We, too, are part of America. We, too, use U.S. currency. You do not have to go through U.S. Customs to visit us. We don’t care how you do things back home. We do things our way, even if it’s wrong.
* Don’t come here looking for a man. Contrary to popular myth, the male-female ratio in Alaska is not 10 to 1. It’s close to even. There’s even a saying here that sums up this mythology: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
* Do be wary of locals directing you to the Last Frontier Igloo and Penguin Refuge. Alaska doesn’t have igloos or penguins. If you fall for this trick, you might wind up stuck up to your knees in the mud flats near Anchorage about the time the tide is due to roll in.
* Do be on your guard when you visit the Bird House Bar, a popular attraction 27 miles from downtown Anchorage. Bartenders there can spot tourists the second they walk in, and they prey on them.
Example: With its walls and ceilings covered in a thick layer of business cards--making the Bird House the only bar in Alaska that can be held up with a cigarette lighter--you’ll be tempted to ask how many cards there are in this place. Don’t do it. The answer you’ll get is 2,345,678.
“How do you count them?” you’ll ask next.
“It’s not hard,” you’ll be told. “Count the corners and divide by four.”
At this point, the entire bar will erupt in laughter.
* And finally, consider insurance in the event you don’t make it home.
We kill a lot of visitors in this state--26 last year, according to an unofficial tally from news reports. Accidents get ‘em. Rivers get ‘em. Bears get ‘em. Remember, it costs a lot more to get to the Lower 48 dead than alive . . . so plan now.