Thursday, November 12, 2009

Vanity Plates

Driving around a snowy south-central Alaska, I've noticed that Alaskans love to share their quirky identities and unique viewpoints with the world, using their automobiles as the perfect pulpit. Just by taking a quick look at many Alaskan bumpers, you immediately know the driver’s stance on politics, religion, Ford trucks, and honor students. Those who are truly committed to their self-defined identities - and want their cars to show it - opt for vanity plates.

Hardly unique to Alaska, vanity plates have been a fixture across the U.S. since 1931. There are currently a sizable 9.7 million of them across all U.S. states and territories. Most states allow a combination of a few letters, numbers, and spaces, as long as the message isn’t obscene or offensive, such as the recent case of a vegetarian, tofu-loving Coloradan who was denied her request for a license plate reading: ILVTOFU.

Although somewhat popular in Canada, vanity plates are still unheard of in most of the world. After their introduction in the UK less than 20 years ago, they are only now starting to gain popularity outside of the champagne-drinking, Lamborghini-owning, James Bond-wannabe set. In the handful of European countries that have allowed them since 2006, they are still considered a vain extravagance.

With the rest of the world playing catch-up in the vanity plate game, the U.S. is the place to see and be seen in a car with license plates proclaiming the inspiring messages of HOPE, PEACE, and DUUUDE. Since moving to Alaska ten years ago, I have noticed that vanity plates are especially prevalent here in the last frontier. This initially struck me as odd because Alaskans are not a particularly vain bunch. We usually care more about staying warm than looking good and some of our residents outgrunge even the grungiest 1990s Seattle garage bands.  Thus, it came as no shock when I later found that vanity plates are actually called “personalized license plates” here in the vanity-free 49th state.

Data from the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles reveals that for 2008, approximately 7% of standard passenger car plates and 10% of all motorcycle plates were personalized. Even our most renowned resident, Sarah Palin, sports one reading FE K9, short for the Iron Dog snowmobile race across Alaska that her former "First Dude" hubby won an earth-shattering four times.

Personalized plates may be popular in Alaska because our DMV makes shopping for them an inexpensive and entertaining experience. On the Alaska DMV website, you simply select your favorite plate design (most are $30); type in a 6-character combination of letters, numbers and spaces; and viola - your custom plate appears onscreen in all its virtual and personalized glory. You can also spend hours checking out which, if any, obscenities the Alaska DMV would allow on their plates. After 10 minutes of trying, the worst I could get were SEX and POOPY.

Many of the personalized plates in Alaska are much like those in the rest of the US, simply stating the driver’s name or initials, like HENRY, BABS, and DJB. Others are indicative of the car owner’s profession, like WHEEZY outside an allergist’s office, SCRUBS outside a medical clothing & uniform supplier, and the subtle BUYART outside an art shop. Some are patriotic - USA - and others are eco-friendly - BE GRN. There is also the usual cadre of Star Trek and Harry Potter fans with plates that read WARP10 and SNAPE. Of course, there are plates for the people that you just don’t mess with, like AKRMBO and BLUDGN. And, like everywhere else, there are the downright undecipherable ones, like IXXI, PTKROZ, and M3B3P3.

But as you look at more and more personalized plates here in our plate-plentiful state, things get distinctively more Alaskan. Some, like 907GRL, use the state’s telephone area code in their plates. Others, like AKBRAT and AKANNE, use the state’s postal abbreviation. Many focus on the white stuff, like SNOW, SNOGRL, SNOWWM, and SNOWMN. Others display examples of Alaskans’ favorite pastimes - GOTICE (hockey), IRFSHN and LV2FSH(fishing), DIPNTR (dip netting), DRFTNT (drift netting), GUNGUY (guns), and, of course, SCRPBK (scrapbooking).When lumped into thematic categories, I’ve noticed that in south-central Alaska, the largest group of personalized plate holders seems to be Grandmas, from the short and sweet G MOM to the state-proud AK GMA to the inspiring FITGMA to the somewhat disturbing SXYGMA.

Far and away, the owners of cars with personalized plates more frequently appear to be female, perhaps because they are more assured of their identity or are more willing to make a long-term commitment to a personalized plate, while men may be more comfortable committing to a bumper sticker that can handily be scraped off or covered over with another prettier, younger bumper sticker.

I’m thinking about getting a personalized plate to promote my blog, possibly COOLAK. I’m not sure, though, because, when read phonetically, it may sound too much like a robotic villain from Dr. Who or an underground creature from an H.G. Wells novel. I also worry that my car would be too easily identified in a lineup if I were ever a getaway driver for a bank heist. Most likely, perhaps as someone who has always feared commitment and was labeled “Most Likely to Get Divorced” by my college roommate, I’m just too terrified to establish a highly visible one-year relationship with my license plate.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Guns! Guns! Guns!

