Travelers the world over have no shortage of “not from here” blunders when stepping into unknown territory in a new place. Without a doubt, we’ve all fallen victim to this unfortunate phenomena at least once in our lives. And while the options for how to humiliate yourself in Alaska are pretty much endless, this list has whittled things down to a few classics.
1. Wear stilettos.
There’s nothing that broadcasts “no idea what I’m doing” louder than showing up on a hiking trail or bankside clad in heels. We know immediately that you didn’t read the “How to prepare for your trip” brochure that came with your holiday tour to Alaska package.
Granted, you’ll see Alaskan ladies wearing heels in the office, at school, church, special events, and out to dinner. The thing is, we rarely wear them outdoors. Most Alaskan ladies don sturdier, more Alaska-proof footwear for travel between home and our destination. We then change into our classy lady shoes after we’re inside our intended point of arrival. While there are occasional exceptions to this rule, it is by and far the norm.
The one thing that never changes is the unspoken rule against wearing “good” city girl shoes in very Alaskan places. Leave the mules, pumps, heels, wedges, and stilettos at home when on the trails. They just don’t work.
2. Mispronounce the word salmon.
This is one that makes Alaskans stop all conversation and stare in intense ire. Sometimes, it’s even possible to hear crickets in the long conversational pause before an annoyed correction is cast forth, “That’s not how you say it.” And we get to write the book on how to say it as Wild Alaska salmon is the most sought after among the Salmonidae family of finned, scale-covered, water-dwelling wonders the world over.
For the record: The “l” is silent. It’s never “sa-L-mon.” It’s always “sa-mon.” Got it? Now, go share the knowledge near and far. Alaskans everywhere will thank you and you’ll spare someone the humiliation of getting it wrong on their trip to the Last Frontier.
3. Say you’ve been to Alaska (but never leave Anchorage).
As blunders go, this is big. Especially for the hardcore tribe of Alaskans who live beyond the largest city in our great state. While about half of all Alaskans live in Anchorage and the vicinity, Anchorage is by no means an adequate measure of the authentic Alaska life.
To emphasize their point, many Alaskans call our largest city “Los Anchorage” as a cheeky reference to California’s highly populated urban sprawl — Los Angeles. They view Anchorage as the crowded place they must go a few times a year to stock up on supplies and for serious medical situations. Other Alaskans are known to quip, “Alaska is only twenty minutes away from Anchorage.” These sentiments should be enough to clue any visitor in on the reality that a truly Alaskan experience must extend beyond the borders of the Anchorage Borough.
4. Expect urbanized public transportation.
If you come to Alaska thinking you’re going to hop on a bus or a train to get around, you clearly didn’t do your research and are in for a shock.
By and large, we drive and when we don’t drive, we fly. And when we don’t fly, we take a boat and when we don’t do any of those, we’re partial to dog sleds, snow machines, and ATVs.
If you’re in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, or Eagle River (our four largest cities), there are a few options — namely the city bus system or taxis — but even those have limits. If you’re expecting transport like New York, London, Paris, or Tokyo, you might be better off not coming to Alaska at all and opting for something more city folk friendly.
5. Mention we’re not part of the continental United States.
For the love of all things Alaskan, this one drives us nuts. For the umpteenth time: Alaska is part of the continental United States. Yet many companies forget this specifically when trying to order things online or from catalogs and we get told by an ignorant salesperson or website, “We’re sorry, we only ship to the continental US. We don’t ship to Alaska.” Oi vey! Get it together, people.
6. Show up to river fish with a bright multi-colored bobber.
This one — just no. The only exception to this would be if you’re fishing in a glacier-fed, silt-filled river OR if you’re a kid age 12 or under. And even then, those are iffy. Bass fishing and fishing in Alaska are nothing alike.
7. Go for a wild animal selfie.
Or tell your kid to stand near a moose or a bear for a photo opp. Unless you’re angling for an entry in the annual Darwin Awards, just don’t. To quote Forrest Gump here, “Stupid is as stupid does.” And that’s about all there is to say about that.
8. Write AR instead of AK.
You could potentially be forgiven this blunder if you’ve just traveled to Arkansas and are recovering from jet lag or some other sickness that left you in a severe mental muddle. Otherwise, it’s AK on the address line. Writing AR will guarantee your mail gets sent to a totally different state.
9. Require a rescue because you had to see “that bus.”
So, you wanted to pay homage or play looky lou and go see what it was all about. Or heck, you love the outdoors and heard it’s a really great route to the middle of nowhere. Whatever the reason you went out there, calling for a rescue because you got lost or couldn’t cross the river to come back — this winds us up and screams “unprepared.” It also eats up our tax dollars and there’s lots more we’d rather do with the funds than rescue the unprepared, under-educated and (sorry to say) clueless.
10. Complain about the cost of a gallon of milk.
Yes, it really does cost that much. Yes, we really do pay it. And yes, it really is factored into the cost of living the Alaska life. Just be grateful you’re in a place that gets fresh milk in stock 24/7. Countless locations statewide still rock the powdered variety. What can we say — the Alaska life isn’t cheap and we don’t exactly expect it to be, either.
11. Thinking salmon fishing is an at-your-convenience activity.
Salmon fishing is a fickle, delicate thing. While it’s possible to fish rivers hoping to land one of our most prized and mythical creatures, at the end of the day, it all comes down to science and skill. Salmon come up the rivers in runs at very specific times of the year for a limited duration. To up your chances of catching just one, it’s essential to know when they will be where.
It’s also essential to show up to your river of choice with the mindset of a battle-tested soldier. We’re serious when we say “combat fishing” is a thing.
To shift things to the positive side, show up when the “reds” aren’t “in” and you’ll be the only one down on the rivers fishing. At least your humiliation will be semi-private and you’ll get plenty of casting practice in.
12. Expecting your mobile service to work.
This is Alaska after all. The Last Frontier… the place where there’s more wild than not. Planning your trip with the expectation that you’ll go paperless only relying on Google maps to get you where you’re going is a bad call. Especially if your itinerary includes anything outside an urban-ish locality.
Our main road system is not very complicated but it’s always a good idea to keep an old-school map handy for those “no signal” times of which there will be plenty.
If you’re really keen on going paperless, rent portable GPS or make sure your rental vehicle contract includes one.
13. Gush over the Alaskan cruise you took.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime dream trip and you had an incredible time. We get that. The thing is, most Alaskans don’t consider the cruise circuit a legitimate Alaskan experience. It’s considered a very polished, packaged Alaska. Granted, we’ll nod and smile politely and feign enthusiasm, but port hopping from Seattle, Vancouver, or San Francisco up the coast and along the Inside Passage is a lot like going on a zoo or aquarium guided tour — you get to look but not touch.
Now, we’re grateful for the cruise ship industry and we know it serves as an important source of commerce for our small-but-mighty seaside communities. And we’re happy to share our incredible state with anyone and everyone who is interested in spending time in the most beautiful place on earth. But we can’t swallow it when someone’s frame of reference for the Alaskan encounter begins and ends with the cruise ship. To truly claim an authentic Alaskan experience, you need to also have ventured further than the designated ports-of-call and tour bus routes.
The authentic Alaskan experience all but requires getting in the thick of it. Hike up a trail. Get some scrapes and blisters along the way. Go spend a night in the outdoors. Fish for something — anything. Eat where the locals do. Drive what the locals drive. In short: participate in Alaskan activities instead of spectating from the deck of a floating hotel or doing drive-bys from a cushy coach.