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10 Things Rural Alaskans Have to Explain to Out-of-Towners

Alaska Culture
by Christophe Noel Feb 27, 2018

Alaska is known for its rugged beauty and harsh living conditions. The culture of our 49th state is nuanced and only those who call it home can appreciate its quirks. Of its 700,000 residents, nearly half live in the urban centers of Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. The other half is scattered about the remote bush country in places where moose outnumber people. It’s in those areas the oddities of Alaskan life are most pronounced.

Here are 10 things rural Alaskans have to explain to out-of-towners.

1. Rubber boots are the only footwear you need.

It doesn’t matter how many shoes we have in our closets, they’re all pushed to the back and seldom see the light of day. No Sourdough worth their salt spends much time outside in anything other than Xtratuf rubber boots. The Alaskan sneaker is as much a part of the state as bears and bald eagles, and there’s one thing you never let anyone borrow, it’s your ‘tuffs.

2. Putting on a little weight over winter.

You can’t fight it. Winter is for getting fat. It doesn’t matter if a typical December day only has an hour of dim sunlight, Alaskans still find a way to pack in a breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a bedtime snack. There’s something about the cold weather, warm interior of a cabin, and the lack of anything else to do that makes eating an entire pie seem perfectly normal. There will be plenty of time to melt away the extra layers of blubber when summer rolls around.

3. Having a dirty coat.

It’s not so much a coat as it is a second skin. That fancy nylon puffy jacket that was so clean in October invariably looks like it was dragged through a ditch by March. It’s because we Alaskans never take them off. For someone in the lower 48, warm layers might be something to wear outside while scooping snow off a sidewalk. You’re not a real Alaskan until you’ve spent half the day shuffling around in your living room zipped into a hooded parka.

4. Knowing how much salmon you can buy with a bucket of blueberries.

In the lower 48 shoppers assess the value of groceries based on the discounts earned with their Super Saver card. We have our own brand of commerce, much of it transacted in trade. You better know if a cord of cut firewood is equal in value to ten pounds of freshly caught halibut. A sage trader knows a bucket of roofing nails is a fair swap for twelve jars of homemade blackberry jam. Alaskan life would be much easier if everything was barcoded, but it isn’t.

5. Summer sleep is for wimps.

You know you’re in Alaska when you invite your friends over for a summertime barbecue — at midnight. Winter is for sleeping. Summer is for doing stuff. Unless your bedroom windows are covered with sheets of black plywood, the never-setting sun will always stymy your best efforts to sleep. For new Alaskans, daylight bingeing has consequences and the lack of good sleep finally catches up. It’s not uncommon for a greenhorn to lose 48 hours to a much-needed nap. Hopefully, they make it to a bed when their eyelids slam shut.

6. This year’s PFD payout better be enough to buy a new kayak.

When the oil industry discovered black gold within Alaska’s frozen north, the state saw an opportunity to leverage the find for everyone’s benefit. Established in 1976, the Alaska Permanent Fund puts every resident in the oil business with annual cash payouts. Some years the state cuts checks for up to $2,000 per citizen. For a family of four, that’s enough to pop for a trip to Disney Land, or at the very least a splurge purchase of some sort. Long before Alaskans know how much they’re getting for the year, they’ve already spent it ten times in their heads.

7. It is perfectly normal to watch a dozen movies back to back in one sitting.

In November, it feels self-indulgent and lazy to waste time on the couch with a movie. As the days get progressively shorter and darker, it becomes easier to burn through several flicks in a single sitting. By March, you’ve watched every Star Wars episode so many times you start to wonder why Jar Jar Binks got such a bad rap. He wasn’t that bad. Before spring breakup arrives, you finally lose an entire week watching Groundhog Day on repeat on the off chance the story changes.

8. The lower 48 might as well be on Mars.

When asked to attend a wedding, graduation, or some other life-event in the lower 48, the Alaskan’s common response is always, “Sorry, can’t make it.” Getting in and out of the state is not only time consuming, it’s expensive. Why spend money and time getting to Wisconsin when you can get to a beach in Tahiti for the same amount of hassle?

9. The penalty for scamming Alaskan Unemployment Insurance.

Whether you earn your keep fishing, prospecting, or fleecing tourists, the economy is heavily influenced by high and low seasons. Even a banker in a port town might be out of work in winter. For many residents collecting unemployment, compensation is just another means of paying the bills. For others, it’s a way of funding a few weeks in the tropics –– which is illegal. Not to suggest it’s common practice, but more than a few margaritas in Baja have been funded by Alaskan Unemployment Insurance and phone calls to VICTOR, the program’s automated payment system.

10. Love thy neighbor, even though he’s a complete jerk.

Social skills are not to be taken for granted in the small hamlets of the bush. Your neighbor might be rude, foulmouthed, and ill-tempered, but you never know when you will need his help to dig out of a snowstorm or make a favorable trade of goods. When you need them, even bad neighbors are good to have around.

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