After ten long years in Alaska, my husband and I have finally caught the gun fever.  Only having held a gun once in my life before moving to Alaska, it has come as quite a shock. I was raised in urban and densely populated suburban environments on the east coast where only police officers and the criminal underworld owned guns.

Before moving to Alaska, I had always associated gun ownership with nut jobs, perhaps because the only people I knew who owned guns were distant relatives who got their son started on a shotgun collection at the manly age of six. I also once dated a concealed-weapon-holding handgun owner in the Washington, D.C. area who, after three very strange dates, was revealed to indeed be a nut job.

After moving to Alaska, I was initially unnerved by the pervasive presence of firearms - EVERYWHERE. All of our major low-priced household retailers sport extensive gun sections, complete with a variety of seriously scary looking handguns, sporty shotguns, and family-friendly rifles for all ages, including lovely little pink guns for the under-12 Barbie set. I also realized that I had to redefine my understanding of the word “sports” in Alaska’s retail environment after popping into both Anchorage’s Mountain View Sports and Wasilla’s Sportsman’s Warehouse in search of a basketball and ice skates only to find shotguns and fishing lures.

I’m still astounded, too, by the number of people I’ve met in the past ten years who live in urban Anchorage and suburban Eagle River who own guns. Our neighbors, co-workers, doctors, and elementary school teachers seem to have at least a firearm or two in their arsenal. Alaska is actually the #1 state in the nation for gun ownership with almost 61% of households owning at least one gun. What has amazed me even more was that, out of the many Alaskan gun owners I’ve met, none of them (bar two) have been nut jobs.

Trick-or-Treating at the Gun Counter in Wal-Mart

Perhaps many people here on the last frontier own guns because gun ownership in Alaska is dead easy. Neither permits nor licenses are required, even for handguns. Although Alaska offers a license to carry a concealed handgun, it is not required. Because of this unusual practice, the term “Alaska carry” has come to describe state laws in which no concealed weapons permits are needed but are still offered for when gun owners travel to other states that honor the permit.

Carrying out our Second Amendment right to the fullest has come at a price, however. Our crime rate is lower than many large, congested urban environments, but Alaska is #3 in the nation in gun deaths per capita. Our all-too-frequent suicides, murder-suicides, and accidental deaths have been largely at the hands of guns. A student at my daughter’s school last year was killed in an accidental shooting at a friend’s 14th birthday party.

Despite all these sobering statistics, ten years of life in the 49th state has deadened my sensitivity to lethal weapons and their omnipresence in our lives. Guns have become a natural part of the local backdrop, as normal as earthquakes, drive-thru coffee, and moose nuggets. Perhaps this is what lowered my resistance and allowed my husband and me to catch gun fever and come to the surprising realization that, well, guns are fun.

Now before I go any further, I feel I must make a confessional disclaimer. My husband and I haven’t actually caught full-blown, rifle-totin’, handgun-concealin’ gun fever. We have contracted its milder cousin in the form of a distinct affinity for airsoft guns. Airsoft guns are replicas of actual bullet-firing firearms but fire small plastic, spherical pellets instead. This tiny ammunition provides only a slight sting when striking its intended target and is available in both glow-in-the-dark and biodegradable form.

We decided to turn to airsoft guns because we had finally had enough. We’ve lived in a log house six miles up into the Chugach Mountains for five years now. Every autumn, we come under attack by squadrons of squirrels looking for a way in for the winter and multitudes of magpies in search of nesting materials. After sealing up every exterior orifice on our house with a fine wire mesh, the squirrels have finally realized that they are unwelcome guests and have given up. The magpies, however, have held steadfast in their persistence. After the initial occasional trepidatious trips to pluck insulation from a secluded back window, the magpies have become more brazen, spending up to half an hour pecking away at our front door, trying to pluck sizable strips from deep within our door frame.

We tried to deflect their attacks with loud noises and spray bottles to no avail. We knew it was time to increase our firepower. Not wanting to kill the magpies, we thought a good old airsoft gun would be just scary enough to keep them away for a while. Our neighbor’s pre-teen sons had used this technique with great success in keeping the local squirrel population at bay, so we thought we’d give it a shot. We trekked to our nearest superstore and found what sounded like the perfect blend of war and peace for our battle against the magpies - the “full automatic Defender of World Peace electronic supersoft gun.”

Unlike our neighbor’s kids, who scare off squirrels and magpies while they are already playing outside with their own Defenders of World Peace, our efforts have met with less success. By the time we see or hear an offending avian culprit, find the airsoft gun, load it, and run outside, it is too late. We only see a streak of black and white flying across the sky clutching a shock of pink insulation in its beak.

Although we couldn’t manage to hit or even fire at a moving target in time, we did become quite adept at hitting paper cups and water bottles from an impressive distance of ten feet away. We’ve had so much fun with our “Defender of World Peace” that we’ve been thinking about upgrading to a Red Ryder BB gun. At this rate, I hope we’re not onto Uzis by Christmas!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

SAD Lights

In Alaska, the tell-tale sign that winter has arrived is not the snow; it's the dark. And darkness has arrived in Eagle River, Alaska! As I type this at 7:02 am, it is pitch black outside. It's more than just dark, too. It's thick, pea-soup-fog dark that you can almost taste with every breath. It's can't-see-the-horror-movie-villain dark, until his hockey mask or machete is just inches from of your face. Until I moved to Alaska, I loved the dark and the feelings of macabre it brings this time of year. Up here above 60 degrees latitude, however, so much dark slowly wears on you and begins to mess with your head.

Last week, the dark slowly began to wear me down. At the end of the week, after a particularly dark morning, I spilled my tall soy chai latte ALL over myself, which would normally elicit profanity or laughter. Instead, I rushed to my car and sobbed the entire 30-minute drive home. I knew then that it was time to break out the SAD light.

SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, is a condition in which you feel fine all year, but when the winter darkness comes, you are plunged into depression and feelings of despair. It makes you feel tired, sluggish, sleepy, antisocial, and hungry, especially for carbo-loaded junk food. Most northern, higher latitude countries experience high rates of SAD. ( Strangely, Iceland is the exception.) Alaska is acutely affected by this winter condition. In a 1992 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found that 4% of sunny Sarasota Floridians experienced SAD symptoms compared to a whopping 28% of Fairbanks Alaskans. SAD is also not an equal-opportunity seasonal scourge. The National Mental Health Association reports that for every 4 people suffering from SAD, 3 of them are women.

 a bright Alaska morning at 8:00am
SAD can take a while to develop, too. Someone once told me that his wife had been living through dark Alaska winters for 25 years until she developed SAD. Although this was the only person that I had ever heard of being officially diagnosed with SAD, most of us feel its effects if we've been in Alaska for more than a year or two. After living through my first two Alaskan winters unscathed, I began to loathe being near ANYONE during my third winter and slowly got sucked into the world of eBay bidding wars. At the same time, one friend experienced SAD symptoms in the form of daily trips to Wal-Mart to buy countless hand towels and knick-knacks while another friend decided that bathing was really only necessary every two weeks.

To thwart the winter's temptation to sit in the dark, sob intermittently, and gorge on Fanta and Chex Party Mix, many of us self-medicate with a healthy dose of artificial sunlight. When you sit in front of a special light or light box that replicates sunlight for about half an hour, your brain thinks that you are soaking in the rays, changing its biochemistry ever so slightly to keep you from releasing sleep-inducing melatonin. Although light therapy is not officially approved by the FDA, Alaskans swear by it and most own at least one SAD light.

A SAD light is a special type of light that can bring a refreshing drop of sunshine to the dimmest and darkest locales. An effective SAD light gives off 10,000 lux of light and little to no harmful UV rays. Back when I bought my SAD light a few years ago, there was only one basic model - a white 24" x 18" box with a couple of fluorescent bulbs inside. Now there are plenty of options to chose from - portable SAD lights, travel SAD lights, desk SAD lights, Dawn Simulators, Full Spectrum Light Boxes, and even the Verilux HappyLite® SAD Mini Ultra Sunshine Supplement Light System, which I bought at Costco last year but have yet to try out. Thirty minutes in front of any of these can return the spring in your step and rescue you from five months of compulsive shopping, constant overeating, and rolling fatigue.

Every winter morning, our trusty light box sits at the breakfast table with my husband, daughter, and me as a friendly fourth companion. It has helped me get through seven long, dark Alaskan winters without returning to misanthropy and the false comforts of eBay. I wish I could say the same for the Chex Party Mix.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Many old time Alaskans still harbor hurt feelings about the 1990s television series Northern Exposure. The show was set in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, loosely modeled after the real and equally quirky town of Talkeetna. The cast and crew of the entire series didn't set foot in Alaska and most exterior shots were filmed in and around Roslyn, Washington. While some Alaskans loved the show for the delightful romp that it was, others were disquieted by its many inaccuracies regarding the state's culture, lifestyle, and landscape. When I first moved to Alaska, I mentioned to our movers that I was excited to be living here because I loved the show Northern Exposure. I was immediately subjected to a 20-minute lecture on how NONE of the trees in the show's exterior shots could possibly be found in interior Alaska. Despite its many faux pas, Northern Exposure got it right with its well-loved opening credits in which an enormous moose meanders through town.

In Alaska, moose are just a part of life. Dollars to doughnuts, multiple moose have been sighted by 99.9% of Alaska's population. There are thousands of these strange, large, ungainly animals throughout the state. Unlike many of Alaska's more elusive animals like the wolf and lynx, moose are not particularly concerned with the presence of two-legged mammals and many make their homes in urban parks and greenbelts. In the town of Gustavus on the southeast panhandle, moose outnumber humans 2 to 1. In the 49th state, we know that moose are an unavoidable part of what defines us as Alaskans. Rather than opt for a more elegant creature like the Arctic fox or Dall sheep, Alaskans selected the moose as the state land mammal in 1998.

Scenic View from Our Downstairs Window

No matter how many moose I see, moose encounters always leave me with a strange sense of place. Their massive size and awkward movements are almost prehistoric. When juxtaposed against a crowded urban backdrop, they are a living anachronism. When traffic almost grinds to a halt as moose are spotted grazing alongside busy streets and highways, I wonder if drivers are slowing for safety reasons or if they are caught entranced, gazing at this beautiful urban aberration so close up.

Moose-Induced Traffic on Northern Lights Blvd. 

Generally, humans and moose live peacefully together in urban Alaska. While there are occasional highway and train accidents fatal to all mammals involved, moose are usually peaceful and have little interest in anything outside of twigs, leaves, bark, grass, and other moose. Despite their usually placid temperament, moose encounters can be dangerous and life threatening. Their massive size of 800 to 1600 pounds puts even the beefiest Alaskans at a disadvantage. Male moose (called bull moose) can grow a terrifyingly enormous set of antlers (also known as its rack). Both their front and hind legs can deliver powerful kicks, crushing a human windpipe with alarming ease. Their behavior can be unpredictable, especially when mothers are with calves or when bull moose are in rut (i.e., ready to mate).

To live safely with moose, there is an inherent set of rules that every Alaskan follows.

Rule #1 - NEVER feed a moose. This one seems pretty obvious. Would you want to go anywhere near the mouth of a 1000 pound hungry ungulate? Tourists and locals alike sometimes ignore the obvious, thinking that a moose is nothing more than a big-nosed cow. Back in 2000, a local news channel aired a viewer-submitted video of a tourist feeding a moose a carrot from her mouth. While we all had a chuckle at some people's stupidity,  the news anchor reminded us that this could have easily turned into an episode of When Animals Attack.

Rule #2 - NEVER corner a moose. This, too, should be immediately apparent. Why on earth would you want to spook a frightened animal almost 10 times your size who's wielding 4 powerful, skull-crushing hooves? Earlier this year, two middle school students in Wasilla did not find this rule as obvious. While running outside during P.E. class, the students starting yelling at, running toward, and throwing stones at a young moose. The moose was cornered and began thrashing itself against a fence until one of its antlers broke off and the moose died. Although the moose's death was tragic, it was extremely fortunate that no schoolchildren were injured.

Rule #3 - If a moose starts to charge you, get behind something big and immovable. While a moose, who can achieve speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, could easily outrun a human, their long and ungainly legs prevent them from running around objects quickly. A tree or an SUV can offer good protection because you could run around it quicker than any moose, who would likely soon tire of the pursuit and leave. Actually, our herbivorous moose friends have little interest in humans and are not likely to pursue or stalk you if you can just get out of their way.

Rule #4 -  If a male moose (the one with the big antlers) starts grunting at you, GET THE HECK OUT OF THERE! During mating season, which happens to be in early to mid October here in south central Alaska, male moose are in rut. They are on the prowl for a few ladies and make a low, grunting sound to signal their presence and availability. The bulls are in a hormonally-induced tizzy and are likely to charge and possibly attack anything and anyone that disrupts its potential to mate.

Rule #5 - NEVER, EVER, EVER get between a mother moose and her calf. Mama moose are extremely protective of their young for their first year of their lives. Back in 1995, a man was tragically stomped to death trying to enter a building on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus when he got between a female moose and her calf. If you're out for a walk and see a moose with a calf or two up ahead, either wait from a safe distance until they leave or just turn around and walk the other way.

I love living up here in the world of moose, but their size and power still frighten me. No trip Alaska is complete without a moose sighting, but your safest option may be a trip to the Alaska Zoo or, better yet, immerse yourself in the world of moose gift paraphernalia!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Carhartt Clothing

Just as every affluent Londoner is likely to have a Barbour rain mac in the wardrobe and every retired Floridian is likely to enjoy a Tommy Bahama shirt or two, if you have lived in Alaska for more than three years, you are likely to own a piece of Carhartt clothing. Its distinctively disproportioned c-shaped logo is as recognizable as McDonald’s golden arches; its trademark rugged canvas cloth is woven into the fabric of our state.

If you don’t live in Alaska or don’t spend most of your day working outside for a living, you may not be familiar with the Carhartt line of clothing. According to the company’s mission statement, their clothing is designed for the “active worker.” The company has been dressing farmers, steel workers, welders, and linemen for 120 years. Its line of outdoor and indoor wear is extensive and includes fetching items such as camouflage coveralls, khaki cargo shorts, red cotton union suits (complete with rear flap), fleece headbands, knit hats, toddler's washed duck dungarees, flame resistant hooded sweat jackets, Class 3 high visibility rain jackets, and steel toe work boots.

The functionality, ruggedness, and durability of Carhartt clothing is legendary. The company's website is chock-full of testimonials from people with "rugged jobs" who love their Carhartts. There are also many reports about the clothing in both the blogosphere and traditional news media that sound more like tall tales and urban myths. Carhartt outerwear has saved the lives of people in bear and walrus attacks. A YouTube video provides a firsthand account a man whose life and limbs were saved during a meat grinder accident, all thanks to the durability of his Carhartt jacket. A news report tells of a Dillingham bush pilot whose plane crashed, leaving him with as many broken bones in his body as you can think of. In the end, he didn't freeze to death during his long wait to be found in the Alaska wilds because he was dressed head to toe in Carhartts outerwear and underwear. A 2002 Outside magazine article documents many more tales of near-death experiences from Carhartt wearers in Talkeetna.

In Alaska, you need not be a hunter, bush pilot, construction worker, or Deadliest Catch fisherman to enjoy the benefits of Carhartts. Alaskans young and old wear them as everyday wear. Most Alaskans sport some item of Carhartt clothing at least once a month. I took a look through our closets and counted a modest 42 Carhartt items for our non-fishing, non-hunting, indoor-oriented family of three. Carhartt is uniquely fashion-friendly to all walks of life in Alaska for all occasions. Are you a hard-working, Bud-drinking oilrigger going out for a night on the town? Why, throw on a dark red plaid shirt jac and pair of traditional fit jeans! Are you a Euro-philic, urban minimalist meeting friends for a cappuccino? Just don a dark brown pair of Carhartt bib overalls with a black turtleneck, scarf, and beret, of course! Or are you a Vice Presidential candidate heading to the polling booth on election day? Just put on a brown lined duck jacket for the perfect effect!

Like no other clothing line, Carhartt has a central place in the heart and culture of our state. Talkeetna hosts a Carhartt Ball in which formal wear is replaced by the grubbiest, grimiest, well-loved Carhartt items in your wardrobe. The Alaska State Fair holds multiple Carhartt events, including the Carhartt Fashion Show; the Crusty Carhartt Tales competition, in which you show the nasty beating your Carhartts have taken and tell the tale; and the Carhartt Relay Race, where eager competitors vie for valued Carhartt merchandise. Musical entertainment for many of these events is provided by Alaska's own Carhartt Brothers bluegrass band. You don't have to try very hard or go very far to be part of the Carhartt culture in Alaska, either. There are 32 retailers selling Carhartt clothing within 20 miles of my lovely little suburban town of Eagle River.

With our love of Carhartts, many mistakenly believe that Alaska is not a fashion-forward state. Au contraire!  Carhartt clothing is actually the timeless little black dress of construction chic, the new fashion phenomenon in which those who don't know a hammer from a hoe try to dress like an ice road trucker but end up looking more like one of the Village People. The Carhartt line is even being featured at a high end fashion show at the Detroit Zoo tomorrow alongside top line designers Kevin Christiana, Betsey Johnson, and Kid Rock. But as Carhartt becomes more mainstream and construction chic moves to the head of the fashion world, will we independent, anti-fashionista, rogue Alaskans turn away from our tried and true friend or will we stand firm, waiting for this passing fad to fade?  While we may flirt with Mountain Hardware, Helly Hansen, and Dickies, I believe that the deep and enduring love between Alaskans and their Carhartts will last for generations to come.

(Election day photo courtesy of the Anchorage Daily News and photographer Bill Roth. Thank you!)

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Permanent Fund Dividend

Imagine living in a state with fresh air, interesting people, and beautiful snow-capped mountains. Now imagine that state paying you to live there. Unimaginable?  Think again. Think - Alaska!

Since 1982, every Alaskan resident has received an annual payment if they have lived in the state for the previous calendar year. With the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline in the mid-1970s, Alaska voters approved a new Permanent Fund, into which the state's dedicated oil revenues were deposited. In the early '80s, the state legislature created the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, which ensured that the investment income from this fund of dedicated oil revenues would be distributed to state residents through the Permanent Fund Dividend program. This annually distributed payment is called the Permanent Fund Dividend (or PFD).

Every year, the arrival of the PFD has become a much anticipated event. Since 1988, these annual payments have topped $800 per person, with amounts of more than $1000 for many of these years. This year's dividend check, to be issued to direct deposit recipients on October 8th, will be $1305 per person. As long as you have lived in Alaska for this previous calendar year, no matter how rich, poor, young, or old you may be, you will receive a check. Even babies get them! This year, for example, a family of five will be receiving $6525 into their coffers overnight.

This annual autumnal influx of considerable cash into their vacuous vest pockets sends Alaskans into a surefire shopping frenzy. While many sensible people keep the check in the bank, many more splurge on plasma TVs, sound systems, and snow machines, driving sales for local retailers up by as much as 30%. Although the PFD checks are issued in October, car dealerships run specials throughout September allowing buyers to use their upcoming checks as an advance deposit. Alaska Airlines runs PFD specials, enticing even the hardiest to head for warmer climes. When my daughter was in kindergarten nine years ago, a travel agency ran well-advertised PFD specials allowing entire families the opportunity to fly to Hawaii and frolic in the sand and surf of an all inclusive resort, all for the price of that year's PFD. During the last week in October, half of the students in my daughter's kindergarten class were "sick" for a week.

Every year, the PFD presents a tricky ethical, moral, and financial dilemma for Alaskan parents - what do you do with your children's dividend checks? Because the checks are issued to the parents, some decide to simply put the money into the family budget and use it for rent, utility bills, and basic groceries. Others pool the checks to buy a luxury item for the family, like a new ATV (an all terrain vehicle or four wheeler). To my daughter's dismay, we put the money immediately into a college savings account before we are tempted by the brilliant lure of Blue Ray and high definition. We are immediately met with a never-ending barrage of tales, however, about more fortunate schoolmates who are given their entire $1000+ dollars to spend freely as they wish. (I have yet to hear any such accounts firsthand from parents, however.)

While receiving $1305 for doing absolutely nothing sounds like a pretty good deal, many of us in the 49th state were disappointed with the news of this year's payment amount. Last year, the dividend payed to Alaskans reached a colossal $2069. To add even more sugar to an already lusciously sweet dessert,  Governor Sarah Palin added an extra state-funded $1200 per person to defray rising energy costs, leaving each Alaskan with a colossal $3296.

After ten years of feeling like an outsider, this year I finally feel like a true Alaskan because I find myself complaining about the "low" payment of $1305 for living in the most beautiful state in the union.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Alaska Railroad

When I used to live in England, I noticed that British men were enamored with trains. Some would simply comment on the beauty and power of their engines. Others would spend hours building extensive systems of model trains, tracks, tunnels and bridges in their dining rooms or basements. The truly smitten would wait outside near local train station tracks on damp, rainy days  to record the exact time a particular train engine would pass by a particular lamppost down to the millisecond. Britian's train-mania seemed odd, obsessive, and somewhat unsettling... until I moved to Alaska.

The engines and rail cars of the Alaska Railroad are some of the most beautiful and breathtaking pieces of machinery in the world. The trains' designs and lines are timeless. Their engines and passenger cars are painted entirely in the colors of the state flag, blue and gold. I am normally not a fan of this color combination (also the school colors for my overcrowded, football-obsessed suburban Maryland high school), but on a train, they are pure delight. Since the inception of the railroad's blue and gold design in 1947, no two colors would stand out against Alaska's seasonal palettes so perfectly.

Not only are their trains beautiful, but the Alaska Railroad is as cool and unique as the state it services. It is the only train line in the United States that transports both passengers and freight. When you see an Alaska Railroad engine approaching, you never know what surprises it may be pulling - flat bed cars strapped with milled timber, hoppers full of sand and gravel, hi-cube boxcars with unknown treasures stowed inside, or dome cars spilling over with summer tourists anxious to get that picture-perfect shot.

The Alaska Railroad also has some of the last remaining train lines to offer whistle stop service. On both the Aurora Winter Train and the year-round Hurricane Turn Train, passengers may disembark anywhere along a particular stretch of wilderness between Talkeetna and Hurricane.  This allows people access to remote cabins and camping spots far away from the road system and any traces of civilization that it brings. It provides a chance to be picked up and plunked down in the middle of NOWHERE. When you want to be picked up by the return train, you must flag it down by waving a large white cloth while standing 25 feet from the tracks. If you hear the engineer's whistle, you know that the train will be stopping and you will soon climb aboard to be whisked back to the land of television and lattes. As romantic and exciting as it sounds, I would be too terrified (I mean - TERRIFIED) to be left in the middle of nowhere along the train tracks, but I love that, should I ever change my mind, I'll always have that option.

To make it even more interesting, the history of the Alaska Railroad is chock full of drama and intrigue. When it was completed in 1923, President Warren G. Harding drove a final golden spike into the rail line in Nenana. On his return trip from Alaska, Harding died a mysterious death, resulting either from food poisoning or a heart attack. Rumors spread that Harding was poisoned at the hand of himself or others for his role in the Teapot Dome scandal. Even more rumors spread that his wife was sick of his philandering and had poisoned him in retaliation. Harding's golden spike can no longer be found at milepost 413.7 in Nenana. Its current location is shrouded in mystery because various sources place it in a variety of locations, from the Smithsonian to the Alaska Land Pioneer Air Museum to the Mears family estate in Nebraska.

After the final spike was driven in 1923, the Alaska Railroad faced economic difficulties. With only 5400 people living in the three largest cities along its route, the railroad had not become profitable by 1930. The Great Depression further complicated matters, making the Alaska Railroad unable to turn a profit until 1938. Today, too, the Alaska Railroad has been hit hard by the national economy. This week, the corporation will be downsizing its workforce by 20% just to remain operational. No amount of customer service, tourist promotions, or local discounts has been able to stave off the effects of the national recession.

The railroad faced bad news and hard times before and survived. I am hopeful that it will remain a part of our scenic landscape. Maybe I'll do my part as an Alaskan and finally try out that whistle stop service! (Or maybe I'll just take the Beer Train in October, instead...) 

(All of these cool photos courtesy of Alaska Railroad. Thank you!)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Termination Dust

In Eagle River this morning, we woke up to a long awaited and sometimes dreaded sight to many Alaskans: a light dusting of snow on the mountaintops. This beautiful, seemingly innocuous sight of powdery white is known as termination dust and is actually a harbinger of  the winter soon to come.

Termination dust signals the end of an Alaskan summer. During the Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the 19th century, termination dust signaled the end of summer prospecting and the termination of profitable employment in Skagway until the next summer - nine months away. At the other end of Alaska in gold rush Nome, termination dust similarly served as a sign for prospectors  to pull up stakes and head out on the last steamship before the snow set in unless they wanted to winter over for six months in Alaska.

Today, termination dust serves as a reminder of the drastic change that is heading our way. It signals the swift and perennially surprising transition between long, sunny, golden summer days and snow-swept cold, dark, endless winter nights. Unlike the gold rush days, however, when prospectors dreaded the sight of white-capped mountains, I feel a touch of thrill and excitement when termination dust arrives. The air becomes crisp and clean and I know that soon the world in Eagle River will be transformed into a shimmering, crystalline, snow-covered winter wonderland where every day, however brief, holds the magic of Christmas morning.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Record Breaking Vegetables

The 2010 Guinness Book of World Records has just been released. It got me thinking about how proud I am to live in a state that consistently shatters world records, and not in one of the less salubrious categories, like "number of goldfish swallowed" or "heaviest weight dangled from a swallowed sword." Instead, Alaska is home of the giant vegetables!

When I was in 5th grade back in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I remember seeing a filmstrip on "The Bounty of Alaska." It showed how everything in Alaska was bigger, from the mountains to the mammals. What really stuck with me, however, was the narrator commenting that, in Alaska, "they have strawberries as big as your fist." After being here ten years, I have yet to see a fist-sized strawberry, but I am delighted to see so many mammoth-sized vegetables year after year at the Alaska State Fair.

At this year's fair, Steve Hubacek broke a 20-year record for world's largest cabbage on September 2nd for his 125.9-pound cabbage entered in the "Green Cabbage" category. This gorgeous, perfectly formed cabbage just squeaked by the previous record of 124 pounds set by a farmer in Wales. Before that, the record hadn't been touched for more than one hundred years. Then, out of nowhere - oops, he did it again! Three days later, Steve H. brought in another cabbage to compete in the state fair's annual Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off. Dubbed "The Beast," this monster broke Steve's previously set record when it weighed in at 127 pounds, winning him the grand prize of $2000. 

Overshadowed by its larger and more glamorous cabbage cousins, another vegetable waited quietly and patiently for its shot at fame. Then - BOOM - another record-breaker at the Alaska State Fair! On September 5th, Scott Robb's 82.9-pound rutabaga blew the roof off of the previous world record of 77.8 pounds. However, Scott R. is no stranger to giant vegetable fame. In 2007, he set the record for the world's largest kale. This little beauty weighed in at a delicate 105.9 pounds. He also set records in 2006, twice in 2004, and in 2003 with record-breaking kohlrabi, cantaloupe, turnip, and celery respectively.

Sadly, these entries will not be included in the newly released 2010 Guinness Book of World Records because their records are so new and still in the verification process with Guinness. Stew anyone?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Studded Tires

Despite the old adage for single women in Alaska that "the odds are good, but the goods are odd," Alaska is actually full of studs. Unfortunately, they can only be found only on Michelins, Goodyears, and Nokians. For those of us above 60 degrees latitude, today, September 15th, is the first day we can change over our summer tires to studded winter tires, thus heralding the start of winter in Alaska!

OK, so what on earth are studded tires? They are winter tires with approximately 60 to 120 metal studs or pins firmly entrenched into the outer rubber. When rubber meets the road, these metal studs push into the road, holding it in a tenacious momentary grip. Their tenacity tears up roads; they are noisy as stud and asphalt meet; they reduce a car's gas mileage by at least a a few miles per gallon; and Alaskans love them.

Have you ever driven in really icy conditions, perhaps skidding across the road a bit, sliding into guardrails, or finding yourself face-to-face with oncoming traffic? Now imagine driving like that 120 days a year. If you live and drive in a northern, snowy clime with five-month-long winters in a perpetual state of snowing, sleeting, melting, and refreezing, studded tires offer a feeling of safety and normalcy. They allow you to live six miles up into the mountains or forty miles away from work. They allow you to drive the 358 miles from Anchorage to Fairbanks in near-blizzard conditions.

As any true Alaskan, I love my studded tires. I love hearing their metallic and rocky crunch as I tool down an ice-free highway. I love feeling their gummy stickiness as the studs burrow into the asphalt and are then set free. I love how macho and manly they make me feel, no matter how small or fru-fru my car may be. Ahhhh, the joy of studded tires...

Like any invention of great importance, studded tires are also controversial. Even though a whopping 42 states allow either seasonal or unrestricted use of studded tires, most are veering away from encouraging their use. Snowy and icy Illinois forbids their use. In 2007, Costco stopped selling them in all states except Alaska. The problem is that studded tires chew up roads until they are left permanently rutted with two parallel grooves that scream, "INSERT TIRES HERE!"

According to a 2004 research report commissioned by the Alaska State Legislature and completed by researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage, approximately 40-60% of Anchorage drivers use studded tires in the winter. The report also cited studies in Finland and Japan that found banning studded tires is actually more costly than the road repair associated with them because of the increased costs of accidents and road sanding. In the end, the report recommends restricted seasonal use of studded tires and investigation into alternative wear-resistant asphalt mixtures.

In Alaska, at least, studded tires are here to stay.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Up here in the 49th state, coffee is king. Alaska wouldn’t be Alaska without it. Its promise of scented satisfaction and stimulation give us a reason to get up out of bed on those cold, dark winter mornings.

In 2005, a national consumer market research firm (The NPD Group) conducted a study of coffee shops per capita in US cities. As you might expect, Seattle, birthplace of Starbucks and Seattle’s Best coffees, ranked right up there. In first place, however, ranking firmly above the national cradle of coffee, was Anchorage, Alaska! Not only do we have coffee shops in our airports, bookstores, grocery stores, and hospitals, we also have them in our high schools, middle schools, and libraries.

Our addiction to coffee is pervasive and starts young. We get toddlers accustomed to the aroma during mommy-toddler playgroups at our local coffeehouses. When my daughter was in elementary school, one 6th grader regularly brought trays of mocha lattes to her friends. Alaskans’ penchant for coffee continues, even into retirement. Retirees at the nearby Chugiak Senior Center have only go 100 feet to get their smoothies and cappuccinos at the Senior Bean coffee shop.

The Senior Bean, like many local coffee purveyors, is a drive-thru espresso stand. These drive-thru espresso stands, also called coffee kiosks, are found on almost every street corner and can be as simple as a small wooden hut or as sophisticated as a converted railroad engine car. No matter what their design, the procedure is the same. You simply drive up, to the sliding window, give your order to the peppy barista, and, presto-bango, you’ve got coffee! All without ever leaving the comfort of your heated SUV.

In Alaska, getting a cup of coffee can be more than just getting a cup of coffee, too. It can be a social experience where you nestle up in a comfy leather chair in front of a roaring fire while reading a book on a snowy day. You can find teachers, book groups, knitting enthusiasts, and SAT cram sessions all meeting up to chew the fat and sip the joe. A permanent morning fixture at Jitters Coffee Shop in Eagle River is a group of good ol’ boys who spend hours talking politics and hunting while drinking sludge cups, Americanos, and gingerbread lattes.

Traveling to the lower 48 (the rest of the continental United States) can be challenging for coffee-accustomed Alaskans. Without drive-thru espresso stands every quarter mile, life becomes stressful and confusing. Sure, we can get drip coffee at any restaurant, but it’s just not the same. There’s no sound of beans grinding nor milk frothing, no endless array of choices of size and syrup. There are no comfy chairs or chocolate-coated biscottis. When visiting my parents in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee, my husband and I made almost daily 60-mile trips to the nearest espresso shop in Pigeon Forge until we discovered the local caffeinated and delightful Dairy Queen Moo-Latte. When we landed back on Alaskan soil, however, we kissed the ground and bolted to the airport Starbucks.

Friday, September 11, 2009

About This Blog

There are few places left in the United States that still have a bit of mystery and awe about them. Alaska, however, remains mysterious and awe-inspiring, no matter how many episodes of Deadliest Catch or Ice Road Truckers the Discovery Channel dishes up.

When people discover that I’m from Alaska, they either get a faraway look in their eye as they talk about a dream cruise among the whales and glaciers or they appear flummoxed, asking a series of painfully uninformed questions, including: Do you live in an igloo?, Do you know Sarah Palin?, and, my personal favorite, Do they use American dollars there?

Although best know for its natural beauty, crooked politicians, and a recent Vice Presidential candidate, Alaska has so many fun and interesting quirks that make it one of the coolest places on earth. This blog will focus on these aspects of Alaska’s culture, style, and identity that make it truly unique.